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Well, Kerrang!!!

Peter Sirr

Where Have You Been? Selected Essays, By Michael Hofmann, Faber and Faber, 304 pp, £30, ISBN: 978-0571323661

Poet, translator, critic – for Michael Hofmann these different job specifications are all aspects of the same enterprise, projections of the same sensibility. The poetry came first, the reputation established with Nights in the Iron Hotel (1983). That collection and those that followed – Acrimony; Corona, Corona; Approximately Nowhere – introduced a voice that was highly distinctive and very much unlike the general run of British poetry of the time. Sceptical, disenchanted, in some respects almost an anti-poetry, full of brooding absences and short term occupations of empty spaces described with great disruptive brio:

Six floors up, I found myself like a suicide ‑
one night, the last thing in a bare room …
I was afraid I might frighten my neighbours,
two old ladies dying of terror, thinking
every man was the gasman, every gasman a killer ...
(“A Brief Occupation”)

Poems that built up layers of detail and then abandoned them, disdaining conventional closure or grand gestures, as if the world of the poems was a crowded but deeply alien place. Robert Lowell is certainly in the background; the pressures of the personal, the fidelity to the details of a life, and that determination to convert life into literature – one of the things he praises Lowell for in Where have You Been? – are all evident in the poems about his father, the writer Gert Hofmann, in his remarkable second volume, Acrimony, but is a constant thread throughout the work:

Then a family event if ever there was one:
my mother reads my translations of my father,
who hasn’t read aloud since his ‘event’.
Darkness falls outside. Inside too.

There’s a freewheeling reportorial ferocity to the poems too, the poet casting a baleful eye at the world he’s landed in. The Britain that emerges from those early books seemed to offer a prospect so dismal that one (American) review called it “not so much disheartening but past heartening”. Yet it probably wouldn’t have mattered what the country was since displacement and disenchantment, being “approximately nowhere”, are precisely the point – not being at home is the poet’s duty, and the sense of not quite belonging, of being poised on the edge, between cultures and languages, between admired forefathers and a depleted modernity, lies behind many of the essays here, as it did in the earlier collection Behind the Lines (2002).

There are pieces on touchstone poets like Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop, and many others – James Schuyler, Frederick Seidel, Heaney and Hughes, Zbigniew Herbert, Gottfried Benn ‑ but also on writers like Stefan Zweig, Arthur Schnitzler, Thomas Bernhard and Robert Walser, all of these written with great verve, passion and commitment. They’re occasional in that they’re responses to specific commissions but they also represent what he calls his “most regular and responsible writing”. “Here,” he says, “you will find a history of my spontaneity, a requiem to my intransigence, calipers for my taste. Here you will see – if you are disposed to at all – my version of what to read, why to think, how to like.” There are two primary modes in Hofmann’s critical writing: enthusiastic advocacy and stern, disappointed dismissal, the dismal report of failure. Recent examples of the latter would include his LRB review of Richard Flanagan’s Booker-winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North (advising the author that his manuscript might have been better left on the barbecue where earlier drafts were consumed) or his review of Martin Amis’s The Zone of Interest, which begins “I read The Zone of Interest straight through twice from beginning to end and it feels like I’ve read nothing at all.” This is the final paragraph:

If you think a novel is splashing through a puddle, and what you are good at is splashing through puddles, then you will continue to splash through puddles even if you are in far over your head, and your novel will continue to have the entertaining and transgressive virtues and the unbelievable and crippling limitations of splashing through puddles. Even if you supply a reading list.

Neither of those is collected here, but three of the pieces are merciless kickings. Stefan Zweig “just tastes fake. He’s is the Pepsi of Austrian writing.” Or –in case anyone is thinking of getting their work checked – “The story went the rounds – it was far from being just a piece of Nazi propaganda – that Zweig had his manuscript checked for grammatical errors by a German professor, which gets most about Zweig: the ineptitude, the eagerness to please, the respect for authority, and the use of others.” Günter Grass gets it for Peeling the Onion, with its revelation of the writer’s SS membership – “not so much ‘peeling the onion’ as ‘applying the whitewash”’.

