Where Have You Been? Selected Essays, Michael Hofmann, Faber & Faber, 2015, 304pp, £30 (hardback)


The poet and translator Michael Hofmann is one of the most charismatic figures on the contemporary literary scene. This latest volume, the eagerly awaited follow-up to his highly lauded critical debut, Behind the Lines (2001), again demonstrates Hofmann’s highly individual, take-no-prisoners, epigrammatic critical style. The Anglo-German writer is an equally strong witness for the defence and prosecution, expressing literary displeasure with an almost ad hominem acidic relish (‘Stefan Zweig just tastes fake. He’s the Pepsi of Austrian writing’), while elsewhere lavishing praise on a revered former English Poet Laureate (‘Hughes is at least arguably the greatest English poet since Shakespeare’ – adding, seemingly just for the sake of literary fisticuffs – ‘what’s the competition? Milton, Pope, Keats, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Hardy, (maybe) Larkin.’)

Since his first collection, Nights in the Iron Hotel (1983), Hofmann has been writing poetry distinguished by what Joseph Brodsky called ‘a high resolution vision of modern reality rendered in the monochrome of consciousness.’ Early on, it was a poetry marked by ellipsis, a strong sense of dislocation, written out of an almost hip, urban grot milieu, populated by existential lovers seeking shelter from the storm. The poet’s canvas later widened, incorporating often unforgiving studies of his father, the German novelist Gert Hofmann, in the celebrated Acrimony (1986), followed by the culturally and geographically various Corona, Corona (1993), before the often bleak, but arguably more sympathetic poetic pen portraits of his late father, besides much else, in the scorching Approximately Nowhere (1999.) Although his Selected Poems (2008) featured a modest selection of new work, no further individual collection has appeared, and Hofmann is currently better known as a translator – notably, of Joseph Roth, Hans Fallada and Franz Kafka – and as a reviewer in journals such as the London Review of Books, Poetry and The New York Review of Books, where many of the essays in his new book first appeared. Hofmann’s almost talismanic literary reputation was confirmed with The Palm Beach Effect (2013), a Festschrift which saw leading poets, critics and academics lining up to praise one dubbed by David Wheatley ‘our impossible strong enchanter.’

For undergraduates or the serious reader, Where Have You Been? offers exemplary essays on some of Hofmann’s literary touchstones. Revisiting Ian Hamilton’s poetry, Hofmann’s praise is unreserved, noting that ‘(his) slender oeuvre is worth others ten times as bulky … Ian’s poems are an education in poetry. Reading them trains and civilises one’s nerves … No filler, only killer.’ Yet Hofmann’s admiration is tempered by his highly attuned critical sense that, to quote Hamilton himself, the later poems are occasionally ‘bruised rewrites’ of the earliest work contained in The Visit (1970). But while noting how Hamilton’s life as a professional man of letters often overshadowed his verse, Hofmann rightly concludes that ‘the pearls are the poems.’

A lifelong advocate of the troubled Robert Lowell, Hofmann relishes seeing sparks fly in the ground–breaking correspondence of Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop, published as Words in Air (2008). Reaching for physical equivalents to describe the famous poets’ intense epistolary relationship, Hofmann writes: ‘It’s a rat-a-tat-tat Ping Pong rally, an artillery exchange, a story told in fireworks, a trapeze show.’ Gradually, we sense the tectonic plates of reputation, in Hofmann’s eyes, moving in favour of Bishop. Hofmann concedes Lowell does have some ‘wonderful passages, but they seem – compared to hers – so utterly planned and worked … Lowell understood that there was an agility and a naturalness in Bishop that he would never have; he and most of the rest of his generation were manufactured.’ Dissecting the relationship of the two famous poetic contraries, Hofmann again demonstrates the highly quotable nature of his literary portraiture, expressing displeasure at the stock definition of Bishop as ‘a perfectionist slow coach,’ while skewering what he terms Lowell’s ‘swaggering inexactitude.’

Reviewing Hofmann’s 2001 critical collection, Behind the Lines, Candida Clark in The Observer called the book’s language ‘rich and endlessly surprising.’ These qualities are again evident in Where Have You Been? Often leavening his judgements with German phrases (nature in Ted Hughes is ‘a sort of Tinguely-cum-Brueghel Weltmaschine of everything-that-is-the-case’), the cumulative effect of Hofmann’s criticism is like drinking a new and unexpectedly heady cocktail. Meanwhile, the vividness of Hofmann’s language can also incorporate an oddball, comic element, as in this description of Northumbrian poet Basil Bunting: ‘Imagine Tintin not as a supposed journalist with a cowlick but Haddock-bearded and a rare poet, and you get Bunting.’ Testing the poems of James Schuyler on his nerves, Hofmann harbours the ‘heretical thought’ that he may prefer the work to that of his cherished Lowell. His admiration for Schuyler’s airy but pared down lyricism evokes one of the book’s many arresting critical epiphanies: “Arches” is the poem of someone with his glasses off, or his brain decoupled, of the infinitely delicate return of matter, manner, humour, humanity.’

Julian Stannard, a co-editor of the Hofmann Festschrift, commented in the TLS recently that being panned by the Anglicized German writer is ‘almost a compliment.’ But this depends on who and what is being panned. Hofmann can be an effusive literary advocate – the book’s instructive title is aimed at both author and prospective readers – but a vicious prosecution attorney. Apart from his demolition of Stefan Zweig (‘just putrid through and through’), Hofmann also performs a clinical dissection of the collected work of leading Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert, as translated by one Alissa Valles. Hofmann, for whom bad translating appears to be on a par with animal cruelty, pulls no punches: ‘Reading her is an awful instruction in how even a great poet can be humbled by carelessness and thoughtlessness. She doesn’t write even passably good English … Alissa Valles’s Herbert is slack, chattersome, hysterical, full of exaggeration, complacency, and reaching for effect. This Collected Poems is a hopelessly, irredeemably bad book.’ Elsewhere, Hofmann establishes his own commandments of good translation, admitting that ‘I translate to try to amount to something … using the full range of Englishes, the different registers, the half-forgotten words, the tricks of voice, the unexpected tightenings and loosenings of grammar.’

Although Where Have You Been? also explores cinema, art and European fiction, the book’s overarching concerns are poets and poetry. Eliot in The Sacred Wood suggested ‘the critic and the creative artist should frequently be the same person.’ In this respect, Hofmann is the ideal reader. His unique insights into contemporary poetry persuade us to follow his often unusual trains of thought, making most conventional literary criticism seem bland and stunted in comparison. On Frederick Seidel, Hofmann dreamily speculates the poems could have been written on a 1970s device ‘called a Dymo Tape, mostly used for pricing goods in stores, where letters were printed out onto a sort of plastic tickertape … They are printed, without being written’, and he is not afraid to back a new name in the poetry game. So the Canadian Karen Solie ‘is indeed the one by whom the language lives.’ But Hofmann also devotes ample space to established masters, such as the ‘gifted, energetic, and sprawling poet’ Les Murray. Hofmann’s a poet, first and last, for whom the big, important books are significant events in his life, not just in literature. He hopes his criticism can attain ‘the condition of literature,’ by investigating, animating and making poetry and fiction resonate. Where Have You Been? is a stunning, endlessly surprising book of criticism, sug- gesting Michael Hofmann has more than achieved his objectives.

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