Gottfried Benn 1886-1956
German poet, essayist, and novelist.
One of the major poets of German Expressionist movement, Benn is widely considered one of the of the most important German poets of the twentieth century. Benn's poetry frequently draws from his experiences as a physician, evoking imagery of disease and decay. His early volumes of poetry, Morgue (1912) and Fleisch (1917) draw from his clinical association with death and the human body. Benn was a controversial figure in terms of his political sympathies, and throughout his life was simultaneously accused by Nazis of being anti-German and accused by others of being a Nazi sympathizer.
Benn was born in Mansfeld, Westprignitz, Germany, on May 2, 1886. His father was a German and a Lutheran minister, and his mother was from French-speaking Switzerland. From 1905 to 1912, Benn studied medicine at the Kaiser Wilhelm Akademie, which trained physicians for the armed forces. In 1914, he married the actress Edith Brosin, and later adopted her son from a previous marriage. Their daughter, Benn's only child, was born in 1915. During World War I Benn served as an army physician in a hospital for prostitutes located in Brussels. In 1917, after the War, Benn set up a private practice in Berlin, specializing in skin and venereal diseases. The first of a series of tragic deaths of his close female companions occurred in 1931, when a friend committed suicide by jumping out of a window, immediately following a telephone conversation in which Benn had attempted to talk her out of killing herself. When Hitler rose to power in 1933, Benn was initially in favor of Nazism. In 1934, however, upon becoming aware of violent acts perpetrated by high-ranking members of the Nazi party, he became an outspoken critic of Nazism. Accordingly, Benn was criticized by the government and his works banned from publication. Upon being proclaimed a Jew, Benn did not hesitate to prove his non-Jewish identity through official documentation. However, because of ongoing suspicions that he was Jewish, Benn's medical practice suffered, and in 1935 he chose to rejoin the armed forces as an army physician. Nonetheless, he remained embroiled in political controversy throughout the 1930s. In 1938, his first wife having died, Benn married Herta von Wedemeyer, who was twenty-one years younger than he. In 1945, shortly after the German surrender to the Allies, she committed suicide. In 1946, he married Dr. Ilse Kaul, a dentist, who was also considerably younger than he. He retired from medical practice in 1953. On July 7, 1956, at the age of seventy, Benn died of spine cancer. Since his death, critics and biographers have striven to make sense of the complicated evolution of Benn's political sympathies, resulting in ongoing disagreement over the implications of the poet's relationship to Nazism.
Benn's first volume of poetry, Morgue und andere gedichte (Morgue and Other Poems) was written in response to his experiences in an autopsy course, where he dissected cadavers. It includes clinical descriptions of flesh in various stages of decomposition, as well as local Berlin slang mixed with medical jargon, written in unrhymed or loosely rhymed free verse. As its title indicates, Benn's second volume, Fleisch, continues in this vein. Benn's next three poetry volumes were Schutt (1924), Betäubung (1925), and Spaltung (1925). The poems of this series are characterized by themes of mystical visions and the primordial human condition. Unlike the earlier volumes, these poems are written in classical rhymed verse. In 1936, in honor of Benn's fiftieth birthday, a collection of his poetry, Ausgewählte gedichte, 1911-1936 was published. Statische Gedichte (1948) includes works written between 1936-1947. In 1949, Trunkene Flut, a collection of his more recent poems, was published. Benn's next two poetry volumes were Fragmente (1951) and Destillationen (1953). The last volume of Benn's poetry to be published during his lifetime was Aprèslude, in 1955. Collections of his poetry in English translation include Primal Vision (1960), Selected Poems (1970), and Prose, Essays, Poems (1987). In addition to poetry, Benn wrote numerous essays and several novellas. His autobiography, Doppelleben, was published in 1950.
