Nelly Sachs | Critical Review by Hayden Carruth

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Nelly Sachs.
This section contains 706 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Hayden Carruth

SOURCE: A review of O the Chimneys, in Poetry, Vol. CXII, No. 6, September, 1968, pp. 418-19.

In the following excerpt from a review of several authors' work, Carruth describes O the Chimneys as deeply moving, and notes the influence of the Nobel Prize in bringing Sachs's work to the attention of English-speaking readers.

I shall begin with the translations among the books assigned me, because in the whole range of my assignment, the book that has moved me most deeply, without any doubt, is O the Chimneys, by Nelly Sachs; a good and generous selection of poems from all her books, translated by various hands. With poetry like this we are hesitant to say whether our response is primarily to the generalized emotional context or to the particular qualities of the poems themselves; but does it matter? Not, at any rate, as much as we once thought. Nelly Sachs fled from Germany to Sweden in 1940, taking with her nothing but her heart and her language; meager tools with which to confront the murder of her people; yet bravely and bitterly she did it. Using the merest rudimentary poetic tokens—the butterfly and the chrysalis, sun, stone, smoke, wind, the ideas of dust and distance—she worked ever more deeply into her feelings, in short compressed poems; until finally, from beginnings perhaps not promising, great poems emerged. Naturally she took what help she could from whatever sources she found, mostly from the Jewish tradition, Isaiah to the Sohar to Martin Buber, all present to her and in her continually; so that her book is both a great emblem at the head of the procession and a camera through which we look backward along the ranks. And it is a procession: these poems winding through our consciousness as those interminable lines of people wind across the sands and snows. Do not think these are easy poems to read, for they will break your heart. As to the translations, nowadays it is fashionable to argue heatedly about translating methods, but I do not think many people will argue about these. Granted, here and there one finds lines, or whole poems, which one would have done differently oneself; but given the difficulties of translation, they are good enough; many are much better. And the German is there on the facing pages. Certainly this is one case in which I urge everyone to read it, whether you know the language or not; read it, puzzle it out, then sing it, chant it—quickly you will find yourself inside the poems. Then you will see that as the poems become more forceful, the translations fall into line, as it were, until, in the bitterest, most sorrowful of them, the literal translation is also poetically the best. Thus Michael Hamburger, whose translations in the past have seemed wooden to me, comes splendidly alive here in his selections from the three series of Glowing Enigmas, and Christopher Holme has done even better with the verse play, Eli. Indeed, this play by itself would almost be enough, the summation of all Nelly Sachs's feeling and vision. It is a strange mixture in some respects, for one sees in it bits of Lorca, bits of Brecht, the traditions of morality and Hasidic theatre; yet they are fused indissolubly in this grieving, tortured, humorous work, which is like a ritual so full of feeling that it exceeds itself without destroying itself; the iris bud unfolding. I ended it with sensations neither Brechtian nor Lorca-esque, as a matter of fact, nor Euripidean either (though this would be closer), but proto-formal, as if this work were prior to all esthetic localizations, alone in the world. I do wish some film-maker in this country would take it, in Holme's translation, for his next scenario; it is a natural. Incidentally, O the Chimneys shows the real value of the Nobel Prize. How many Americans knew Nelly Sachs or her work before 1966, when she shared the prize with S. Y. Agnon of Israel? Certainly not I. And without the prize would we ever have had this full-scale presentation of her work here? For me, this goes a long way toward making up the deficiencies of the prize in other years.

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This section contains 706 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Hayden Carruth
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