Friday 21 October 2016

Nelly Sachs - Poet & Nobel Laureate

Nelly Sachs was born on the 10th December 1891 in Schoneberg, an affluent area of Berlin, to a wealthy Jewish German family.
She grew up in a very protective family.
Mental health issues affected her throughout her life in the form of hallucinations, paranoia, mutism and various other breakdowns.
She spent a number of years in mental institutions, but always found a way to continue to write.

Nelly 1910

As a young girl she became fascinated with the works of the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, Selma Lagerlof and began a correspondence with her.

Sachs also became good friends with Hilde Domin (Palm), a German poet who emigrated to Italy in 1932 with her husband, then finally, to the Dominican Republic in 1940, to avoid the 'Nazi menace'.

Sachs fled Nazi Germany with the help of Lagerlof, on the last flight to Sweden in 1940.
She took her aged mother with her, but sadly, both her mother and Lagerlof died soon after.
Nelly became a Swedish citizen in 1952.

Her poetry is described as being lyrical and mystical.
Her early work was influenced by German Romanticism, Christian imagery and an early, unhappy relationship with a non-Jewish man.

He was later killed in a concentration camp.
When Sach's learnt of his death, her poetry evolved in a way that

"bound up his fate with that of her people and wrote many love lyrics ending not only in the beloved's death, but in the catastrophe of the Holocaust. Sachs herself mourns no longer as a jilted lover but as a personification of the Jewish people in their vexed relationship to history and God.

Sachs' fusion of grief with subtly romantic elements...allowed her to develop 
self-consciously from a German to a Jewish writer, with a corresponding change in her language: still flowery and conventional in some of her first poetry on the Holocaust, it becomes ever more compressed and surreal."

She was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966 along with Shmuel Yosef Agnon.

The Academy stated that

The Nobel Prize in Literature 1966 was divided equally between Shmuel Yosef Agnon 
"for his profoundly characteristic narrative art with motifs from the life of the Jewish people" and Nelly Sachs "for her outstanding lyrical and dramatic writing, which interprets Israel's destiny with touching strength".

Sachs observed that Agnon represented Israel whereas "I represent the tragedy of the Jewish people".'

Her later poetry explored an eclectic religious transcendentalism.
Sin, vulnerability, suffering, redemption, rebirth, grace and peace were some of her recurring themes.
Her poems regularly referenced earlier pieces (metafiction again!) which caused some commentators to say that she only ever wrote one poem, with numerous components.

I certainly struggle to understand all the layers of imagery in the few poems I've read so far.
Perhaps Sachs needs to be read in her entirety, in chronological order?

 Sachs died of cancer on the 12th May 1970 in Sweden.

You've Lost Your Name

You’ve lost your name
but the world rushes up
and offers you a grand choice
You shake your head
yet your beloved
once found you the needle in the haystack
Hark: he’s calling you now

Translation Catherine @Beauty for Ashes

Whoever Comes from the Earth

comes from the Earth
reaching for the moon
other heavenly mineral flower –
will soar high
wounded by blasts
of memory
shot from the explosive burst of yearning
out of Earth’s painted night
his winged prayers arise
out of daily destructions
seeking the inner pathways of the eyes. Craters and arid seas
filled with tears
travelling through starry stations
escaping from dust and ashes. Everywhere the Earth
is building its colonies of homesickness.
Not to land
on the oceans of addicted blood
only to sway
in the luminous music of ebb and flood
only to sway
to the rhythm of the unscathed
mark of eternity:
life – death –

Translation by Catherine @Beauty for Ashes

O The Chimneys

Job 19:26
“And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God"

O the chimneys
on the carefully planned dwellings of death
When Israel’s body rose dissolved in smoke
through the air –
To be welcomed by a chimney sweep star
Turned black
Or was it a ray of the sun?

O the chimneys!
Paths of freedom for the dust of Jeremiah and Job –
Who dreamed you up and built stone upon stone
The path of smoke for their flight?
O dwellings of death
Set out so enticingly
For the host of the house, who used to be the guest – 

 O you fingers
Laying the stone of the threshold
Like a knife between life and death –
O you chimneys
O you fingers
And Israel’s body dissolves in smoke through the air!

Nelly Sachs by Helga Tiemann, 1968


where children die
the quietest things become homeless.
Sunsets wrapped in a mantle of pain
where the dark soul of the blackbird
laments the approach of the night –
soft winds wafting
over trembling grasses
dousing the ruins of light
and sowing death – 

where children die
the firefaces of the night
burn up in their lonely secret –
and who knows of the signposts
death sends out:
scent of the tree of life,
cockcrow shortening the day
magic clock bewitched into the nurseries
by the grey horror of autumn –
waters rippling on the shores of dark
the rushing, tugging sleep of time – 

where children die
the mirrors of their doll’s houses
are hung with a breath,
seeing no more the dance of the
finger puppets
dressed in satin of children’s blood;
a dance that stands still
like a far-off moonworld
in a telescope 

where children die
stone and star
and so many dreams become homeless.

Translation by Catherine @Beauty for Ashes

Bewitched indeed!
Bewildered as well.

Poetry appreciation doesn't come naturally to me.
It's a learned process.

I feel like she's writing way above my level to understand.
I feel her poems rather then understand them.

The Nobel Prize states

The fate of the Jewish people casts a dark shadow over the 20th century. It is also the basis for Nelly Sachs' literary works. She borrows subjects for her poetry from the Jewish beliefs and mysticism, but her authorship is also strongly coloured by Nazi persecution of the Jews, with the horrors of the death camps as its ultimate expression. Nelly Sachs' poetry combines echoes from the poetry of ancient religious texts with modernist language.

The Nelly Sachs website has a number of her poems in German and English which I used as a starting point. 

I also found a wonderful blog hosted by Catherine @Beauty for Ashes.
She is gradually translating Sach's poems into English and welcomes commentary and discussion about interpretation. 
Catherine kindly gave me permission to use four of her translations above.
Please take the time to visit her page (she has the original poem plus her translation on each post). 
It is truly an extraordinary thing she is doing to bring Sach's work to a wider audience.


  1. Anonymous21/10/16

    I have never heard of this Nobel Prize winner! Great review...
    I always find it difficult to review poetry. You've captured her essence! Bravo!

  2. Nice!
    I found it cool even if I'm a kid


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