Nelly Sachs. Ever hear of her? Nobel poet finds new recognition.


Ever hear of Nelly Sachs? I hadn’t, either.

Sachs is one of the more neglected Nobel prizewinners (she was awarded in 1966), so I was glad for the opportunity to familiarize myself with her life and work at an event last week in the Stanford Libraries’ elegant Bender Room.  That, and a few new books (including the collection at left, published last year by Green Integer), should spur at least a small revival of her name. But perhaps, as is so often the case, the revival is already underway and I am confusing cause with effect.

The Berlin-born Jewish poet (1891-1970) fled with her mother after the Nazis took power, and sought refuge in Sweden, with the help of her friend (and eventually fellow Nobelist) Selma Lagerlöf.  Always of fragile health, her life was marked by breakdown, paranoia, hallucinations.  Her name as a poet pretty much began at 50, with her emigration. She supported herself and her mother with her translations.

Her biographer

The Bender Room event with champagne celebrated the publication of Aris Fioretos‘s Nelly Sachs, Flight and Metamorphosis: An Illustrated Biography. The Swedish writer Fioretos described Nelly Sachs, in the postwar years, looking up at the crossing vapor trails in the sky and seeing first scissors, then a swastika; she was sure the airplanes were spying on her.  He suggested a bit of aural wordplay – “Sachs,” or “sax,” is Swedish for scissors.  She continued to write even while in a mental institution.

Axel Englund of Stockholm University said she revered Friedrich Hölderlin. He quoted her line “our bodies still sound with their mutilated music” – presaging  Adam Zagajewskis “Let Us Praise the Mutilated World,” no?

Someone read these lines of hers:

We stars, we stars
We wandering, glistening, singing dust –
Earth, our sister, has gone blind
Among the constellations of heaven –

He read excerpts from the letters.

The actor/director Andrew Utter, founder of L.A.’s Uranium Madhouse Theater read from her letters.  After his reading, he kindly gave me the xeroxed pages he had read. But several days later he faxed me this one, somehow overlooked in the handful he had given me.  On the page was this 1958 letter to her “Dear poet and dear person Paul Celan“:

For me it is joy enough to have a few friends, but you understand me, dear poet – I still wanted something else. I still have to accustom myself to joy, too, after so much suffering, and when the Swedish poets awarded me their newly endowed poetry prize, I couldn’t take anything in and became quite confused, that I, a foreign-language refugee, should be given so much honor.

There is and was in me, and it’s there with every breath I draw, the belief in transcendence through suffusion with pain, in the inspiritment of dust, as a vocation to which we are called. I believe in an invisible universe in which we mark out our dark accomplishment. …”

There the fading text on the faxed page disappeared in to the following, unsent page. I wonder what the rest of the letter said.

Celan replied to her of course, with his own poem, “Zürich, Zum Storchen” [Zurich, at the Stork Inn]. Here is a bit of it, in John Felstiner‘s translation:

Our talk was of your God, I spoke
against him, I let the heart
I had
his highest, death-rattled, his
wrangling word –

Your eye looked at me, looked away,
your mouth
spoke toward the eye, I heard:

really don’t know, you know,
really don’t know

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9 Responses to “Nelly Sachs. Ever hear of her? Nobel poet finds new recognition.”

  1. David Sanders Says:

    Thanks for sending me back to her. . .

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Wise David. You know everyone.

  3. Catherine Sommer Says:


    You may be interested to learn that I have just posted translations into English of 50-odd poems by Nelly Sachs on my blog. I translated most of these in the 1990’s, and tried to get them published but no one was interested. The British Literary Translation Association commended a selection of them in their 1998 literary translation competition, so that has given me confidence – as I recently discovered them on my computer – to publish them myself, on my blog at


  4. Tim Buck Says:

    Today, I’ve been discovering the poems of Nelly Sachs. And reading about her life on various webpages. The poetry touches me with its thematic concerns and impresses me with its aesthetic qualities.

    I read a number of Ms. Sommer’s translations on her blog and bookmarked that page for further, deeper reading.

    Thank you for this page by Cynthia Haven.

  5. souvenir pernikahan Says:

  6. souvenir pernikahan Says:

    this is great post.. i’ve been waiting for this information

  7. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Thank you, Tim! And apologies for the delayed posting. Your comment was buried in a spam folder.

  8. Catherine Sommer Says:

    Thank you to those who have visited my page of translations – I hope they have helped towards an appreciation of her genius.

  9. Thomas Zieringer Says:

    In Germany i build a whole memorial site – 3200 square meter – showing a new approach of acknowledging the past for my country. Its built in the philosophy of Nelly Sachs. Its all built with private money on the own property. It became a place with much, much light. That is disturbing for some people here. Intrigues led to the decision of a local authority, to demolish the memorial stone, which roots the project with the inscription “Where dust alters into light” – from a poem of Nelly Sachs. Please help us to save our memorial in Germany. Here you find all the information:

    Please give this message to other people, who understand the work of Nelly Sachs.
    Best regards, Thomas Zieringer