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Old 10-21-2012, 09:25 AM
Michael Cantor Michael Cantor is offline
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Default Poem Appreciation #1 - Fisches Nachtgesang (Christian Morgenstern)

Fisches Nachtgesang
by Christian Morgenstern

I have flouted the rules a wee bit. My mini-essay is on Christian Morgenstern's "Fisches Nachtgesang". The title is in German, but the actual poem has no words and needs no translation. You will not receive another poem remotely like this one, and I hope the essay sparks a debate on not only the artistic merits of the piece, but what can be considered poetry (this one, as my essay explains, is rooted in classic Greek and Latin poetry).

I hope the formatting shows correctly on your browser. If not, the poem can be viewed here





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Christian Morgenstern’s “Fisches Nachtgesang” is a piscine paradox: a concrete poem rendered in abstract shapes, a sound poem with no discernable sounds, a foreign-language poem that needs no translation, a metrical poem consisting of nothing but metrics that many on Eratosphere will no doubt never identify as a metrical poem, or even a poem at all.

The title translates to “Fish’s Nightsong”. The poem consists of alternating lines of macrons and breves, the marks of scansion in Latin and Greek poetry, reimagined as both the shimmering scales of a sleeping fish and musical notations. How wonderful to turn something consigned to the paper oceans of Classics scholars into a watermark of whimsy. The scansion marks split the poem into one of sound and one of shape.

A song at night might be a lullaby. If the macrons go thump in the night, and the breves consign a consonantal thm to their repertoire, then we get this percussive berceuse: thump-thm-thm-thump-thump-thm-thm-thm-thm-thump-thump-thump-thm-thm-thm-thm and so on. Crescendo, diminuendo, terraced dynamics. It is the fish’s heart beating, an ambient underwater soundscape, a song hummed through puckered lips, and ultimately, with no words to anchor the symbols, no sound at all. The scansion symbols are variable; one can assign any sound or instrument to them and all that remains constant is the pattern of stress they impart. Morgenstern indicates no actual sound, and the stress marks wait for a reader to come along and give them meaning. It is similar to looking at a real fish below real water and not being able to hear the swish and bubble of its aquatic world from one’s stance on shore. The sound exists beyond the water and must be imagined.

Likewise, the shape of the fish remains just out of view. The macrons and breves cluster in a vaguely fish-shaped form. They show a fish in abstract with all its details lost in the murk. The breves look like fish scales of a child’s drawing and the macrons might be crude renderings of horizontal fins, but lines are not connected to form a solid figure. Again, the reader must fill in the blanks himself.

Morgenstern wrote “Fisches Nachtgesang” in 1905 at the beginning of a century that would upheave the definitions of literature and art. Some critics may dismiss his poem as a textual trick, nice enough, but not poetry. But consider the use of the macrons and breves. These symbols, particular to the study of prosody, root the poem in the tradition of Latin and Greek poetry from which all other literature in the Western canon blooms; and Morgenstern, confronting the enormity of the canon behind him, baits the future with a little fish dreaming its silent song, the tune yet to be invented.
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Old 10-21-2012, 09:31 AM
Michael Cantor Michael Cantor is offline
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Distinguished Guest Amit Majmudar's comments:

It is difficult to add anything to this remarkable poem (a poem that is its own translation) and thorough, perceptive commentary.

Morgenstern is new to me. I looked for some additional work online, but it may have lost something in translation. This Fish’s night-song, however, comes across perfectly.

I think the reason is that it is purely music. We say poetry is what is lost in translation, but it’s primarily the sound of those words in that order that can’t be replicated. It is possible for subtleties of meaning and shifts in tone to be brought across with fairly high fidelity by a skilled translator; but when the poem’s exact sequence of syllables gets disrupted, its unique musicality is lost. I’m speaking of something deeper than rhyme scheme or meter; I mean every vowel, every consonant. In this poem, that isn’t an issue because there aren’t any words.

I think that making the shape resemble a fish more accurately would have diminished the poem, ruined its streamlined symmetry. It would have been easy to add a tail fin or dorsal fin or something. That would have thrown off the mystery of this masterpiece. Likewise a no-no would have been alternating unstress-stress in some attempt to mimic a heartbeat. It’s the visual pattern and the idea of a song that dominate, not the pulse of the fish. It is a nature poem flensed of naturalism.

