from Impromptus: Selected Poems and Some Prose, Gottfried Benn, translated and edited by Michael Hofmann
Though Gottfried Benn can scarcely be said to exist in the English-speaking world, there are a surprising number of prominent mentions of him. T. S. Eliot, for instance, in his essay "The Three Voices of Poetry" goes so far as to associate one such voice—the first, "the voice of the poet talking to himself—or to nobody"—with Benn. John Berryman allows him the end of one Dream Song, no. 53: "and Gottfried Benn / said: —We are using our own skins for wallpaper and we cannot win." In his novel Plexus Henry Miller is careful to leave the 1927 issue of Eugene Jolas's avant-garde magazine, transitions, lying around, and quotes in extenso from Benn's essay in it. Frank O'Hara has a tilt at him in one of his invariably disastrous and perplexing diatribes, when he seems to have his ill-fitting Hector the Lecturer suit on: "Poetry is not instruments / that work at times / then walk out on you / laugh at you old / get drunk on you young / poetry's part of your self" ("To Gottfried Benn").
With all these appearances, you would have thought Benn had to have some being somewhere. But it's more like that space radiation called "chatter"; there's something that leads our instruments to think there's something "out there"; we might even give it a name, but most of us remain doubtful, and few of us expect ever to see it. I don't think you could fill a room with a conversation about Benn—non-Germans and non-Germanists, that is. And yet we're talking of someone of the eminence of, say, Wallace Stevens, someone most Germans (and most German poets too) would concede as the greatest German poet since Rilke.
Basically, Benn has appeared once in English, namely in E. B. Ashton's edited collection of Benn's selected writings, Primal Vision, first published in 1958, and still in print with New Directions. The trouble with Ashton's book—and in this it perhaps betrays its origins in the postwar decade—is that it is not primarily interested in Benn the poet, but the man of ideas, the German, and the "phenotype." One has to wonder at the judgment and effectiveness (not to mention the long monopoly) of a book introducing a foreign poet to an English readership that is three parts prose, and where the translations of the poems (one-eighth of the whole) are starchy, cumbrous, and muted. They have neither the attack nor the ease of Benn in German—to me he is both the hardest and the softest poet who ever lived. Thus unsuccessfully transmitted, Benn has no English admirers; unlike Brecht, he's not even unpopular. It's only stray foreign readers like Joseph Brodsky or Adam Zagajewski, who read him in a third or fourth language, or in the original, who have anything like a true or a full sense of Benn.
Benn called his autobiography Doppelleben, but for once (see "Bauxite," see "Fragments 1955," see "Summa Summarum") he perhaps wasn't interested in counting, because I can see more like four of him: the military man, the doctor, the poet, and the ladies' man. With their different rhythms and urgencies and tolerances, these four identities—four suits of cards, two black, two red, two professional alibis, two passions, two kinds of truancy and two kinds of work—shaped and complicated his life. He ran from woman to woman, but also from woman to poem, from poem to uniform, from uniform to lab coat, and back again, and with all the possible variations. Style trumps facts, he said, and good stage management trumps fidelity. But within the constraints of his circumstances and especially his tightly drawn financial limits (very rarely in his life did he have money), he was at pains to be a gentleman (it's not a word one hears often nowadays, but it's a concept he certainly understood and tried to live by) and to lead an upright life: that is, one informed by distance and warmth and good presentation. Accordingly, the most important and longest-lasting relationship of his life was conducted largely by mail over twenty-four years with the Bremen businessman F. W. Oelze. Benn aspired—or resigned himself—to be at once an earl and a pariah. He was a brilliant and internationally acclaimed writer of poetry and prose who never came close to being able to live by it; a notably unenthusiastic doctor who nevertheless helped his "Schmutzfinke von Patienten" (his "squalid patients") as much as he could; an amorous and courtly man and an inveterate buyer of flowers for his wives and mistresses and casual liaisons; by his left eye he had the Mensur, the German dueling-scar, and twice—during the two world wars—he fell back into the army, where, ironically, he enjoyed the periods of greatest peace and productive contentment in his life.
