Twentieth-Century German Poetry

Of all the guest speakers who visited the translation seminar at BU in 1999, Michael Hofmann's lecture still stands out as the most interesting. Partly because of his casual, unpretentious approach to his own words. At that time I still hadn't read his poems. If I had I would have taken notes on his lecture. I do remember him mentioning he preferred translating prose rather than poetry.

I soon found a copy of his book Approximately Nowhere (Faber, 1999), which I revisit regularly, along with his other collections. I've taught it to my students on several occasions and each time I look into it I find plenty to enjoy. The reading of his poems he gave a year later in the same room at BU still resonates for me. I appreciated his complete lack of self-importance when he spoke. At times, he almost seemed embarrassed by his own work, or at least he read from it with a slight hint of ironic detachment or amusement. His poems maintained their alluring strangeness for me when he read them aloud.

I've followed his essays, translations and poems in the London Review of Books and other magazines since then. And his recent edition of Durs Grünbein is a beautiful volume, an introduction to a poet I'm grateful to have encountered. So, I'm happy to have a copy of Hofmann's latest project, Twentieth-Century German Poetry (FSG, 2006). He's kept the introduction short, commenting on the XX century in relation to German poetry but not explaining or introducing the poets themselves beyond contextualizing a few of the major figures. There are no biographies of the poets or their translators. The poems serve as their introduction, rendered in English by a group of translators that includes himself, Michael Hamburger and Christopher Middleton, among others.

Besides Rilke, Brecht, Celan and Grünbein, I know nothing about recent German poetry, so it's a pleasure to have this anthology as a starting point. This book is surely a model for how I might shape my own future anthology of Venezuelan poetry. A volume that reiterates Hofmann's immense talent as a poet and translator, someone who manages to master both arts while acknowledging his limitations. In his introduction, Hofmann invokes Brecht as the central figure of this anthology:

"Where now, I've come to think, without Brecht, would there have been poetry as a living counter-force in socio-political reality, where else would the poetry of dissent and fear and protest and rebuke and pleasure have ever begun? [...] If I were a poet in Asia or Africa or Latin America, he is the one "old world" poet I would go to. He synthesized, improbably, Kipling, Rimbaud, Waley, the Bible and later Horace to make something utterly and radically new."

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