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This article is taken from PN Review 6, Volume 5 Number 2, January - March 1979.

Gottfried Benn: an Introduction Walter Michel

This is the first of a two-part introduction to the work of Gottfried Benn. The second part will appear in a later issue of PNR. Throughout, translations are Walter Michel's own, with occasional, acknowledged quotations from Michael Hamburger's versions in Primal Vision. In a few cases, the author thought it best to leave the German word unchanged, especially a few key words which do not have convenient English equivalents. These are: the Nichts (nothingness, le rien); the Ich (the I, the je); Rausch and its plural Räusche(n)-somewhere between ecstasy and intoxication; the prefix ur-(our 'age-' as in age-old); and of course, Geist.

I. 1912-32: From 'illusionary hyperbolics' to the 'fascinary Ich'

GOTTFRIED BENN was born in 1886 in a small village in northeast Germany, lived all his life in Germany, practised medicine, mostly in Berlin, and died in Berlin in 1957. His collected works, published in 1960, consist of four volumes, of some five hundred pages each, one of poems; one of what the editor calls 'prose' and `scenes'-lyrical and dramatic pieces often close to poetry; a third of essays and talks; and a fourth of autobiographical writings.

Benn's subject was the desolation of the soul in the modern world. To express it, he created a language and field of reference which are so much his own that almost any line is immediately recognizable as his. At the same time, his language is that of modern poetry. He is the exemplar of the ...


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