Throughout his literary career, and for half a century after his death, Benn has been considered one of the most important German poets of the twentieth century, and a major poet of German Expressionism. However, although Benn was never a staunchly political person, his literary reputation, both during his lifetime and since his death, has always been embroiled in controversy over his political sympathies. He was attacked from all sides of the political spectrum. John Mander quotes Benn as stating that he had been “publicly labeled a swine by the Nazis, an imbecile by the Communists, an intellectual prostitute by the deomocrates, a renegade by the emigrants, and a pathological nihilist by the religious.” Critics generally agree that, although there is some development in his style, Benn's poetry remained essentially uniform and static during some forty years of publication. His early poetry, such as the first volume, Morgue, was immediately embraced by the avant-garde and German Expressionists. It was also, however, harshly criticized as offensive to the predominantly romantic literary sensibilities of the time. During the inter-war years, Benn was often banned and frequently discouraged from publication, due to hostilities toward his poetry on the part of Nazi authorities. After the World War II, he received renewed recognition as a great poet, but was also compelled to defend himself against charges of being a Nazi-sympathizer, based on his early pro-Nazi statements (made during the years 1933-34). By the time of his death in 1956, however, Benn was recognized internationally as one of the greatest German poets of the twentieth century, and an important figure in the German Expressionist movement.
Ausgewählte gedichte, 1911-1936 1936
Statische gedichte 1948
Trunkene flut 1949
Primal Vision 1960
Gesammelte werke [eight vols.] 1970
Selected Poems 1970
Prose, Essays, Poems 1987
Doppelleben (autobiography) 1950
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SOURCE: “A Renaissance of German Poetry: Gottfried Benn,” in Modern Language Forum, Vol. 39, No. 2, December, 1954, pp. 115-25.
[In the following essay, Seyppel discusses Benn's place in the history of German poetry, focusing on the poet's “trance-poetry,” which addresses metaphysical concerns and the irrational mind.]
When the delicate question “What is important in contemporary German literature?” is raised, two names immediately come to mind: Ernst Jünger and Gottfried Benn. They were prominent even before World War II. While Ernst Jünger, the prose writer, represented the more traditional, “classical,” formalistic literary style, the lyricist Gottfried Benn was classed as an early Expressionist of the era before World War I. The younger generation, born after that war, did not know him at all. But after the second collapse of the German state, Benn came back with matured, richer, and more powerful poetry carrying German literature to an anti-rationalistic and Dionysian tendency. The contrast of form and expression which dominated German literature in the decades when George and Rilke were in their prime seems to have been revived in the work of Jünger and Benn. The conflict between the Classicist and the Romanticist, between Rationalism and Anti-Rationalism, between the Apollonian and the Dionysian has found another manifestation.
Both Jünger and Benn belonged to...
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SOURCE: “Poet of Nihilism,” in Times Literary Supplement, May 26, 1961, p. 326.
[In the following review of Primal Vision, the Times Literary Supplement provides an assessment of the English translations of Benn's poetry, concluding that some of Benn's craft is lost, even in the best translations.]
At the age of twenty-six Gottfried Benn made his mark in 1912 with the shocking realism of Morgue. By the time of his death in 1956 he was established, after a remarkable comeback, as an extreme champion of what he cryptically called Artistik, poetry of the “free word—the word that yields no tirades … and no commentaries; that produces one thing only: form”. Art had become for him “the last metaphysical activity within European nihilism” through the “power of the nothing to create form”. Benn's public adherence for a time to Nazism produced bitter feelings, voiced among others by Klaus Mann; it was immaterial that he was never a member of the Nazi Party. The link between these beliefs and Benn's nihilism is obvious again and again: “there is no reality; there is the human consciousness ceaselessly forming, reforming … spiritually stamping worlds from its own creative property”.
If some aspects of Benn's work and thought are most provocatively evident only in their German context, his literary importance in a European setting is such as to...
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SOURCE: A review of Primal Vision, in Symposium, edited by E.B. Ashton, Vol. 15, No. 2, Summer, 1961, pp. 151-55.
[In the following review, Weisstein criticizes the editor of the collection Primal Vision for its omission of important poems, and its clumsiness and inaccuracy of translation. Weisstein, however, admits that Benn's poetry presents some insurmountable difficulties to any translator, and confirms that this first volume of English translations is an important introduction of Benn's poetry to English language readers.]
