Three bright stars shine in Germany’s twentieth-century firmament. From the left, Bertolt Brecht; from the middle, Paul Celan; from the right, Gottfried Benn. They took over where Rilke, Hofmannsthal, and Stefan George left off, but their fate in English translation differs widely.

Brecht, though very well known for his plays, is much less so for his at least as deserving poems. Celan is fairly famous, but only for one poem, the magnificent “Death Fugue,” the finest, perhaps only, poem about the Holocaust. Benn, though some not easily come-by English translations do exist, is barely known at all.

Now there appears Impromptus: Selected Poems and Some Prose,translated and edited by Michael Hofmann, the title derived from Benn himself. This consists of seventy-odd poems, bilingually presented, and some eighty pages of prose, at which...

 
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