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Translator's Note: Gottfried Benn

This latest sample of Gottfried Benn spans four decades, almost his whole career: from “Express Train,” first published exactly a hundred years ago in the quarterly Pan in 1912, the year Benn qualified as a doctor and also started to publish, to poems and drafts from the early- and mid-fifties. But rather than separating them out like the seven colors of a spectrum, it is simpler and most useful to group the first three together, and the second four; a trivium and a quadrivium. They are respectively early and late in feeling; meridional and hyperborean; sunny and chill; exotic and domestic; boisterous and resigned; an Indian summer, and a dreich and featureless winter (always the two prime atmospheres and auras of Benn).

Life is a cycle, divided up into seasons like a year. Sap rises, and leaves fall. “Like the generation of leaves, the lives of mortal men,” Homer says. Youth is always summer—in the special case of the poet, his at once anticipatory and retrospective intelligence, always wanting complexity and conflict, always wanting more—often a sort of island- or exo-summer, most typically an arrière-garde. Hence the emphasis on Indian summer. Two of the poems have the word “last” in them, and the third a refrain of “once more”: summer for Benn, you understand, is hardly a time of easy and uncomplicated abundance. Benn was a creature of habit. He worked complainingly and hard, never made very much money, found it increasingly difficult to leave his practice and Berlin, never traveled very far or took very much time off.Mediterran—the long, painful open a of the final vowel in German—remained a Nietzschean buzz-word for him, not that he got there very often. Once, in the twenties, he drove with a rich friend (in the rich friend’s car) through France and Spain. But we are not talking Rilke here. Merano in the Tyrol was a favored destination: the presence there of palm trees signaled “the South” to Benn. Though “South” remained a broad church. Unqualified cities like Brussels (where he was posted during wwi) were filed away there, as was, in “Express Train,” Germany’s chilly, nudist Baltic coast. A week here or there—and often in September or October—was about the size of it, for him. Poets can’t be choosers.

It was just as well that Benn’s early style and lifelong affiliation was Expressionist: gaudy, neo-primitive, volatile, provocative, anti-rational. The brain is eclipsed by its older neighbors: the glands, the senses (including the oldest sense, the sense of smell). Expressionism doesn’t count days or verify destinations. It might be the humdrum Baltic—shallowest and newest and saltiest of seas—but it feels like the Aegean, if not the South Pacific, in the poem, and in the poet’s rhapsodic imagination. Expressionism hymns a simpler physis, the body under its own management. Down with the boardroom (hence “my neck is so weary” and “bring down the temple”), 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! 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.

The last four poems are, so to speak, about life’s “second moment”; they are all about winter and age. “Evenings of Certain Lives” is biographical, about Rembrandt and Shakespeare old; the three remaining poems are autobiographical, from the last five years of Benn’s life. Sunlight, color, rapture, pleasure are all at a premium. Ataraxy is a memory. Great historical figures lead lives no less fraught and empty than...someone like Benn. The depressant alcohol dulls pain in lives already depressed. Rembrandt—an invention of the twentieth century, before that he was accounted dowdy—is every bit as housebound and surly and preoccupied as his creator; the Shakespeare to whom Benn gives voice is the Shakespeare post-Tempest, when he has hung up his pencil and doesn’t even care to remember his own lines. What is civilization, these poems seem to ask, what if the cymbals “never clashed”? A head of froth, a meniscus, a gloss off the top, optional, irrelevant. 

Benn’s view of life, often called nihilistic, seems to me more like momentary or maybe molecular. People are born and die basically alone, and the tiny, tiny minority that do anything of importance (i.e. make art) live just like the rest. Only their insistence on solitude, a gesture of refusal—Rembrandt’s “no” to brilliancy, and “no” to society painting—a lifelong obduracy, tell them apart. They make, in the end, no difference whatsoever, leave life as they found it. “The great monkey jaws”—those of history—grind on, man is unevolved, unimprovable, inconsolable. Progress is a false god. For the gross of working people, whose horizons are low, and whose ambitions and expectations remain resolutely pragmatic, maybe conditions can be improved, but that isn’t the role of art. (As a doctor, Benn did what he could, though he was a medical pessimist). But for the artist—which was what interested Benn, life without art being entirely valueless—nothing has changed in thousands of years: still solitude, still doubt, still want of recognition; always questioning and at odds with life; always “the insufferable/difficulties of outward-directed expression.”

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.” 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, where he downs two or three beers, smokes his Junos, listens to the radio, listens to the chatter of the other customers, scribbles something lugubrious on a pad. It is rare for art to be so perspicuous, to be made from so very little, so to pair grace with dailiness, discretion with unmistakeableness, a shy wistfulness with humility. He makes Larkin seems like an equestrian—like Byron, like Flashman. —Michael Hofmann

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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