POETRY MONTH 30/30/30: Inspiration, Community, Tradition: DAY 15 :: Peter Milne Greiner on Stefan George
The most recent and significant reference to Stefan George’s legacy is Fassbinder’s Satan’s Brew, which is one way of saying there is no legacy that does not involve excavation. Two other ways of hearing about him are through Mallarmé’s biography and exhaustive research of the NAZI party. I can scarcely imagine a more dubious constellation of access points.
George was one of those yesteryear poets who doubled as a public figure. An early conscript of French and German Symbolism, George toiled to shape his reputation not only as a poet, but as the editor of the recherché Blätter Für Die Kunst, and as the oracle of a new German cultural revival. By the turn of the twentieth century, his retinue of young male acolytes in tow, he was poised to affect national transformation. Using poetry.
George’s poetry is purposefully recondite and alienating. It was renowned in Germany for its bombastic imagery, use of neologisms, and use of foreign words. He planned his publications scrupulously; unique typesetting and the exquisite woodcuts of another mysterious figure in Germany at the time, Melchior Lechter, set his books, published by Bondi in Berlin, far apart.
As a public figure, juicy controversy abounds. On one hand there was his flair for teenage boys. On the other is what, in retrospect, some historians have called setting the stage for National Socialism. The NAZI party was interested in using his influence in Germany – an influence the party viewed as being consistent with its own designs. Goebbels went so far as to ask George to be the head of a new Academy For The Arts, promising the implementation of a George Prize, to replace the Goethe Prize. George refused, and left the country. His ties to the party beforehand are unclear.
What interests me about George, as much as his work, is this very discomfiting biographical predicament. The more I learn, the more I realize that sympathy and demonization necessarily have merged reports, are irreconcilable, in the scheme of the story here. And that expansive agenda is such a strange companion to the poetry itself. It’s a tantalizing, unsolvable, highly charged and highly forgotten puzzle.
Unsurprisingly there are few – two, actually – barely available English translations of his work. They are painstakingly accomplished and problematic. Below is Olga Marx and Ernst Morwitz’s 1949 translation of the first poem in George’s first publication, titled Hymnen, originally published in Berlin in 1890. Below that is my equally problematic translation of the same poem.
The river calls! Defiant reeds unfurl
Their slender banners to the languid breeze,
And check the coaxing ripples as they swirl
To mossy shores in tender galaxies.
Escape the haste and press, and pause immersed
In vigorous, primeval scent, unscored
By thought, let alien odour be dispersed,
And fix divining eyes upon award.
The copses move in rhythms. Do you
See the dark effulgence in the glassy tide?
The fragile walls of vapour part and flee,
The elves are singing to their elfin glide.
Already through the boughs’ indented frames
Enchanted fields and starry cities lure,
The flight of time discards the wonted names,
Only in image, space and life endure.
This is the hour! Down the goddess gleams,
Her gauzy veils the colour of the moon,
Her lids are lowered with the weight of dreams,
She leans to you and offers you a boon.
Her mouth is trembling closer to your cheeks,
So pure you seem to her, so ripe for bliss,
That now she does not shun your hand which seeks
To turn her lips to yours and to your kiss.
Tributary zealots, wield each radical pennant
calamus in this great Cool & Breezy,
Lazy River, Adult Swim situation
Don’t mind the moose, the whitewater, or the word penetrate
My Number One Stunner stunned on the muddy banks,
pheremonal and aloof His virus airborne
as we listen closely for departures
Scryable onsets of night or worse in this sudden
windiness? Psych! Don’t worry, those are just
our friends We’ll leave with them through this
landscape that will, for us, remain shrouded in vacation
We must get back to Atlantis, to reality
Ready, Freddy? Here comes our little Tink in taffeta
What’s that you’ve got, Tink? Half of a xanbar?
There’s a little bit of saliva on our half but like I said
we’re friends so no big deal
We all swallow at the same time
Further Reading HERE, from The Guardian
In Print: Secret Germany: Stefan George And His Circle. Robert E. Norton.
Peter Milne Greiner is a poet and reviewer whose work also appears in Fence, Diner Journal, FAQNP, Stone Telling, and You’re Beautiful, New York. He is a co-creator of DrunknSailor, an ensemble reading series and maker of event-specific publications currently in residence at This Must Be The Place in Brooklyn. He is the author, with Anna Dunn, of the chapbook Glyph Test Site, a companion to the work of M. Mel Shimkovitz.
[Editor’s Note: Last year the Exit Strata team got all excited for the first annual New York Poetry Festival, on Governor’s Island, and in our desire to support this great project went to the benefit at Bowery Poetry Club, where each of the represented presses/magazines had a few readers promoting the event. In one of our earliest Hamlin-esque moments we, basically, seized Peter right off the stage, where he was reading in support of Drunkn Sailor… which is to say, I approached him after his set, because the poems were just so damn good, and said “hello friend, come with us, we like you very much”. The rest is history. Since then, Peter has been a model CoCo participant, and is featured in Exit Strata Print #1. He also is responsible for building the love-artery between ourselves and This Must Be the Place, where we’ll have our official print launch on 5/12… Squeee!]