Before returning to the GDR in May 1978, I conferred with the editors of FIELD, a poetry journal published by Oberlin College, about the possibility of preparing a special bilingual issue devoted to East German poetry of the 1970s. The editors were enthusiastic about my idea, and we agreed that I would serve as guest editor of this publication. The main purpose of the bilingual volume was to make contemporary East German poetry available not only to students of German literature and the GDR, but to a much broader audience of readers as well.
As guest editor, my first tasks were to choose the poets for this anthology and gather from them a selection of poems which would be translated into English following my return to Oberlin. In choosing the fourteen poets who ultimately were included, I consulted with GDR poet Adolf Endler, Gerhard Wolf, and several other persons conversant with the GDR poetry scene, all of them knowledgeable insiders. Our goal was to make the chapbook representative of the very best that East Germany had to offer during the seventies, and a consensus on the most important GDR poets of that era emerged with surprising ease. The list included Erich Arendt, Thomas Brasch, Volker Braun, Heinz Czechowski, Adolf Endler, Elke Erb, Bernd Jentzsch, Rainer Kirsch, Sarah Kirsch, Wulf Kirsten, Günter Kunert, Reiner Kunze, Kito Lorenc, and Karl Mickel.
Fourteen different persons—poets, faculty members, and students shared the task of translating the poems into English. I wrote an introduction to the chapbook, prepared a bio-bibliographical sketch for each poet, and also translated some of the poems, including Elke Erb’s “Sommerzeit” (“Summertime,”1975), one of my favorites.
Durch dichtes hohes Gras, von lichten Rispen
so sanftes Schwanken seh ich, schritt mein Vater,
und dies ist wahr, dass er zu schweben schien
beinlos auf eine Eiche zu, so dick,
dass sie sechs ausgestreckter Arme Längen,
umarmten sie drei Männer, nicht umspannten.
Bis auf den Wipfel stand sie überwachsen
von dunklem Efeu, dunkle Pyramide,
ein hohler Efeuberg um einen Baum.
Und in den Rankenschaukeln seines Dauerns
hing Erde, angeweht vom Wind, darin
spross Farn und keimten Samen, Wespen
bauten . . .
Das Licht, das durch die Blätter ging, durchgrünte
die unscheinbaren Blattläuse; es frassen
von ihren Rücken Honigtau, die Tröpfchen,
Ameisen, wandernde. Vor allem stand
mein lieber Vater damals und nahm Proben.
I see my father stepping through thick, high grass,
the delicate panicles swaying ever so gently,
and this is true: he seemed to float legless
toward an oak tree, so thick that three men
could not stretch their six arms around it.
Up to the treetop it stood overgrown
by dark ivy, a dark pyramid,
a hollow ivy-mountain around a tree.
And in the rustling creepers of its permanence
hung dirt, blown there by the wind; in it
fern sprouted and seeds germinated; wasps were
building . . .
The light through the leaves made
the unassuming aphids glow green;
ants, wandering, ate tiny droplets of honeydew
from their backs. My dear father stood
before it all then and took samples.
Contemporary East German Poetry, A Special Issue of FIELD, was published in the fall of 1980. The initial printing of 1,500 copies sold out within a few years.