Gottfried Benn’s morbid poetry

Posted by Aspasia Stephanou on April 12, 2008 in Blog tagged with

Gottfried Benn’s morbid poetry

Little Aster


A drowned drayman was humped on to the slab.

Someone or other had jammed a dark light violet


between his teeth.

And as I, working

with a long knife

under the skin from the breast

cut out tongue and gums,

I must have knocked it for it slid

into the adjacent brain.

I tucked it into his breast cavity for him

between the cotton wads

as he was being sewn up again.

Drink your fill in your vase!

Rest in peace

Little aster! 


Beauty and cruelty, existence and death, nihilism.

Gottfried Benn’s poetry is expressionistic and often violently naturalistic. The first collection of his poems Morgue and Other Poems published in 1912 shocked the readers. Combining his medical experience and his existential philosophy, Benn created a lyrical world of disturbing images of human decay and pain, cynical and grotesque, but at the same time deeply moving. Although such avant-garde experimentation is out-dated and perhaps has lost its power to shock, it demonstrates nonetheless a cynicism and desperation similar to the one that characterises the postmodern condition. In a capitalist society where desires and goods are always exchanged for more desires and goods, the subject is left to perform a self that is always left with nothingness, with existential angst and nihilistic indifference. It seems that Benn speaks to the timeless soul of every tormented being who is confronted with existential dilemmas and with questions about her/his own mortality and the existence of a god that was proclaimed to be dead or a lobster.


In another poem, we read:



soul’s jetsam,

coagulated blood of the twentieth century –


Scars – disturbed circulation of early creation,

the historic religions of five centuries in smithereens,

science: cracks in the Parthenon,

Planck’s quantum theory coagulated

with Kepler and Kierkegaard, fresh gloom –

 (From Fragments)

Here the subject is lost in a modern world where metanarratives fail to create a meaning, an order, a closure. Everything fades away, everything changes, everything dies.


One of the most shocking of his Morgue poems is Man and Woman go through a Cancer Ward:


The man:

This row here is made up of collapsed wombs.

and this row is made up of collapsed breasts.

Bed stinks by bed. The nurses change each hour.


Come, you may safely draw back his cover.

Observe, this knob of fat and fetid pus,

that was once large to some man or other

and signified passion and athomeness.


Come and observe this scar upon the breast.

Do you feel the rosary of softened knots?

Yes, touch it. The flesh is soft and feels no pain.


Here, this one bleeds as from thirty bodies.

No man on earth has so much blood.

This one here first had

a child cut out of the cancered womb.


They are left to sleep. Day and night – New ones

are told: here one sleeps one’s way to health – for

Sunday visits they’re made a little brighter.


Only a little nourishment is taken.

The backs are sored. You see the flies. Sometimes

the nurse washes them. As one washes benches.


Here the land is swirling up around each bed.

Flesh subsides to soil. Red heat dies off.

Sap starts to trickle. The earth is calling.


Feelings in the poem are secondary. The focus is centered on the process of decay and death. The human condition. The inevitable end. Not religion (rosary), not anything can stop human torment and suffering. But the tone is cool and the poet is indifferent to the horrors of death. Is such indifference a reflection of our own indifference as postmodern subjects? Are the images of death no longer shocking for us?

And if the poetic power of such explicit horror does indeed shock, is it any different from the shocking thrills of horror cinema today? Reading some of these poems I couldn’t resist comparing them to the violent cinema of Takashi Miike (especially Ichi the Killer), the Japanese snuff films Guinea Pig, and more recent horror films.

And consequently, is the poetic word more or less powerful to evoke feelings and terror in a postmodern world that is conquered by the expenditure of cinematic shock and violence?



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