Benn's first publication, in 1912—a small-press pamphlet called Morgue and Other Poems, one of the great debuts in literary history—catches him at a typical juncture: he had recently qualified as a medical doctor in Berlin; he was having an affair with the Jewish German poet and free spirit Else Lasker-Schüler; and he was—if the reader will allow the expression, it's still more accurate than any other I can think of—moonlighting with the army, which had paid for his education. When World War I broke out, Benn, like so many others, quickly got hitched (though not to Lasker-Schüler), conceived a daughter (Nele was born in September 1915), and joined up again. For three years he was behind the lines in Brussels as a "doctor in a whorehouse." It was one of those immensely suggestive, paradigmatic times in his life when he was at once becalmed, isolated, and productive; the nation was distracted and engorged, but Benn was reading and writing. He writes about that period with grateful rapture, almost as though he were a medieval monk left to illuminate manuscripts behind stone walls a yard thick. After the war, he tried to find the same seclusion as a skin doctor and venereologist in private practice in Berlin, but that quality of "béguinage" (his word: a religious seclusion) remained something best provided by the army. Accordingly, in 1935, he tried the same thing again: left Berlin, reenlisted, and, in 1938, remarried. In World War II, he fetched up at the fortress town of Landsberg an der Warthe (today the Polish town of Gorzow Wielkopolski), which he commemorated contemporaneously in the prose of "Block II, Room 66" ("Nothing so dreamy as barracks!"). There, underemployed by the army, as the senior medical man with the rank of colonel, while waiting for the German defeat he wrote poems, essays, and prose, among them many pieces that would certainly have cost him his liberty and most probably his life if they had been turned over to the SS.
A brief note on the vexed and controversial circumstances that restored him to the bosom of the army: Almost all his life, Benn had no expectations from governments (it's hard to imagine him voting, and impossible to guess which way); human existence was futile, progress a delusion, history a bloody mess, and the only stay against fatuity was art, was poetry. Writing should have no truck with any social or political aims. Anything less like the useful, obedient, and subsidized creature known as the "state poet" than Gottfried Benn is impossible to imagine. Then, in 1933 and 1934, Benn drifted into the Nazi orbit. For a brief while it looked to him as though his long-range ideas about the human species, his cultural pessimism, his Nietzschean and Spenglerian gloom, had somewhere to dock. He drafted a declaration of loyalty to the newly installed Nazi government that precipitated mass resignations from the Preußische Akademie der Künste, or Prussian Academy of Arts, to which he had only recently been elected; he addressed a sharp "reply to the literary émigrés" to (his adoring admirer) Klaus Mann; he gave a talk welcoming the Italian futurist (and Fascist) poet F. T. Marinetti to Berlin; he was briefly vice president of Hitler's Union Nationaler Schriftsteller, or Union of National Writers. Mutual disenchantment was not slow in coming; the relationship's fleeting appearance of compatibility shaded into, or gave way to, its natural level of implacable—and, for Benn, extremely threatening—mutual detestation. It dawned on Benn that the Nazis were not a bunch of pessimistic aesthetes like himself, but rather imbued with a sanguinary optimism; by the time of the Night of the Long Knives in June 1934, he was fully disabused. They, meanwhile, never forgave him for his early writings and his Jewish associations, got him struck off the medical register as a suspected Jew (Benn = Ben!), and banned him from writing altogether in 1938. They could hardly fail to find his work "degenerate," as they did that of his expressionist colleagues in the visual arts. At this point, Benn left Berlin and took refuge in the army, which in a typically stylish and abrasive phrase he described as "the aristocratic form of emigration." He wrote an analysis of suicides in the military. All this feels to me known, or partly known, understood or partly understood, in the English-speaking world. It remains an anomalous and troubling interval in his life, before, so to speak, normal disservice was resumed; to use it as grounds for not reading Benn—to play the "Fascist card"—is merely lazy and a little hysterical. Few of the modernists, after all, had the credentials of good democrats.