The publication of [Primal Vision] can well be regarded as a literary event; for with it a representative selection from the prose and poetry of Gottfried Benn, Germany's leading poet after Rilke and the last torchbearer of Expressionism, has for the first time become available to the English-speaking public. This is not to say, however, that, hitherto, Benn's work has gone altogether unnoticed in the United States. The four excellent renditions by Babette Deutsch, for example, which are included in the collection, appeared as early as 1923 in her anthology Contemporary German Poetry. Starting around 1952, English versions of approximately forty of Benn's poems—most of them in Lohner/Corman's, some in Francis Golffing's and a few in this reviewer's translation—began to appear in such Little Magazines as Poetry, the New Mexico...
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SOURCE: “Gottfried Benn's Attic Triptych,” in Germanic Review, Vol. 36, No. 4, December, 1961, pp. 298-307.
[In the following essay, Wood traces the roots of Benn's poetry in ancient Greek culture, focusing on Benn's “triptych” of poems entitled “V. jahrhundert.”]
One interesting aspect of Benn's work that has not received the attention it deserves is his relationship to the classical heritage of antiquity and to the part this plays within the framework of his post-Nietzschean nihilism and his poetics based thereon. The topic is important not only for its bearing on Benn's poetry (and I am concerned here only with the poetry) but also for the light it throws on that ever-fruitful theme of “the tyranny of Greece and Rome over Germany.” A good many poems of Benn derive their matter from Greek themes or motifs, not to mention at least two prose essays (“Dorische Welt”  and “Pallas” ), both of which, though ten years apart, consistently emphasize the point that creative expression (Ausdruckskunst) was classical antiquity's permanent contribution to a civilization that has been progressively deteriorating in metaphysical substance and individual value. “Der weiße letzte,” writes Benn in the “Pallas” essay, “ist nicht mehr Natur, er ist den Weg gegangen, den ihn jenes ‘absolut Reale,’ Götter, Vorgötter, Ur, Vorure, ens realissimum, natura-naturans,...
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SOURCE: “George and Benn: The Autumnal Vision,” in PMLA, Vol. 78, No. 3, June, 1963, pp. 271-79.
[In the following essay, Hannum compares two “autumnal” poems, one by Benn and one by Stefan George, and discusses differences in each poet's use of nature imagery.]
Komm in den totgesagten park und schau: Der schimmer ferner lächelnder gestade · Der reinen wolken unverhofftes blau Erhellt die weiher und die bunten pfade.
Dort nimm das tiefe gelb · das weiche grau Von birken und von buchs · der wind ist lau · Die späten rosen welkten noch nicht ganz · Erlese küsse sie und flicht den kranz
Vergiß auch diese lezten astern nicht · Den purpur um die ranken wilder reben · Und auch was übrig blieb von grünem leben Verwinde leicht im herbstlichen gesicht.(1)
Einsamer nie als im August: Erfüllungsstunde—im Gelände die roten und die goldenen Brände, doch wo ist deiner Gärten Lust?
Die Seen hell, die Himmel weich, die Äcker rein und glänzen leise, doch wo sind Sieg und Siegsbeweise aus dem von dir vertretenen Reich?
Wo alles sich durch Glück beweist und tauscht den Blick und tauscht die Ringe im Weingeruch, im Rausch der Dinge—: dienst du dem Gegenglück, dem Geist.(2)
In two public addresses,3 Gottfried Benn declared himself one of the many admirers of the famous poem by Stefan...
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SOURCE: “Gottfried Benn's Music,” in Germanic Review, Vol. 40, No. 3, May, 1965, pp. 225-39.
[In the following essay, Hannum discusses the musicality in Benn's poetry, and suggests that he is as much a Romantic poet as he is an Expressionist.]
“… eine Erde aus Nihilismus und Musik.”(1)
To the reader who is familiar with Gottfried Benn primarily as the poet of Morgue, a series of sharply cynical poems depicting the decay of the human body and its society written during the hey-day of Expressionism, it may come as a surprise to hear that Benn's poems, taken as a whole, are among the most musical in German poetry since Romanticism. This statement immediately calls for some definition of what we mean by the “musicality” of verse, a term which is not so clear as it might be, although unfailingly cited in connection with poets as diverse as, for example, Brentano and Mallarmé. Once we have some idea of what musical means in this context, we can then judge to what extent it is a just epithet with which to describe Benn's poetry, to what extent it may explain some of his characteristic intentions and effects. If its application is indeed valid here, we shall see Benn standing in a tradition whose beginning antedates by far his initial Expressionism; we shall see him as one of the last representatives of a major tendency within Romantic...
