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LITERATURE

10 summer poems to make you fall in love with the German language

Summer's in full swing. The birds are chirping, the bees are buzzing and the flowers are in full bloom. But does the promise of sunny days fill you with delight or foreboding? These German poems describe summer at its best and worst and will inspire you to get out that German dictionary again.

10 summer poems to make you fall in love with the German language
Sunset in Brandenburg. Photo:DPA

It’s a common trend that the desire to explore a nation’s literature will inspire language learners to take their linguistic skills to the next level.

You may have experienced that jolting feeling when reading a translation of a foreign book or poem. Or perhaps you have found yourself at a dead end when that piece you’ve always wanted to read just hasn’t been translated.

Most of us are probably in agreement that poetry is the hardest art-form to translate. How can the myriad of structural choices stay in tact during translation to deliver the same reading experience as the original? This tends to be the reason that so many poems are just never officially translated.

So why wait for the English version? Here's a list of ten German poems which take on the sunny season that are worth learning German for.

1. Sommer by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1810)

 

 

Goethe is one of Germany's literary giants. His works spanned the genres of drama, prose, poetry, autobiography and literary criticism. While many may know his famous works like “Faust” and “The Sorrows of Young Werther”, he is little read outside the German-speaking world.

His poem “Sommer”, or “Summer”, is only eight lines long and delivers powerful imagery of days growing alongside the heat. Meadows are ablaze in the summer's heat and fiery storms show no mercy. 

“Der Sommer folgt. Es wachsen Tag und Hitze,

und von den Auen dränget uns die Glut;”

Goethe's poem stands out from visions of a calm summer's day but nevertheless ends with the image of love smiling beneath the stormy weather. Goethe's literary talent should not be missed just because of a language barrier.

Full text available here.

2. “Dämmernd liegt der Sommerabend…” by Heinrich Heine (1827)

Heine's works are some of the most famous literary exports from Germany in the 19th century. His lyric poetry garnered particular acclaim after it was set to music by Robert Schumann and Franz Schubert.

His untitled poem paints a more positive picture of summer than Goethe's did. Heine sets the scene of the summer evening stretching across a forest and green meadows at twilight. The moon is golden and sounds of crickets are in the air.

“Dämmernd liegt der Sommerabend

Über Wald und grünen Wiesen;”

The poem ends with a girl bathing in the river, her bare skin shimmering in the moonlight, evoking a sense of purity and mystique in the summer's night.

Full text available here or listen to a recording of the poem.

3. Wie freu' ich mich der Sommerwonne! by August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben (1872)

August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben is a bit of a mouthful to say, but this summery poet wrote probably the most famous words in Germany. In 1841 Fallersleben penned “Das Lied der Deutschen” which was to become the German national anthem from 1922 onwards.

While the famous line “Deutschland, Deutschland über allies” is no longer part of the anthem today, the line “Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit” (“unity and justice and freedom”) is considered by most as Germany's unofficial motto.

His poem “Wie freu' ich mich der Sommerwonne!”, or “How I rejoice the summer delight!” is full of exultation and merriment in summer's nature.

“Wie freu’ ich mich der Sommerwonne, 

Des frischen Grüns in Feld und Wald”

This poem showcases the dizzying qualities of summer which can rejuvenate your spirit and also embraces the sense of satisfaction and belonging with oneself.

Full text available here.

4. Abseits by Theodor Storm (1847)

Theodor Storm is considered as one of the most important figures in German realism. His upbringing in the town of Husum in Germany’s north inspired much of his later poetry. Storm would often draw on the vast mudflats and the dark expanse of sea which characterised his childhood home.

His summer poem “Abseits”, which can only roughly be translated into English as “away from” or “aside” or “off the beaten track”, is a great example of Storm’s incorporation of the plains of his childhood with the longing for a peaceful summer’s day. 

“Es ist so still; die Heide liegt

Im warmen Mittagssonnenstrahls”

The poetic landscape is that of his childhood – the mudflats lying still in the mid-day sun. The poem touches upon the relationship between nature and civilisation. And whether mankind’s engagement with nature is purely exploitative or one of appreciation, is left unanswered. 

The somewhat Romantic images of nature which Storm creates seem to expose a sense of longing for his youth, a dream in which the sun is shining and ground beetles and bees are going about their own business.

Full text available here.