Most everything else in his life comes under the heading of "Herkunft, Lebenslauf—Unsinn!" ("background, CV—tosh!"), as he inimitably and contemptuously put it. Still, in the wake and a little in the manner of his contempt, here goes: father a clergyman, mother originally in service, from the French-speaking part of Switzerland. (In his dry, geneticist way, Benn makes as much of his mixed parentage as, say, Thomas Mann.) Born in one vicarage, grew up in another. The second of eight children, and the oldest son. Sent away to school at the age of ten. He studied religion at the behest of his father before being allowed to switch to literature and medicine. In 1914, he was a ship's doctor on a transatlantic steamship; he liked to claim he was so hard up he couldn't even afford to get off and tour New York. He was the doctor who, in 1916, officiated at the execution by a German firing squad of the British nurse Edith Cavell and her Belgian associate, who had been found guilty of treason for having helped Allied soldiers escape from German-occupied Belgium. The year 1922 saw the death of his mother from untreated breast cancer (see "Jena") and of his first wife, Edith Osterloh, from a botched appendectomy; the fact that he and Edith had lived separate lives didn't keep Benn from being deeply affected by her death. Incompetent or at least unambitious in most practical matters, he arranged to have their daughter Nele adopted by a Danish couple; toward the end of his life, he painstakingly rebuilt a relationship with her. In 1938, he married his second wife, Herta von Wedemeyer. Amid the confusion of the ending war, in July 1945, having been sent by Benn to the West for her own safety, Herta committed suicide, convinced she would fall into the hands of the Russians. Surely the poem "Death of Orpheus" owes something to her harrowing circumstances, and to Benn's grief and guilt. Following the defeat, occupation, and then partition of Germany, Benn returned to West Berlin, opened another medical practice, and married a third time: Ilse Kaul, a dentist. Because of his sometime pro-Nazi positions, he was not allowed to publish by the Allies: "undesirable then," he wrote, a little smugly, "undesirable again now." The Swiss publisher Arche brought out Static Poems in 1948, ushering in a great wave of Benn's late work. He was awarded the prestigious Georg Buchner Prize in 1951. In May 1956, his seventieth birthday was celebrated with the publication of a Collected Poems, beginning with the recently composed "Can Be No Sorrow." On July 7, 1956, at a time when the earth would indeed "yield easily to the spade," Gottfried Benn died in Berlin.
Benn's name is indissolubly connected to the German, or perhaps Nordic, movement of expressionism, like its direct contemporaries imagism and Dadaism a protomodern movement, but fiercer than the one and less theatrical than the other. Literary expressionism has almost as many meanings as it has practitioners, but in a general way (and certainly in Benn) it can be seen as a simultaneous boosting of both style and content. Expressionism is gaudy, neoprimitive, volatile, provocative, antirational. The brain is eclipsed by its older neighbors: the glands, the senses (including the oldest sense, the sense of smell). Expressionism is momentary, it doesn't count days or verify destinations. It might be the humdrum Baltic—shallowest and newest and saltiest of seas, sea beach to Berlin—but it feels like the Aegean, if not the South Pacific, in the poet's rhapsodic imagination. Expressionism hymns a simpler physis, the body under its own management. Down with the boardroom, away with the little pin-striped simpleton or puritan upstairs! Expressionism is an as-if, or an if-only: if only the body could write or paint or think! Or not think. Poems like "Express Train" or "Caryatid" or "Asters" are literary equivalents to the brash, paradisiac canvases of Emil Nolde or Ernst Ludwig Kirchner or Ferdinand Hodler.
Benn's very first poems were offcuts of materia medica: Morgue and Fleisch were among his titles, a prose book was called Gehirne (brains). As with a lot of expressionist writing, it was hard to see how it might develop, not least because it was already so fully and shockingly there: brash, confrontational, destructive, appalling. Benn wasn't sure either. In a splendidly saturnine note in his first collected works (the Gesammelte Schriften of 1922—he was thirty-five), he wrote: "Now these complete works, one volume, two hundred pages, thin stuff, one would be ashamed if one were still alive. No document worthy the name; I would be astonished if anyone were to read them; to me they are already very distant, I toss them behind me like Deucalion his stones; maybe human beings will emerge from the gargoyles; but whether they do or not, I shan't love them." I don't know that I have ever seen anything less self-enamored from a poet on his or her own work! In the event, something of what he so indifferently predicted did come to pass: "human beings" did emerge from the "gargoyles"—whether or not Benn loved them hardly matters. His later poems lost their ferocity, their shock, and their prankish, metallic manipulativeness; became softer, lived-in, improvised, gestured at, shuffling or shambling. They still had the same principal two ingredients: corpses (or mortality) and flowers; the same groping at one notion or another of a "beautiful youth." The "lavender aster" returns in the form of new flower complexes, as "drooping lilac . . . narcissus color, and smelling strongly of death," as poppies, phlox, gladioli, the "old and reliable ranunculi of Ostade," hydrangeas, and finally as forsythias and lilacs again, this time "with hope of roses." The beautiful or unbeautiful, loved or unloved cadavers have turned into Benn himself, anxiously remembering the ghosts of his salad days; or hoping to hold on, into June (of the year of his death—he died on July 7); or, in one of his last poems (the first one here, "Can Be No Sorrow"), thinking soberly and unflinchingly about the deaths of poets, put together from wood and tears and pain and spasm, the "sleep well" at once a close echo and a world away from the cynical "Rest easy" of "Little Aster."
