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German Life and Letters 63:2 April 2010

0016-8777 (print); 14680483 (online)


GOTTFRIED BENNS STATISCHE GEDICHTE (1948)
AND THE FINAL TURN TOWARDS THE POETIC
IN THE WORK OF MARTIN HEIDEGGER
MARTIN TRAVERS
ABSTRACT
In 1949, Martin Heidegger published a collection of essays under the title Holzwege,
which effectively represented his second and final turn towards the establishment
of the poetic as the central term in his philosophy. This paper contends that a major
factor in Heideggers development in this direction was the philosophers discov-
ery of the poetry of Gottfried Benn, whose Statische Gedichte had appeared just one
year earlier. Focusing upon Heideggers major essay of this period, Das Wesen der
Sprache (1957), this paper seeks to explicate the convergences, parallels and direct
points of contact between Benns poetry and Heideggers theory, convergences that
were both thematic and tropic. The mutual respect between Benn and Heidegger
did not last, and the paper concludes by looking at the radically differing visions of
modernity, a source of poetic inspiration for Benn but the site of historical negativ-
ity for Heidegger, that brought an end to their affiliation.
Im Jahre 1949 ver offentlichte Martin Heidegger eine Aufsatzsammlung mit dem
Titel Holzwege, die tats achlich seine zweite und endg ultige Kehre zur Etablierung
des Lyrischen als dem zentralen Thema seiner Philosophie bedeutete. Dieser
Aufsatz behauptet, dass Heideggers Entwicklung in dieser Richtung mage-
blich dadurch beeinflusst wurde, dass er als Philosoph die Dichtung Gottfried
Benns entdeckte. Dessen Statische Gedichte waren gerade ein Jahr zuvor er-
schienen. Durch die Konzentrierung auf Heideggers umfangreiche Abhandlung
uber Das Wesen der Sprache (1957) versucht der Verfasser in seinem Aufsatz die

Ubereinstimmungen, Parallelen und direkten Ber uhrungspunkte zwischen Benns


Lyrik und Heideggers Theorie herauszuarbeiten. Dabei ergeben sich sowohl the-
matische als auch tropische

Ubereinstimmungen. Der gegenseitige Respekt zwis-
chen Benn und Heidegger war jedoch nicht von Dauer. Der Aufsatz schliet mit
dem Hinweis auf die grunds atzlichen Unterschiede in den Anschauungen von der
Modernit at, die f ur Benn eine Quelle dichterischer Inspiration und f ur Heideg-
ger der Ort geschichtlicher Verneinung war. Diese unterschiedlichen Sichtweisen
f uhrten schlielich zum Ende ihrer Gemeinsamkeiten.
On 29 May 1949, Gottfried Benn wrote to his friend and confidant,
F.W. Oelze, lamenting the declining quality of intellectual life in post-
war Europe and, most particularly, in post-war Germany. Commenting
upon what he saw as the inflated reputations of Ortega y Gasset and Carl
Jaspers (whom he regarded as symptomatic of the Misere of contem-
porary thought), Benn observed: er [Ortega] ist nat urlich interessanter
u. ein besserer Blender als J[aspers], aber einen Rang neben Spengler,
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180 GOTTFRIED BENN AND MARTIN HEIDEGGER
Heidegger, gar Nietzsche kann ich ihm nicht zusprechen.
1
This letter was
followed soon after, on 6 June 1949, by a further one to the same addressee
on the same theme, and this time Heidegger is singled out for praise: ich
las ein neueres kleines Buch von ihm [meant is the latters Platons Lehre
von der Wahrheit, published in 1947] kein Zweifel, dass er alles uberragt,
was beruflich denkt u. lehrt (OB II, p. 215). These letters were the first in a
series that Benn would write over the following two years expressing a grow-
ing admiration for Heideggers work and an affinity with his person. As he
revealed in a letter in October of the same year:

Ubrigens mit Heidegger


lasse ich mich gern zusammenstellen (OB II, p. 257).
Benns admiration was soon reciprocated. In January 1950, Egon Vietta
(a confidant of both poet and philosopher) reported back to Benn that
Heidegger had given a spontane Ovation to the volume of poetry that Vi-
etta had sent him (either a copy of the Statische Gedichte or the collection,
Trunkene Flut, both of which had been published the previous year in the
Limes Verlag). Benn welcomed Heideggers comments as uberraschend
sch one und mich bewegende Worte (OB III, p. 5). Effusive generalisations
were soon followed by particularities, proof of personal reading and de-
tailed knowledge. On 13 August of that year, Benn wrote to Oelze saying
that he had received a letter from Heidegger complimenting him on one
of his poems (OB III, p. 57).
2
That spring, Hans Paeschke (one of the ed-
itors of the journal Merkur ) visited the philosopher, and they spent their
entire time talking about Benn.
3
And in August, Benn received news that
at the end of a lecture, Wirklichkeit, Illusion und M oglichkeit der Uni-
versit at, given in front of a group of students in Todtnauberg the pre-
vious month, Heidegger had recited five of Benns poems: das von ihm
Gemeinte glaubte er in diesen Gedichten festgehalten zu sehen, Benn
later noted (OB III, p. 59). This was followed on 19 May 1951 by a greeting
from Heidegger, relayed by Oelze, who had met the philosopher in Bremen
(OB III, p. 100).
A process of cultural symbiosis is taking place, a shared identity in the
emerging intellectual landscape of post-war Germany.
4
These contacts be-
tween Benn and Heidegger were not fortuitous. In the midst of their grow-
ing familiarity, both men were involved in a major investigation into poetics
of the word, Benn working inwards, towards the concrete aesthetics of the
text, as in his talk, Probleme der Lyrik (given at the University of Marburg
1
Gottfried Benn, Briefe an F.W. Oelze, 3 vols, ed. Harald Steinhagen and J urgen Schr oder, Frankfurt
a.M. 197982, vol. II, p. 211. Further references appear in the text as OB followed by volume and
page number.
