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Yvan Goll was a French-German poet who was bilingual and wrote in both French and German. He had close ties to both German expressionism and to French surrealism.
Goll was born at Saint-Dié-des-Vosges. His father was a cloth merchant from a Jewish family from Rappoltsweiler in Alsace. After his father's death when he was six years old, his mother joined relatives in Metz, then a major town of Lorraine in the 1871 German Empire (after 1918 the area was claimed by France). In this predominantly Lorraine/French-speaking western part of Alsace-Lorraine, high school education inevitably involved German. Later he went to Strasbourg and studied law at the university there, as well as in Freiburg and Munich, where he graduated in 1912. In 1913, Goll participated in the expressionist movement in Berlin. His first published poem of note, Der Panamakanal (The Panama Canal), contrasts a tragic view of human civilization destroying nature, with an optimistic ending which evokes human brotherhood and the heroic construction of the canal. However, a later version of the poem from 1918 ends more pessimistically. At the outbreak of World War I he escaped to Switzerland to avoid conscription, and became friends with the dadaists of Zurich's Cabaret Voltaire, in particular Hans Arp, but also Tristan Tzara and Francis Picabia. He wrote many war poems, the most famous being 1916's "Requiem for the Dead of Europe", as well as several plays, including The Immortal One (1918).
It was in 1917, while in Switzerland that Goll met German writer and journalist Claira Aischmann and in 1919 they settled in Paris, marrying in 1921. In his essays, such as Die drei guten Geister Frankreichs (The Three Good Spirits of France), Goll promoted a better understanding between the peoples of France and Germany, even though he was personally more attracted to France by the greater liveliness of the artistic scene there. It was in Paris that his Expressionist style began to develop towards Surrealism, as witnessed in drama and film scenarios he wrote there, such as Die Chapliniade (The Chaplinade) and Mathusalem (Methusalem). These works blend fantasy, reality, and the absurd, continuing and extending the Expressionist program of arousing audience response by means of shock effects. They also reveal the autobiographical nature of much of Goll’s writing, but also his tendency to appear in the guise of a persona rather than in the first person.
While in Paris he also worked as a translator into German (Blaise Cendrars and Ulysses, among others) and into French, adapting Georg Kaiser's Fire at the Opera (Der Brand im Opernhaus, 1919) for Théâtre de l'Œuvre. He formed many friendships with artists and his collection The New Orpheus was illustrated by Georg Grosz, Robert Delaunay and Fernand Léger. Marc Chagall illustrated a collection of love poems by both Golls, and Pablo Picasso illustrated Yvan's Élégie d'Ihpetonga suivi des masques de cendre (1949; "Elegy of Ihpetonga and Masks of Ashes"). Goll also published anthologies of other French and German poets, as well as translations. In 1924 he founded the magazine Surrealism and quarreled with André Breton and friends. In 1927, he wrote the libretto for a surrealist opera, Royal Palace, set to music by composer Kurt Weill. He also wrote the scenario for Der Neue Orpheus, a cantata set by Weill, and the opera Mélusine, set by Marcel Mihalovici in 1920 and again, this time in German, by Aribert Reimann in 1971.
As Nazi persecution grew in Germany during the 1930s, the theme of the wandering Jew became central to Goll's poetry. In 1936, he published an epic poem entitled La chanson de Jean Sans Terre (the song of homeless John), with illustrations contributed by Marc Chagall. Jean Sans Terre was likely a play on the name of Jean Sans Peur, the medieval Burgundian who missed out on an inheritance because he was the youngest son of Henry II of England. The central figure, who wanders the earth in 69 smaller poems, belongs everywhere and nowhere. He looks for love and identity and yet the absence of these things also acts as a kind of freedom. From 1939–1947 the Golls were exiles in New York, where friends included Richard Wright, Stefan Zweig, Henry Miller, Kenneth Patchen, Piet Mondrian, and William Carlos Williams who translated some of Yvan's poems. Between 1943 and 1946, Goll edited the French-American poetry magazine Hémispheres with works by Saint-John Perse, Césaire, Breton ... and young American poets.
In 1945, the year he was diagnosed with leukemia, he wrote Atom Elegy and other death-haunted poems collected in the English language volume Fruit From Saturn (1946). This poetic language of this final phase in Goll's work is rich in chthonic forces and imagery, the disintegration of matter - inspired by the atomic bomb - alchemy, and the Kabbalah, which Goll was reading at the time. Love Poems, written with his wife Claire, appeared in 1947. These poems, written in a pure and lucid style, speak of the poets’ love and their need of each other, but also of jealousy, fear of betrayal, and a clash of temperaments. Goll's final works were written in German rather than French, and were collected by the poet under the title Traumkraut (a neologism - meaning something like 'Dream Weed'). Here, in his poetic testament, Goll mastered the synthesis of Expressionism and Surrealism that his work had hinted at most of his life; it was for this reason that he asked his wife to destroy all his previous work. These were eventually edited and brought to publishing by Claire. Goll died aged 58, at Neuilly-sur-Seine, and was buried at Père Lachaise Cemetery opposite the grave of Frédéric Chopin.
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