Apr 12, 2011

Gottfried Benn, "Last Spring"

The Fencing Master, 1900, Gary Melcher (American, , D.I.A.)

Michigan's finches aren't this yellow yet, but . . .

here's a young guy working on it, trying for adulthood, testosterone, and brilliance.

And here's a spring poem by a (German) poet I’m not very familiar with, but Gottfried Benn might be worth further reading, for a number of reasons:

Last Spring by Gottfried Benn : Poetry Magazine [poem/magazine]

Kudos once again to Poetry Foundation and Poetry Magazine for introducing us to such a variety of poetry and commentary on the art, craft, and history of verse.

In Wikipedia, the biographical info on Gottfried Benn is interesting, perhaps disturbing:


It’s somewhat chilling to remember that a number of folks we still consider significant thinkers or artists were at least loosely, tentatively associated with Nazi-think: Benn, Nietzsche, Wagner, Heidegger, Otto Dix. How many more are there? What should we learn from it?

Left: Otto Dix, Self Portrait, 1912 (D.I.A.)

Apart from the sensationalism surrounding Nazi topics, consider this comment from Benn’s translator, Michael Hoffman: “the opposite of art, Benn always argued, is not nature, but pleasingness.”

Last Spring by Gottfried Benn : Poetry Magazine [poem/magazine]


Anonymous said...

I like very much the first four lines. But poetry, by translation, baffles me. Surely the poet is the translator, I don't see how it can be otherwise.

Banjo52 said...

AH, on a recent Jeopardy, they had Frost's comment, "Poetry is lost in translation." So you've got a mighty big name on your side. Plus me, for the most part.

But I can't say, "Show me no Neruda, Baudelaire, et al, because they're in translation." SOME of their thought, emotion, imagery, and probably culture seep through the language barriers.

On the other hand, it's my impression that a lot of folks don't even ask the hard question and just let a poem's ideas and emotions wash over them and shrug off matters of language, music, nuances, idiom. A lot of translations don't even honor free verse vs. rhyme and meter; that's understandable, but also a huge red flag. Can the most brilliant translator capture the FEEL of rhyme and rhythm without using those rhymes and rhythms. Many qualified scholars argue yes, but I wonder.

And of course, a lot of high school kids have been given Homer (and others?) in prose!! I guess if it gets 'em hooked and gives 'em some classical background, you do what you gotta do, but I insist we keep asking the hard questions about one language vs. another.

Brenda's Arizona said...

Is this poet saying that it takes work to get through spring, and if you work hard enough, you reach summer/June?
I always work too hard at finding the meaning...

Brenda's Arizona said...

Oh, yes, and today I caught a lovely piece on Max Lorenz, Hitler's favorite tenor. Your post fits right into the story I heard:

Banjo52 said...

Brenda, thanks for the NPR link. "The SS came to Lorenz's house to remove his Jewish wife and her mother. But she had Goering's sister's private phone number . . ."

I find that details like that still have surprising power, predictable and obvious as they might be within Nazism (or any power structure?). I say again, we are quite a species.

Banjo52 said...

Brenda, I think the poem is urging us to fill ourselves with the beauties of spring, to be aware of them as well as our own states of being, which are “dark ground” that is, two to one, something negative: “blood and happiness and wretchedness.” If we can achieve that “sluggish” awareness (which ironically is ignorance), it will feel timeless (“ending or beginning, who knows”). Then “just maybe” we’ll get to summer, to full bloom.

For what it’s worth, this awareness of time—the calendar—paired with the longing to escape it reminds me of Keats, for what it’s worth.

I also notice that the roses aren’t just sitting there—they “blow.” Might that suggest a wind that’s too strong? That ambiguity interests me, as does the curious choice of the word “Sluggish.” I wonder if most of us might have chosen something like “lazy, luxuriant, longer” days (maybe a little like the lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer).

And that brings the question, was it Benn or the translator, Michael Hoffman, who chose “Sluggish”? What were Hoffman’s options in getting from the German adjective to an English one? And that, of course, expands on AH’s and my concern about all poetry in translation. But I’ll add that I’m glad to have this poem in English, regardless of its German words. At some point, a gorgeous thing is a gorgeous thing, however it came into being.

Brenda's Arizona said...

Banjomyn, great response, great comments. As you, the Lorenz article made me think of mankind/our species. Thanks for listening to it and sharing your thoughts!

Pasadena Adjacent said...

Fellow bird lover Ross Perot had his converts too...for awhile. I figure that's where history will judge, how long you stuck around. Leni Riefenstahl, Emil Nolde, Philip Johnson etc

btw: aren't there noted translators in the literary field? I saw a show at the Huntington based on the translations of the bible. So much dependent on context of time and language (style???). Really interesting

Lastly, without giving explanation, the poem makes perfect sense to me. Nice portrait by Dix.

Banjo52 said...

PA, there are definitely noted translators--and definitive translations, etc. I'm pretty sure Richard Wilbur, the poet, is one of those authorities in translating the French. I get the idea of capturing the spirit of the original, but when a new, DEFINITIVE translation of Homer (as just one example) comes out every decade or two, I've gotta wonder how much sheer, mere commerce is a factor.

Glad you like the poem. Me too, so far anyway. Seems to pack a lot of punch for such a short work, and I'm one of those who think that's a major criterion for calling something good.

Brenda's Arizona said...

A whole genre of poetry that I never thought of - what the translator writes/interprets. Now that is a profession - imagining being 'the best' in the field. Is it all judgmental, isn't it?

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