2
The poem in question was Am Br uckenwehr, written in 1934. See the editorial comment in OB
III, p. 307.
3
Hanspeter Brode, Benn Chronik: Daten zu Leben und Werk, Munich/Vienna 1978, p. 247.
4
Benn and Heidegger both appear in the volume Denker und Deuter im heutigen Europa, ed. Hans
Schwerte (Oldenburg 1954). In this article, I am not considering the political implications of their
alignment.
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GOTTFRIED BENN AND MARTIN HEIDEGGER 181
in June 1951), and Heidegger outwards, towards the standing of the poetic
within his ontology of art, in a series of essays which began with the volume
Holzwege in 1949 and culminated (although Heidegger would not have used
such a definitive word) in Das Wesen der Sprache (written a year after
Benns death) in 1957. Can we talk of influence or, at least, stimulus and
encouragement here? There is, indeed, much material, both substantive
and circumstantial, borrowings in imagery, direct quotations, shared refer-
ences and allusions, to suggest that we can, and that Heideggers discovery
of Benns poetry was a major factor in his turn in 1950 and 1951, away
from the mythopoeic studies of the heroic-tragic H olderlin and his founda-
tional ethos in Ancient Greece, and towards a new aesthetics of the poetic
word, one alive to the more tentative, minimalist idiom of modern poetry.
5
What initially brought Heidegger to Benn was almost certainly the publi-
cation of the latters Statische Gedichte, which had first appeared in October
1948 in the Arche Verlag in Z urich, and then in March 1949 in the Limes
Verlag in Wiesbaden.
6
The volume included the great majority of poems
that Benn had written during the Third Reich but which he had not been
allowed to publish because of a publication ban imposed by the Nazi gov-
ernment in 1936. As he explained in a letter written to F.W. Oelze in Jan-
uary 1945, with his static poems Benn felt that he had reached a major
turning point in his poetic development: mir daran lag, neue Themen,
neue Wirklichkeiten in die fade deutsche Lyrik zu bringen, fort von Stim-
mung u. Sentiments zu Gegenst anden u. diese mit seinem eigenen Bild zu
f ullen (OB I, pp. 3778). The term static, indeed, reflected a theoreti-
cal maturation in Benns thinking that was both aesthetic and philosophi-
cal. As the poet later explained in a letter to his publisher at Arche, Peter
Schifferli, in 1947: statisch ist ein Begriff, der nicht nur meiner inneren
asthetischen und moralischen Lage, sondern auch der formalen Methode
der Gedichte entspricht und in die Richtung des durch Konstruktion be-
herrschten, in sich ruhenden Materials, besser noch: in die Richtung des
5
Julian Young sees the initial turn (Kehre) in Heideggers work, away from explorations into the
immediate presence of Being towards its mediation through art and particularly language, as part
of his transition to Ereignis thinking as manifest in Der Ursprung des Kunstwerks (19368) (Young,
Heideggers Philosophy of Art, Cambridge 2001, pp. 13). For an extended account of Heideggers de-
veloping aesthetic, see Jennifer Anna Gosetti-Ferencei Heidegger , H olderlin, and the Subject of Poetic
Language: Towards a New Poetics of Dasein, New York 2004, pp. 2760 (particularly pp. 412). In this
paper, I am arguing for yet a further turn in Heideggers thinking, following the leap to Heideg-
gers later texts made by Walter Biemel in his Poetry and Language in Heidegger in Joseph J.
Kockelmans (ed.), On Heidegger and Language, Evanston 1972, pp. 65105 (p. 82).
6
It is possible that Heidegger would have known of Benns volume before its actual publication,
through his contact with Erhard H ursch, an agent for the Arche Verlag, Z urich. It was H ursch (know-
ing that a thaw was on the way in postwar cultural policy) who had directed negotiations between
Benn and Arche in 1948 for the rights for Statische Gedichte. H ursch visited Heidegger in Marburg in
February 1949 to gather information regarding the philosophers publishing plans, and it is highly
likely that he discussed Benns poetry then (see OB II, p. 187). For H urschs account of his transac-
tions with Benn, see Meine Begegnung mit Gottfried Benn, in Benn Jahrbuch, vol. 1, ed. Joachim
Dyck, Holger Hof and Peter D. Krause, Stuttgart 2003, pp. 3546.
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182 GOTTFRIED BENN AND MARTIN HEIDEGGER
Anti-Dynamischen verweisen soll. And Benn continues: es heit nat urlich
auch ein gewisser Zweifel an Entwicklung und es heit auch Resignation,
es ist anti-faustisch.
7
As with so much of the philosophy underlying Benns writing, the inspi-
ration was Nietzsche, whose conviction it was (as Benn explained in a letter
from 1933) that nihilism, the rejection of the truths of science, can only
be overcome by das Gesetz zur Form, zur Gestalt, zur Perspective (OB I,
p. 28). In terms of Benns own aesthetic, perspectivism represented the
supreme value of seeing clearly, by which the poet meant two (ultimately
related) things: demarcating the lines of physical objects and the structure
of the phenomenal world, which will retain its integrity by being viewed be-
yond the vagaries of the subjective gaze, and seeing into the deeper mean-
ing of existence, where true knowledge (paradoxically, perhaps) is a matter
of understanding the surface rather than the depth of things, being, in
the modern period, existential rather than metaphysical in nature.
8
Per-
spectivism is, then, an epistemology of attitude: a self-reflective solipsism,
the central tenets of which are nicht mehr alles auf einmal zu wollen, vor
allem nicht mehr an eine rationale Erkl arbarkeit von Welt und Geschichte
zu glauben, sondern sich auf die Einsicht in die Relativit at der Bezugssys-
teme zu beschr anken.
