Gottfried Benn (1886–1956) earned his medical degree in 1910 and began publishing poems two years later. The leading poet of German expressionism, and the author of brilliant essays and dialogues, he spent both world wars as an officer attached to the German Medical Corps. Benn lived and practiced in Berlin, was married three times, and won the Georg Büchner Prize in 1951.
Michael Hofmann (translator)
Michael Hofmann has published four books of poetry and has translated more than sixty books from the German. In 2012 he won the Thornton Wilder Prize in Translation. He currently teaches poetry and translation at the University of Florida.
The first poem in Gottfried Benn’s first book, Morgue (1912)—written in an hour, published in a week, and notorious ever after—with its scandalous closing image of an aster sewn into a corpse by a playful medical student, set Benn on the path to celebrity and notoriety. And indeed, mortality, flowers, and powerful aesthetic collisions typify much of his subsequent work.
Over the decades, as Benn suffered the vicissitudes of fate (the death of his mother from cancer; the death of his first wife, Edith; his brief attempt to ingratiate himself with the Nazis, followed by their persecution of him; the suicide of his second wife, Herta), the harsh voice of the poems relented and mellowed. His later poetry—from which Impromptus is chiefly drawn, many of the poems translated into English for the first time—is deeply affecting: it reflects the routines and sorrows and meditations of an intelligent, pessimistic, and experienced man. Written in the low, unupholstered monologue of the poet talking to himself, these works are slender ribbons of speech on the naked edge of song and silence.
With this collection of poems and essays—edited and translated by the award-winning poet Michael Hofmann—Benn, at long last, promises to attain the presence and importance in the English-speaking world that he so richly deserves.
"Who was Gottfried Benn? An inspired dermatologist, one of the most amazing twentieth-century poets, Germany's foremost modernist who had his moments of flirtation with evil but emerged from it early, a victorious artist, a complicated human being. Michael Hofmann's translations promise us new shivers, new discoveries."
"The exactitude of imagination that characterizes Michael Hofmann's own poetry enables him to give us this wonderful gift, a translation of Gottfried Benn's spare, unnornamented, undeluded poems: close to the bone, suspicious of metaphor or other embellishment, truth-telling and giving pleasure as they tell their truths. These are the poems of a great poet, and Hofmann knows how that's so, and his translations let us know. Hofmann's own standards of truth-telling exactitude, and Benn's, are exempliified and celebrated here."
Farrar, Straus and Giroux