In the case of Zbigniew Herbert it is the new translations by Alissa Valles, and the sidelining of John and Bogdana Carpenter’s translations, that arouse his fury. It’s a strange case in that, as he freely admits, Hofmann doesn’t speak Polish, but actually it goes to the heart of how a translation operates in its target culture. For Hofmann, Herbert is a peerless poet, far superior to the widely feted Miłosz or Szymborska. But of course the “Herbert” he means is the work translated by the Carpenters, that is everything in English except the first Selected Poems, which was done by Miłosz and Peter Dale Scott in 1968. But we tend to be very loyal to the translations in which we first encounter a poet, particularly one of Herbert’s stature, to the extent that the translation is the work in our mind and it’s shocking to realise that translation is in fact a highly unstable creature and that the original is susceptible to a myriad of competing configurations. So absolute do the Carpenters’ versions seem that he can say confidently “From the very beginning, I don’t think anyone has ‘got’ Herbert in English the way John and Bogdana Carpenter have.” What he is arguing for, and what he won’t tolerate being set aside, is the English poetry produced by the Carpenters in service to Herbert’s originals. Translation, he is saying, as indeed translators have argued for centuries, is a form of composition in the receiving language, and all the knowledge of the source is useless if it can’t be mediated artfully into its new context.

The kickings remind us that the operating temperature of the critical writing is high. Hofmann does advocacy as warmly as he does displeasure, and in both modes he writes the kind of prose that relishes its own performance, that leaves the print of its own style securely embedded in the reader’s brain. In its way, it’s poetry by other means, written with elaborate attentiveness, each occasion meticulously prepared for and answered to.

As I was taught by my father and others, I wanted my words and noticing to be of a piece with my subjects’; I aimed to write an homage (for the most part) to literature in something that it itself approached the condition of literature.

That so much of the concern is with poets makes his vade mecum all the more urgent. Poets who write about poetry are defining their own tradition, tuning their own aesthetic, patrolling the limits of their own taste and impulse. Most of the poetry essays here are advocacies of the poets who have meant a lot to Hofmann. It is, more often than not, the example of other poets that pushes the fledgling, uncertain beginners over the brink of themselves into poetry. For Hofmann, Lowell was a key enabler; he describes how he borrowed a friend’s copy of Life Studies and For the Union Dead: “Prose had attracted me as I think it attracts any aspiring writer – poetry in my view being a specialism, even a malformation – and then defeated me; the ability to write page after page in the same vein was beyond me, though I saw the need for it.” Lowell’s poems shocked him into a realisation of what poetry could do. Here’s Lowell’s poem “For Sale”, which Hofmann quotes in its entirety:

Poor sheepish plaything,
organized with prodigal animosity,
lived in just a year ‑
my Father’s cottage at Beverly Farms
was on the market the month he died.
Empty, open, intimate,
its town-house furniture
had an on tiptoe air
of waiting for the mover
on the heels of the undertaker.
Ready, afraid
of living alone till eighty,
Mother mooned in a window,
as if she had stayed on a train
one stop past her destination.

Hofmann says of it:

This is so exemplary in its limpidity and declarativeness and straightforwardness, it is hard to know what to say about it. The language seems at once natural and adequate. It is immediately apprehensible and read as though it had been written in one go, and yet has interest and balance to nourish it through many rereadings … it is neutral and full of dread; it is palpable and factual, and yet the things in it would not have been perceptible – could not have been said by – anyone else.