9
Conclusions, tendentious events lie beyond the na-
ture of the static: diese Natur ist ausgesprochen zyklisch, l at Alles offen,
alles Hervorgebrachte wird wieder zur uckgenommen. Alles kommt immer
wieder, sie beginnt an keiner Stelle und endet an keinem Punkt.
10
In September 1946, Benn, feeling pessimistic about the public response
to his volume, had written: nat urlich wird schon allein der Titel Stati-
sche Gedichte Anstoss erregen in einer Zeit, die sich in einer wenn auch
sinnlosen Bewegung zu befinden als ihr besonderes Verdienst u. ihre
politische Forderung ansieht (OB, II, pp. 4950). But Benn was wrong:
the reception of the book was overwhelmingly positive. Encouraging re-
views were written by Werner Milch (in Die Tat in January 1949), by Werner
Helwig (Allgemeine Zeitung in March), and by the young Alfred Andersch.
He was impressed by the diversity of the volume, its movement across poetic
genres and idioms, noting:
der Wortschatz der Zivilisation und der geisteswissenschaftlichen Abstrakta,
den Benn zum erstenmal und in souver aner Weise f ur die deutsche Lyrik
7
Dichter uber ihre Dichtungen: Gottfried Benn, ed. Edgar Lohner, Munich 1969, pp. 923.
8
For Wilfried W. Dickhoff, Benns perspectivism involves more technically Durchblicke, statt an
Erkenntnis interessierte Einblicke, asthetische Distanz [. . .] gezielte Verstellung des Blickes [und]
die Verd unnung des Ausdrucks zur reinen Oberfl ache. Dickhoff, Zur Hermeneutik des Schweigens:
Ein Versuch uber das Imagin are bei Gottfried Benn, Frankfurt a.M. 1987, p. 167.
9
Beda Allemann, Gottfried Benn: Das Problem der Geschichte, Pfullingen 1965, p. 8.
10
Gottfried Benn, S amtliche Werke, 7 vols, ed. Gerhard Schuster and Holger Hof, Stuttgart 19862003,
vol. IV, p. 393. Further references appear in the text as SW followed by volume and page number.
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GOTTFRIED BENN AND MARTIN HEIDEGGER 183
fruchtbar gemacht hat, ist nun v ollig eingeschmolzen und g anzlich der
magisch-bannenden Aufgabe des Gedichts dienstbar gemacht.
11
The achievement of the Statische Gedichte made possible Benns come
back (as he himself called it in English) into the mainstream of German
culture, and secured for his poetry a new readership amongst which we
must include Martin Heidegger.
12
The growing centrality of Benn within
post-war German literature prompted the University of Marburg to com-
mission him to deliver a lecture at the university in August 1951. Entitled
Probleme der Lyrik, it became Benns most extensive statement on the
aesthetics of the poetic, a summa summarum which, as he noted in a letter of
the time, die ganzen alten Essays aufhebt (OB III, p. 110).
13
Benn began
his talk with a critique of the conventional verse that routinely goes under
the name of poetry and which is, according to Benn, characterised by false
pathos and superficial sentiment. This is poetry that routinely appears in
the more highbrow weekend newspapers and supplements. As Benn notes:
es ist meistens kein langes Gedicht, und sein Thema nimmt die Fragen der
Jahreszeit auf, im Herbst werden die Novembernebel in die Verse verwoben,
im Fr uhling die Krokusse als Bringer des Lichts begr ut, im Sommer die
mohndurchschossene Wiese im Nacken besungen, zur Zeit der kirchlichen
Feste werden Motive des Ritus und der Legenden in Reime gebracht. (SW VI,
p. 9)
Such topics are what the general public typically understands by the term
poetisch. However, poets who produce such work, Benn argues, are
merely straining after das H ohere (SW VI, p. 32), employing a spiritu-
alised rhetoric, a seraphische Ton (SW VI, p. 18) that seeks to convince
readers that the poet has access to a higher form of existence. Conventional
poetry is, thus, formulaic: it is Andichten, and Benn lays bare the cheap
mechanisms that make it possible: the use of the simile (the wie word), its
11
Stefan Andersch, Statische Gedichte, in

Uber Gottfried Benn: Kritische Stimmen, 19121956, ed. Bruno
Hillebrand, 2 vols, Frankfurt a.M. 1987, vol. 1, p. 171. For a fuller account of the reception of the
Statische Gedichte, see Joachim Dyck, Der Zeitzeuge: Gottfried Benn 19291949, G ottingen 2006, pp. 383
92.
12
Heideggers praise of Statisiche Gedichte was fulsome. According to his confidant, Heinrich Petzet,
the volume contained poems that Heidegger zu seinem geh uteten inneren Besitz z ahlte (Heinrich
Petzet, Auf einen Stern zugehen: Begegnungen und Gespr ache mit Martin Heidegger 19291976, Frankfurt
a.M. 1983, p. 206). Indeed, when asked by Max Niedermayer in 1951 to nominate his favourite poems
for inclusion in an anthology that he was planning, Heidegger chose Benns poetry over anything by,
for example, Georg Trakl or Stefan George (poets that he was elsewhere writing about at this time).
See Geliebte Verse. Die sch onsten deutschen Gedichte aus der ersten Jahrhunderte, ed. Max Niedermayer,
Wiesbaden, second edition, 1955, pp. 1821.
13
Jens Dechert considers Benns talk within its broader context in his Probleme der Lyrik: Die
Neubestimmung der Lyrik nach 1945 in Gottfried Benn (18861956): Studien zum Werk, Bielefeld
2007, pp. 21130.
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184 GOTTFRIED BENN AND MARTIN HEIDEGGER
drawing on false energy through the use of resonant colours, and its striv-
ing for the precious and the intimate, a process which simply collapses into
sentimentality and kitsch, the Feuilletonistische in short (SW VI, p. 18).
