The first poem in Gottfried Benn’s first book, Morgue (1912) – written in an hour, published in a week, and notorious ever after, or so the poet claimed – with its scandalous closing image of an aster sewn into a corpse by a playful medical student, set him on his celebrated path. And indeed, mortality, flowers, and powerful aesthetic collisions typify much of Benn’s subsequent work. Over decades, as he suffered the vicissitudes of an often hostile fate – the death of his mother from untreated cancer; the death of his first wife Edith in 1922; his brief but disastrous attempt to ingratiate himself with the Nazis in 1933, followed by their persecution of him; the suicide of his second wife Herta in 1945, afraid she would fall into the hands of the Russians – the harsh, sometimes callous voice of the poems relented, softened, and mellowed.
The later Benn – from which Impromptus is chiefly drawn, many of the poems translated into English for the first time – is deeply affecting: the routines and sorrows and meditations of an intelligent, pessimistic, and experienced man. Written in what T. S. Eliot called the ‘third voice’ of poetry, the low un-upholstered monologue of the poet talking to himself, these poems are slender ribbons of speech on the naked edge of song and silence. With this new collection of poems selected and translated by Michael Hofmann, Gottfired Benn, at long last, promises to attain in English the presence and importance that he so richly deserves.