Translator's Note: Dreams
By Michael Hofmann
Most of the poems of Günter Eich (1907–72) are short, astringent, slyly pessimistic, or sinister. He studied Chinese, and made translations from the Chinese, and that speaks to the economy and subtlety of his own poems. They are the poems of a disappointed sage. “Wacht auf, denn eure Träume sind schlecht” comes from a slightly different corner of his work. Its imperatives and dactyls and repeated rhetorical structures are of Greco-Roman inspiration. It is probably Eich’s longest and noisiest, most garrulous poem, and also his best-known, to the extent that I can well imagine he was a little annoyed or embarrassed by it (like Bishop by “The Fish” or Derek Mahon by “A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford”), though I have no certain basis for saying so. Its provenance is also different. In 1950, Eich wrote a radio play called Träume (dreams), a suite of five domestic scenes, each with an appended poem. The poem, “Dreams,” comes after the fifth scene, at the very end. I think it retains something of its original context: the mobile speech, the Cheeverish sampling of suburbia, the creepy silence. Its clamor is the sound the radio makes after it’s turned off. It is the radio dreaming. Its closing injunction, “seid Sand im Getriebe” has entered the language. Its anti-materialist and unconsoled political philosophy was timely when it was written, in the fifties of denazifi cation certificates (so-called Persilscheine), Marshall Plan, and Wirtschaftswunder; timely in the 1968 “include me out” generation of conforming nonconformists; timely among the bearded “isms” of the seventies; and timely now, in the West’s current projection of power without responsibility.
Because it is a looser, more impure type of poem altogether—attributed and unattributed speech, scene and generality, clarion and reverie, anti-bourgeois satire and public exhortation—I have taken liberties with it. The poem seemed to ask for them. They are, broadly, a mixture of opportunistic refinements (Fox News—to go with the goose down and the Easter lambs) and arguably unnecessary Anglo-Saxon embellishments (the Australian sports coach, the sprouts boiled to mush). I relished making the machinery “thirsty”—which it isn’t yet in the original—and the complicit rhyme of “machinery” and “ornery.”