In the place of such bland versification, Benn propounds the modern
poem, behind which stehen die Probleme der Zeit, der Kunst, der in-
neren Grundlagen unserer Existenz (SW VI, p. 16). Such poems do not
make compromises with their readership. They confront the world, both
thematically and linguistically, and through this confrontation transcend
it. This is das absolute Gedicht, das Gedicht ohne Glauben, das Gedicht
ohne Hoffnung, das Gedicht, an niemanden gerichtet, das Gedicht aus
Worten, die Sie faszinierend montieren (SW VI, p. 36). Such poems are
in sich ruhend, aus sich leuchtend (SW VI, p. 19). Their essence is au-
totelic, residing in the wrought craft of their language. The absolute poem
braucht keine Zeitwende, es ist in der Lage, ohne Zeit zu operieren, wie
es die Formeln der modernen Physik seit langem tun (SW VI, p. 39). It
luxuriates in its own uncompromising ontology. The absolute poem is the
modern poem.
The absolute poemis made possible through the total and uncompromis-
ing commitment of the modern poet to language, to the Word: das Wort
nimmt [. . .] beim prim aren Lyriker die unmittelbare Bewegung seiner Ex-
istenz auf (SW VI, p. 12). The bond between poet and language constitutes
something more than simply a medium. It is not a question of manipulation
or technique, so that author and text simply confront each other from dif-
ferent positions. It is rather that both are brought into existence only when
the two entities, normally thought of as discrete, engage with one another.
In such situations, object and subject do not exist:
das Bewutsein w achst in die Worte hinein, das Bewutsein transzendiert in
die Worte. Vergessen was heien diese Buchstaben? Nichts, nicht zu ver-
stehen. Aber mit ihnen ist das Bewutsein in bestimmter Richtung verbun-
den, es schl agt in diesen Buchstaben an, und diese Buchstaben nebeneinader
gesetzt schlagen akustisch und emotionell in unserem Bewutsein an. (SW
VI, p. 24)
In this process, poetic sensibility finds itself a durchbrochenes Ich, torn
between the poles of creativity and destruction, the former dependent
upon the latter, producing a space into which language streams as an
agency that has its own momentum. At such moments, language possesses a
higher power, and one that is largely inscrutable (as Benn explains, quoting
an earlier pronouncement on this theme):
schwer erkl arbare Macht des Wortes, das l ost und f ugt. Fremdartige Macht
der Stunde, aus der Gebilde dr angen unter der formfordernden Gewalt des
Nichts. Transzendente Realit at der Strophe voll von Untergang und voll von
Wiederkehr: die Hinf alligkeit des Individuellen und das kosmologische Sein,
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GOTTFRIED BENN AND MARTIN HEIDEGGER 185
in ihr verkl art sich ihre Antithese, sie tr agt die Meere und die H ohe der
Nacht und macht die Sch opfung zum stygischen Traum: Niemals und im-
mer. (SW VI, p. 26)
Ultimately the process is one of liberation, and Benn concludes with an
enthusiastic celebration of the vital energy of language in flight: Worte,
Worte Substantive! Sie brauchen nur die Schwingen zu offnen und
Jahrtausende entfallen ihrem Flug (SW VI, p. 26).
At one point in his lecture, Benn invokes the name of Stefane Mallarm e,
in whose poetics he saw the origins of a Ph anomenologie der Komposi-
tion (SW VI, p. 12). The term, however, is nowhere used by Mallarm e or
by any of the other exponents of absolute poetry that Benn cites. To find
the most apposite theoretical context for his aesthetic, Benn needed only
to have looked not backwards but sideways, to the work of his contempo-
rary, Martin Heidegger, who like Benn was attempting to explore the nature
of the poetic idiom within a framework that can justifiably be called phe-
nomenological. As Benn was giving his Probleme der Lyrik as a talk in
Marburg, Heidegger had started to address precisely the same theoretical
issues in his work. Like Benn, he too had to wait for a thaw in the politics
of post-war Germany, remaining, because of his collaboration with the Nazi
state between 1933 and 1934, unable to publish or give public lectures until
1951. Once the Allied proscription was lifted, Heidegger published a series
of essays on language and on the centrality of the poetic, most notably Die
Sprache (written in 1950), . . .dichterisch wohnet der Mensch. . . (1951),
Die Sprache im Gedicht (1952), Aus einem Gespr ach von der Sprache
(19534), Das Wesen der Sprache (19578), Das Wort (1958), and Der
Weg zur Sprache (1959).
14
By far the most substantial of these essays is Das Wesen der Sprache,
a collection of three lectures that Heidegger gave at the University of
Freiburg between December 1957 and February 1958. What Heidegger sets
out to do in Das Wesen der Sprache is uns vor eine M oglichkeit bringen,
mit der Sprache eine Erfahrung zu machen.
15
In his first lecture, Heideg-
ger approaches his task in terms of poetic subjectivity and its relationship
to language, using the poem Das Wort by Stefan George (written in 1919)
as a catalyst for his investigation. Georges poem charts the venture of the
poet into ferne oder traum in search of material for his poetry. He returns
home, but the treasures he has brought with him disappear at once. The
poem ends with the lines So lernt ich traurig den verzicht:/Kein ding sei
14
These are the central texts in the corpus of the late Heidegger, particularly where his exploration
into the poetic is concerned. For an overview of this corpus, see George Pattison, The later Heidegger ,
London 2000, and with a sharper focus on language and the poetic, Veronique Foti, Heidegger and the
Poets: Poesis/Sophia/Techne, New Jersey/London, 1992, and Cristina Lafont, Heidegger, Language and
World-disclosure, Cambridge 2001.
15
Das Wesen der Sprache in Martin Heidegger, Unterwegs zur Sprache, Stuttgart 1959, pp. 159238
(p. 159). Further references appear in the text as Unterwegs, followed by page number.
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186 GOTTFRIED BENN AND MARTIN HEIDEGGER
wo das wort gebricht (Unterwegs, p. 163). The poem is a self-reflexive med-
itation on the impossibility of attaining poetic insight by experience alone.