5. Sommerabend by Rainer Maria Rilke (1913)

A summer fire in Brandenburg. Photo:DPA

Rilke is one of the most talented German writers and his poetry alone is reason enough to make you improve your language skills.

Packed into just ten lines, Rilke’s poem “Sommerabend”, or “Summer’s Evening”, paints an intense picture of a summer evening. His choice of words have you swaying between heaven and hell. 

“Die große Sonne ist versprüht,

der Sommerabend liegt im Fieber”

Rilke personifies the summer evening, which lies in a fever, its cheeks glowing with the heat. The heat appears to drain the energy out of everything in its midst. One man, Jach, cannot finish a sentence and heaves with exhaustion.

Later the poem makes use of religious imagery: the bushes reciting litanies, and the small white rose wearing a red halo.

Rilke creates a sense that everything is trapped in a state of motionless paralysis amidst an eternal light. “Sommerabend” may be just a short poem, but it captures all your senses and has you contemplating the power of summer.

Full text available here.

6. Ein Morgen im Juli by Claudia Malzahn (1969)

Two people enjoying a summer's morning by a lake in Berlin. Photo:DPA

Malzahn’s poem is less raging hell on earth and more the bright dawning of a summer’s morning. The poem’s title translates as “A Morning in July” and marvels in the splendour of the sun. The morning air is still cool and the dew-covered grass resembles millions of tiny crystals. 

“Die Sonne ist aufgegangen.

Prächtig, herrschend”

Malzahn doesn’t use any rhyme scheme but does take advantage of structure and enjambement to make certain words stand out. 

There is a nod towards the more foreboding sense of summer at the end of the poem with the black forest far in the distance standing like a “dark sea of flames” and the fog creeping along the meadows.

Full text available here.

7. Sommergedanken by Oskar Stock (1993)

The Bavarian poet Oskar Stock speaks the same language as an excited school pupil at the beginning of the summer holidays with the promise of glorious months stretched out ahead of them.

“Die Lerche jubelt in den Lüften

ein Lied und heller Sonnenschein”

Humanity and nature are simultaneously full of joy, the lark is rejoicing in the air and there’s greenery as far as the eye can see. Imagery of happy individuals having fun in the water and the delight of a holiday from the rest of the year are on full display, and heart and soul are rejuvenated.

Stock addresses summer directly in his final line, declaring it the “wonderful time”.

Full text available here.

8. Hitze by Hans-Christoph Neuert (1998)

Hans-Christoph Neuert was born in Würzburg in 1958 and has a history of a disc jockey for local clubs and private events in his youth. 

It’s seems a recurring theme in many of these summer poems that the warm season be not just a time of joy and delight but one of the intense feelings and the destabilising effects of heat. Neuert’s poem, therefore, is pretty aptly titled “Hitze”, or “Heat”. 

“Der Sommer brennt heiß

die Felder versengt”

In his poem, the fields are singed, the sun has pained the persona’s eyes already for weeks and has relegated him to the intense feeling of thirst. 

Neuert suggests perhaps that the summer heat is almost too powerful for nature itself, exemplified in the final word of the poem, which stands alone: “gebrochen”, meaning “broken”.

Full text available here.

9. Sommerwind by Anita Menger (2012)

A honey bee pollinating a flower. Photo:DPA

Anita Menger is a contemporary German poet who took to writing poetry later in life. She has written many poems about summer, including this one “Sommerwind”, or “Summer’s wind”.

This poem is definitely in the happy summer camp and focuses on the colourful flowers and eavesdropping birds untouched in nature. The persona sits in a garden, enjoying the summer’s wind, taking in the sights of nature all around her.

“Behaglich sitze ich in diesem Garten,

genieß den leichten, warmen Sommerwind.”

Much like Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben, the persona tries to experience the moment for what it is, without demanding an answer to the meaning or purpose of life and wants to enjoy the moment and all that she is at that particular moment.

Full text available here.

10. Sommerabschied by an unknown poet

“Sommerabschied”, or “Farewell to Summer” is the perfect way to end this list of summery poems.

Whether summer to you is a raging heat-wave, inflicting paralysis on the world, or whether it's the sweet time of year when you can engage with nature or simply enjoy the warmer weather and a well-deserved break, this poem gently bids farewell to the season and everything that comes with it.

“Luft wie Seide

wilder Wein und Herbstzeitlose”

The last ray of the sinking sun renders the world silent until thoughts quickly fly to summer’s antithesis – winter, where the “Christmas rose blossoms”.