During the 1920s and '30s, Benn found a way of parlaying his short, explosive free verse poems into lengthier, internal combustion pieces. His characteristic form became the tightly rhymed octave, often in very short two- or three-foot lines. The longings and strictures and surfeits articulated in these are often very beautiful and bizarre, but barely translatable, not even when there are equivalents—perhaps especially not when there are equivalents. Or what is the English, pray, for: "Banane, yes, Banane / vie méditerranée?" "Banana, yes, banana / Mediterranean life?" I don't think so. It is as though, having been done in one language (German?), it can never be done again, in any other! A blizzard of neologisms, incantatory and highly personal charm words, flower names, and technical terms; sociopathic hatred; a texture of fierce and luxurious depression. Benn pines for "Mediterranean," "Palau," "Night," "Cocaine," "Anesthesia." Life is "niederer Wahn," lower or lesser madness; in its place Benn calls for "thalassale Regression," for form, trance, elevation. It might seem Decadent, 1890s-style, only there is no pose about it, nothing effete. For all the Verlaine-like sonorities of the poems, there are ferocious energies at work within them. I am conscious that the poems of this period are underrepresented here. I'm afraid they were too difficult and idiosyncratic for me to carry them into English in any important way. I preferred to go, more or less directly, from the shocking early to the weary late: to those beerily misanthropic and magically beautiful mutterings of Benn's last two decades that have always particularly entranced me as a reader. Two world wars, two marriages, two bereavements, careers in the military and medicine, and forty years of writing have gone into their making. "Ausdruck und Stoffvernichtung," "expressiveness and destruction of subject matter" they are. They come with their own silence and space. Like the early poems, they are as they are, are as they want to be. The opposite of art, Benn always argued, is not actually nature but a concern to please.
Thus, the hardness of the early style—the "gargoyles" —is replaced by human tenderness, empathy, puzzlement, a kind of unfocused but unavoidable sadness. It is as though the poems themselves (and this strikes me as extremely rare in poetry, Eugenio Montale's late, retrobottega poems being a further instance) are old; have undergone an aging process, cellular and organic, like flesh. These later poems' resources—a mild, stoical plaintiveness, a burbling, flaccid syntax, an unsolicited melancholy, a heaping of negatives—are those of age; breathing and humming and carpet slippers and Juno cigarettes and murmuring and pain and a human smell have gone into them—not mere dime-a-dozen words. At bottom, life is unchanged in thousands of years: still solitude, still doubt, still want of recognition; poetry is always questioning and at odds with life; always "the insufferable / difficulties of outward-directed expression." You see the jowly man in front of his chaotic shelves. That "fascination" that Benn identified as the elusive but irreducible quality of poetry inheres in them as much as it does in the rhyming strophes; effectively, both are collages of the most varied and spirited diction. The growly misanthropic cuss who speaks them is as much an invention and a function of style as the brittle and glitteringly impersonal manner of the octaves. Although light as lace, they are wonderfully heavy with experience, "a pile of life in variegated forms."
Yeats says the poet "is never the bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast; he has been reborn as an idea, something intended, complete." Really not so Benn, not in these last poems. He is absolutely the bundle seated—if not to breakfast exactly, then at least in the corner of the bar after work in the evening, where he downs two or three beers, smokes his Junos, listens to the radio, listens to the chatter of the other customers, scribbles something trenchantly doleful on a pad. It is rare for art to be so perspicuous, to be made from so extravagantly little—sometimes just "a dish / of sausage soup (free on Thursdays / with a beverage)"—so to pair grace with dailiness, discretion with intimacy, a shy wistfulness with stoicism.
Somehow, quite without my realizing it, I have spent half my life with Benn; back in his centenary year, 1986, I reviewed the two-volume edition of his poems and Holthusen's begun biography of him. He has influenced me, not only to translate him in the first place, but also while translating him. Over the years, thanks in part to Benn, my own sentences have become more indeterminate, my language more musical, my diction more florid. There is a sort of murmurous, mi-voix, halblaut quality in poems that I adore, and, languidly, strive for. I was all the time quietly being readied for a task I hardly dared suppose I would ever take on. I loved these poems when I first read and wrote about them half a lifetime ago; somehow—youth? trepidation? selfish possession rather than working to make them available to an English readership? —I never allowed myself to think I might actually translate them.
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About the Author
Michael Hofmann has published four books of poetry and has translated more than sixty books from the German, including works by Durs Grünbein, Ernst Jünger, Franz Kafka, and Joseph Roth. In 2012 he won the Thornton Wilder Prize in Translation. His criticism appears regularly in the London Review of Books and Poetry. He currently teaches poetry and translation at the University of Florida.
Impromptus: Selected Poems and Some Prose
Farrar, Straus and Giroux