Contest: Can anyone out there compose a meaningful poem using macrons and breves? Or is Morgenstern’s the only successful poem written in this un-language?
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Old 10-21-2012, 09:41 AM
Michael Cantor Michael Cantor is offline
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What an auspicious start to our new event! The poem/un-poem is intriguing, and the essay is thoughtful and gracefully written. I'm normally quicker than most to dismiss things of this nature as gimmicks - but, as the essay indicates, there's much more here than a gimmick. Would I have been as appreciative of it without the essay? Absolutely not! So the Workshop has already done some good.
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Old 10-21-2012, 09:51 AM
Jean L. Kreiling Jean L. Kreiling is offline
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An admirably thought-provoking start to this exercise. I wanted to complain that a poem ought to consist of symbols that more clearly impart meaning—but then again, a word might carry a variety of clear and less-clear meanings, depending on the reader, and that's often a good thing. I wanted to complain that a poem ought to make sense when read aloud, but our interpreter has offered a suggestion of how the thing might do so. On some level, how one feels about the legitimacy of this piece may be governed by that unanswerable question of where one “draws the line”—between music and meaning, symbol and sense, experiment and enigma. Personally, I had trouble perceiving it as anything but an evocative piece of visual design.


The critique is very thoughtful; it certainly made me give this more attention than I would have otherwise. The last line makes a great point, since to some extent, anything we read is a “tune yet to be invented.” However, the notion that the poem contains “crescendo and diminuendo” doesn’t seem to have any basis. We can certainly imagine that it represents terrace dynamics, i.e., non-gradual changes in volume, but the repeated symbols are all the same, indicating no nuance, only difference.

Not my kind of poem, but a great choice for this event because it made me think carefully about why.

Best,
Jean
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Old 10-21-2012, 10:35 AM
Christopher ONeill Christopher ONeill is offline
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I've loved this poem for the forty-odd years I've known it, and I regularly use it as a way in to both concrete poetry and sound poetry for writers willing to take that leap. (There is no definitive performance of this poem, but I have heard / seen several convincing ones - and I have my own variant).

Morgenstern normally works from deep within the roots of the German Romantic tradition (poems like Klabautermann or Der Werwolf are difficult to make sense of without a solid grounding in Klopstock and C F Meyer) but his regular mode is a deeply serious whimsy, and here you don't really need to reference the centuries of German poets staring at water to get the sense of fun.

I didn't notice the ichthyform implications of the shape until I had already know the poem for several years. Noticing that the piece is called a Serenade, I at first assumed that the shape we see on the page is a patch of moonlit water (perhaps lightly phosphorescing). The fish-shape was a bonus I discovered later (it is remarkable how you go on learning such a poem for decades).

I enjoyed the response. In one way it is difficult to write about such a poem, in another way - surprisingly easy. All you can really do is shake your reader's faith in 'what a poem is'. Some readers will let go of the float readily and with confidence - from there on, this poem is not difficult. Other readers prefer to get by without this kind of poem.

I've certainly seen other poems which used non-words effectively (Gomringer's 1954 Silencio is not the masterpiece Fisches Nachtgesang is - but it is still a very fine poem); and while Fisches Nachtgesang isn't language it is close to language in a way that to me seems reminiscent of Ungaretti's Mattina.

And Morgenstern gave Germany such a strong and enduring tradition of poets who work on the very edge of what words can do: Ernst Jandl is a more modern poet who is just as extra-linguistic as Morgenstern, even Thomas Kling has learned something in this tradition.

It is very good to see something on a neo-formalist site which is all form.
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Old 10-21-2012, 11:58 AM
Brian Watson Brian Watson is offline
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Morse code, scales of a single fish, a shoal of fish, wavelets on the sea,...
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Old 10-21-2012, 12:06 PM
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Janice D. Soderling Janice D. Soderling is offline
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It is indeed, as Jean says, an admirably thought-provoking start to this event. Though it doesn't elict profound feelings (at least not for me) about itself as itself, it does cause one to reflect on the subject of aesthetics and the fine arts.

Suppose the kickstarter title were The Pine Cone Changes its Mood ? I can see clearly see a pine cone and both frowny and smiley faces.

The title German Romantics Contemplate Water (thanks Christopher) might position it at D&A.

Suppose it were framed and enthroned alone on a blue wall at MoMa? Near a Duchamp Fountain. In one of which, incidentally, the Swedish artist Björn Kjelltoft urinated at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm in 1999. Was that a poetic act?

Critics often fall back on phrases like "her paintings are small poems" or "his poem is a miniature painting". Perhaps it is all part and parcel of the same substance: figurative poetry or poetic figures.

This is, FWIW, one of the first poems in my collection of translated 20th century German Poetry. (I'm sticking my neck way out here, because I can't locate the book, but that is how I remember it.)

Well-chosen.
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Old 10-21-2012, 01:42 PM
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John Beaton John Beaton is offline
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I have some misgivings about this type of wordless "poetry", and about the "appreciation" of it. Often, the appreciation lies in the interpretation more than in the poem. The poem acts as a catalyst for thought and a base for creative construction. Those who supply such thought and construction enjoy it. But many, who look for the meaning in the poem itself, are turned off by something which appears "meaningless". For instance, I had that reaction when listening to a very long performance of "sound poetry" by the celebrated, and undoubtedly skilled, Canadian poet, Christian Bok.

