German Poetry




Rainer Maria Rilke  •  Stefan George  • Mascha KalékoDurs Grünbein

The Translators

Martyn Crucefix Harry Guest Jonathan Steffen Karen Leeder Andrew Shields

Previous Translations

THW1: March 1, 2016


Rainer Maria Rilke: An Extract from ‘Requiem for a Friend’ translated by Martyn Crucefix


O I have my dead—I have let them go
and was astonished to see them so at ease
in being dead, so right, so soon at home,
so at odds with what we’re told. Only you
come back, brushing past me, linger, look
to tap at something, make it sound—betray
your presence. Don’t deprive me of what
I’m slowly learning. I am right; you’re wrong,
amiss to feel homesickness for anything
in this realm. We transform such things—
they’re not here; we reflect them in ourselves,
raise them the moment we encounter them.


I thought you were further on. It worries me
that you return, in error—you, who achieved
more transformation than any other woman.
When you died we were afraid . . . no,
rather your cruel death broke blackly on us
to sever what preceded from what was to come:
so this is for us to resolve now—this is
the task we will always have before us.


That you were frightened and feel fear
even now, where to be fearful makes no sense,
that you might give up even the smallest
part of eternity, my friend, for this,
here, where nothing yet is. That out there,
for the first time, distracted, inattentive,
you failed to grasp the glory of infinite
natures as you did here, every little thing.
That from the circling that has swept you up,
the dumb gravity of some discontentedness
has dragged you back to gaugeable time—
it’s this wakes me often like a night thief.


If I could just believe you’d come back
out of kindness, out of a generosity
since you are so secure, self-contained,
to wander here at liberty like a child,
unafraid of harm that might come your way.
But no. You plead. This is what lacerates me
to the bone—it’s this that cuts like a saw.
Any rebuke, even the bitterest your ghost
might bring me in the night as I sink back
into my lungs, the workings of my gut,
into the last vacant chambers of the heart,
such bitterness would not be so potent
as this pleading . . . What is it you want?


Tell me—must I travel? Have you left
something behind, in a place that cannot
bear your absence? Should I go to the land
you never saw, though you held it dear
as if it composed one half of your senses?
I’ll set out up rivers. I’ll make landfall,
make inquiries into its ancient customs.
I’ll converse with women in their doorways
and watch as they call children home.
I’ll mark the way they wrap themselves
in their own landscape, even as they attend
to the old ways of the fields, the meadows.
I’ll ask to be brought before their king.
I will bribe priests to take me to their most
powerful idol, to leave me there all alone,
to walk away, shut the temple gates.
Only then—when I have learned enough—
will I go to observe its animals, allowing
something of their elegant grace to slide
into my own limbs and then I’ll have
a brief existence in their eyes which hold
and release me, without judgement, calm.
I’ll inquire of its gardeners what names
they give the many flowers so I’ll be able
to carry back with me some remnant
of their hundreds of fragrances
in the little clay pots of their lovely names.


I’ll buy fruit there too—fruits, in which
landscape lives once more from soil to sky.
For such things you understood: ripe fruit.
You’d display them in bowls before you,
with colour would take the weight of each.
You saw women the way you saw fruit.
And children you saw moulded from within
to the growing patterns of their lives.
Eventually, saw even yourself as fruit—
eased yourself from your clothes, brought
yourself to the mirror, allowed yourself inside,
yet held back your gaze: enormous, outside.
You did not say ‘I am this’, rather ‘this is’.
Your gaze, finally, cleared of curiosity,
unpossessing, of such true poverty,
it no longer desired even yourself—holy.


Rainer Maria Rilke: Poem translated by Harry Guest


Each hour ignores me, steals away.
Its wingbeat wounds me. I’m alone.
What should I do with what I say?
With my nighttimes? With every day?

I have no lover, home, career
that helps me live. While all the things
I give myself to will appear
successful I decline each year.


Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) was born in Prague and led a nomadic existence, living in Germany, Russia, Spain, Italy and France, before his death in Switzerland from leukaemia. He dedicated himself exclusively to his work, including the New Poems (1907-8), the semi-autobiographical novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910) and Sonnets to Orpheus (1923). The Duino Elegies (1923) is acknowledged as his masterpiece. He wrote ‘Requiem for a Friend’ (1909) for his friend, the painter Paula Modersohn-Becker (1876-1907) who died eighteen days after giving birth to her first child.

Back to top


Stefan George: Two Poems translated by Harry Guest

Stefan George 16.04.2008 FNP


Come to the park they said is dead and gaze.
All’s like the shimmer on a distant shore-haze
as unimagined clouds of azure rays
fold light on ponds and variegated pathways.

Take deeper yellow and a fainter grey
of birch and box where soft winds drift away.
Late roses haven’t faded much beneath
calm skies and there’s enough to make a wreath.

Forget not too how these last asters show
their presence still. Mauve tendrils from wild vine would
wind gently round what’s left of all the green. You’d
create an image of autumnal glow.