As Heidegger notes: der Dichter hat den Verzicht gelernt. Er hat eine Er-
fahrung gemacht. Womit? Mit dem Ding und dessen Beziehung zum Wort
(Unterwegs, 168), a relation that goes beyond blosse Bezeichnung, for das
Wort verschafft dem Ding erst das Sein (Unterwegs, p. 164).
At this point in his argument, Heidegger quotes a line from Benns poem
Gedichte: Im Namen dessen, der die Stunde spendet. Heidegger knew
the poem well, for it was one of the poems that he recited in his Todt-
nauberg talk in July 1950. Benns poem, written in 1941 in the darkest mo-
ment of the war, promotes the galvanising potency of the poetic word as a
path beyond historical nihilism. Its first stanza reads:
Im Namen dessen, der die Stunden spendet,
im Schicksal des Geschlechts, dem du geh ort,
hast du fraglosen Augs den Blick gewendet
in eine Stunde, die den Blick zerst ort,
die Dinge dringen kalt in die Gesichte
und reien sich der alten Bindung fort,
es gibt nur ein Begegnen: im Gedichte
die Dinge mystisch bannen durch das Wort.
16
Written in three classic eight-line stanzas of largely iambic pentameters,
Gedichte sketches a negative theogony, dramatising episodically the vio-
lence, suffering and senseless internecine conflict that have hitherto gov-
erned the world. History is a fragment without coherence or purpose, and
the lyrical subject of the poem exhorts poet and reader alike to seek an
Olympian position beyond it. The medium for this flight of transcendence
is the galvanising agency of the Word. Writing two years later in his Roman
der Ph anotyp, Benn described this Transformation von Objekten in Wort-
zauber (SW IV, p. 424), celebrating a faculty that is capable of turning
the impassive objectivity of history into an aesthetic process. In Gedichte,
this active agency is captured in the polyvalent notion of bannen, a con-
cept that here as elsewhere in Benns poetry moves across several areas of
meaning, connoting not only to conjure up and transfigure but also to
exorcise and to ban through the transfiguration of time.
17
It is precisely the process of bannen (to use Benns term) that Heideg-
ger explores in Das Wesen der Sprache, concentrating now on the expe-
rience of the poet (who works within what Heidegger calls the Zusage
of language), and now on that of the reader. In the former case, Heideg-
ger stresses the tentative nature of the poetic process; it is eundo assequi, a
groping by the poet towards the abundance of language whilst he remains
16
SW I, p. 186.
17
As in the poem Astern from 1935: Astern schw alende Tage,/alte Beschw orung, Bann,/die
G otter halten die Waage/eine z ogernde Stunde an. See SW I, p. 166.
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GOTTFRIED BENN AND MARTIN HEIDEGGER 187
aware of both what is said but also not said. The experience is transforma-
tive: es schickt sich ihm etwas zu, trifft ihn und verwandelt sein Verh altnis
zum Wort (Unterwegs, p. 170).
18
The poet is, then, within language (in
dieser geheimnisvollen Landschaft) even as he attempts to find it (Un-
terwegs, p. 171). Direct and conscious attempts to exploit it, however, are
doomed to failure. The poet must learn to ask questions and listen, and
remain in touch with its suggestive presence. As Heidegger explains:
wenn wir bei der Sprache anfangen, n amlich nach ihrem Wesen, dann mu
uns doch die Sprache selber schon zugesprochen sein. Wollen wir dem We-
sen, n amlich der Sprache, nachfragen, so mu uns auch, was Wesen heit,
schon zugesprochen sein. Anfrage und Nachfrage brauchen hier und uberall
im voraus den Zuspruch dessen, was sie fragend angehen, dem sie fragend
nachgehen. Jeder Ansatz jeder Frage h alt sich schon innerhalb der Zusage
dessen auf, was in der Frage gestellt wird. (Unterwegs, p. 175)
Heidegger then returns to his George poem and the words kein ding sei
wo das wort gebricht. This, the concluding line of the poem, deutet in das
Verhaltnis von Wort und Ding, dergestalt, da das Wort selbst das Verh altnis
ist, insofern es jeglich Ding ins Sein h alt und darin beh alt. Ohne das also
verhaltende Wort sinkt das Ganze der Dinge, die Welt, ins Dunkel weg,
samt das Ich, das, was ihm an Wunder und Traum begegnet, an den Saum
seines Landes zur Quelle der Namen tr agt (Unterwegs, pp. 1767).
To demonstrate what he means (and to conclude this initial section of
his essay), Heidegger chooses another poem, not from Stefan George but
from Gottfried Benn once again. Indeed, the very imagery of Heideggers
foregoing exposition suggests that he may already have had this poem in
mind. The poem in question is the aptly named Ein Wort, written in 1941.
As Heidegger explains: der Ton dieses Gedichtes ist gestraffter und zu-
gleich heier [than Georges], weil preisgegeben und zugleich ins

Auerste
entschieden (Unterwegs, p. 177). Heidegger had chosen well, for Benns
poem places the philosophers argument within a universal setting: the con-
texts of absolute space and time. It is a short poem, and Heidegger cites it
in full:
Ein Wort, ein Satz : aus Chiffern steigen
erkanntes Leben, j aher Sinn,
die Sonne steht, die Sph aren schweigen
und alles ballt sich zu ihm hin.
Ein Wort , ein Glanz, ein Flug, ein Feuer,
ein Flammenwurf, ein Sternenstrich
18
A break then from the voluntarist model of the Romantics. As Benn had observed in his Probleme
der Lyrik, the modern poet gropes towards meaning: immer wieder f uhlen Sie an ihm herum, am
einzelnen Wort, am einzelnen Vers (SW VI, p. 20).
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188 GOTTFRIED BENN AND MARTIN HEIDEGGER
und wieder Dunkel, ungeheuer,
im leeren Raum um Welt und Ich.
