Translator's Note: “Zeh was a pharmacist”

By Michael Hofmann


Once before in these pages (October 2006), I sketched at slightly greater length the career of Gottfried Benn, and in particular how this major twentieth-century German poet has been received (or not received) in English. Not wanting either to repeat myself or contradict myself, this time I will just offer a few comments on the further group of translations appearing here. The six poems that ran then were all “late”—i.e., from the last ten years of Benn’s life. That is the area I will undoubtedly concentrate on in the book I hope eventually to bring out. But I have long thought I would have to gesture at Benn’s beginnings and some of his development, before those beerily misanthropic and magically beautiful mutterings that have always particularly entranced me as a reader.

Here, “The Young Hebbel” (1913) and “Jena” (1926) are early and middle period respectively. Hebbel was a nineteenth-century German playwright and poet, a poor man and an autodidact; the poem, which first appeared in the magazine New Pathosthere’s a name to conjure with!leading off a cycle called “Sons”the great Expressionist subject!is an early essay in biography and monologue. It hints at other Benn poems to come, on the subject of “the artist as hero,” like “Chopin” and “The Evenings of Certain Lives,” on Rembrandt and Shakespeare. “Jena,” with its strange and typical mixture of almost coldly dispassionate and elegiac, takes up the person of Benn’s own mother. “Static Poems” (1943) is the title poem of the pivotal volume Benn got published first in Switzerland (he wasn’t allowed to publish in Germany, the Allies forbade it) and then in 1949 in Germany to wonder and acclaim. Obstinacy, wisdom, and solitude are centrifuged into one single quality in the poem; contemporary readers have much to learn from it, and many reasons for which to read it.

The other poems are safely “late” or “late again”: two world wars, two marriages, two bereavements, careers in the military and medicine, and forty years of writing have gone into their making. My allegiancesthe inevitable result, perhaps, of long acquaintanceare divided between prominent poems and obscure, fragmented things that have almost no public existence. “What’s Bad” has been published before in other versions in English; it’s almost safe to call it a well-known poem. The others, though, are more recessive. “Gladioli” is a majestic and ragged poem on a majestic and ragged flower (throughout his work Benn makes great play with flowers; indeed, I find myself thinking of Berryman’s lovely penultimate line in his “A Strut for Roethke” in connection with Benn: “Weeds, too, he favoured as most men don’t favour men”). “They Are Human After All” is a poem of what one might call bridge-building to ordinary people (the sort of people who elsewhere in Bennsame pub, same speaker, different mood, different eveningmerely get called, in two or three or four terms of contempt, “the married couple and their loathsome hound”). “Finis Poloniae” elaborates a German, or strictly speaking, a Latin tag; the captured Kosciusko said it in 1794 when he fell into the hands of the Prussians. The part of Brandenburg where Benn was born and grew up was transferred to Polish jurisdiction after 1945; the finish therefore concerns him rather more than one might suppose. Strangely, each time I read it, I picture scenes from Andrzej Wajda’s film Ashes and Diamonds: rain, dazzle, sorrow. “Zeh was a pharmacist” is a longtime favorite of mine (remember, if you will, that Benn, as the son of a pastor and a slightly non-conformist physician himselfhe was a skin specialist and clap doctorknew what value to put upon creative charlatanry; he would not have thrown the first stone). And a single section of a poem simply called “Late,” which suggests to me that Bennbig Benn he has been calledwas like a bell, humming with the force of its own vibrations: the word gongs throughout those years, “Late,” “Late Self,” “Late Look,” “Late in the Year,” “Apreslude.”

The striking thing about Benn is that he writes as though there were no other poets, and as though everything he wrote was self-evidently a poem. Everything comes through in an effortlessly and wholly personal timbre, so to speak, a personal typeface. On some level he did manage to transcend the duality of cerebral and biological (“All else is natural world and intellect”
) and write as simply as a flower flowers. Imagine a Larkin less veiled, discreet, conciliatory, half-optimistic, teetering, and somehow more lovable; for whom desolation was acknowledged as a fundamental and inescapable condition of being; for whom “groping back to bed after a piss” was not at the further reaches of his writing, but more or less where it began; and I think you get a little nearer to Benn.—MH

 

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This poem originally appeared in the November 2009 issue of Poetry magazine

November 2009

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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