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SOURCE: “Gottfried Benn,” in German Men of Letters, Volume III, edited by Alex Natan, Oswald Wolf, 1968, pp. 129-50.
[In the following essay, Hilton traces the development of Benn's poetic style in relation to other modern German poets.]
Gottfried Benn was born on May 2, 1886, in Mansfield, Westprignitz, the son of a Lutheran pastor and a Swiss-French mother. His early upbringing was in this Lutheran environment. Relations with his father, whom he greatly respected, later became strained over the agonising death from cancer of his mother. He had been sent to the University of Marburg to study theology and philology, but his heart was more in medicine and soon he went to a Berlin academy to train as a military doctor. In 1912 Benn left the army and went into private practice in Berlin, and very shortly there appeared his first collection of verse (Morgue), quickly followed by other collections of verse (Söhne, 1913, and Fleisch, 1917) and prose (Gehirne, 1916).
By this time, of course, the storm of the First World War was over Europe. Benn saw war as biologically inevitable and certainly not as a splendid opportunity for high-minded adventure as did, for example, Rupert Brooke and his “swimmers into cleanness leaping”. After this war, in which he served as a doctor, Benn returned to Berlin and his practice—and also his literary activities, though...
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SOURCE: “Benn, Pound, and Eliot: The Monologue Art of German Expressionism and Anglo-American Modernism,” in Review of National Literature, Vol. 9, 1978, pp. 10-24.
[In the following essay, Paolucci discusses the poetry of Benn in relation to other major poets of German Expressionism.]
The Expressionist poet … does not represent, he forms anew. … The world is there. It would make no sense to repeat it.
Kasimir Edschmid, “On Poetic Expressionism” (1917)1
We are all Expressionists today: people who want to shape the outside world from within themselves.
Paul Joseph Goebbels, Michael (1929)2
The fact that Expressionism can be considered the antithesis (the principal cultural victim) of Nazism as well as its forerunner and kin indicates the complexity and inner range of this movement as well as its central position in the Geistesgeschichte of central Europe.
Walter H. Sokel, The Writer in Extremis (1959)3
Expressionism, apart from the romanticism of the early eighteen hundreds, is the one movement which is specifically German and which has spread from Germany to the other countries.
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SOURCE: “Gottfried Benn's ‘Karyatide’ in the Context of His Early Poetry, “in Seminar: A Journal of Germanic Studies, Vol. 16, No. 2, May, 1980, pp. 96-110.
[In the following essay, Holbeche discusses the poem “Karyatide,” concluding that it represents an important stage in the development of Benn's early poetry.]
Although Gottfried Benn's ‘Karyatide’ (p. 45),1 published in 1916, has been one of the most frequently anthologized and discussed of all his poems, it is symptomatic of the persistent tendency of Benn criticism to concentrate on individual poems or to group them in largely synchronic structural or thematic categories that it has rarely been considered within the context of his early poetry as a whole. Moreover, the only critic to have done so in any detail, Else Buddeberg,2 has located the poem in an undifferentiated early period extending from 1913 to 1917, without recognizing that, along with other poems published during Benn's years in Brussels (1915-17), ‘Karyatide’ represents an important new stage in the development of his poetry which, while continuing some of the earlier tendencies, is structurally and stylistically quite distinct from the work of 1912-13 and in some respects already points forward to that of the 1920s.3 It is the aim of this article to show the poem's place in this context and at the same time to explain its...
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SOURCE: “The Unfinished Legacy of Early Expressionist Poetry: Benn, Heym, Van Hoddis and Lichtenstein,” in Passion and Rebellion: The Expressionist Heritage, edited by Stephen Eric Bronner and Douglas Kellner, J. F. Bergin Publishers, Inc., 1983, pp. 151-56.
[In the following excerpt, Ritter discusses the influence of Benn's expressionist poetry on later poets.]
