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Sealed Intentions: More on Sebald’s Poetry

In The New Republic, Ruth Franklin writes an extended review of W.G. Sebald’s poetry as collected in Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems, 1964-2001 and translated by Iain Galbraith.  I highly recommend the piece.  Not only is it probably the most thorough review of the book, but Franklin is an extremely sensitive and thoughtful reader of Sebald.  Franklin has some reservations about Sebald’s poetry, which led me to reread Across the Land and the Water (which I have written about several times earlier).  “What happens when the context is obscure?” she asks, pointing out the exceptional range of esoteric and sometimes unknowable references that are scattered throughout the poems.  “Crucial passages remain opaque,” she worries.  “To track all the references is impossible.”  In the end, Franklin decides that “too often Sebald comes across essentially as an aggregator, who piles up links and references without probing them for meaning.  The connections drawn by the language and the imagery are meant to provide that meaning on their own. Sometimes they do; but not always.”

The truth is, I like the opaque, obscure poems the best.  By far.   Sebald signals very early on that obscurity is one of the directions his poetry will take, when he suggests a preference for the mysteries of a sealed letter over the answers that might be found by opening it up.  Here’s an untitled poem written in the mid-1960s:

The intention is sealed
of preserved signs.
Come through rain
the address has smudged.
Suppose the ‘return’
at the end of the letter!
Sometimes, held to the light,
it reads: ‘of the soul.’

Sebald often writes as if in a kind of shorthand, dashing down the thoughts that flash through his mind and the things that cross paths with his vision.  This Sebald seems truer to his core spirit.  In these poems, Sebald frees himself of the burden of having readers.  These highly compressed, allusive and illusive poems feel more intimate and immediate, pulling me as a reader into unexplained territory and abandoning me there.  One of my favorite poems in this collection is Day Return, about a round-trip train ride into London.  The first section of the poem describes a descent into the underbelly of the city, if not into Hell itself.  In the last few lines of this section Sebald presents us with a familiar litany of businesses that represent decay and death.  But then, after these more or less predictable lines, he then launches into a brief but wild improvisation, enumerating a bewildering sequence of images.

Pulling into the north-easterly
quarter of the metropolis
Gilderson’s Funeral Service
Merton’s Rubbish Disposal
the A1 Wastepaper Company
Stratford the forest of Arden
and the first colonists
on the platform at Maryland
heavenly Jerusalem
skyline of the City
brick-wall catacombs
Liverpool Street Station

Are these images of the Forest of Arden and the Maryland colonists suggested by billboards?  Are they the result of the narrator simply free associating or hallucinating?**   Regardless, the effect is liberating, exhilarating and I don’t find is essential to understand the mechanics of the sequence or the origins of the images.

** A gentle reader has pointed out to this American writer that Stratford and Maryland are, in fact, rail stations along the line that leads to Liverpool Station.  Hence there is a real-world basis to Sebald’s stream of imagery here.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Gregory Cusack #

    Hi Terry,

    Stratford (home to the Olympics this year) and Maryland are East End stops on the line into Liverpool Street. His Jerusalem is suggested by the glass ramparts of the business sector (‘the City’).

    Thomas Pynchon describes the same journey in the bravura opening sequence of Gravity’s Rainbow. I wonder was Sebald referencing this work when he wrote ‘Day Return’?


    July 23, 2012
    • Gregory, Thanks for the elucidations. I’m not sure what this knowledge does to my “thesis,” however it clearly proves the point that one person’s obscure reference is just another person’s underground station. Now I have to go look at Gravity’s Rainbow again.



      July 23, 2012
      • jmc #

        I doubt the reference is to Gravity’s Rainbow, though intertext is a wonderful, and wonderfully elusive, thing so who knows! Sebald would have done that journey into London from Norwich often enough: the main line passes through those stations, but of course he is free-associating Stratford with the other Stratford (upon Avon) and Shakespeare’s Forest of Arden, which appears elsewhere in his work as well (in German it is Der Ardennerwald, which of course also suggests the Ardennes in Belgium and WW1 battles, and I suppose the colonists are in turn suggested by the name Maryland. I don’t know if the funeral company and Merton’s are still there but A1 Wastepaper has a familiar ring to it… but the landscape has changed since they started on the Olympic site of course.
        Incidentally did you know Elfriede Jelinek translated Gravity’s Rainbow into German? Respekt, as they say.

        October 22, 2012
  2. I agree entirely, Terry; this is an inadequately literalistic interpretation of Sebald’s beautiful AND meaningful poems in “Across Land and Water”. I do not understand what this writer is doing reading poetry in the first place, if she wants explanations of every image and reference. She gives the ridiculous example of “The Waste Land” , as evidence of effective footnotes/explications, whereas it is a commonplace that Eliot’s notes were at least ironic, playing with us and deliberately cryptic; so, poor example!She is confused too: at points telling us is perhaps best that we don’t know the meaning of these seemingly disconnected images but then insisting explication is almost necessary! To me, poetry usually goes BEYOND the literal; it is ineffable,by its very nature, to quite a large extent(though perhaps not quite so much as music). Sebald plays with us, in a good and efffective way: we can try and ascertain the referents for all the allusions, but he is saying too that it may be a bit of a waste of time, especially if taken too far!But at the same time, if people bother trying(and this writer doesnt try very hard) the links between the strands and references in Seblad, as we know, are usually intended, well thought out and part of the vast maze of connexions and allusions he creates. I have not read anything as naive and ill-informed about Sebald and what he is doing in his writing as this-ever!”Aggregations”{of references!}- well, what if they are,or S. just being playful; the same could be said of Whitman’s famous lists.

    The last straw was the assault on the translator, Galbraith, whose translations, I personally felt,very nearly succeeded in making these stand-alone(ie in English) poetic works themselves. As you see, I am quite annoyed!!

    By the way, have you read “L’Emploi du Temps”(“Passing Time”, Butor), to which “Mancunian Canticle” is largely referenced?; it obviously heavily and beautifully influenced Sebald(S. was never shy of admitting his re-envisionnings of his influences). Here is my post on it!/groups/190745591055117/doc/202391329890543/
    Steve Benson(“Decayetude”)

    July 23, 2012
    • Steve, Thanks for the comment. I happen to be a huge fan of Butor and have written about Emploi du Temps on this blog in years past.



      July 23, 2012
  3. Scott #

    Franklin’s review doesn’t seem fair either to Sebald’s poems or to Galbraith’s translation and critical apparatus.

    Should Sebald be criticized if, as Franklin claims, these poems are not up to the standards of his published prose? As Gailbraith points out in his introduction, many of these poems were ultimately not intended by Sebald for publication. Had he had the opportunity to some day change his mind, would he have published them in their present form? Was Sebald’s “literary enterprise” in these short poems and in his longer prose works one and the same? Would one, for example, who was striving for “narrative momentum” even write poems of only a few lines? Can one be sure Sebald is an “aggregator” of unconsidered references if one hasn’t oneself probed them for all the hidden meanings they might contain? One might be forgiven for wondering how carefully Franklin has read even the surface of the poems when she mistakes the female guide who showed Sebald around Berlin Mitte in “Calm November weather” for a traveling companion he supposedly had….

    I find Gailbraith’s translations very good indeed, and his critical apparatus–and the research that obviously went into it–is to be applauded. He has struck a delicate balance between explaining too much and too little, and, in so doing, in my opinion, he has enhanced the pleasure of reading the poems while (and by) informing us. I suspect that this was far more difficult than he makes it look. Chapeau!


    July 26, 2012
    • Here, here, Scott; she just did not get it. Steve

      July 26, 2012

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