five IMPROMPTUS Selected Poems and Some Prose by Gottfried Benn translated by Michael Hofman and ZIBALDONE by Giacomo Leopardi, both published by Farrar Straus and Giroux are the two best books published this year 2013 in the United Stated. Both books are sadly quite expensive though the Leopardi is now down to $47 at Amazon and the kindle version is 36. The Benn is at $25.
I usually do not mention this fact but the reality of money is ever present. Neither book will be exhausted after one or a hundred readings. If you bought the new Pynchon novel most likely you did not finish reading it and are not now likely to and if by chance you did you will never re-read it… same goes for every single book on the best seller lists, again this year.
The Zibaldone is the inexhaustible notebook of the greatest Italian poet after Dante. I have already written about them but what is finally heartening about them is that they are devoid of any cheering reflections or news: they truly reflect the accident of a person’s birth and the sure death to follow within X of years. And with more than 2500 pages…
eight Gottfried Benn was a German poet. His years: 1886-1956. He was a medical doctor. He did not leave Germany during 1933-45. Any other details are trivial and a distraction away from the words he put on the page. I read him as an equal with T.S. Eliot and Paul Valery and David Jones and Ronald Johnson.
Of course I know it is not a horse race but it is good to lay down the calling cards.
Like most literate people born in the 20th Century into an English speaking country I discovered Benn through the New Directions anthology PRIMAL VISION and read a few additional pieces in the Benn volume in The German Library published by Continuum. Michael Hofman’s volume compliments these books and adds some new selections and his own versions of some of the best known Benn poems.
I wish I could afford to give this book to every friend and acquaintance.
Many readers will remember that T.S. Eliot quoted in The Three Voices of Poetry from a Benn’s lecture Probleme der Lyrik. Strangely, all three anthologies do not include a translation of this lecture and you would have to travel, according to Google, to a small college in Texas to read a translation and commentary on it. However, Eliot’s description and commentary is exemplary:
What asks Herr Benn in his lecture, does the writer of such a poem, “addressed to no one,“ start with? There is first, he says, an inert embryo or “creative germ’ [ein dumpfer schopferischer Keim] and, on the other hand, the Language, the resources of words at the poet’s command. He has something germinating in him for which he must find words; but he cannot know what words he wants until he has found the words; he cannot identify this embryo until it has been transformed into an arrangement of the right words in the right order. When you have the words for it the “thing” for which the words had to be found has disappeared, replaced by a poem. What you start from is nothing so definite as an emotion, in any ordinary sense; of it is still more certainly not an idea; it is--- to adapt two lines of Beddoes to a different meaning---a
bodiless childful of life, in the gloom
Crying with frog voice, “what shall I be?”
I agree with Gottfried Benn…
+++the proof is always in th actual poems++++
Ten And we have the most memorable of the Benn poems the one that stays always fresh as it were.
The mouth of the girl who had lain in the rushes
Looked so nibbled
When they opened her chest, her esophagus was so holey
Finally in a bower under the diaphragm
They found a nest of young rats.
One little thing lay dead.
The others were living off kidneys and liver
Drinking the cold blood and had
Had themselves a beautiful youth.
And just as beautiful was their death, and quick:
The lot of them were thrown into the water.
Ah, will you hearken at the little muzzles’ oinks!
This poem is from early in his writing life. And from later in the life:
30x endured agonies at the dentist’s
100x treated myself to expensive imported roses
4x shed tears beside open graves
Left 25 women
2x had a pocket full of money and 98x not,
At the end of the day you take out an insurance policy
At 12.50 per month