His own excitement and engagement are palpable as he goes on to let the poem prove itself on his pulses. He analyses other poems with forensic relish, reminding us that poetry is about the assembly of precisely calibrated effects for a larger emotional purpose. He argues that Lowell is “a poet of feel and instinct, characterized by a subtlety and inwardness with words that I wouldn’t have thought could be learned”. The star of Lowell’s fame and influence has fallen so far since his death in 1977 that Hofmann’s impassioned advocacy is refreshing. Nothing has been quite the same since his death, he feels – the loss still burns, and the poetry world has shrunk in the intervening years. He concludes that “he is unspeakably missed by his literature and his country, and that in his absence, literary and civic life have both deteriorated” and that “poetry has lost so much ground in the years since Lowell started out in it, it’s easy to feel a somewhat preposterous sympathy for him … Poetry in America has declined to a civil war, a banal derby between two awful teams, and in Britain to a variety show (albeit, I suppose, a royal variety show).” And yet, if his influence is played down or denied, it sometimes turns up in expected places, even in the midst of the New York School, whose distaste for Lowell was almost a founding pillar. But James Schuyler can be read, Hofmann argues, as a kind of Lowell light, “Lowell by other means”, or Lowell with a different, worldlier register, a poet who can write “something to read in normal circumstances” (Hofmann approvingly quoting Pound on a quality “that I generally crave in poetry”), who can write convincingly even at low pressure, for whom “there seems to be nothing [he] cannot or will not say”.

Another poet who owes much to Lowell is Frederick Seidel. Seidel is a divisive figure, full of poses and attitudes calculated to offend, flaunting the privileges to which wealth gives access. Few poets have written about visiting the Ducati factory in Italy to take delivery of their new hand-built motorbike, or coolly sing the virtues of sex with younger women. Lowell was on a panel that gave a prize to his first book, Final Solutions (1963), whose publication was delayed because it was thought to be anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic and libellous. Putting himself outside the pale has always been the point; he is, as Hofmann puts it “a carnivore if not a cannibal in the blandly vegan compound of contemporary poetry”. What interests him about Seidel’s poetry is that it doesn’t come from the place poetry is supposed to come from – “Where’s the prissy beauty, the undemanding truth?”. It’s not lyrical, there are no regular feelings. Maybe in order to make him more palatable or excuse their relish of his work – not that it needs any excuse – some critics are keen to separate the actual, biographically attestable Frederick Seidel from the poet as a kind of circus of the self. Knock on the door, Hofmann suggests, and there’s no one at home: he makes himself up, line by line. Try “Home”, for example, whose final lines Hofmann quotes with relish.

The homeless are blooming like roses
On every corner on Broadway.
I am unclean.
I bathe in their tears.

The homeless are popping like pimples.
They’re a little dog’s little unsheathed erection sticking out red.
It makes us passersby sing.
Ho ho. It’s spring.

The homeless are blooming like roses.
I’m hopeless.

I bathe in their screams.
I dress for the evening.
My name is Fred Seidel
And I paid for this ad.

Hofmann quotes Seidel on his own self-slipperininess: “It’s very much to do with the sense you develop, in the writing of the poem, that at a certain moment it has its separate being from you to which you have your obligations”, although elsewhere Seidel has insisted “Everything in the poems is true … you should take them at face value.” The truth is probably somewhere in between those two notions; Seidel’s self-performance might seem more flamboyant or transgressive because of its constant flaunting of privilege, but poetry has always lived in the division between the biographically verifiable and the carnival of performance. I think this is what Hofmann means when he says as an aside in his piece on Karen Solie “I’ve come to think you can’t actually have poetry without dandyism, and that includes all those I’ve mentioned: Frederick Seidel self-evidently, but also those seemingly austere figures Whitman, Brecht, Murray, and Brodsky. As Wallace Stevens said, ‘It must give pleasure.’”