You’re slim and pure as any flame
like daybreak tender bringing light
a bud in bloom of noble birth
sleek water from some secret spring

Accompany me on sun-drenched fields
in dusk’s mist shudder close to me
brighten my way where shadows reign
cool as a zephyr warm like breath

You’re all I wish and all I dream
make fragrant all the air I breathe
I taste you from each glass I drink
and kiss you with each breezed caress

A bud in bloom of noble birth
sleek water from a secret spring
slender and pure as any flame
like daybreak tender bringing light


Stefan George was born in 1868 in Büdesheim, today part of Rhineland-Palatinate. He began to publish poetry in the 1890s. While in his twenties was at the center of an influential literary and academic circle known as the George-Kreis. In 1933 after the Nazi takeover Joseph Goebbels offered him the presidency of a new Academy for the arts, which he refused. He also stayed away from celebrations prepared for his 65th birthday. Instead he travelled to Switzerland where he died near Locarno.

Back to top


Mascha Kaléko: Two Poems translated by Jonathan Steffen



So, legendary city, this is you:
Outside the Gare du Nord, the film sets start.
I’m new still, and I cannot parlez-vous:
Paris – be kind and take me to your heart!

Now, as I doze my way home, you return –
The massive churches, minuscule cafés,
Me at the zinc with my café au lait,
The walks along the Seine where gas-lamps burn.

You little girls arrayed on Métro seats,
Straw-hatted cavalier with pre-War beard –
But there’s that Louvre scene my mind repeats:
‘Hey, look – this picture! Rembrandt? Kinda weird …’

Dawn breaking in Montmartre without a sound,
The sleeping tabby on the window-sill;
A Bal musette at dawn, abandoned, chill,
With wilting flowers and empty cups around …

I found you different from the things I’d read:
The guidebook left out this and that of you.
But millions love you, Paris – and, that said,
Please count M.K. among the number, too!


It rained and rained and rained the whole night through.
I thought: this doesn’t augur well at all.
At noon, the tax inspector came to call.
And later, in the evening, I met you.

I only recognised your face on close attention.
You’ve changed a lot in all these years, I see.
And there’s enough been happening to me.
My optimism put in for its pension.

What am I up to? Not a lot. It seems
The daily grind just goes on endlessly.
And I have mothballed all my youthful dreams.
They’re long outgrown. Now they’re too tight for me …

Your endless questions … Am I happy now,
Am I in love, what else has happened to me.
I ask you nothing. But I can read your brow.
Time was … But that is long since history.

Now you’re a corporate big-shot with two sons.
You chose banality without remorse.
Once you were set upon a different course,
But opted for the safe and healthy one.

I see you, and our good old days of yore,
And how time trickles through our hands like sand.
And I’m no kid these days, I understand.
I don’t believe in wonders any more –

The splendid hopes we shared in years long past
Are small and cold and very short on thrills.
– I think about God’s ever-turning mills:
Sometimes they really can grind very fast.


Mascha Kaléko’s family moved from Galicia to Germany after World War I.  From 1929 on, she published poetry presenting the daily life of the common people in various newspapers. Capturing the atmosphere of Berlin in the 1930s, her poetry was positively reviewed by Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse. In 1938, she managed to emigrate to the USA with her second husband, the composer Chemjo Vinaver.  In 1956 she returned to Berlin but then emigrated to Israel in 1959. Kaléko died in January 1975 in Zurich where she fell ill en route back to Jerusalem from a final visit in Berlin.

Back to top


Durs Grünbein: Three poems translated by Karen Leeder



Centaurs, what I wouldn’t give to have been able
To see you with my own eyes, before I cease to be.
Unicorns, dragons, you harpies, sphinxes and fairies,
You can all go hang. Of all the creatures of fable
Horse-men, you are the greatest curiosity.

Couldn’t you return, couldn’t you come back to life
One day? I don’t mind if you’re not inclined to neigh,
It would be enough if one of you could emerge one night
From the bushes, in Greece perhaps, on the motorway
Or at a service station, a shape in the headlights.

But no second chances. I know the score of course:
The forests that once housed you have been felled.
The dance is over, the gallop through the Peloponnese,
All the fir trees are long since taken for the fleets
That won the sea war at Salamis.

You were the finale, and when you’d gone that was the last
Of the gods. All that was left behind was the eerie sound
Of twigs cracking in the rain. A few things to remind
Us like the hairy wrist of my neighbour on the bus,
And the brillo-pad on a grown man’s chest.

You stubborn mutants, heralds of an ancient world,
You visited Europe one more time under Ghengis Khan.
And the storm from the Steppes left the cities buckled
The man merged with the horse, Mongolian dream,
The last before railway and aeroplane.

Texts were all you had, vases and marble reliefs
To let your muscles play. Only the immortal verse
Of Homer or Ovid that depicts you holding sway.
That philosopher apart, who would want to give you birth?
And what can I do to meet you again someday?


In the agave’s green cluster of swords
The oath of the Horatii becomes real.
The legend does not disappear. It
Returns to the sources, overwinters.

This hard leaf genus carves the air
Into segments, creates a thunder zone.
Heat turns the fleshy leaves to
Tin that curls under the secateurs

Absurd the blade bristling with spines,
This pompous austerity, the distaste
For any kind of green spring lament.
No truce can unbend its rigidity.

