Only truthful hands write true poems. I cannot see any basic difference between a handshake and a poem. – Paul Celan
I’m reading David Bellos’s book Is that a fish in your ear: The amazing adventure of translation in which he writes (on page 27) about Christian Morgenstern’s German sight-poem “The Fish’s Lullaby”.
This intrigued me – I’d never heard the term “sight-poem” before. So what’s this all about? For starters, here’s the poem.
Morgenstern was a German poet (1871-1914) who seems to have written humorous poetry that took aim at mainstream thinking including scholasticism and literary criticism.
The sight-poem seems pretty obvious when you look at it – the title is an important part of appreciating it. It sets an expectation which you bring to your viewing of the marks that follow.
This genre is not, unsurprisingly, a mainstream one. I couldn’t find any papers that talked about “sight-poems” – although I only did a very quick search. This thread has a few mini-essays on the poem and people’s views. These range from thoughts that it’s a gimmick to a radical commentary on what is normal. Maybe it’s something that makes you look from a different point of view.
Albert Waldinger in his 2009 paper “Propositions of wit and memory: ‘Englishing’ Christian Morgenstern (1871-1914) in the light of Paul Kussmaul’s /Kreatives Übersetzen(2000)” talks about the element of humour in Morgenstern’s work, quoting him as saying that its role was to “free man from the hollow and heavy earnestness of a materialistic present.” The “highest wisdom”, Morgenstern says, is the combination of humour and insight.
Over twenty years ago I wrote a poem – I don’t quite remember why. Perhaps it was a way to express what I felt at the time. I can’t remember the words but if I were to create a sight-poem it might look like the one that starts this post. It didn’t feel unnatural and it captures the feeling for me still. For anyone else, of course, it has to be interpreted – either they have to give it meaning or ask for a narrative.
But it does stand on its own as well – sparse marks that show you a story.