Full text available here.

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BOOKS

Seven must-read German books written by women

Goethe, Schiller, Kafka, and many other famous names in the German literary cannon are men. Yet some of the most influential books written in German, whether contemporary or classic, are written by women.

Seven must-read German books written by women
Judith Kerr, a celebrated German-born author, died earlier this year. Photo: DPA

Sophie von la Roche (Geschichte des Fräuleins von Sternheim)

Who was the first financially independent professional writer in Germany? You guessed it. It was not Goethe or Remarque, but in fact a woman: Sophie von la Roche. 

Her 1771 novel, Geschichte des Fräuleins von Sternheim (History of Lady Sophia Sternheim) recounts through a series of letters the experiences of an upper class woman on the search for love and happiness in enlightenment German society. Her first novel, which is her most successful, is considered a founding text for the German female literary tradition. 

READ ALSO: 10 German books you have to read before you die

The novel tackles questions on what the key to female happiness should be, and whether this is achievable in the male-dominated German courtly society. On one level, the text seems to teach woman how to live a moral life, with protagonist Sophie from Sternheim setting an idealized example. 

Yet on a deeper level, the text offers an insight that teaches woman how to navigate a phallocentric society, highlighting the inevitable difficulties women face as a result of their unequal position, even if they do everything right in terms of moral codes and expectations. 

Despite being written almost 250 years ago, La Roche’s novel is still relevant for modern woman. The feminist issues she highlights, such as society’s default position of believing a male account over a female’s, are eerily relevant to cases in contemporary society such as the Kavanaugh hearings.

Annette von Drüste Holstoff (Die Judenbuche) 

Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, once the face of the 20 Deutsche Mark note, is often credited for paving the way for women to be taken more seriously in Germany’s literary circles.

Her 1842 novella Die Judenbuche, is one of the earliest murder mysteries, based on a real life 18th century report that documents a series of murders that took place in the Westphalian mountains. The text contains implications and red herrings, all the classic murder mystery features, yet gives no definite answer as to what happened. 

The murder victims are a forest ranger and a Jewish man, Aaron. Droste-Hülshoff cleverly plays with stereotypes in her depiction of the Jewish community, with Aaron being a loan shark, in order to highlight society’s existential anxiety surrounding Jews. The stereotyping is done by villagers, who themselves are unsympathetic, characterized as rowdy and showing little regard for the law.

Given how German history unfolded over the next 100 years, Die Judenbuche is on some level a haunting read, which may appear anti-Semitic. However, the plot is intended to instead highlight the bigotry and anarchy in a pre-unification micro state society, as well as the consequences  of anti-Semitism.

Irmgard Keun (Nach Mitternacht), 1937

According to literary critic Matthew Fishburn, as a general rule-of-thumb, if a book was on the burn-list in Nazi Germany, it’s probably a pretty good book. However, when we think of books that Nazis threw onto the fire, our thoughts usually turn to male authors such as Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann and Eric Maria Remarque.

Irmgard Keun is a female author who was forced to flee Nazi Germany in 1936 so that she could continue writing in her infamous sexually and politically frank manner. After Germany invaded the Netherlands, she retuned from exile there to Cologne in 1940. To survive, she faked her own death and lived undercover until the end of the war.

The first novel she wrote in exile, Nach Mitternacht, was published in Amsterdam in 1937. She tells the story of Sanna, a young woman who attempts to create a fantasy world so that she doesn’t have to engage with the madness going on around her, with her friends disappearing and her brother’s writing being banned.

The novel captures the obliviousness of the average citizen as Germany is plunged into war, as well as the conflict at heart, as Sanna’s naivety is violently stripped away. Nach Mitternacht is particularly haunting, as in 1937, neither Keun nor her protagonist could know how much darker the Nazi regime would get.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Unscheinbares Äußeres, wahnsinnig guter Inhalt! Irmgard Keun wie immer brillant ???

A post shared by Anastasia Schadt (@la_anastasia__) on Apr 7, 2019 at 9:52am PDT

Judith Kerr (Als Hitler das rosa Kaninchen stahl)

Judith Kerr was born in 1923 in Berlin, the daughter of Alfred Kerr, an important theatre critic of the Weimar era. Judith’s father, a Jew, would openly criticize Adolf Hitler. 

In 1933, the family heard a rumour that the Nazis planned to confiscate their passports and arrest Alfred, should they come to power, so Alfred immediately fled to Prague. Judith, her mother and brother fled Berlin soon after, meeting up with Alfred in Switzerland.  