An agave does not succumb to the frost.


The yellowed circus posters in a little town
by the sea set the air on fire, in summer
especially, when a match is all it takes.
Squirrels leap like this streak of burlesque red.
Nowhere do posters shine with such promise.

The graveyard wall is plastered and the fence
by the overgrown football field: sun and rain
have bleached the colours. The orange
of the tiger, grey of the trumpeting elephant,
against the garish purple background.

An apparition in the dust at the edge of the highway:
This is where time, just for a while, burned
Like grass, tyres at the edge of the car park.
The posters are peeling away. The kids who laughed
In the circus then are business men these days.

Durs Grünbein ‘Epiphanie mit Kentauren’ and ‘ Agave’, taken from: Durs Grünbein, Koloss im Nebel. Gedichte © Suhrkamp Verlag Berlin 2012. All rights with and controlled through Suhrkamp Verlag Berlin.

Durs Grünbein ‘Der Sprung durch den Reifen’ © Durs Grunbein. English version published here by kind permission of the poet.


 Durs Grünbein: Two Poems Translated by Andrew Shields


Memory, shy
Friend, which window will
You open for me today?

At the most impossible times,
You turn up; draw back from me,
There in the milky light.

All milk had dried up
When she first arrived,
And I watched her part.

Mother, that’s where it started:
All around me, the world
Began to blur.

Word by word, since then,
It goes, when memory calls.
Go out, go out.

Everything’s blurred since then,
With consciousness the hole
Breathed on now and again.

Down deep, though, grew
Something unknown that
Leaped like a sea horse.


Put up your hands to bury your face
Press them firmly on cheek and brow
Let no more light through your fingers
Inside the walls of your brain
And skull and cheek-bone settle down
Your head is no cage so linger
No roof to catch you no floor
Words right and left above below
None hits the bull’s-eye like woe ignore
The places where you’re known
By nothing forest bay outskirts
Don’t dream except of the end
There’s no gap between heaven and earth
For you no support in the land
Just space just time which rub you out
Try to not remember
Open your eyes open them wide
What do you see when you turn around
Now — is that the darkness inside
Is that the night you go into

Durs Grünbein ‘Ultima facie’, taken from: Durs Grünbein, Nach den Satiren. Gedichte © Suhrkamp Verlag Frankfurt am Main 1999. All rights with and controlled through Suhrkamp Verlag Berlin.

Durs Grünbein ‘Hippocampus’, taken from: Durs Grünbein, Strophen für übermorgen. Gedichte © Suhrkamp Verlag Frankfurt am Main 2007. All rights with and controlled through Suhrkamp Verlag Berlin.


Durs Grünbein studied theatre in Berlin, where he has lived as a freelance writer since 1987. He published Grauzone morgens,   his first small book of poems, in 1988.  In 1991 he published his second collection,  Schädelbasislektion. Grünbein has been awarded many German literary prizes. he has also published several essay collections and new translations of plays from antiquity.

Back to top

The Translators


Martyn Crucefix’s original collections include Hurt (Enitharmon, 2010), The Time We Turned (Shearsman, 2014), A Hatfield Mass (Worple Press, 2014). He has translated Rilke’s Duino Elegies (Enitharmon, 2006) – shortlisted for the 2007 Popescu Prize for European Poetry Translation – and Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus (Enitharmon, 2012). Daodejing – a new version in English will be published in 2016. Website and blog at Martyn Crucefix


Harry Guest’s last collection was Some Times from Anvil in 2010. In 2012 Impress produced his translation of Torsten Schulz’s novel Boxhagener Platz (which has been successfully filmed) called A Square in East Berlin. His long poem Philadelphiana is expected (from Guernsey!) soon, all being well.


Jonathan Steffen read English literature at King’s College, Cambridge and taught translation and interpreting at Heidelberg University during the 1990s, working simultaneously as a freelance translator and interpreter. He has published literary and scholarly translations from the French and German. Jonathan also writes poetry, essays, short stories and songs. For further information, please visit


Karen Leeder’s translations of German poetry have appeared in Poetry Review, PN Review, MPT, Magma, SPORT (New Zealand) and WordLiterature Today (USA). Her volume of Evelyn Schlag’s Selected Poems with Carcanet(2004) won the Schlegel-Tieck Prize in 2005 and in 2013 she received first prize in the Stephen Spender competition with her translations of Durs Grünbein. Volker Braun’s, RubbleFlora: Selected Poems, translated with David Constantine appeared with Seagull in 2014 and was commended for the Popescu Prize of the Poetry Society 2015.


 Andrew Shields was born in in 1964 in Detroit, Michigan, and thereafter raised in Michigan, Ohio, California, and England. He attended Stanford University and the University of Pennsylvania (where he finished his PhD in Comparative Literature in 1995). He now lives in Basel, Switzerland. His collection, Thomas Hardy Listens to Louis Armstrong, was published by Eyewear in 2015.


Back to top



7 thoughts on “German Poetry

  1. Love this post. It opens doors to such a variety of excellent, unfamiliar work and so much strange beauty. The site design is also very beautiful. Thank you, High Window editors, for all this.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s