Nelly Sachs | Critical Review by Times Literary Supplement

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Nelly Sachs.
This section contains 905 words
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Critical Review by Times Literary Supplement

SOURCE: A review of Selected Poems, in Times Literary Supplement, Vol. 67, No. 3482, November 21, 1968, p. 1304.

In the following review, the critic praises Selected Poems in spite of some "signs of hurry" evident in the translation of the poems from German to English.

Nelly Sachs was almost unknown to English-speaking readers until she won the 1966 Nobel Prize for Literature. Younger Germans had discovered her poems only a few years before …, and even then such transcendental treatment of suffering and violence, specifically genocide, must have seemed, to many, a lofty irrelevance. With the award of the Nobel Prize, Nelly Sachs has been rushed into English: Christopher Holme's version of her play Eli was sent for, Michael Hamburger was commissioned to translate poems, Ruth and Matthew Mead contributed their share, as did Michael Roloff (who had made the capture).

The translations do show some signs of hurry. These are highly volatile and precarious poems, in which the German words may carry seven shades of meaning to every three carried by their English counterparts. It is also, in many respects, an esoteric poetry which relies heavily on metaphor, yet the metaphors seldom allow strong visualization (which is likely to vex English readers). Perhaps the translations might have been no better even if the haste had been more decent:

     Earth, old man of the planets, you suck
     at my foot
     which wants to fly …

"du saugst an meinem Fuss" is less purely physical than the English, and "which wants to fly" is a lot thicker than "der fliegen will". But what alternatives exist?

The many genitive metaphors are another problem. These are even multiplied in English, because Nelly Sachs can substitute compound nouns which often have to be spelled out in English. Here would be an object of study for structuralists. The "world as metaphor"—as transformational process—may be Nelly Sachs's theme, but her (genitive) metaphors are so overworked that one wonders if such a macrocosmic vision can balance on such a delicate pivot (a pivot, moreover, which Rilke's excesses, and those of his imitators, have already undermined). One also wonders if such total relativity does not abolish all substance; which is a useful fiction for poetry, if nothing more. Miss Sachs is a visionary of an ontological realm between death and birth (not vice versa), and the genitive metaphor is her vehicle for exploring that transcendental region: what, though, if one decides that this vehicle is rickety, because arbitrary (or just "literary")? Where, then, is the guarantee that her vision has authenticity, and that her flight actually occurred?

The grand cosmic themes—love, life, death, transformation—are ventured with a single-mindedness which takes the breath away. Miss Sachs has been through the hells of knowledge, of poverty, of suffering with her tormented and slaughtered Jewish people. Yet her work is haunted by a paradisal levity; seldom do the drifting skeins of metaphors catch the actual scream, the phenomenon itself happening in the instant of articulation. The poem becomes an image of total relativity, supernalizing everything it touches, even the most horrific banal evils of humankind:

     I do not know the room
     where exiled love
     lays down its victory
     and the growing into the reality
     of visions begins
     nor where the smile of the child
     who was thrown as in play
     into the playing flames is preserved
     but I know that this is the food
     from which earth with beating heart
     ignites the music of her stars—

From any other poet, the indefiniteness of the word "this" ("dieses") in line 9 would be profoundly shocking (it seems to sanctify the murder of the child). The poem in its context is, however, one of a cycle of variations on the life of the four elements, celebrating the elemental life, and there the poem, "this" included, is (in the smug old terminology) "satisfying". After some time spent reading these poems, ranging from the icy horror of the "Landscape of Screams" and "Night of the Weeping Children", to the melisma of the later "Glowing Enigmas", one ends up asking if this art is not an improbable compound of Käthe Kollwitz and Vieira da Silva. Such extremes of darkness and delicate abstraction are, at least, within its range, perceptible among the ingrained elements of traditional wisdom and modern poetic vision which German critics have already descended upon (Cabala, Sohar, Novalis, Rilke). Yet another question might be put as follows: the images in these poems, pregnant as they are, undergo transformation and serial development at a velocity which is not matched by rhythmic movement. The rhythmic invention seems too slight to sustain these lightning shifts of perspective. The rhythms do not change one's sense of time, however much the skeins of imagery may change one's sense of space. One is aware of momentous moments rather than of a synchronistic organization or "eternity" in the poem. This is one way in which the poems move with a somewhat old-fashioned air through their interstellar space.

This reviewer's doubts are, in Prospero's language, questions which the tale demands. Nelly Sachs is definitely a saint of the inner revolution. Her work carries the holy fire in a sealed vessel, nursing it through the bad days. Christoph Meckel's prose poem in Nelly Sachs zu Ehren suggested something similar:

Poems from deep, holy, and profaned Biblical darknesses. Stars in an eclipse of the stars. Wailing Wall poems. Poems placed on graves, half scream, half silence. Songs of the Beyond, quiet and hard with sounds of pain, but containing a few flashes of green lightning.

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This section contains 905 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Times Literary Supplement
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