They left on the morning of the election which Hitler would ultimately win. They later learned the following morning that the Nazis had come to their home to arrest them. 

Before settling in Britain in 1936, the Kerr family lived in Switzerland and Paris. Judith tells her story in the semi-autobiographical book for older children “Als Hitler das rosa Kaninchen stahl” (when Hitler stole pink rabbit), which offers a child’s-eye view of World War II.

The text is internationally celebrated and has become part of both German and British school curriculums, as it teaches the effects of war on an individual and familial level, rather than on political terms.

Emine Sevgi Özdamar (Mutterszunge)

The face of Germany has changed over the last 65 years, and so have the styles and backgrounds of its female authors. Emine Sevgi Özdamar is recognized as being at the forefront of the emerging genre “German Turkish literature”.

Born in Turkey, Özdamar arrived in Germany in 1965 as a Gastarbeiterin (guest worker) when she was only 18-years-old. She did not speak a word of German when she arrived and learned the language as an adult. Beginning working life as a cleaning lady in a factory, she’s gone on to become an actress, playwright, director and prize-winning German author.

She published her debut work Mutterzunge (Mother Tongue) in 1990, a collection of short semi-autobiographical stories that explore the identity of a Turkish woman living in Germany, an unfamiliar, often hostile culture, and learning a tongue-twisting language. The text’s key theme is the connection between language and identity.

Özdamar expresses the feeling experienced by many migrants of being caught between two worlds, with both cultures eventually feeling foreign. She loses her mother tongue Turkish, for it to be replaced by fluent yet flawed German. She creates a unique writing style through literal translations of Turkish expressions and combining “Kanak-Sprak” (German-Turkish sociolect) with German philosophical and literary quotations.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Turkish?UW-Madison (@turkishuwmadison) on Oct 16, 2019 at 1:04pm PDT

Yoko Tawada (Wolkenkarte)

As foreigners living in Germany, we’ve all experienced the sheer confusion of being asked whether we have a “Paybackkarte”, “Kundenkarte” or “DeutschlandCard” in the supermarket, and having no idea what the cashier is talking about. 

Yoko Tawada, a Berlin-based Japanese author, has captured this confusion as the essence of feeling foreign. In her short story “Wolkenkarte” (“cloud card”, a Swiss supermarket loyalty card) a supermarket loyalty card serves as a metaphorical ID which shows that you belong to an area. Across the short story, she discusses other ways of showing that you belong to an area, such as using a specific regional word for “ladybird” or not needing to internally translate questions before finding the answer.

As a prize-winning writer who has lived and worked in Japan, Germany, the USA and Switzerland, this sensation of not-belonging is all too familiar to Tawada. Growing up in Japan, Tawada studied in Germany and Switzerland before eventually settling in Berlin. 

She publishes her work bilingually in German and Japanese, with her writing often highlighting the strangeness of one language when seen from the perspective of someone who speaks another. She is known for creating neologisms in German as she draws to attention the need for translation in everyday life.

If reading German literature is something new to you, or you do not enjoy reading longer texts, Wolkenkarte is a short and accessible short story, which is certainly a good place to start. 

Olga Grjasnowa (Gott ist nicht schüchtern)

Over recent years, Germany has become known to be particularly welcoming to refugees, which has given rise to a new wave of literature written by or about refugees. 

An emerging talent is Olga Grjasnowa. Born into a Russian speaking Jewish family in Azerbaijan, she came to Germany as a refugee with her family aged 11. She is married to Ayham Majid Agha, a Syrian actor who arrived in Germany in 2013.

Grjasnowa’s novel, Gott ist nicht schüchtern (God is not shy, but City of Jasmine is the English title), tells the story of three Syrian refugees and their life-threatening journey across Europe. Hammoudi, a once Paris-based surgeon, Amal, a budding actress and Youssef, a young director all led unique lives in Syria. However, in Germany, they are perceived as nothing but refugees.

Grjasnowa developed her characters from a number of individual stories that were told to her by refugees. Her husband would help with translation and recount what he remembered about the places in Syria she mentioned in the book, to aid her research. 

The novel emphasizes the inhumanity of war alongside the individual humanity of each refugee. Grjasnowa tells Taz this is her most personal novel yet, as it echoes the stories her grandma would tell her about fleeing from the Nazis.

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