When Wave Books publishes Of Entirety Say the Sentence this fall, Graham Foust, a poet noted for his condensed, elliptical approach, and Samuel Frederick, a professor of German literature, will have finished translating the informal trilogy that comprises the final three books of German poet Ernst Meister (1911–1979). The other two, Wallless Space (2014) and In Time’s Rift (2012), both also published by Wave, operate as book-length poems that interrogate existence, the nature of meaning, and mortality, building a world in which “[t]he one who understands/ is the digger,/ understanding the// grave.” Meister, whose work was largely ignored in his lifetime because it was at odds with the prevailing aesthetic of the Gruppe 47 and midcentury German avant-gardists, achieved notoriety only posthumously as the winner of the 1979 Georg Büchner Prize. His philosophically inflected poetry has a timeless, enduring quality, making him one of the most distinctive voices arising from 20th-century Germany. We recently caught up with Frederick and Foust to talk about Meister and the challenge of translating his bleak, syntactically challenging, yet absolutely singular verse.
What guided the choices you made in your translations? Were there aspects of the source material that you wanted to reflect?
Graham Foust: We were always talking about sound; he’s a very sonically interesting poet. We talk about that in the introduction to the next volume—there’s a visual rhyme he wants the reader to see and the poem is in some way about that. That might have been the hardest poem we translated.
Samuel Frederick: I think Graham is right. Where I provided my translation, I tried to be as literal as possible, not worry about sound, and add a bunch of notes—this word could mean x, y, and z, and here’s some other wordplay, and this is possibly an allusion to this. I would send it to Graham, and he would then transform it into something that sounded better. The ones that he had done were great, but then not always accurate. And so my job was to go in and find where it didn’t correspond to the text. There was a lot of back and forth to figure out how to reconcile the accuracy with a good-sounding poem.
Meister often engages with larger metaphysical ideas, and there’s this stark, spare quality to the work. For instance, Wallless Space contains the striking lines “Whether time/ consumes itself as time,/ the corpse/ does not ask.” Was it a reaction to the horrors of WWII? Why do you think he elected to work in this abstract, minimal way?
GF: It’s funny, some of the first postwar stuff rhymes. As he goes on, the language gets more pared down. Paul Celan is a huge influence on Meister, but he’s abstract in very a different way. I think of Celan’s poems as short but not necessarily spare; Meister’s are spare and short. It’s hard to know what drove him to that. The introduction to the next book addresses this idea of poetry being barbaric after Auschwitz. Meister came out against that notion. There’s a faith in language that he has that he thinks rises above all that atrocity—a sense that he even thinks that the idea that there’s something unaddressable is sort of pretentious. He talks about critics “reveling” in this idea.
SF: I think fetishizing was the word; that might have been my maybe-not-so-accurate translation, because I was thinking about how Meister was responding to this claim that somehow language, the German language in particular, is now bankrupt and no longer usable as the material for poetry in particular. He really pushes back against that. He gets kind of ornery about it. That’s one side of the story, and the other side is that his poetry doesn’t seem to engage with the past concretely. It is abstract, metaphysical as you say; it reads at times like fragments from the pre-Socratics, or epigrammatic and gnomic. Well, there are some place names, but it’s typically occasioning the poem. There’s one that’s about [French poet Paul] Valéry and Meister’s standing at his grave, but even there it’s the occasion to reflect on mortality and death and things like that.
Meister studied with Karl Löwith and Hans-Georg Gadamer, both former students of Heidegger. Would a philosopher get more out of a reading of Meister? What is the relationship between this poetry and philosophy?
GF: Meister—and this is true of Celan, too—was very interested in Heidegger’s ideas and interested in philosophy, but at a certain point for a poet the systemic nature of philosophy becomes disappointing, or it breaks apart, or can’t be handled poetically.
SF: One of the reasons he was drawn to Heidegger is because he would be the least systematic philosopher. I’m going to say something that might sound not so nice, but I don’t think there are any original thoughts in Meister. That’s not a bad thing, which is to say his poetry is very philosophical, but he seems to be reworking a tradition for himself, in a kind of gnomic poetry. I’m not trained as a philosopher either, but I know the German tradition fairly well, and I see it all over the place. I also don’t think that he’s commenting, he’s more taking ideas and terms that he finds interesting and working with them. What comes out of that is not original thought; what comes out of that is original language, and that’s what’s remarkable about it.
Mark Gurarie is a freelance writer and printed-matter editor at Boog City.