19
What is being described here is the absolute vacuity of Pascalian space,
the realm of an existential wretchedness that is continuous and endless.
But, as Benn argued elsewhere, darkness, literal and metaphorical, brings
forth its own creative energy: the power of the Word, which in one vital
process both dissolves and integrates. In the poem, the Word alone partakes
of universal energy. Everything gravitates towards it (the cryptic ihm of
line 4): it is hard and resilient (line 2), and like the other astral elements
it provides fire and energy in an otherwise desolate universe. The Biblical
connotations (in principium erat verbum) are clear; but seen against Benns
developing aesthetic of the absolute poem, it is also clear that the Word
functions as a cipher for the poetic act (the leap of flame of line 6), whose
vital source is language.
As the subsequent sections of Heideggers essay make clear, poetic enun-
ciation stays within the Word, but also in the darkness that surrounds the
Word, a state to which the poet must accommodate himself. As Heidegger
explains der Verzicht, den der Dichter lernt, ist von der Art jenes erf ullten
Entsagens, dem allein sich das lang Verborgene und eigentlich schon Zuge-
sagte zuspricht (Unterwegs, p. 169).
20
The poet cannot rely upon an inter-
pretative community: this does not exist in Heideggers poetics. Approach-
ing the Word is a solitary experience with and within language. It is an
encounter that goes beyond mere interpretation. Indeed, language resists
interpretation. As Heidegger notes: manches spricht daf ur, da das We-
sen der Sprache es gerade verweigert, zur Sprache zu kommen (Unterwegs,
p. 186). As Heideggers essay progresses, its tenor moves increasingly away
from the pragmatic notions of truth or information that reign with the
machine world of modernity, which functionally seeks to name things, and
towards the shifting semantic force-field of the poem, what later theorists
will call its free-floating significations, and these defy transcription. Heideg-
ger once more: das Wort f ur das Wort l at sich dort nirgends finden, wo
das Geschick die nennend-stiftende Sprache schenkt f ur das Seiende, da
es sei und als Seiendes gl anze und bl uhe (Unterwegs, p. 192).
The same conviction in the self-sufficiency of the word was shared by
Gottfried Benn, who throughout his career had been called upon to de-
fend his notion of monologistic poetry. One final defence was made in a
radio interview with Hermann Kunisch in March 1954, just two years before
19
SW I, p. 198.
20
These tones are familiar to the readers of Benns poetry. In September 1952, Benn published the
poem Verzweiflung in the journal Merkur (in which Heidegger was also published). In the final
section of that poem we read: Sprich zu dir selbst, dann sprichst du zu den Dingen/und von den
den Dingen, die so bitter sind/, ein anderes Gespr ach wird nie gelingen,/den Tod tr agt beides,
beides endet blind (SW I, p. 279).
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GOTTFRIED BENN AND MARTIN HEIDEGGER 189
Benn died. In spite of changing literary values, the emergence of Existen-
tialism in France and a sober neo-realism in Germany, Benn firmly held
throughout this period to his belief in the essentially asocial, ahistorical
integrity of the poetic idiom, as Hermann Kunisch discovered (somewhat
to his dismay) in his radio interview. The theme of the debate was Wozu
Dichter in d urftiger Zeit?, a question taken from H olderlins poem Brot
und Wein (1801). Kunisch was clearly expecting Benn to outline the re-
lationship between the poet and his contemporary historical environment.
What Benn did was to assert the non-relationship between the two: die
Zeit ist ihm doch zun achst wahrscheinlich vollkommen gleichg ultig (SW
VII/1, p. 282). Certainly, the poet uses words, which are part of the com-
mon weal, and his writing undeniably presupposes a readership and a fund
of common experiences: Leidenschaft, Natur und tragische Erfahrung,
but what he writes transcends these material components, and it is the tran-
scendence rather than the components that we look for in poetry. As Benn
makes clear (describing the poet of the modern period), Dichtung ist eine
neue Haltung, eine neue Affektation, es ist eine Welt, die sie sich nicht in
Beziehung bringen k onnen zu den wissenschaftlichen und soziologischen
Welten. On the contrary, what the poet practices is a monologische Kunst
(SW, VII/1, pp. 2867 and 288).
21
The poetic, then, is a matter of language, and words that come within
its ambit possess a radically different quality, a quality that borders on
the mystical. As Benn explains: in dem Augenblick, wo das Wort in
ein Gedicht tritt, hat es eine andere Atmosph are. Wir kommen nicht
darum herum zuzugeben, da Worte eine latente Existenz besitzen, die
auf entsprechend Eingestellte als Zauber wirkt und sie bef ahigt, diesen
Zauber weiterzugeben. Dies scheint mir das letzte Mysterium zu sein, vor
dem unser immer waches, durchanalysiertes, nur von gelegentlichen Tran-
cen durchbrochenes Bewutsein seine Grenze f uhlt. Das Wort ist nicht zu
erkl aren, das Wort ist mystisch, und im Anfang war das Wort, und es war in
der Mitte, und es wird am Ende sein (SW VII/1, p. 293).
Heidegger would have agreed.
22
The Word: it is the fons et origo of Being:
es lautet: Logos. Dieses Wort spricht in einem zumal als der Name f ur das
Sein und f ur das Sagen (Unterwegs, p. 185), and in Das Wesen der Sprache
Heidegger maps out (through a series of spatial metaphors) the terrain of
the Word, attempting to find terms for what he knows ultimately is a reality
that cannot be discursively described. He sees it as Gegend, with a related
Nachbarschaft. Andeutend gesagt, Heidegger tells us, ist die Gegend als
das Gegnende die freigebende Lichtung, in der das Gelichtete zugleich mit
21
Heidegger put it even more radically in his essay Der Weg zur Sprache (1959): Aber die Sprache
ist Monolog. Dies sagt jetzt ein Zwiefaches: die Sprache allein ist es, die eigentlich spricht. Und sie
spricht einsam (Unterwegs, p. 265). The word Monolog (a central term in Benns poetics) does not
appear in Heideggers work prior to his engagement with Benn.
