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Rainer Gerhardt:
A Note

I felt very close to this man—selfishly, because he gave me knowledge of a world I had otherwise no means of knowing. We were of the same age, but the life he had been given was far from that I knew. When he spoke of growing up in the Hitler Jugend , of the final chaos of his feelings and senses of possibility after he had been drafted into the army—of his desertion, then, to Tito's forces in Yugoslavia—finally, of all the world of chaos after the war, of his marriage and his two young sons who had to go daily through streets of collapsed buildings often with bushes pushing through the rubble—of the hope of a magazine, then small books, of what Ernst Robert Curtius characterized as the most hopeful sign to come out of postwar Germany , the first issue of Fragmente —when one witnessed the complexity of his life and all that it had been forced to acknowledge, there was no easy way to resolve all that he did, in his own person, force one to see.

I most clearly remember him, not tall, somewhat stocky, dark haired, his skin a little heavy with all the starches that made up the common diet—or more clearly, the curious concentration, persistent, often enthusiastic, but never a whim only or a momentary excitement. He took such care with things—of myself, when I came to see him with a friend, Ashley Bryan. We found them living in Freiburg in one room, Rainer, his wife, and the two children. They gave us their beds and slept on the floor. I had a pair of old, scuffed combat boots I was wearing, and found them the next morning

Work , Winter 1965–66.


polished to a high shine, by Rainer's wife. Then Rainer came back with myself and Ashley, by way of Paris, to Aix-en-Provence, close to which we lived in a small town called Fontrousse. He stayed with us there a week, and it was his hope that he and his family might immigrate to France. They never managed it. I remember the day before he was to leave, I had come down, it was morning, and he was standing looking out through a window in the door, at the long side of Mt. Sainte Victoire, that faced our house across the fields. He was crying without sound, one could see the tears on his face.

He spoke to me of what he felt to be the community, the complex of people any city or town describes. He felt that a writer was not distinct from such a unity, but rather helped very literally in its definition. In contrast, he felt an isolation in Americans which bewildered him.

What he hoped to do was so much, and is most simply illustrated by a partial list of the contents of the first two issues of Fragmente —all that he was able to publish before his death: Pound, Bunting, Michaux, Césaire, Olson, W. C. Williams, Montanari, Perse, Artaud, Alberti, Lu Chi. He wanted to bring back into the German context all that writing he felt the war had blocked, and at the same time he could not accept such makeshift 'official' translations as would leave out eleven lines of The Waste Land on the grounds 'they were too difficult.' He wanted it right with such an unremitting intensity.

The last year of his life I had too little sense of, involved as we then were with our immediate living. I realized that money continued a large problem, and his ability to get some income from radio scripts and like work had been affected by his increasing depression. They had lost the room they had been living in, and for a time depended on a tent. Another passing friend told me of having been in Germany, and of meeting Renate, Rainer's wife, standing out on the road hitchhiking in a heavy rain to the city where she hoped to sell some of Rainer's scripts. She told him that Rainer now went for long periods all but incapable of speaking, and that he would sit by himself in the park, where she would then go to sit by him, for what moments he could speak, or work, trying to continue with all that he had undertaken.

To speak of his poems is for me most difficult, because I could not read them simply in German, and, beyond that, had only a partial sense (very much so then) of what specific difficulties and possibilities German poetry had as context. He said once, the idyll is our weakness . Trakl was close to his own terms of imagination. Benn's


technical facility he respected, and he found, also, accuracy in the deep irony with which Benn characterized the world. But I was certainly aware that in his last book, Umkreisung (1952), all the care he had given to his translations of men as Pound, and Olson, and Williams, was beginning to find root in his own work. He seems to have read the necessity very deeply.

I felt such a bitter waste, at the news of his death. I feel it still, simply that he was so much the cost of his own time and place—and so incredibly brave in his confrontation of that fact in himself. There was no way to move in any easy sense beyond the past, and there never will be.

January 20, 1964


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Rainer Gerhardt: A Note
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