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The Enigmatic Poetry of W.G. Sebald

By Harriet Staff

In the July issue of The New Republic, Ruth Franklin turns a critical eye towards W.G. Sebald’s poetry. After paying her respects to the German writer’s works of fiction, Franklin takes a close look at the historical references buried thickly beneath the surface of Sebald’s poems.

…The outwardly bucolic surfaces of the German countryside, where many of these poems take place, conceal darkness below. A haunting early poem, “Time Signal at Twelve,” dedicated to Lejzer Ajchenrand— a Jewish poet from Poland who lost his mother and sister to the Nazis, and was himself interned under the Vichy regime and then in Switzerland—invokes a “monk from Melk” who “sleeps in his quiet grave,” with snow falling upon his house. According to a note by Iain Galbraith, the volume’s translator, the Austrian town of Melk, site of a Benedictine abbey, housed a subcamp of Mauthausen. Similarly, “Somewhere / behind Türkenfeld,” a small town in southern Germany near Sebald’s native village, there is “a spruce nursery / a pond in the / moor on which / the March ice / is slowly melting.” The Nazis built a subcamp of Dachau behind Türkenfeld; the trains to the camp passed through the station. The ice melts slowly indeed to reveal this history.

However, Franklin notices that Sebald has no objections to altering his historical or literary allusions to suit his own purposes. Unpacking his poems can be as daunting as facing The Wasteland sans footnotes. Sometimes, the source for his references is impossible to discern. While Sebald’s fiction can withstand these quirks, Franklin argues that his poetry suffers under such pressures.

Sebald’s Prose is as closely anchored to background Urtexte as the poems. But the prose, at all but its weakest moments, sustains its own narrative momentum atop this foundational layer. The poetry, by contrast, manages this only rarely, which is why it proves to be much less suited for Sebald’s literary project. Too often Sebald comes across as essentially an aggregator, who piles up links and references without probing them for meaning. The connections drawn by the language and the imagery are meant to provide that meaning on their own. Sometimes they do; but not always.

But Franklin has plenty of good things to say, too—read the full article here.

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Posted in Poetry News on Thursday, June 28th, 2012 by Harriet Staff.