As I was preparing to finish my 1938 Pulitzer winner, and enter into 1939 and the years of war, a poet caught my eye with whom I was totally unfamiliar: Gottfried Benn. Benn was a German expressionist poet who had become so openly appalled by the tactics of the National Socialists (Nazis) in Germany that his poetry was banned by the German government in 1938–he was literally forbidden to write. In a weird irony, Benn’s work was banned again immediately after World War II, when the Allies sought to silence him as one of many German writers who had initially supported the Nazi movement—Benn, as an anti-Marxist, thought initially that Hitler and his revolutionary crowd would create space for the kind of expressionist art that Benn wanted to flourish. As a writer doubly silenced for his politics (and silenced particularly in this year of 1938 that I’ve been contemplating), I thought I should track down some of his poetry, and share a poem for our collective reflection. For obvious reasons I couldn’t unearth anything he wrote in 1938—this is a poem he wrote in 1934, entitled “Einst” in its original German, and “Yesteryear” in the English translation I’ll post below, by Alexandra Chciuk-Celt:
Yesteryear: winter came down,
You would hang onto the shadows
Left by the ponds and meadows
And twilight towns.
Sphinx-blue the cities would glimmer,
Marking the ocean-snow track—
Where has that gone now, I wonder?
There’s no way back.
Those ancient gifts and that grieving
Which always made us so tough—
If we have truly suffered,
Is that enough?
This is my first opportunity on a Poetry Friday to really grapple with both sides of a translated work: that is, I know enough German from my years and years of Saturday morning German classes as a kid (and my college German work, both as student and tutor) that I can comment somewhat knowledgeably about the differences between the original and the translation. (Side note: To those capable enough in German that you’d like to see all of the original, it can be found, among other places, at this German poetry site: Gottfried Benn’s “Einst”.) While on the whole I think Chciuk-Celt does a really nice job of preserving the original’s rhythm and rhyme patterns (for the most part) as well as its content, I have a few quibbles I’ll voice along the way, and the first of these is the choice of “Yesteryear”—such a showily poetic word, never used in conversation—when Benn had chosen the much more prosaic “Einst”, or “Once”. Sure, from context, he may well be referring to “Once” in a “once upon a time” sense, but her choice feels a bit forced to me, and really clangs on my ears. “Once” is, to my ears, a much more dramatic and interesting word, both as a title and as the poem’s first word, and I really question the choice of “Yesteryear”. But on to what Benn himself is saying.
I am intrigued by the ambiguity of the subject in this poem—Benn is talking to “you”, but who is that, exactly? Is it a lover or friend, with whom he has a past worth looking back on with some nostalgia? Is he talking to his country as a whole? The German uses the singular pronoun—in English “you” is irritatingly both singular and plural—which may help a little, but that doesn’t mean the “you” isn’t “Deutschland”. It also uses the informal pronoun, the word used for a friend or intimate acquaintance, but again the poem suggests that level of intimacy, I think, even in English. It may seem that I’m being overly obsessive about trying to pinpoint the subject, but the last stanza of the poem makes me feel that it’s important: what is this shared suffering he references? Can it be his country’s decades of debt and turmoil in the wake of World War I? Or is it a more personal suffering? And regardless, what would it mean if the poem’s subject thought it was “enough”, or didn’t?
Perhaps the finish of the stanza, with its emphasis on suffering, would make more sense if we had a better hold on the stanza’s first two lines: here I think the translator has really dropped the ball. Her choice of “Those ancient gifts and that grieving / which always made us so tough” is to me a really poor rendering of “Alles des Grams, der Gaben / früh her in unser Blut”—granted, I really have no qualifications as a translator, but I think a much more literal rendering of that passage would read something like “All those griefs, those gifts / that were early in our blood”. Chciuk-Celt’s inversion of the gifts and griefs, and her altering of their grammatical relationship to each other (for the sake of the slant rhyme) really takes some of the wind out of the sails, for me, and “early in our blood” is much more evocative (and really very different) than “always made us so tough”. There may be a German idiom that she’s hip to there (and that I am not)…I don’t know. It seems more to me like she really needed a rhyme for “enough”. Anyway, taking my admittedly amateur reading back to the stanza, I find an interesting layer to the poem—grief as a gift. A gift that, strange as it may seem, may be “enough” for someone—the word Benn actually used is “gut”, which certainly can mean “enough” (and may well mean that in context), but which of course carries the heavy connotation even for a native English speaker with “good”. Is there something good, or at least sustaining and sufficient, about having lost—lost those twilight towns, the shadows of winter. Lost the sphinx-blue light on the snow.
The alteration of the type to emphasize “suffering” and whatever is being referenced as “that” is original to Benn’s poem. I continue to struggle with it, a bit, and find it both moving and a little remote. I like the juxtaposition of griefs and gifts, and the images early in the poem, but I do wonder a little if what I’m making is less the sense that Benn intended, and more an invention of my own psyche. If you have any thoughts to offer on the poem, I hope you will—given how many tried to silence this poet and his work, I think giving it a little voice this weekend would be a lovely thing to do for art, if not for ourselves. And given my feeling that I have reached a sort of impasse with the work, I’d be especially glad to hear other takes on the poem, even very different ones from mine (maybe especially very different ones), in the hopes that it will add to my reading of the lines. Vielen Dank, Herr Benn, for a poem that makes me think.