“Thank God for Fred Seidel”, Hofmann concludes that essay. It seems as much a sigh as a celebration, a recognition that elsewhere these are thin times for poetry. For Hofmann it hardly seems accidental that poetry’s significance has dwindled precisely as its quantity has multiplied in an era of endless MFA writing programmes, career poets and industrial productivity. His preferred poets generally, like himself, write sparingly: Elizabeth Bishop (four books, all slim); Ian Hamilton (33 poems in The Visit, all included in Fifty Poems published eighteen years later, and in Sixty Poems ten years after that); Frederick Seidel (one book of poems in his first twenty years of writing). There’s something astringent, hard-edged, about these poets, an amalgam of quickness, surprise and flinty resistance. Commenting on Hamilton, he reflects “ … how much poetry is to do with the mastery of hot and cold, of precisely heart and heartlessness, the control of side effects – semicolons, line breaks, syllables, changes of register, hurdles, internal rhymes – within its own silent and impossible speech”. Hofmann, as he says in his piece on Karen Solie (the only younger poet whose work merits consideration here, likes his poetry to be personal, not in the sense of narcissistic self-presentation and disclosure but that something is at stake. His own poetry steers a risky course between ironised distance and intimate revelation, but the risk is part of the point. The feeling may be tightly controlled but it’s there nonetheless, so it’s not altogether surprising that he should say in his piece on WS Graham, that ‘… it is very rare to have feeling in poetry talked about directly at all. No less an authority than Ezra Pound – and in some ways no more unlikely an authority than Ezra Pound – knew that what matters in poetry is emotion.” It’s all about communication, dialogue, he goes on to say.

Still, style counts for a lot. All of the poets he writes about here have an unmistakeable personal print; they never sound like anyone else. And they’re speedy: “In the beginning were speed, celerity, swiftness of thought.” (on Les Murray); “It reminds me of another axiom of Brodsky’s, that poetry is a function of speed: it gets there faster than prose, and goes farther.” (on Karen Solie). Yet one of the poets Hofmann writes most warmly about is “the antithesis of speed” and “often writes with heavy feet” – Ted Hughes. “A characteristic movement of his is the clanking, mired advance of bulldozer or caterpillar tracks.” The piece on Hughes – written for an American audience – is warm and sympathetic, celebrating his vital strangeness or strange vitalism:

Who, other than Shakespeare would have dared the coda to “Sing the Rat,” where invention and anonymous folk wit indistinguishably mingle?

O sing
Scupper-tyke, whip-lobber
Smutty-guts, pot-goblin
Garret-whacker, rick-lark
Sump-swab, cupboard-adder
Bobby-robin, knicker-knocker
Sneak-nicker, sprinty-dinty

His enthusiasm doesn’t prevent him from being underwhelmed by a lot of the “stunningly unbeautiful” Birthday Letters, preferring the poems in it that avoid the compulsion to analyse and explain the relationship with Plath, but he has an eye and ear for the brilliant flashes in it. What’s interesting about this piece and the essay on Hughes’s “Remembering Teheran” is that Hughes is so unHofmannian a poet. You expect Hofmann to like Weldon Kees or Frederick Seidel, but you don’t expect Hughes to be on his radar. And indeed, for a long time he wasn’t: “I supposed for a long time that he, an Englishman of a peculiar deep Englishness and a writer on animals and elemental subjects didn’t have much to say to me, a German of a peculiar English shallowness and a writer on human and anecdotal subjects.” But ultimately he’s won over by both his poetry and prose, realising that Hughes is greater than the easy categorisations would suggest. As he says at the end of his analysis of “Remembering Teheran”: “With his living phrasing, his imaginative connections, even his spiny dashes and asterisks, he fuses things together and himself with them, and causes the thorns of strangeness to flow, and then to sing.”

