Sunday, October 29, 2006

Ernst Jandl: Not a concrete pot


auf einem stuhl
liegt ein hut.
wissen voneinander
so dingfest


on a chair
lies a hat.
knows anything
of the other.
so thingsure

Dedalus Press has re-issued Ernst Jandl’s Dingfest/Thingsure, a handsome dual language edition of the poet’s work with translations by Michael Hamburger, which replaces the volume originally published by the same publisher in 1997 as part of its Poetry Europe Series. The book collects the shorter poems of this wide-ranging experimental Austrian poet – a poet whose work, so embedded in the verbal possibilities of the German language, is often regarded as untranslatable. Here, for example, is his famous ‘ottos mops’ (otto’s pug), not included here, a poem which depends wholly on the different qualities of the sound of ‘o’ in German .

ottos mops

ottos mops trotzt
otto: fort mops fort
ottos mops hopst fort
otto: soso

otto holt koks
otto holt obst
otto horcht
otto: mops mops
otto hofft

ottos mops klopft
otto: komm mops komm
ottos mops kommt
ottos mops kotzt
otto: ogottogott

And here is a game translation by Elizabeth MacKiernan, from Ernst Jandl: Reft and Light, Poems, translated from the German by various American poets. Providence (USA): 2000. Both are available on the excellent German poetry site

Lulu’s Pooch

Lulu’s pooch droops
Lulu: Scoot, pooch, scoot!
Lulu’s pooch soon scoots.
Lulu brooms room.

Lulu scoops food.
Lulu spoons roots.
Lulu croons: Pooch, pooch.
Lulu broods.

Lulu’s pooch drools.
Lulu:Poor fool pooch.
Lulu grooms pooch.

Lulu’s pooch poops.
Lulu: Oops.

Jandl would understand the problem, having written many poems in English, one of which, nicely summing up the challenge of writing different kinds of poems and being therefore inconvenient to categorise, Hamburger quotes:

i love concrete
i love pottery
but i’m not
a concrete pot

Hamburger’s selection makes available in English a particular thread of Jandl’s work, ‘short poems of all periods, yet only of the straight kind most congenial to a translator never mistaken for a concrete pot’. These poems are the comic, inventive, performance side of Jandl – the only side this reader knows – and are very attractive in their attention to language, their ‘thing-fixity’ and in the flavour of the sceptical intelligence behind them.


um ein gedicht zu machen
habe ich nichts

eine ganze sprache
ein ganzes leben
ein ganzes denken
ein ganzes erinnern

um ein gedicht zu machen
habe ich nichts


for the making of a poem
i have nothing

a whole language
a whole life
a whole thinking
a whole remembering

for the making of a poem
i have nothing.

Dingfest/Thingsure. Ernst Jandl. Translated by Michael Hamburger. Dedalus, 1997, 2006.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Goat song

Aleksander Wat and Czesław Miłosz

Aleksander Wat
(1900 – 1967)

To a Roman, My Friend

Everything that lies in rubble
reaches tenderly at me:
the ruins of my Warsaw
the ruins of your Rome.

In April ’forty-six
I saw two old goats
searching for some special herbs
in the former Albrecht’s Café
(now overgrown with nettles,
thistles, burdock, spear grass).
Their barefoot shepherdess
in graveyard stillness
stood gaping, a child, under a pathetic column that once adorned
     the fourth floor
                                of the Credit Society building,
where then it was just a fancy ornament
changed today into an orphaned pendicle
on a fragment of charred wall.

On the Aventino I met two goats, roamers of ruins,
and a barefoot shepherdess
staring at faded frescoes.

Thus after man’s glory,
after his acts and disasters
goats arrive. Smelly,
comic and worthy goats
to search among remnants of glory
for medicinal herbs and forage
for earthly nourishment.

Translated from the Polish by Czesław Miłosz and Leonard Nathan

from Aleksander Wat, Selected Poems, translated and edited by Czesław Miłosz and Leonard Nathan, Penguin, 1991.

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