Roses, Christ knows how they got to be so lovely,
green skies over the city
in the evening
in the ephemeral of the years!
The yearning I have for that time
when one mark thirty was all I had,
yes, I counted them this way and that,
I trimmed my days to fit them,
days, what am I saying days: weeks on bread and plum mush
out of earthenware pots
brought from my village,
still under the reselects of native poverty,
how raw everything felt, how tremblingly beautiful!
What good is the luster conferred by European pundits,
the great name,
the pour le merite,
people who shoot their cuffs and tool on,
it's only the ephemeral that's beautiful,
looking back, the poverty,
the frowstiness* that didn't know what it was,
sobs, and stands in line for its dole,
what a wonderful Hades
that takes away the frowst,
and the pundits both--
please, no tears,
no one say: oh, I was so lonesome.
Gottfried Benn 2006
*Hot stuffy fustiness.
It would do one good to ask why Benn opens the poem with the image of a rose; roses are a symbol of Christ (not so subtly associated in this poem), but they, again obviously, have thorns. Beauty and pain go together, the first lesson of the rose.
That is certainly how the narrator feels in this poem; he longs for his time of poverty, the kind of romantic simplicity of a life without too many goods. In what I find to be the best line of the poem, he calls this, "the rushlight of native poverty." That is, this kind of poverty lights softly, intimately, beautifully. And the rush goes out in an instant, unlike the steady, green throb of city lights in the opening section.
Essentially, this poem is concerned with many of the things I am thinking about now: simplicity, modernity, loneliness, beauty, and the sky. It is perhaps not as dense as it could be, but why make it so? It speaks to me. Modern society is lonely, harsh, tearful. We of course must question a romantic notion of the past, but this seems to be authentic. My best friend and I were recently talking about idealizing certain moments of high school, even, because it was so raw and new. Life was less clogged, then, I think. Perhaps that is what Benn is talking about.
He almost implies some kind of force or violence in the modern world when he writes of "people who shoot their cuffs." This is the harshness that seeks glory, a great name, some kind of masculine, lustrous permanence.
Modernity even turns the "native poverty" into something sad and broken. Only in cities do long lines of homeless stretch out over the city, perhaps because the modern world requires so much of us. It tires us, breaks us, makes us cry.
To be in a place of poverty and simplicity, now that's a different story. There is real beauty, and so real connectedness with the world. Rather than the mass-produced, buzzing fluorescent lights all around the modern world, a simple world is intimate, personal, ephemeral: a tiny lit reed flickering in the night.
I don't mean this to be a rant, but I stumbled on this poem exactly at the right time for myself. It's funny how that happens.