Ernst Meister was born in Hagen, Germany. He enrolled in the University of Marburg as a theology student, but soon began attending the lectures of Karl Löwith and Hans-Georg Gadamer, both of whom had studied with Martin Heidegger. Meister’s first book of poetry Ausstellung (Exhibition) was published in 1932. After Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, Meister stopped trying to publish his poetry, which was considered too abstract and experimental for the Third Reich. Meister served ingloriously in World War II, suffering from several protracted illnesses, injury, and eventual capture by the Americans in Italy. After his release, he returned to Hagen where he first worked for his father’s company and then devoted himself full-time to writing. Meister published sixteen collections of poetry before his death, including Unterm schwarzen Schafspelz (Under Black Sheep’s Clothing) (1953), though he never received the same level of recognition during his lifetime as his contemporaries Karl Krolow, Günter Eich, or Paul Celan, to whom he is often compared. In fact, Meister was awarded Germany’s most prestigious literary award, the Georg Büchner Prize, just a few days before his death.
The work of Heidegger was enormously influential on Meister, who has been described by his most recent translators, Graham Foust and Samuel Frederick, as having a “penchant for grand abstractions and philosophical concepts…This persistently pulls his language into the realm of thinking, an activity made extraordinarily intense by the taut, afflicted space opened up by the poem, a space analogous to life.” Foust and Frederick’s translation of Meister’s penultimate collection Im Zeitspalt (In Time’s Rift) (1976) was published in 2012.