The phenomenon of writers ignored, abused, cast out, disgraced, not for the disaster of their writing but the disaster of their politics, is one contribution the twentieth century has made to the history of literature. Cioran, Kipling, Gorky, you name it: the history of literature has become natty at its particular version of kashrut. We’re therefore now accustomed to the general map of literature being marked by weird absences, small oblivions, fuzzy silences. Mostly, I guess, these oblivions are now so usual that their existence is hardly noticed. Who, for instance, is exercised by the absence in their iBooks library of the German poet Gottfried Benn? And yet Benn—along with Brecht, Celan, and Rilke—is one of the great German poets of the twentieth century, the equal of Eliot or Montale. And the reason for this absence, as usual, is not the work but the life.
Benn, of course, chose a different trajectory in the terrible 1930s—even if, very soon, his work too, like Kokoschka’s, was condemned as degenerate. In the end every expressionist was to be shunned by the Nazi regime—just as Benn would then be shunned forever, for his year of Nazi temptation.
In other words, the career of Gottfried Benn is a case study in disgrace. And now the international reader, whose acquaintance with Benn might have otherwise been as fragmentary as a mention in an essay by T. S. Eliot or in a poem by Frank O’Hara, can finally examine this case study with voracious comprehensiveness, owing to this virtuosic, acidic selection of translations by the poet Michael Hofmann. Benn’s late style is one of literature’s great inventions, and the composition of this selection conditions its reader to concentrate on that phenomenon: from 1912 to 1947, a period of 35 years, Hofmann offers just twenty-four poems, while from 1949 to 1955, the last six years of Benn’s life, there are a lavish forty-eight.
Benn ... speaks from inside this moral gray zone. He gives disgrace its aesthetic form. He experienced life as total defeat, and in this disgrace, he discovered a kind of nihilistic truth. In Benn’s poetry, the real meaning of disgrace was not remorse. No, its real meaning was isolation. In disgrace, he discovered how easily one can be severed from every community. From this isolation, his conclusion was an absolute disillusion. The only truth in which he could believe was the truth he had always relied on: the swarming, isolated self.
I have always admired Benn's poetry, and am glad it's finally gotten a persuasive advocate in English. As Thirlwell points out, Hofmann takes risks with his German translations, but they're smart ones. I've ordered the book, but it's still on its way. Benn, like Emil Nolde, initially favored the Nazi party, but was then sidelined by the cultural commissars owing to the 'degenerate' nature of his work.
The accompanying portrait of Benn, by Ivan Solyaev, is also magnificent:
Poem, a 2004 movie by Ralf Schmerberg that I watched for the first time last night on DVD, consists of dramatized recitations of 19 German poems from Goethe onward. Some of the poems are quite famous, others moderately so, and some slightly obscure. The dramatizations aren't connected in any way, save for the framing device of a Tibetan man carrying another man on a handmade back-chair through the mountains, which intervenes every 30 minutes or so and culminates in a poem-accompanied religious ceremony. The poems are presented in utterly different ways: some as direct dramatic declamations; some as accompaniments to documentary-like records of child-rearing, weddings, or religious processions; some as theatrical mini-spectacles; some as accompaniment to scenes which involve no humans at all.
This is a very German movie, in the best way. The poems which are recited by characters on-screen (including David Bennent, Carmen Birk, and Klaus-Maria Brandauer), are recited with whacking great dollops of dramatic flair, in the tradition of German-speaking lands. Some English-speakers, who are accustomed to less stylized poetry recitation in which the 'words are supposed to do all the work', may find this a bit off-putting at first. Yet when this sort of dramatic declamation is done right (as with Brandauer above, rendering every other reading of this Heine poem -- perhaps any Heine poem -- superfluous), it is enthralling. (It's also worth keeping in mind that these poets wrote in a culture in which they would expect their poems to be dramatically declaimed by actors.)
The settings and accompaniment for the poems are never predictable, and, at their best, create a touching, ironic, or bizarre field of interference with the words of the poem itself, as when Ernst Jandl's bleak Believe and Confess (g) (in which he bluntly states that he knows he will never see his dead loved ones again and confesses that he hasn't the 'slightest wish' for this to happen) is accompanied by tear-stained, boozy, unstaged scenes from a very ordinary German wedding, or when Trakl's frothingly mystical Morgenlied (g) is recited by David Bennent, in full knightly armor, wandering down the median of a German highway.
'Poem' is by turns mesmerizing, pretentious, funny, moving, witty, ironic, and preposterous. A few of the musical choices have gotten a bit stale (the music of Arvo Pärt, for all its charm, has become an art-house cliche), and a few of the settings are in questionable taste. But that's what makes 'Poem' so lively -- the filmmakers take risks, and sometimes the rewards are spectacular. Strongly recommended.
Eric Ambler thrillers cleanse the palate between more ambitious books. They've got quite a lot of careful and convincing plot, no sex please, and jolly little nonsense about characters' feelings. Since they always involve people of various nationalities thrown together by fate into a small space or a common plan, they give Ambler a chance to enlarge on one of his favorite themes: what people of different nations publicly say and privately think of one another. At one point in A Passage of Arms, a Chinese chauffeur tries to understand why his American clients always chatter loudly about their most intimate affairs in his hearing, even though they know he speaks fluent English. At first he's tempted to think of it as insulting, but then comes to the conclusion that not only do the Americans. alone among all nationalities, seem to not mind it when other people become privy to their personal affairs, they actually enjoy it.
