Poetry News

Graham Foust and Samuel Frederick Introduce Us to the Work and Life of Ernst Meister

By Harriet Staff

Over at Poetry Society of America: Graham Foust and Samuel Frederick, translators of Ernst Meister's In Time's Rift (Im Zeitspalt), forthcoming in September from Wave Books, have written a great introduction to the work and life of the writer (1911-1979). The facts:

Ernst Meister had already begun writing poetry, prose, and dramatic works when, having just turned nineteen, he enrolled as a theology student at the University of Marburg in the winter semester of 1930. He soon traded his theological pursuits for philosophy, literature, and art history, attending lectures by Karl Löwith and Hans-Georg Gadamer, two of Martin Heidegger's former students, both of whom, along with their teacher, had a tremendous impact on Meister's work. Later he began working under Löwith on a dissertation on Nietzsche, a project he eventually abandoned because of Löwith's forced exile, though by that time he had already published his first collection of verse, Ausstellung (Exhibition), which appeared in 1932.

Foust and Frederick go on to relate Meister's time spent in WWII and his renunciation of poetry after 1933 (the German government had "branded any hint of experimentation as 'degenerate'"), which lasted two full decades. More:

Eight years after the war, Meister published his second book of poems (1953's Unterm schwarzen Schafspelz [Under Black Sheep's Clothing]), and after eight more years he would dedicate himself exclusively to his writing. By the 1960s, he had published over a half dozen volumes of verse, though he failed to attract the same recognition as contemporaries such as Karl Krolow, Günter Eich, or Paul Celan. Meister was, in fact, an outsider—and not by choice. He was never asked to join the Gruppe 47, a collective of over 200 writers who represented—and effectively determined—the literary establishment in the postwar years. But neither was his work embraced once that group's influence had waned, after the student revolutions of 1968. In this period of political agitation, Meister's verse was largely perceived as apolitical and nihilistic, and therefore unsuited to the prevailing literary climate.

Like the American poet George Oppen (1908–1984)—who also fought in the Second World War (though on a different side and under very different circumstances) and who stopped publishing poetry for a prolonged period before, during, and after it—Meister takes much stock in "the little words," words that often prove crucial to his efforts to, as Oppen says, "lay down the substantive for its own sake." The following couplet from one of the poems from this book seems emblematic of Meister's style, and it's fair to say that these lines wouldn't be out of place in one of Oppen's poems:

I look at a window,
square of sky.

How many poems in which the speaker looks out a window have been written? How many in which the speaker looks at one? If the average speaker-near-a-window poem tries to satisfy and/or surprise us with what's beyond the window, Meister's poem catches us off guard by its speaker's stopping just short of making use of that aperture and then renaming it. Here, we're not so taken with what the speaker sees; rather, we're drawn to how he sees—and how unusual it is to see someone see (and say) in such a way.

They also address Meister's eventual recognition, the relationship of his work to that of Celan ("Meister's poems, however, do not exhibit Celan's deep ambivalence toward—indeed, distrust of—language itself; he thus rarely resorts to the kinds of contorted neologisms that characterize Celan's verse, especially that of his late period") and themes of death, nothingness, and horror that pervade the writing:

Nothingness, and the death that leads to it, grants the world meaning, and also makes poetry possible. In a gloss on one of this book's poems, "He, the monosyllabic one," Meister makes this sentiment explicit: "Death is the extinction of existence through which I first come to understand world at all. It even brings forth poetry (the line of verse) . . ."

Read the full essay here.