Saturday, January 24, 2009

Poems on Paintings (Bildgedichte)

My previous posting drew attention to Rilke's poem on the archaic sculpture of Apollo. Like John Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn," the poem is an example of the Greek rhetorical device known as ekphrasis, by which one medium of art seeks to describe a work in another medium. One of the most famous examples in literature is Homer's description in the Iliad (book 18) of the making of the shield of Achilles by Hephaestus. Pictures at an Exhibition is another well-known example, a suite of piano pieces by Mussorgsky.

Margot Scharpenberg, the most important exponent in contemporary German poetry of the Bildgedicht, thus stands in a long poetic tradition. Margot is an American of German background (from Cologne), and I have known her for many years in connection with German writing. Last night I got to hear her read from her most recent volume Verwandeln (her twenty-seventh!) at Deutsches Haus at New York University. Peter Beicken, of the German department at the University of Maryland, offered an informative introduction to the special qualities of Margot's work. Though I am a great reader of literary works, I seldom like to hear authors read from their works. Such readings are usually occasions for celebrity-watching, and I much prefer to hear "professional readers" of poetry and prose on my iPod. Then, I can listen again and again. In a live reading so much flies right past me, especially poetry and especially poetry in a foreign language.

Margot, however, is an excellent reader of her own work. She began with a poem called "Verwandeln" (change or transform), which I won't even try to translate. It is based on a painting by the Cologne artist Elke Imhof, which is also reproduced on the title page of the volume. There were also poems on paintings from Dutch collections, including Rembrandt's Nightwatch and Vermeer's Milkmaid and Woman in Blue Reading a Letter. Margot refers to these poems as "Bildgespräche" (conversations with poems). My favorite concerned Van Gogh's Sower (in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam; click on above image to enlarge). After a description of the piety of the sower at his task (there are references to the Lord's Prayer), it compares the poet's work with that of the sower, casting his seeds into an unknown future while praying for a good harvest. Here is Margot's poem:

Der alte Anfang ist schon da
Es werde Licht
als gelbe Scheibe steht
die Sonne auf der Erde
groß hinter einem Kopf

der alte Bitte
wird schon nachgeholfen
uns unser täglich Brot

ein Säamann geht
mit ruhigem Schritt
und scheinbar blindlings
wird die Saat geworfen
Er hat das Maß
im Weitwurf seiner Hand
die Richtung heißt
in gleichem Rhythmus weiter

den Säman treibt
das Pendel seines Arms
zur Zukunft hin
er wirft die Körner aus
daß sie im Dunklen
für sich selber fechten

was wird zur Ernte reif
wer Körner sät
der meint als Nahurung Sprache
ein weites Feld
so weit man sieht
ich sehe letzten Endes
noch kein Ende

Very simple but, again, a translation can hardly transmit the lyrical and visual qualities. I particularly like the image of the "pendulum of the arm" that drove the sower forward.

As seen in this picture by Hannelore Roston, the poet enjoyed some refreshments after the reading with friends and admirers. As so often happens on these occasions, the publishers of Margot's book (Gilles & Francke) failed to get copies of it to the reading for purchase and signing. Peter Beicken, however, had brought along copies of a small anthology of poems drawn from Margot's many collections that had been prepared for a celebration at the Goethe Institute in New York for her 80th birthday in 2005.

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