Coffee House Literature at CCAE

Das Ist Gut! Coffee House Literature at CCAE

By Paul Sayed

Francesca Ferraris CCAE German InstructorGuten Morgen!” On the top floor of the historic Blacksmith House, students entered a cozy classroom to meet their instructor Francesca Ferraris. For the past several Thursday mornings, these students have been meeting for their High Intermediate German class. As the students arrived, it almost seemed as if the Cambridge classroom transported to a lively meeting space in a German city. The students greeted each other and chatted about current events in German.  On this day, the classroom transformed into a Viennese coffee house or Wiener Kaffeehaus as each student prepared to recite poetry that they had written in German.

Last November, Francesca Ferraris attended the Annual Convention and World Expo of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTLF). There she met with the Austrian consulate and asked for a book on the Kaffeehaus. In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, the culture surrounding coffee houses in Vienna attracted several writers such as Peter Altenberg, Karl Kraus, Stefan Zweig, and Arthur Schnitzler. The works written there are now known as coffee house literature or Kaffeehaus Literatur. Taking inspiration from the book and literary movement, the class read “Das Kaffeehaus” by Peter Altenberg, and Francesca assigned her students to write poetry in German.

Kaffeehaus Literatur at CCAEFor the assignment, the students were instructed to take inspiration from a place. As the students drafted their compositions, Francesca helped them edit for clarity. Each student wrote poetry inspired by places ranging from Mount Auburn Cemetery to Emily Dickinson’s room to the Swiss Alps. The students in the High Intermediate German class comprised of a diverse group of adults. Some were retired attorneys while others were artists. None of them were poets before taking this class.  With their knowledge of the German language, the students were able to produce some successful poetry full of vivid imagery, symbolism, and wit.

A particularly powerful image came from Anne-Grete’s “Das Meer.” Written about the sea the piece concluded with the lines “Das Meer kann getrennt werden, wie es Moses getan hat / und / Jesus ging darauf,” which roughly translates to “the sea can be parted like Moses did and walked across like Jesus .”  An example of German humor and wordplay came from retired attorney Aubrey’s piece “Ein Gedicht ist das nicht.” The poem ended with lines “Vielleicht mögen Sie mich jetzt nicht? / Dann schlagen Sie mir ins Gesicht / Und ich lade Sie vor Gericht.” In this piece, Aubrey maintained a strict rhyme scheme; “nicht,” “Gesicht,” and “Gericht.” These concluding lines translate to “if you don’t like my poem, then slap me in the face and I will take you to court!”

High Intermediate German Class at CCAE

There must be something in the Blacksmith House that inspires poetry. Back in 1840, the famous poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow came to this location to observe Dexter Pratt, the blacksmith who resided here. From this interaction, Longfellow wrote his highly regarded “The Village Blacksmith.” By writing new pieces in German, the students in the High Intermediate class carried on the poetic legacy of this small historic building on Brattle Street.


Top and Bottom photos by Skip Schiel

Middle photo by Cynthia Pesantez

edited by Nick Malakhow