If not the greatest German poet of the 20th century, Gottfried Benn is in many ways the most representative. From the succès de scandale of his first brief collection, Morgue (1912), to the ill-advised flirtation with Nazism in the early 1930s and the postwar revival of the 1950s, Benn’s writing career spanned the formative decades of modern Germany. His lifelong work as a doctor – specialising in venereal and skin diseases – furnished him with a scientist’s scepticism about the metaphysical yearnings of modernity, yet he too shared these yearnings, as his quietly aching poetry amply attests. Less philosophically inclined than Rilke, more immediately accessible than Celan, Benn is among the most genially engaging of all the major German modernists. Why, then, has he struggled to gain a readership in the English-speaking world?
Michael Hofmann’s answer is that he has been inadequately translated. Despite influential champions, including T S Eliot and John Berryman, few sustained versions of Benn’s verse have appeared in English; unlike Brecht, as Hofmann ruefully remarks,