22
And is it possible that he would not have read a text that bore exactly the same title as one he had
written just five years earlier? See Martin Heidegger, Wozu Dichter in Holzwege (1949).
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190 GOTTFRIED BENN AND MARTIN HEIDEGGER
dem Sichverbergenden in das Freie gelangt (Unterwegs, p. 197). What the
Gegend contains is the verborgene Reichtum der Sprache, the contents
of which Heidegger leaves unspecified, but in his own writing it is clear
that he is referring to the poetic fund of language, its semantic force field,
its forever unclosing connotative richness. The poet enters this world with-
out ever definitively arriving. The process is one of reception rather than
interpretation: the opening rather than the closing down of the promise
of the word. This is why the key term unterwegs appears and reappears
throughout Heideggers discourse. The poet must remain in darkness, be-
cause that is where being, for him, dwells. It is not he but language that
is the dynamic agent: logos, das Geheimnis aller Geheimnisse des den-
kenden Sagens (Unterwegs, p. 198). For Heidegger its presence in the world
is inspired by its revelatory origins, and he cites the miracle of the Pentecost
as its divine source, the pneumos agios: Und es erscheinen ihnen Zungen,
zerteilt, wie von Feuer . . . und sie fingen an, zu predigen mit anderen Zun-
gen (Unterwegs, p. 203).
The Word: the final mystery for Benn and Heidegger? That they con-
verged on a nucleus in their poetics is undeniable. Both stress the galvanis-
ing agency of the poetic word; both position the poet within that agency
in terms of loss and gain; and both celebrate the integrity of poetic lan-
guage in a world without values. It alone allows the voice to sing.
23
Con-
tiguity, convergence, influence or debt, the parallels, which reach down
into the semantic fibre of their texts, are striking. Heidegger, undeniably,
possessed his own distinctive tropic discourse, recognisable in terms such
as Lichtung (an opening of light, a space within the forest), Gegend
(the shadowy terrain of poetic discourse), and Zusage (language speak-
ing to us). But in the margins of this discourse we can look for and find
much that belongs to Gottfried Benn: Heideggers Ereignis der Stille
and his apostrophising of Sagen as the Erscheinen lassen, lichtend-
verbergend-freigebend Darreichen von Welt (Unterwegs, p. 214) remind
us of Benns static poems, which are in sich ruhend, aus sich leuchtend,
having a transzendente Realit at der Strophe voll von Untergang und voll
von Wiederkehr (SW VI, pp. 19 and 26); Heideggers transforming path of
eundo assequi is also trod by Benns poet who clinging to an Ariadnefaden
(SW VI, p. 20) in the dark can only grope forward, with sensitivities tuned.
And like Heideggers poet fated to Verzicht, the lyrical subject described
by Benn remains fluchterfahren, trauergeweiht (SW VI, p. 25). Finally,
the sterility of modernity, the Ge-stell of techno-rationality that Heidegger
sees confronting the modern poet is also faced by Benn who was aware that
23
Heidegger quotes Nietzsche, and the concluding sentiments of the third part of Also sprach
Zarathustra: da ich dich [die Seele] singen hie, siehe, das war mein Letztes! (Unterwegs, p. 183).
Benn would not have demurred, for he had already used the same quotation in his Probleme der
Lyrik: du h attest singen sollen, o meine Seele, inaccurately quoting from memory (see SW VI,
p. 15).
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GOTTFRIED BENN AND MARTIN HEIDEGGER 191
everything creative is a fiction constructed over and above an ontologische
Leere (SW VI, p. 40). Even the para-rational status of the poetic word, its
magic, belongs to their common idiom.
24
Yet, ultimately, the paths of Gottfried Benn and Martin Heidegger di-
verge, personally and theoretically. Their mutual enthusiasmcools. In 1952,
Benn read an extract from Heideggers essay Was heit Denken? which
had just been published in Merkur . Writing to Oelze in July, Benn observed,
Heidegger zeigt den ganzen Nonsens und die ganze Genialit at seiner Art
auf diesen paar Seiten (OB III, p. 142). From Heideggers side, the com-
ments on Benn diminish, and finally cease. The two men never meet. What
had gone wrong? One answer resides in the general, perhaps even the
strategic nature of their (shared) celebrations of the Word. For Benn, it
was a clearing of the ground, a devastation of old principles so that prac-
tical work could begin in a new poetic idiom. For Heidegger, his specula-
tions in Das Wesen der Sprache, and in his other essays of this time, are
the foundations of a new ontology of the subject, which will have language
and, above all, the poetic at its centre in what is a far-reaching project of
aesthetic renewal.
A second reason lies in the nature of their initial engagement. What ulti-
mately inspired Heidegger was Benns poetry, what he termed its Gewicht,
not his theory (he calls the Probleme der Lyrik a sonderbaren Vortrag)
(Unterwegs, pp. 208 and 207).
25
When Heidegger picked up Benns Statische
Gedichte sometime after 1949, he would have read the poem Verse (1941),
which begins Wenn je die Gottheit, tief und erkenntlich/in einem Wesen
auferstand und sprach,/so sind es Verse, da unendlich/in ihnen sich die
Qual der Herzen brach (SW I, p. 184). These are inspiring lines of an
heroic pathos that would have confirmed for Heidegger the experience of
loss that he explored in his own writing, the Verzicht that the poet must
suffer, his Passion, in his journey with language. Through this painful pro-
cess der Dichter macht die Erfahrung mit einem Walten, mit einer W urde
des Wortes, wie sie weiter und h oher nicht gedacht werden k onnen (Unter-
wegs, p. 169).
