Monday, November 4, 2013

BENN and LEOPARDI: how not to despair to death

 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.
              Beautiful youth
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:
                        Fragments  1955
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
To be certain of being buried.
What are you? A symptom,
An ape, a gnome---

            OR from the so-called middle of the life as if anyone can define that for himself, a something that arrives only after.
A shadow on the wall
boughs stirred by the noonday wind
that’s enough earth
and for the eye
enough celestial participation.

How much further do you want to go?  Refuse
the bossy insistence
of new impressions---

Lie there still,
behold your own fields,
your estate,
dwelling especially
on the poppies
because they transported the summer---

Where did it go?

Seventeen           And then there is the prose of Benn.  None of the three books of Benn’s writings including this wonderful current anthology, make room for the longer prose works in their entirety.  Instead of the German on the facing pages I wish that Hofmann had given those pages over to a complete versions of the NOVEL OF THE PENOTYPE, THE PTOLEMEAN and DOUBLE LIFE… But do not allow this quibble to standing in your way to acquiring this book.
            We always need books from writers like the Benn in “Aging as a Problem for Artists remind us:
With your back to the wall, in the wretchedness of fatigue, in the grey of emptiness, you will read your Job and your Jeremiah, and you will stick it out.  Draft your prepositions as harshly as you can, because when the epoch draws to a close and kills your song you will be measured by your sentences.  What you don’t write will not exist.  You will make enemies, be alone, a nutshell on the sea, a walnut shell emitting  odd clanking noises, rattling with cold, trembling with your own revulsion at yourself, but don’t send out an SOS--- in the first place, no one will hear you, and in the second, your ending will be peaceful after so much travail.

            If Hofman who translated Ernst Junger’s STORM OF STEEL has the courage to translate the great prose books of Benn then it might be possible to reorder the history of the recent century when it comes to the German language:  Gottfried Benn, Ernst Junger, Arno Schmidt and Uwe Johnson in Germany with Peter Handke, Thomas Bernhard, Ingeborg Bachmann and Robert Musil in Austria with Robert Walser over there in Switzerland