Poetry Today: Reading Contemporary Poetry in Weimar

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by | Jan 18, 2019

an excerpt by John Taylor


Weimar is charming, stimulating, yet also sobering. The local slogan announcing that it is a “stress-less” town seems true enough for the stroller who has much to admire and inspect within the relatively confined, oft-carless city limits. But when the same stroller enters the Tourist Office on the Market Square and proceeds to the back of the souvenir-stocked room, he enters a documentation center devoted to Buchenwald, which was located only five miles from this “Athens of Germany.” It is thereafter impossible merely to sightsee and visit museums: that is, not to meditate simultaneously on the proximity of Nazi barbarism—some 56,000 Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and political resistors were murdered in the camp—and a town in which Johann Sebastian Bach lived for nine years and which attained extraordinary cultural heights when Goethe and Schiller settled there between the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. They lived only a few streets away from each other and attracted other intellectuals to their circle. Moreover, this literary and artistic fervor lasted some hundred more years. Walter Gropius established the Bauhaus architectural school there in 1919, the same year that the Weimar Republic was founded and the first, short-lived, German democratic constitution was promulgated.

These high cultural achievements induce certain disturbing juxtapositions. Seek out Goethe’s bucolic “Gartenhaus,” in which the poet dwelled during the years 1776-1782, surrounded by the calm of the grandiose Park an der Ilm. There he wrote countless poems, and labored over Iphigenia on Taurus,EgmontTasso, and Faust. If on your way to the Gartenhaus you cross the stream via the Sternbrücke, miss the ill-indicated turn to the right and erroneously proceed fifty yards up the Leibnizallee, you come across a gate half-hidden by overgrowth. Push the gate open. A tiny Jewish cemetery is concealed there, with birth and death dates indicating a community that had flourished in Weimar through the 1930s, until the Crystal Night of 9-10 November 1938.

In my rucksack were some contemporary French and German poetry collections that grapple with the consequences of the war and therefore with such contradictions. Upon my arrival in town I also chanced upon the succinct, thoughtful verse of Rose Ausländer (1901-1988). Six volumes of her sixteen-volume collected works were displayed in the poetry section of the big bookstore on the tree-lined Schillerstrasse. Leafing through them, I was soon captivated by the quiet enigmas of Sanduhrschritt (Hourglass Pace, 1984), Wir ziehen mit den dunklen Flüssen (We Row the Dark Rivers, 1985), Denn wo ist Heimat? (Then Where is the Homeland?, 1985), and the other collections.