The stuff of dreams: Important 20th century poet discovered in new book
As the poet Yvan Goll lay in a hospital in Paris dying of leukemia, a continuous line of some of the most celebrated artists and writers of the first half of the 20th century formed to donate blood to keep Goll alive while he struggled to finish his final volume of poems Dreamweed. With the blood of poets and painters coursing through his veins, he completed his masterwork and quickly died.
Such stories are the stuff of legends. His Dreamweed book would later be published posthumously in Germany under the title of Traumkraut. But it was never translated into English. That is until now, and it is Jackson County author/translator Nan Watkins who has given us a brilliant translation of Goll’s last poems.
As someone who by all rights should have been and should now be a household name in the U.K. and the U.S., Yvan Goll was born in 1891 in Alsace-Lorraine. A central figure in the German world of Dada and Expressionism alongside Hans Arp in the early 20th century, Goll subsequently joined forces with Breton, Apollinaire and Eulard as a founder of the French Surrealist movement.
Goll’s manifesto on surrealism predated that of Breton — an important literary fact that is little known. He later founded his own press, Rhein Verlag, and published books of poetry illustrated by such artists as Picasso, Leger, Dali, Braque, Chagall and Tanguy. An early friend of James Joyce, Goll published Ulysses in German for the first time.
As well as being a pre-eminent poet and translator, Goll was a playwright of enormous influence. His plays, such as “Methusalem” (1922), were the foundation upon which Ionesco built his “Theatre of the Absurd” and was the launch pad for Artaud’s “Theatre of Cruelty.” Goll is generally considered to be the connecting link between Jarry and Ionesco.
He is best known as a poet for his collections Traumkraut (Dream Grass) and Le Chanson de Jean Sans Terre (Landless John), published in New York in 1958 in translations by numerous American poets, including W.S. Merwin, Kenneth Rexroth, William Carlos Williams, Kenneth Patchen and Galway Kinnell. His Manifesto of Realism, in which he called for “a poetry of mystical realism,” appeared in 1948.
The author of some 50 books of poetry, plays, fiction and essays, Goll emigrated to New York City in 1939 at the time of the Nazi invasion of France during World War II, living at the center of the city’s artistic life along with fellow émigrés Marc and Bella Chagall. In New York he became the celebrated editor of Hemispheres magazine through which he published the work of French and American poets — including Kenneth Rexroth, André Breton and Philip Lamantia — and several volumes of both his and his wife Claire’s poetry in English and French. During these years, he befriended William Carlos Williams, James Laughlin of New Directions, and Kenneth and Miriam Patchen, among others, and spent several summers at the MacDowell Colony. After the war, Yvan contracted leukemia and he and Claire returned to France, where he spent his last days and where he wrote his opus Truamkraut and where, upon finishing the text for the book that would ultimately secure his reputation as a poet in both Germany and France, Goll died in 1950.
The entry in the Who’s Who in Twentieth Century Literature says he died “with a French heart, a German spirit, a Jewish blood and an American passport.”
Recognized in Europe as one of the greatest bilingual writers of the 20th century, Goll is relatively unknown in the U.S. The principal reason for his lack of fame in this country is that very little of his work has been translated into English, and those translations have been in small-run limited editions. Among these are Selected Poems published by kayak magazine and distributed by City Lights Books in 1968; Lackawanna Elegy, translated by Galway Kinnell and published by Sumac Press in 1970; and Selected Poems published by Mundus Artium Press in 1981. But his major works such as Dreamweed and 10,000 Dawns were never seen in this country until now in Watkin’s translations.
In Dreamweed, comprised of death-defying poems and love poems, we are witness to a creative genius as he contemplates the nature of his own mortality and comes to grips with the deepest sense of his own spirituality. In their surreal images, these poems not only defy gravity but take us to realms only visited in dreams. In his exaggerated metaphors, we can feel his anguish and yet his elation regarding what he has experienced in his life, as well as what awaits him in the “life beyond.” In his poem “Snow Masks” Goll writes:
Overnight the snow
Made my death mask.
White was the snow’s laughter
And it turned my shadow
into a carnival costume.
Suddenly a storm of golden triangles
Raised the ringing city
Off all its hinges.
In thousand-year-old light
The towers of time
Were set free from their anchors.
Overnight the snow
Made my dream face come true.
In her introduction to Dreamweed, Nan Watkins writes: “In these Dreamweed poems, death becomes Yvan Goll’s familiar, and love is his salvation in a winter world of pain. The snow creates a death mask for him. Yet he continues to seek and question. Ultimately, it is love that sustains him as his earthly body crumbles to dust and his spirit rises from the confines of his hospital bed to soar freely among the stars in the vastness of eternal night.”
Finally, it is Madison County, North Carolina’s own Keith Flynn (Editor/Publisher of the Asheville Poetry Review) who has the last word on Yvan Goll in his quote on the back cover of the book. “A man face to face with death has nothing to hide. In these magnificent and stirring last poems, the great Yvan Goll is recording nothing less than the disintegration of the European soul, using the intellectual resources of a highly influential and cosmopolitan imagination. One of the finest and most revered poets of the 20th Century, Goll receives the tender treatment he deserves in these remarkably vivid and masterful translations.” I certainly couldn’t have said it any better. And, AMEN!