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“Memory wails in my faraway home”

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Poems by Katherine Mansfield

Hot on the heels of my discovery of George Orwell’s poetry came the discovery that the wonderful prose stylist Katherine Mansfield was also a versifier – thanks to the fact that Michael Walmer has reprinted a beautiful collection of her poetry from 1923 and he’s been kind enough to provide a copy for review.

mansfield poems

Collected by Mansfield’s husband, John Middleton Murry, after her death, the book also contains an introduction by him; and interestingly he states that little of her poetry was published during her lifetime – which is a shame. The book is divided into sections, covering verses from 1909-1910, 1911-13, “Poems at the Villa Pauline: 1916”, 1917-1919 and what are listed as “Child Verses: 1907”. Apparently, some of the most beautiful were refused by editors because they didn’t rhyme, and Murry implies that they straddle the line between poetry and prose. Well, whatever you class them as, they really are quite lovely!

O waters – do not cover me !
I would look long and long at those beautiful stars !
O my wings – lift me – lift me !
I am not so dreadfully hurt…

(From “The Wounded Bird” – 1919)

If there’s a running theme in Mansfield’s poetry, it certainly is one of melancholy and nostalgia. The verses reflect her longing for her homeland; they evoke her early life and her relationship with her beloved brother, Leslie, who was lost in the First World War; and a strong feeling for nature. The sea is a constant presence in her work, along with fantastic creations like “The Sea Child” and the Earth Child who features in the poem “The Earth Child in the Grass”, both of which works feature striking imagery.

Through many of the poems run Mansfield’s memories of New Zealand, appearing as almost a magical place; family and heritage are obviously important to her, and in fact Murry chose to dedicate the collection to Elizabeth von Arnim, Mansfield’s cousin.

So, as with Orwell, the question has to be asked as to whether Mansfield is as good a poet as a prose stylist, and I have to say that I think that’s not something that should even be considered. Certainly Mansfield’s poetry is often very beautiful and if read in isolation without knowledge of her prose would stand up in its own right. However, her prose was so perfect that there’s no point in trying to make comparisons of such different types of writing.

KM

Mansfield’s life was a short one, blighted by her ongoing illness and the search for a cure. The pensive quality of many of the lyrics here can’t help but suggest that they reflect a side of Mansfield that’s not so obvious in her prose. She’ll always be remembered for her remarkably fine short stories, but “Poems” is a valuable addition to the canon of Katherine Mansfield’s work and most definitely deserves to be back in print in this beautiful hardback edition.

(Many thanks to publisher Mike Walmer for kindly providing a review copy – much appreciated!)

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Lost in Translation?

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Poems by Hermann Hesse

One of the joys of Hermann Hesse Reading Week has been the chance to discover new aspects of this great author’s work; for example, I hadn’t really considered his poetry, despite the fact that his novels are littered with it! However, Caroline mentioned his poems in one of her posts, and I thought it would be worth tracking down at least one new volume for the Week – and here it is:

hesse poems

The book contains 31 poems, selected by James Wright from those in Hesse’s Collected Works, and also translated by him. Wright was an American poet who died in 1980 and his introduction, penned in 1970 is a strange one. Wright states that he thinks many of Hesse’s 480 pages of poems are very fine; but while lauding the German author, Wright also seems to diss him a little, quoting an article that describes him as “second-rate”! This was a bit distracting, and the main thrust of the introduction seems to be to indicate a theme of homesickness as permeating the poems; well, at least, the ones translated here…

The verses themselves are presented in original German on the left hand page and English translation on the right. This is useful, as a non-German speaker like me can try to keep an eye on the original rhyme schemes and line endings. However, it was while flicking back and forward between the two languages that I spotted something odd in the poem “Ode to Holderlin”. The lines in German are:

Sehnlich wenden wir us, vom Tag Ermudete
Der ambrosischen Nacht deiner Gesange zu,

and the English version is given as:

We turn passionately, exhausted by day,
To the ambrosia, the night of your music,

Now as I said, my German is minimal, if non-existent; but it struck me that “ambrosischen” was a longer word than “ambrosia”, and I wondered if it had a slightly different meaning. I had a look at an online translation service (which I know is notoriously cranky and inaccurate!) but it came up with “ambrosial” and suggested the whole line could be rendered something like “To the ambrosial night of your song” – which to me changes the sense of the line a bit. Yes, I know, I know, translation is an impossible art, and poetry can’t be translated literally; I may be getting things completely wrong here – if I am, will a German speaker please correct me and I’ll calm down a bit. But I confess I was just a little unsettled by this.

hesse writing

Putting all this aside, though, I really enjoyed reading these poems. The verses range from “I know, You Walk” from 1899 up to “All Deaths” in 1921. The sense of yearning and melancholy they convey is strong, and seems to run through not only Hesse’s poems but also much of his prose writing. It’s something I might not have picked up on when I was younger but it seems more obvious now. The language is simple and effective in these translations, capturing verses about lost loves, ageing and loneliness. So I imagine Wright chose these particular poems to translate in order to give his collection a cohesion.

Yet I couldn’t help wondering if this is a representative selection of Hesse’s poetry writing; and unless there’s a more comprehensive collection available in English I may not be able to find out! Nevertheless, despite my reservations about this particular book, I’m glad to have had the chance to get to know another element of Hesse’s writing and I *will* keep my eye out for other poetry collections.

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