“The heritage of Expressionism is not yet over, for it has not yet even been started.”1 With these typically cryptic words, Ernst Bloch attempted to put an end to the famous “expressionism debate” in 1938.2 There is one group of Expressionists for whom the term “unfinished legacy” is especially apt: the lyric poets of early Expressionism. A number of these poets (Trakl, Benn, Heym and Stadler) are among the handful of Expressionists still known to other than specialist readers today. Benn was controversial his whole life, but the others tended to be eclipsed with the movement's demise around 1925 and were not rediscovered until the post-war period. In this sense their legacies were unfinished at the time of Bloch's essay.
It is also worth recalling that three of the four poets listed above (and at least half a dozen, less prominent, others) failed to survive the First World War.3 Had they been able to continue their creative activity, there is no doubt that literary Expressionism...
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SOURCE: “‘Das Gedicht aus Worten, die Sie Faszinierend Montieren’: Gottfried Benn's Conception of Poetic Montage,” in German Life and Letters, Vol. 36, No. 4, July, 1983, pp. 329-46.
[In the following essay, Manyoni discusses Benn's unique use of the technique of “montage” in his poetry.]
In view of the significance Benn's practice of poetic montage demonstrably held for the younger generation of poets in West Germany, it would have been of value to us had he offered a more detailed exposition of his understanding of montage than he appears to have done. Among his numerous and often repetitive utterances on ‘Artistik’ and ‘the modern poem’, explicit references to montage are uncharacteristically sparse. ‘Montage’ is first mentioned in the essay ‘Nach dem Nihilismus’ (1932) where modern man is branded as a ‘flachschichtig(er) Montagetyp’ (3, 716);1 one of the ‘Drei Alte Männer’ (1948) scoffs at ‘Monteure’, ‘Streckenarbeiter (mit) Saisonaufträge(n)’ who, unlike truly creative men such as Goethe or Tintoretto, are unable to produce ‘Bleibendes’ (6, 1584); Doppelleben (1949) contains Benn's most detailed comment on ‘Montagekunst’ (8, 2028-31); in his introduction to K. H. Hansen's translation of W. H. Auden's The Age of Anxiety (January 1951), Benn uses the verb ‘einmontier(en)’ to point to a method productive of certain...
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SOURCE: “Aspects of Floral Imagery in Gottfried Benn's Poetry,” in Carleton Germanic Papers, Vol. 14, 1986, pp. 1-17.
[In the following essay, Bohm discusses the significance of references to flowers throughout Benn's poetry.]
Ich muß nun wieder meine dunklen Gärten begehn
To talk of flowers when discussing Gottfried Benn may seem slightly eccentric, whether because such approaches seem quaint in the light of contemporary literary criticism's abstractions, or because other issues might seem more pressing in the case of this poet.1 An answer to both reservations can only be that the theme was unmistakeably important in Benn's oeuvre. Even a casual reader will be struck by the frequency of references in the poems to specific flowers and to gardens and blooming in general. Against the assumption that floral imagery was only incidental to him, Benn insisted on seeing the very tragedy of existence represented in the fate of flowers, as in a letter to Hans Egon Holthusen:
Daß Sie alles, was mit Blumen zusammenhängt, dicht am Kitsch erblicken, interessiert mich am meisten. Blumen tragen die Sonne, den Sommer und die Nacht, ich empfinde sie als durchaus tragisch: sinnlos u schnell verblühend (“Blüht nicht zu früh, ach blüht erst, wenn ich komme—”).2
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SOURCE: “Gottfried Benn's ‘Palau,’” in Seminar: A Journal of Germanic Studies, Vol. 22, No. 4, November, 1986, pp. 312-23.
[In the following essay, Holbeche discusses the importance of Benn's poem “Palau” in the development of his early poetry.]