I had to think of that when I ran across this piece by Stephen Burt, a professor of English at Harvard. He is by most accounts a smart fellow and is indisputably a middle-aged man:
For reasons which will defy any European's comprehension, he's decided to share with the world the following, er, proclivities:
I’m a man, but I like dressing up
as a woman, in women’s clothes, wearing lipstick and bracelets and
bright rings and women’s shoes. Given my tastes, at the moment, it might
be better to say that I like dressing up as a girl. I like to wear
costume jewelry, and pastel nail polish, and I do that all the time. I
like to wear skirts and tights, or dresses, too, in private sometimes,
in public fewer times, and in company when I can find an appropriate
occasion, which I rarely can....
Other prized girly possessions, recently acquired: opaque white tights;
opaque bright blue tights; a micro-thin blue belt (it goes only with
shorts or skirts); a black Maidenform padded bra, which converts a 36AA
like me to a 36C; a cotton white-and-magenta circle skirt, which I have
worn around Harvard Square; a sleeveless black top with small ruffles
and white polka dots, which I have as yet had no occasion to wear. Ten
years ago I lost, among other girl clothes, a pair of black and silver
opaque tights. I still miss them.
As Burt might say in one of his girlier moments: ZOMG!! TMI!!!
The image of Burt prancing around in tights and sparkly rings and bras will haunt me for weeks. This may be turn out to be a more horrifyingly persistent unwanted mental image (Germans, we need a word for this -- like Ohrwurm, but for mental images) since I read in the Good Soldier Schwejk about the drunken Czech officer who stripped naked, crammed a large mackerel head-first into his backside, and pretended he was a mermaid.
Translated from the German by Michael Hofman, from Poetry magazine:
Renege on the rock! Smash the oppressor cave! Sashay out onto the floor! Scorn the cornices— see, from the beard of drunk Silenus from the unique uproar of his blood the wine dribble into his genitals!
Spit on the obsession with pillars: ancient rheumatic hands quake toward gray skies. Bring down the temple by the yearning of your knees twitching with dance.
Spill, spread, unpetal, bleed your soft flowers through great wounds. Dove-hauled Venus girds her loins with roses— see the summer’s last puff of blue drift on seas of asters to distant pine-brown coasts; see this final hour of our mendacious southern happiness held aloft.
The dawn dissevers earth and skies and at its pure and lovely bidding the children and the dragonflies twirl out into the sunworld's budding; no vapour dims the air's receding, a twinkling lightness buoys the eyes! Last night into their trees were gliding the leaves, like tiny butterflies.
Blue, yellow, red, they flocked my dream, smudged images the mind had taken, I felt the cosmic order gleam - and not a speck of dust was shaken. My dream's a floating shade; I waken; order is but an iron regime. By day, the moon's my body's beacon, by night, an inner sun will burn.
I'm gaunt, sometimes bread's all I touch, I seek amid this trivial chatter unrecompensed, and yearn to clutch, what has more truth than dice, more matter. No roast rib warms my mouth and platter, no child my heart, foregoing such - the cat can't both, how deft a ratter, inside and outside make her catch.
Just like split firewood stacked together, the universe embraces all, so that each object holds the other confined by pressures mutual, all things ordained, reciprocal. Only unbeing can branch and feather, only becoming blooms at all; what is must break, or fade, or wither.
Down by the branched marshalling-yard I lurked behind a root, fear-stricken, of silence was the living shard, I tasted grey and weird-sweet lichen. I saw a shadow leap and thicken: it was the shadow of the guard - did he suspect? - watched his shade quicken upon the heaped coal dew-bestarred.
Inside there is a world of pain, outside is only explanation. the world's your scab, the outer stain, your soul's the fever-inflammation. Jailed by your heart's own insurrection, you're only free when you refrain, nor build so fine a habitation, the landlord takes it back again.
I stared from underneath the evening into the cogwheel of the sky - the loom of all the past was weaving law from those glimmery threads, and I looked up again into the sky from underneath the steams of dreaming and saw that always, by and by, the weft of law is torn, unseaming.
Silence gave ear: the clock struck one. Maybe you could go back to boydom; walled in with concrete dank and wan, maybe imagine hints of freedom. And now I stand, and through the sky-dome the stars, the Dippers, shine and burn like bars, the sign of jail and thraldom, above a silent cell of stone.
I've heard the crying of the steel, I've heard the laugh of rain, its pattern; I've seen the past burst through its seal: only illusions are forgotten, for naught but love was I begotten, bent, though, beneath my burdens' wheel - why must we forge such weapons, flatten the gold awareness of the real?
He only is a man, who knows there is no mother and no father, that death is only what he owes and life's a bonus altogether, returns his find to its bequeather, holding it only till he goes; nor to himself, nor to another, takes on a god's or pastor's pose.
I've seen what they call happiness: soft, blonde, it weighed two hundred kilos; it waddled smiling on the grass, its tail a curl between two pillows. Its lukewarm puddle glowed with yellows, it blinked and grunted at me :- yes, I still remember where it wallows, touched by the dawns of blissfulness.
I live beside the tracks, where I can see the trains pass through the station. I see the brilliant windows fly in floating dark and dim privation. Through the eternal night's negation just so the lit-up days rush by; in all the cars' illumination, silent, resting my elbow, I.