But this tone of dignified sorrow is missing (and deliberately so) from
Benns later poetry. We do not know when Heidegger had the opportunity
to open the first book of poetry that Benn published after his Probleme
24
As Heidegger argues in his discussion of Stefan Georges poem, Das Wort (in his essay Das Wort,
written in 1958), mere analysis does not help us understand the poem: wir sind viel eher verzaubert
as we read it (Unterwegs, p. 221). Certainly, for as Benn had already noted in his Probleme der Lyrik,
the poetic word possesses eine latente Existenz, die auf entsprechend Eingestellte als Zauber wirkt
(SW VI, p. 27).
25
And we should note that Heidegger returned to writing poetry himself in the very same year
that he discovered Benns, and here too the influence of the latter poet is conspicuous. See, for
example, his poem Du, written in 1950, which echoes throughout Benns Ein Wort. It was written
for Hannah Arendt, and is republished in Hannah Arendt/Martin Heidegger, Briefe 1925 bis1975
und andere Zeugnisse, Frankfurt a.M. 1998, p. 79.
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192 GOTTFRIED BENN AND MARTIN HEIDEGGER
der Lyrik in 1953, Distillationen, but when he did so he might well have
read the poem Destille. It begins Sch abig; abends Destille/in Zwang, in
Trieb, in Flucht/Trunk doch was ist der Wille/gegen Verkl arungssucht
(SW I, p. 260). Distillationen, indeed, moves radically away from Benns pre-
vious static ethos. The poems here are urbane, colloquial even, rooted
as they are in Benns experience (and acceptance) of the dubious splen-
dours and but strangely liberating energies of modern life. These poems
represented a new idiom in Benns verse, which he termed Phase II.
26
In
Destillationen Benn embraces (indeed, celebrates) the demotic discourses of
the contemporary world, its Slang-Ausdr ucke, Argots, Rotwelsch, von zwei
Weltkriegen in das Sprachbewutsein heineingeh ammert, erg anzt durch
Fremdworte, Zitate, Sportjargon. All is registered through the aesthetic
will to form: dies Ich arbeitet an einer Art Wunder, einer kleinen Strophe,
der Umspannung zweier Pole, dem Ich und seinem Sprachbestand (SW
VI, pp. 3031). Absorption, transformation: the pearl within the damaged
shell: the modern poem.
Heidegger was not convinced, and judged the poetry written by Benn in
this new urban idiom as einfach schlecht.
27
It is here that Heidegger and
Benn go their separate ways, their initial bond ruptured through their rad-
ically differing engagements with modernity. Modernity meant for Heideg-
ger the durchg angige Technifizierung aller Sprachen zum allein funktion-
ierenden interplanetarischen Informationsinstrument (Unterwegs, 160),
and he conjured up its presence in words of pure nihilism: jetzt versagt sich
dem Menschen nicht nur der Schutz, sondern das Unversehrte des ganzen
Seienden bleibt im Finstern. Das Heile entzieht sich. Die Welt wird heillos.
Dadurch bleibt nicht nur das Heilige als die Spur zur Gottheit verborgen,
sondern sogar die Spur zum Heiligen, das Heile, scheint ausgel oscht zu
sein.
28
For Heidegger modernity is a blank wall, and when he meets it he re-
bounds back into the realm in which he is most comfortable: metaphysics,
where he seeks to explicate das Verh altnis zwischen dem ist, das selber
nicht ist, und dem Wort, das im selben Fall sich findet, d.h. nichts Seiendes
ist. All is governed by a central question: mu nicht, was das Sein verleiht,
erst recht und allem zuvor selber sein somit das Seiendste, seiender als
die Dinge, die sind? (Unterwegs, pp. 193 and 191). The late Heidegger
devotes himself to answering this question, attempting to find sites where
being and world may be made to coalesce through poetic empowerment,
26
For a recent account of Benns Phase II style, see Christian Scharf, Der Unber uhrbare: Gottfried
Benn Dichter im 20. Jahrhundert, Bielefeld 2006, pp. 35386. Gottfried Willems puts Benns later
poetry in a boader context in his Grostadt-und Bewutseinspoesie.

Uber Realismus in der modernen Lyrik,
insbesondere im lyrischen Sp atwerk Gottfried Benns und in der deutschen Lyrik seit 1965, T ubingen 1981.
27
Heinrich Petzet, Auf einen Stern zugehen: Begegnungen und Gespr ache mit Martin Heidegger 19291976,
Frankfurt a.M. 1983, p. 89. The dismissive tone of Heideggers critique is combined with indignation
and regret.
28
Martin Heidegger, Holzwege, Frankfurt a.M. 1977, p. 295.
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GOTTFRIED BENN AND MARTIN HEIDEGGER 193
but he attempts to achieve his task not so much through describing the lo-
cations of that empowerment as enacting in his own eloquent mediations
the process of attempting to find them, knowing that reaching them is ulti-
mately impossible.
Like Heidegger, Benn too rejected the globalising homogeneity and
sterility that had come with the increasing process of techno-rationality
in public life, but behind this discourse Benn was able to find something
positive, and, paradoxically, this something was language (the word, in
lower case). Heideggers house of being is made possible through the mys-
tery of language, which draws the poetic consciousness into it, and the lat-
ter must engage with language (zuh oren is a recurring trope) the best
it can. Benn does not abandon the awe of the word or its integrity, but
he finds its sources elsewhere, not in the pristine temple of language
but in the variable detritus of modernity. Certainly, the gains are mini-
mal but they are, nonetheless, real, and they must be found, whatever
(quite literally) the cost, as the poem Bauxit (from 1955, one of the final
poems that Benn ever wrote) makes clear. It begins: Diese Woche war
ziemlich teuer,/sagen wir: vierhundert Mark,/aber sie hatte zauber-
hafte Augenblicke,/sublime, innerlich, seidenweiche/mit Str omen von
berauschter Transzendenz (SW I, p. 291).
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