Of all Gottfried Benn's major poems ‘Palau,’1 originally entitled ‘Rot’ and published as the second poem of the ‘Schutt’ cycle in Der Neue Merkur in April 1922, has probably fared worst at the hands of the critics. Although no longer neglected in favour of other twenties poems of considerably less artistic value and historical interest, it is consistently misinterpreted2—not just because of its rather formidable difficulty, but also because critics have tended on the whole to treat it simply as an example of Benn's interest in the exotic and primitive, thus overlooking the fact that it also reflects his preoccupation in the early twenties with certain aspects of the philosophy of Heraclitus, Hegel, and Nietzsche, and with Spengler's Der Untergang des Abendlandes. It is the aim of this article to show how ‘Palau’ is shaped thematically and structurally by the interaction of these influences with Benn's familiar ‘primitivism’ and, if only briefly, to outline the poem's important place in the development of Benn's work.
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SOURCE: “Double Time, Double Language: Benn, Celan, Enzenberger,” in his Narratives of Ecstasy: Romantic Temporality in Modern German Poetry, Wayne State University Press, 1987, pp. 133-74.
[In the following excerpt, Rolleston discusses the influence of German Expressionism on poetry during the period 1920-1970.]
It is becoming possible to view the period roughly from 1920 to 1970 (the lifetime of Paul Celan) as essentially closed, historically describable. Celan's extraordinary poetic enterprise, so wholly and desperately logical while in process, is unimaginable now; its cultural premises have ceased to exist. The question remains whether or not one can say anything reasonably coherent about a period so recent and filled with so many clashing voices. One risks banality, a statement so cautious and generalized that it fails to advance understanding; one also risks making a formulation that is so esoteric it does not seem applicable to specific major voices of the epoch.
My starting point will certainly seem close to the banal when I outline three key paradoxes that are central to the intellectual atmosphere of these years. First, the individual is predictable, repetitive, sociologically determined—yet also a marvelous instrument for surviving, observing, transforming the world. Second, the Western tradition is moribund, weighing down humanity with obsolete ideas and...
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SOURCE: “Treason of the Intellectuals?: Benda, Benn and Brecht,” in Visions and Blueprints: Avant-garde Culture and Radical Politics in Early Twentieth-Century Europe, edited by Edward Timms and Peter Collier, St. Martin's Press, 1988, pp. 23-32.
[In the following excerpt, Timms discusses Benn's controversial political orientation during the era of Nazi Germany, and the influence this had upon his poetry.]
Treason of the Intellectuals defines the norms against which we may assess the polarisation of political sentiment in Germany. The test case is provided by Gottfried Benn (1886-1956). Benn was one of the most influential figures in the Expressionist movement and exemplifies its political volatility—its tendency to generate impulses towards both left-wing and right-wing extremes. Unlike his gifted contemporaries Georg Trakl and Ernst Stadler, Benn survived the First World War—after serving as an army doctor in German-occupied Brussels—to become a dominating presence in modern German poetry. His writings blend intellectual sophistication with a powerful appeal to the emotions, expressing a cynical disillusionment with modern civilisation and a longing for the simplicities of primal being. He was thus admired by the radical left for his sceptical intelligence, and by the right for his regressive cult of more primitive values.1
In a remarkable essay on...
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Exner, Richard. A review of Poèmes, in Comparative Literature, Vol. 11, No. 1, Winter, 1959, pp. 86-90.
Offers a critical assessment of Poèmes, a collection of Benn's poems translated into French by Pierre Garnier. Discusses the difficulties faced by translators of Benn's poetry
———. An obituary of Benn. Books Abroad 30 (Fall 1956): 397.
A brief overview of Benn's literary career and his relationship to German politics.
Block, Haskell M. “Contextual Values of Silence in Modern Poetry.”Proceeding of the 10th Congress of the International comparative Literature Association. New York: Garland Publishing, 1992, pp. 12–18.
Provides a theoretical discussion of the concept of silence in modern poetry.
Cramer-Vos, Marianne. “Paul Valéry and Gottfried Benn—Intellectual Visionaries.” Language Quarterly 26, No. 1-2 (Fall-Winter 1987): 23-30, 35.
Compares the poetry of Benn with that of the French poet Valéry.
A review of Selected Poems. Choice 8, No. 8 (October 1971): 1023.
Offers a positive review of Benn's volume Selected Poems.
Dierick, Augustinus P. Gottfried Benn and his Critics: Major...
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