I’ve written before (the repetitions of reading) about the times I saw Michael Hofmann speak at BU. Once, for a translation seminar in the snow-bound spring of 1999, when he discussed his work as a translator. Unfortunately, I didn’t take any notes that afternoon. The next time I saw him was about a year or two later, in the same room but at night with a much smaller audience, when he read his own verse. He seemed frustrated or distracted by his poems and after a while asked if anyone wanted him to read anything in particular. I had been entranced by his book Approximately Nowhere (Faber & Faber, 1999) and was especially struck by the poem “XXXX,” so I asked if he might read it. That book remains a type of talisman for me amidst my library. The aforementioned poem ends with this stanza:
“I’m quarrelsome, charming, lustful, inconsolable, broken.
I have the radio on as much as ever my father did,
carrying it with me from room to room.
I like its level talk.”
An image that often leads me to Cocteau’s Orphée, my own dependence on music filtered through stereo speakers, at home or in the car, the “level talk” of voices that explain and console. In a 2005 interview with Mark Thwaite, Hofmann spoke of his reasons for publishing less poetry after Approximately Nowhere:
“ I haven’t written so many poetry books – four – that they aren’t all important to me, if that doesn’t sound a little plaintive. But with its two-part organization, and the clutch of poems about my father and growing up and so on, I suppose Acrimony packs the most punch. It seems like a book I might have written on purpose, and not like the others, which contain more or less whatever I managed to write over a certain period. I still feel close to the poems in it – especially in the first, non-father, part – which is a little alarming, after almost twenty years. Somewhere in there is the clue too to why I haven’t written more, and why I’m hardly writing anything now. There doesn’t seem to me much wrong with what I have written, but at the same time I don’t want to write any more of it; I’m looking – or waiting – for some kind of new orientation. I’m not sure to what extent I’ve failed – dried up or gone away – and to what extent I’m doing what I always did and always wanted to do, which is a mix of things. That archaic designation, “man of letters”. Though of course I never imagined I’d be reduced to a poem every other year, or whatever it is! A friendly critic – I’m thinking of Dennis O’Driscoll – told me my poems must have taken a lot of living, and that a hiatus in production was not unexpected, and possibly a good thing. I’d like to find some way of writing that was less exorbitant, less antagonistic, less cannibalistic…”
Of course, his edition of poems by Durs Grünbein and the anthology Twentieth-Century German Poetry are evidence that his distinctive voice remains active through translation. Grünbein, in particular, has been another revelation for me. There’s excellent video footage online, by the way, of Grünbein and Hofmann reading for the Griffin Trust in Canada in 2006 (scroll down).
Faber has now published Hofmann’s Selected Poems, which I’ve just finished reading. For me, the attraction of this edition is the final section of new poems, several of which I’ve seen in magazines in recent years. “Broken Nights,” for instance, came out in the London Review of Books in 2003, built with short, jagged, somnambulant lines, that once again evoke a radio as a type of nocturnal solace or accompaniment:
“Wondering how soon
It might be safe
To turn on the wireless,
Without it being either
Help you through the night
(What’s a tron, mellow I can do?)
Or merely dependency inducing
Deleterious for morale of the troops.”
The fact that he’s chosen only seven new poems to include is a moment of synchronicity for me right now, attuned as I am to minimalist gestures. What I want to understand further, as a reader and poet, is when and how to be silent. How much effort we require for the act (ritual) of reading others, the pleasure and discipline of saying nothing.