Here, however, I think the essay which forms the "appreciation" doesn't attempt to read out too much more than is written in. Rather, it elicits mainly what is already there. For me, the title, "Fish's Nightsong", is the key.

That title first presents the idea of the fish, as reflected in the scales and the shape of the overall whole. I think the essay extrapolates too much when it says "the macrons might be crude renderings of horizontal fins". The scalloped effect for scales works for me. I think the tail-less fish-shape of the poem is a failed stretch.

Then the title presents the idea of night, and with it, sleep. I'm surprised the essay doesn't explicitly mention the fact that the breves look like closed eyes.

Finally, "song" takes us to the metrical interpretation and percussive non-sound which those familiar with the scansion-marks will recognize. However, that makes it a poem for poets and academics. I generally don't like poetry that shuts out lots of people, but I think this one has enough appeal to carry it even for audiences unfamiliar with the scansion implications. That said, I think the essay overblows both the musicality and the significance of the source. Yes, the music is there, but it's hardly on a par with Dylan Thomas or Beethoven. The curiosity of its source is what elevates it above a finger-tap on a table. And the essayist goes too far for my liking in describing the poet's neat visual pun as "confronting the enormity of the canon behind him" (a curiously Janus-esque way of putting it).

Overall, I think it's a clever and gently pleasing poem, and that the essay is illuminating. But a poem like this will never grab me very strongly.

John
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Old 10-21-2012, 03:51 PM
Charlotte Innes Charlotte Innes is offline
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Ah, John B. just said everything I had intended to say about this poem, and he said it so gracefully and beautifully.

When I read the poem ("read?") and the essay earlier, I was reminded of what high school students say when we start discussing poetry. They often think poetry is what you want it to be, that interpretation is everything--forget what the poet might actually be trying to say. In fact, there is a two-way street. Inevitably, readers bring their own experiences, thoughts, feelings, and biases to a poem. But we as readers really ought give poets at least a minute of respect, since in most poems, there is likely a strong intent on the part of the poet to say something. (John Ashbery denies this, but honestly, how can we avoid ourselves, and our inner urgings, however hard we try!)

Here, though, the signs on the page are up for grabs. And the essayist notes this to some degree: "Morgenstern indicates no actual sound, and the stress marks wait for a reader to come along and give them meaning." In fact, without the title, the poem can only say, "interpret me!" The title, "Fish's Nightsong," is an integral part of the poem. You could almost say the title IS the poem, and that the little signs illustrate the poem--or possibly, like a metaphor, help the reader go more deeply into the experience of the poem, although not a huge amount, since what we see are notations, not images, that suggest (a) a fish, (b) closed eyelids (night), and (c) the music of a line, with short and long stresses. Since this is only part of a fish, as others have pointed out (no fins, etc.), perhaps we are meant to think that something is missing, that "night," in fact, is playing the usual part of something dark and scary, even misery--even mystery. We might infer that this is the dark night of the soul--since the fish is a major Christian symbol--or even perhaps that Christianity is lost or lacking in some way. And is there any actual music here? (I don't know music.) The essayist extrapolates the sound of a fish's heart. But again, the fish is really singing any tune we want to hear.

I like the essayist's conclusion, setting the poem in the context of its times (early 20th century), as a precursor of the upheavals of modernism to come. And given the assigned space, the writer does a decent job of touching bases on all this poem might be, all that might be extracted from it. [Added in>] I also loved Chris's context-setting comment above, that the poet's "regular mode is a deeply serious whimsy, and here you don't really need to reference the centuries of German poets staring at water to get the sense of fun." Of course! How many times have I listened to Schubert's lieder and thought how wonderfully he does water? [<] But the bottom-line is that this fish is anything we want it to be, and that, with his/her own language, the essayist injects the poetry into the poem with lovely phrases like this: "Morgenstern, confronting the enormity of the canon behind him, baits the future with a little fish dreaming its silent song, the tune yet to be invented." Well, we are all poets here. We love words. For me, this poem is like a poet's coloring book for all us poets to play with. Is this poetry? The essayist accepts that it is. Do I? Well, OK. But more a trigger for poetry, a prompt, a match to set the imagination on fire, a flintstone to strike the spark of poetry in others. Not such a bad thing, that.

Last edited by Charlotte Innes; 10-21-2012 at 06:06 PM. Reason: Added in response to Chris' comments....
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Old 10-21-2012, 06:46 PM
Tim Murphy Tim Murphy is offline
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Macrons and breves, indeed. I "say" it as any trained boy scout would say Morse Code, except that knowing Morse Code, I know it is meaningless and an insult to a tradition of elevated speech going back to the Gilgamesh poet. What a pathetic introduction to a new event! The Emperor has no clothes.

Your trogloditic poet lariat,

Timothy Murphy
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