Unsurprisingly, one of the most compelling poetry pieces included here is Hofmann’s introduction to his translations of Gottfried Benn (Impromptus: Selected Poems, Faber, 2014). Benn started his poetic life with the brilliantly disturbing expressionism of Morgue and Other Poems, which drew on his experience as a military doctor. Hofmann’s translations of Benn favour the “shocking” early and “weary” late work, and he’s most compelled by the latter. This is Benn after two world wars, after his own relatively brief flirtation with Nazism and refuge in the army, “the aristocratic form of emigration” as Hofmann translates it. The poems have a weirdly jaded energy, loose, relaxed, jaundiced. “Zeh was a pharmacist”, one of Hofmann’s own favourites, is a good example:

Zeh had mixed up a slimming-cure
called Zeean that you hardly even needed to take
it worked in your pocket
you straightaway started to reduce.
He had stuck that preparation
       in one of the pharmacy windows.

Among other things you could see there
herbal teas, pestles and mortars, chatty tips
for di- and nocturnal events of an untoward nature
all of it defying description ‑
unrivaled in their suggestiveness
from a psychosomatic point of view

his like would never be found again
children (not likely!) desunt,
long since turfed out of his grave.

Hofmann has said elsewhere of Benn that “The striking thing about (him) is that he writes as though there were no other poets, and as though everything he wrote was self-evidently a poem. Everything comes through in an effortlessly and wholly personal timbre, so to speak, a personal typeface.” One of the qualities he admires in him is the complete lack of self-performance in the last poems, that unlike the famous Yeatsian formulation of the poet as “never the bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast”, Benn “is absolutely the bundle seated – if not to breakfast exactly, then at least in the corner of the bar after work in the evening, where he owns two or three beers, smokes his Junos, listens to the radio, listens to the chatter of the other customers, scribbles something trenchantly doleful on a pad.”

Hofmann is the translator of more than sixty books from German into English. There’s the poetry: Durs Grünbein, Gunter Eich, Gottfried Benn, as well as his editing of one of the best anthologies of twentieth century German poetry. And there’s the large body of some of the most influential German language fiction: Joseph Roth, Hans Fallada, Patrick Süskind, Thomas Bernhard, Wim Wenders and Peter Stamm, his father Gert Hofmann, Franz Kafka, Wolfgang Koeppen. He won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for his translation of Herta Müller’s novel The Land of Green Plums. He has also won the PEN/Book of the Month Club Translation Prize, the Weidenfeld Oxford Translation Prize (twice), and the Helen and Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize.

Translation is often an accidental profession, fallen into from happenstance or hardship, or a combination of both. Economic necessity was the first prompt for Hofmann but his linguistic background probably made it inevitable, though the relationship between his two languages is complicated. One of the most interesting essays in the collection is “Sharp Biscuit”, in which he interrogates the bundle of instinct and experience that constitute his own attitude to the profession:

The matching of my two languages is an inner process, the setting of a broken bone, a graft, the healing of a wound. Perhaps it can even be claimed that in me German is in some way an open wound, which is soothed and brought to healing by the application of  English. Translation as a psychostatic necessity. Look, there is no break in my life, no loss of Eden, no loss of childhood certainties, no discontinuity, no breach, no rupture, no expulsion. English, then, as a bandage, a splint, a salve.

He translates, he says, “to try to amount to something”, to compensate for the seeming slenderness of the poetic oeuvre. (“When I first held my first book of poems in my hands [the least extent acceptable to the British Library, forty-eight pages including prelims], I thought it would fly away.”) Also:

To repair a deficit of  literature in my life. My ill-advised version of Cartesianism: traduco, ergo sum. Ill-advised because the translator has no being, should neither be seen nor heard, should be (yawn) faithful, should be (double yawn) a plate of glass. Well, Kerrang!!!

The translator, of course, has a very vivid being and is a powerful cultural mediator. The choice of what is to be translated is the first act of that mediation. Poets like Durs Grünbein, Gunter Eich and Gottfried Benn are made visible, published in handsome editions by a major publisher, afforded a stamp of approval by the very fact of their selection. Writers like Hans Fallada, Peter Stamm, Wolfgang Keppen gain an audience in English where none existed before. Or, as in the case of Joseph Roth or Kafka, translation is a response to previous translation, a sense that the authors could be better served with a fresh approach. In all cases, the translations themselves are deeply considered, consciously made; Hofmann doesn’t believe in translation as an act of submission. “I want a translation to provide an experience, and I want, as a translator, to make a difference,” he says, and he believes his service is “writing as well and as interestingly as possible”.

