Gallows Songs by Christian Morgenstern and Selected Translations by W.E. Snodgrass

These are a splendid pair of books from a gifted writer who turns his hand to every possibility with the liveliness of fearless and abundant talent. For readers ready to expand their horizons, these are essential additions to their collections.

Reviewed by Bob Williams

Gallows Songs
by Christian Morgenstern
translated by W.E. Snodgrass and Lore Segal
The University of Michigan Press
1967, Library of Congress Catalog Card 67-25337, $7.95, 124 pages

Selected Translations
by W.E. Snodgrass
BOA Editions, Ltd.
1998, ISBN 1-880238-60-8, $13.50, 156 pages

Gallows Songs is out of print but there are copies available from Amazon or Alibris.

Christian Morgenstern (1871-1914) wrote comic verse, but comic verse with a difference. By following strange paths and turning unexpected corners, his verses reach out into a different universe where our rules do not apply, or are applied with a rigidity that turns them inside out. To translate these into English takes a highly individual touch, a sense of the absurd, and an awareness of the beauty in the odd and unexpected.

Although they do not appear in all the poems, Palmstrom and Korf dominate Gallows Songs. Palmstrom is actual in a crazy sense, but Korf is harder to describe. He is immaterial yet a presence, and this status – half in and half out of reality – drives officials crazy as they attempt to classify him and burden him with civic duties. Korf is the holy fool whose foolishness makes more sense than the wisdom of the stolid, solid burgher.

Korf often meets acquaintances filled with rage or sorrow
By the so-called world situation. Here’s his advice:
Just read the papers for the day after tomorrow.

Snodgrass and Segal accomplish the lightness and the verbal grace required by these very unusual poems. The book itself is an exquisite sample of great bookmaking. The book is large and beautifully designed. The numerous illustrations are drawings by Paul Klee. An inspired choice, since Klee often explored the same imaginary universe as Morgenstern.

Selected Translations is a more varied work. It has three sections: poems; folk songs and ballads; and art songs. Snodgrass does not know any of the languages that he translates. He regards this as an advantage since he is free to follow imperatives of his own. To his aid come his friends and acquaintances who do know the language in question and keep him on target but do not diminish his freedom. He is especially in tune (sorry) with the folk songs and ballads. His background in music and sensitivity to the needs of performance produce translations that are in every sense truly musical.

Many of the poets of the first section are unfamiliar. Beside the expected – Rilke or Lorca – there are such poets as Marin Sorescu and Leszek Szaruga. The poem of the former that begins “Shakespeare created the world in seven days” is an extravaganza of imaginative fireworks. (The sketch of Snodgrass on the back cover of this book is credited to Sorescu.)

The last section begins with the poems of troubadours and minnesingers. Most of these were astonishments since many of the available translations are stiff and stodgy. Snodgrass brings them to all their abundant, often impudent, life. The range historically is from these early poets to Schubert and Mahler. The translation from Schubert’s setting of Johann Müller’s poem is especially touching with the sadness of its valedictory voice.

THE ORGAN GRINDER (from Die Winterreise)

Out beyond the village stands the organ man
And with numb, stiff fingers plays the best he can;

On the ice he falters barefoot, here and there,
And his little platter stays forever bare.

No one seems to listen, no one seems to care
How the hounds go snarling ‘round the old man there.

And he lets it happen – all goes as it will –
Turns his hurdy-gurdy that is never still.

Strange old man, shall I then go with you along?
On your hurdy-gurdy will you play my song?

These are a splendid pair of books from a gifted writer who turns his hand to every possibility with the liveliness of fearless and abundant talent. For readers ready to expand their horizons, these are essential additions to their collections.

About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His book Joyce Country, a guide to persons and places, can be accessed at: http://www.grand-teton.com/service/Persons_Places

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