Fisches Nachtgesang

July 28, 2012 § Leave a comment


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– Christian Morgenstern

Christian Morgenstern’s “Fisches Nachtgesang” is a piscine paradox: a concrete poem rendered in abstract shapes, a sound poem with no discernable sounds, a foreign-language poem that needs no translation, a metrical poem consisting of nothing but metrics that many New Formalists will no doubt never identify as a metrical poem, or even a poem at all.

The title translates to “Fish’s Nightsong”. The poem consists of alternating lines of macrons and breves, the marks of scansion in Latin and Greek poetry, reimagined as both the shimmering scales of a sleeping fish and musical notations. How wonderful to turn something consigned to the paper oceans of Classics scholars into a watermark of whimsy. The scansion marks split the poem into one of sound and one of shape.

A song at night might be a lullaby. If the macrons go thump in the night, and the breves consign a consonantal thm to their repertoire, then we get this percussive berceuse: thump-thm-thm-thump-thump-thm-thm-thm-thm-thump-thump-thump-thm-thm-thm-thm and so on. Crescendo, diminuendo, terraced dynamics. It is the fish’s heart beating, an ambient underwater soundscape, a song hummed through puckered lips, and ultimately, with no words to anchor the symbols, no sound at all. The scansion symbols are variable; one can assign any sound or instrument to them and all that remains constant is the pattern of stress they impart. Morgenstern indicates no actual sound, and the stress marks wait for a reader to come along and give them meaning. It is similar to looking at a real fish below real water and not being able to hear the swish and bubble of its aquatic world from one’s stance on shore. The sound exists beyond the water and must be imagined.

Likewise, the shape of the fish remains just out of view. The macrons and breves cluster in a vaguely fish-shaped form. They show a fish in abstract with all its details lost in the murk. The breves look like fish scales of a child’s drawing and the macrons might be crude renderings of horizontal fins, but lines are not connected to form a solid figure. Again, the reader must fill in the blanks himself.

Morgenstern wrote “Fisches Nachtgesang” in 1905 at the beginning of a century that would upheave the definitions of literature and art. Some critics may dismiss his poem as a textual trick, nice enough, but not poetry. But consider the use of the macrons and breves. These symbols, particular to the study of prosody, root the poem in the tradition of Latin and Greek poetry from which all other literature in the Western canon blooms; and Morgenstern, confronting the enormity of the canon behind him, baits the future with a little fish dreaming its silent song, the tune yet to be invented.

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