Translating a book is for me an alternative to or an extension (a multiplier!) of writing an essay or poem. A publisher friend of mine did me the kindness of dreaming of a world where books were thought of not by author, but by translator (who is after all the one who comes up with the words on the page): so, a Pevear/Volokhonsky, not a Tolstoy; a Mitchell, not a Rilke; a Lydia Davis, not a Proust.

Translation is a fraught art and translator anxiety a well known psychological ‑ and probably also physiological – condition. A typical review, if it mentions translation at all, might isolate a handful of lexical choices out of a hundred-thousand-word novel and say, “of course this is wrong and the translator should have used X rather than Y, or of course X means butter not pyjamas”. A magnificent example of translator anger or translator fightback is Hofmann’s own response to criticism of his version of “Was schlimm ist” (“What’s Bad”) by Gottfried Benn in the magazine Poetry a few years ago. Here’s an extract from the letter.

Dear Editor,
I read with great interest and enjoyment Michael Hofmann’s translations of poems by Gottfried Benn (November 2009). I very much appreciate Hofmann’s successful efforts to recreate Benn’s rhythms, careful manipulation of line length, and precisely calibrated diction. In some cases, though, Hofmann’s word choices strike me as not quite the best available. I’ll focus on “What’s Bad,” Hofmann’s translation of Benn’s “Was schlimm ist.”
Hofmann translates Benn’s phrase “guten englischen Kriminalroman” as “new English thriller.” Benn’s word gut means “good.” As opposed to Hofmann’s “new” (neu), it speaks directly to schlimm (bad) in the poem’s title. Since Benn uses neu later in the poem ‑ not included in Hofmann’s translation, which renders Benn’s “neuen Gedanken” (new idea/thought) simply as “idea” ‑ Hofmann’s using it where Benn doesn’t strikes me as odd.

And here’s some of Hofmann’s response:

After getting Alfred Lutz’s not even ill-intentioned letter, I first groaned solidly for forty-eight hours. During one of my sleepless nights, I heard an interview with the recently deceased management guru Russell Ackoff, who spoke of the “management of interactions” within corporations, and of “inter-operability.” “You simply cannot treat the parts as independent entities,” he said. If management people get this, why can’t the reader of a poem? Isn’t a poem at least as alive as an enterprise, or a factory? “Machine translation never happened,” Les Murray writes in a poem that remembers his time when he was “a translator at the Institute.” Maybe not, but machine reading is alive and well, and standing there with its Taylorean stopwatch in its hand ‑ the “translation police,” as exasperated acquaintances have called it.
There is no more dismal ‑ or, frankly, stupid ‑ way of reading a translation than to pick on single words (as though the first duty of a translation were that it should be reversible ‑ it’s not ‑ and as though words were tokens of unchanging value, the way money used to be, in its dreams ‑ they’re not either). Alfred Lutz writes as though I were a siffleur, there to help a drying German actor with English prompts: good ‑ gut, new ‑ neu, wrap up ‑ einwickeln. This is then equated with accuracy, with being “precise.” I think I have been remarkably precise. I don’t see how I could have served Benn any better in English, both in large and in little.

The sleeplessness, the groaning, the visceral fury might seem overstated, but the point is that Hofmann as translator is no different from Hofmann as poet or critic. It’s all or nothing; the only engagement with anything is complete and utter. It’s part of what makes Where Have You Been? so enjoyable. The range is in some respects quite narrow, but it’s the narrowness that comes from passionate choices: only these poets, these novelists (there are also pieces on the painter Max Beckmann and the filmmaker Antonioni.) Each occasion has meant something, and following its lines will provide the reader with a pretty interesting map.