Reading: I am 25 by Gregory Corso

Beat poet Gregory Corso 1930-2001) was a young member of the Beat generation, ‘urchin shelley’ who always believed in the power of poetry to bring about change. Here is a funny verse about generational conflict between poets:

I am 25
With a love a madness for Shelley
Chatterton Rimbaud
and the needy-yap of my youth
has gone from ear to ear:
Especially old poetmen who retract
who consult other old poetmen
who speak their youth in whispers,
saying:–I did those then
but that was then
that was then–
O I would quiet old men
say to them:–I am your friend
what you once were, thru me
you’ll be again–
Then at night in the confidence of their homes
rip out their apology-tongues
and steal their poems.

No need to add much here. Corso and his friends knew Percy Bysshe Shelley, Thomas Chatterton and Arthur Rimbaud well. The sentiment is recognizable for anyone who has been 25 (at that age, science tell us, our brain is matured). The frustration of being young and brimming with vitality, yet ignored by the older silverbacks who rather consult their colleagues than learn from him who came after them. ‘Thru me / you’ll be again” sounds semi-religious of course: The old poet has to surrender to his finitude, and if he refuses to do so he shalt be castrated, his tongue shalt be ripped off. But the brute and vital force of new life doesn’t need to begin from scratch. Shameless Gregory just steals their poems, so something accumulates, something bigger than the individual, but a ‘poetic spirit’ of humankind. Corso spoke about such vision in the years before his death in 2001.

Reading: I am 25 by Gregory Corso was originally published on Meandering home


Reading: Beautiful Youth by Gottfried Benn

German poet Gottfried Benn (1886-1956) supported Hitler when he came to power, but changed his mind after the ‘night of the long knives’. Still, he was naive enough to join the Wehrmacht, where some officers respected his disaproval of the regime. I don’t care too much about the details, but it wasn’t pretty. The nazis, by the way, called his earlier poetry “degenerate and homosexual”. Much of that poetry was inspired by his work as a pathologist in 1912-1913. For our anthology, I picked a poem called “Schöne Jugend”, that was rendered in English by Michael Hofmann:

Beautiful youth
The mouth of the girl who had lain long in the rushes
looked so nibbled.
When they opened her chest, her esophagus was so holey.
Finally in a bower under the diaphragm
they found a nest of young rats.
One little thing lay dead.
The others were living off kidneys and liver
drinking the cold blood and had
had themselves a beautiful youth.
And just as beautiful and quick was their death:
the lot of them were thrown into the water.
Ah, will you hearken at the little muzzles’ oinks!

This poem has probably been dissected plenty of times. My first impulse upon reading such lines is to see some symbolism: The girl’s body is society that is rotten and the rats are the dark elements feasting on it, that are ultimately purged in an act of barbarism that seems inevitable. Given that this was written before World War I, the great war that everybody ‘saw coming’ but nobody believed would actually happen, what do you think of this kind or reading? I think such dialectics of barbarism, where the killing of ‘the youth’ is done to save the image of society – was absolutely perverted by the nazis. You can’t say this kind of things ‘after Auschwitz’ I say with a nod to Adorno.

The dramatic last line benefits from the use of “hearken” but can’t mimic the original “Ach, wie die kleinen Schnauzen quietschten!” Here is the entire poem in the original German:

Der Mund eines Mädchens, das lange im Schilf gelegen hatte,
sah so angeknabbert aus.
Als man die Brust aufbrach, war die Speiseröhre so löcherig.
Schließlich in einer Laube unter dem Zwerchfell
fand man ein Nest von jungen Ratten.
Ein kleines Schwesterchen lag tot.
Die andern lebten von Leber und Niere,
tranken das kalte Blut und hatten
hier eine schöne Jugend verlebt.
Und schön und schnell kam auch ihr Tod:
Man warf sie allesamt ins Wasser.
Ach, wie die kleinen Schnauzen quietschten!

Reading: Beautiful Youth by Gottfried Benn was originally published on Meandering home