"Proud Songsters" by Thomas Hardy

The thrushes sing as the sun is going,
And the finches whistle in ones and pairs,
And as it gets dark loud nightingales
                In bushes
Pipe, as they can when April wears,
        As if all Time were theirs.

These are brand-new birds of twelve-months' growing            Which a year ago, or less than twain,
No finches were, nor nightingales,
                Nor thrushes,
But only particles of grain,
        And earth, and air, and rain.

In 1926 Virginia Woolf visited the 86-year-old Thomas Hardy at his home in Dorchester, Dorset. He was, she wrote, "extremely affable and aware of his duties." What impressed her most was "his freedom, ease and vitality" (A Writer's Diary, edited by Leonard Woolf, 1953).

Those three words also fit the poems he was working on at the time, which showed undiminished powers of observation, reflection and metrical invention. And Hardy was prolific: by the time of his death in January 1928, he had written, rewritten or selected 105 poems for an eighth collection of his poetry. It was published the following October, with the title Winter Words

The work was drawn from five decades; "Proud Songsters" was placed near the head of the book, and it has remained one of Hardy's best known poems. A few years later, Gerald Finzi set the poem for tenor and piano, finding music that follows the progress of the words, from the matter-of-fact first stanza to the wonderstruck second.

There are many poems about spring, but this is one of my favorites: as quiet as an April morning, but pulsing with life, like spring itself.

Hardy at the Garrick Theatre, London for a production of Tess of the D'Ubervilles in December 1926 (Courtesy of The National Portrait Gallery)

A child's ecstasies remembered

       Certainly Adam in Paradise had not more sweet and curious apprehensions of the world than I. All appeared new, and strange at first, inexpressibly rare and delightful and beautiful. All things were spotless and pure and glorious.

The corn was orient and immortal wheat, which never should be reaped nor was ever sown. I thought it had stood from everlasting to everlasting. The green trees, when I saw them first, transported and ravished me; their sweetness and unusual beauty made my heart to leap, and almost mad with ecstasy--they were such strange and beautiful things.

O, what venerable creatures did the aged seem! Immortal Cherubims! And the young men glittering and sparkling Angels, and maids strange seraphic pieces of beauty! I knew not that they were born or should die; but all things abided eternally.

I knew not that there were sins or complaints or laws. I dreamed not of poverties, contentions or vice. All tears and quarrels were hidden from mine eyes. I saw all in the peace of Eden. Everything was at rest, free and immortal.

from Centuries of Meditations, 3.1-3, Thomas Traherne (1636-74)

Thomas Traherne was an English clergyman who published just one book during his short life; two more books of his appeared later in the 17th century. But Centuries of Meditations was not among them. Probably written soon after he graduated from Oxford in 1656, this incandescent work was neglected by the busy world for 200 years.

The manuscript for Centuries of Meditations was discovered in an outdoor bookstall in London in 1896 by W.T. Brooke, who thought it a work of Henry Vaughan. Only after the pages had passed through several hands did Bertram Dobell, a London bookseller and expert on 17th-century literature, recognize the style of writing as that of Traherne. He supervised the first edition of the work, which appeared in 1903; it has seldom, if ever, been out of print since.

Centuries of Meditations influenced writers and thinkers as diverse as Thomas Merton, crime writer Dorothy L. Sayers and British poet Elizabeth Jennings. Gerald Finzi (1901-56) set portions of the book to music, and C.S. Lewis has called it "almost the most beautiful book in English." 

The River Wye in Herefordshire, nearly where Traherne was born 1636

Illustration: Detail from Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing; Watercolor and graphite on paper by William Blake (c. 1786), courtesy of the Tate Britain, London.

Photo: Courtesy of Monkhall Cottages, Callow, Herefordshire.

"dust" by Nadja K├╝chenmeister

once the door is shut, even the dogs in their
kennels are hushed. air traffic ceases, no
mower, no ticking alarm clock, no intrusion. just

the curtain seam that drags along the floor. a shaft of light
that strikes my eye. a sense of fever. timber creaking softly.
just a wasp that bounces off the window. the sway of firs

outside, and in my room, where someone
lurks with blunted blade, motes are trembling. dust.
dust. i hear the wasp that is above me. a clatter of

plates from the kitchen, a clink of glasses, now cutlery:
who, if i cried out, would hear me, once the animal film
on channel three and all that talk are underway

and none of it addressed to me, trapped in boundless
afternoon light. dust. dust. am i the insect, weary beyond
measure, this is the bed my mother lay in as a child.

"staub" (dust)--Nadja Kuchenmeister
Translated by Hans-Christian Oeser and Gabriel Rosenstock

At first glance, Nadja Kuchenmeister's poems seem to follow a template used by many poets today: domestic scenes are described in close detail, implying emotions rather than expressing them directly. But, as her poems continue, the ear picks out intricate patterns of rhyme and assonance, creating a level of formal beauty unusual in verse now. Yet there's nothing self-conscious about them; her poems, however melodic, are rooted in the mundane scenes they spring from.  Roman Bucheli, arts editor for the leading Swiss newspaper, has called her "a virtuoso of the unspectacular."

Indeed, Kuchenmeister has been widely praised as a refreshing new voice in German-language poetry. Die Zeit named her second collection, Unter dem Wacholder (Under the Juniper Tree) one of the best books of 2014. When the collection won the Bremen Literature Prize, Mareike Bannasch described it as inspired by Rainer Maria Rilke, Tom Waits and the Bible.

In a 2014 segment on SWR2 Radio,  presenter Gabi Schlag said, "Her first book of poems, Alle Lichter (All Lights) [published in 2010], is a reflection of the angry Nadja Kuchenmeister: the undefeated person who asserts the right to create new meanings: her own value system. In Unter dem Wacholder, the melancholy, death-hungry poet is just as unconditional: hard and precise. Her ability to portray the process of remembrance in all its mystery and magic is unbroken." 

Two excellent and experienced translators, Hans-Christian Oeser and Gabriel Rosenstock, have published English and Gaelic versions of Kuchenmeister's work, which were issued by the Irish publisher Litriocht. To be fully appreciated, however, her poems must be heard in German (see the first link below).

Photograph of Nadja Kuchenmeister by Franziska Buddrus