Thursday, August 09, 2007

Michael Hofmann

Of the many books of poetry I picked up in February at the British Library's sale of withdrawn books, I've finally got around to reading Michael Hofmann's Approximately Nowhere.

If one can have favourite poems from collections, then mine is one called 'Kleist in Paris', which I can't reproduce here because it's too long. But here's another one:


A zero sum game, our extravagant happiness,
matched or cancelled
by the equal and opposite unhappiness of others,

but who was counting as you came walking from your car,
not off the bus,
early for once, almost violent in your severity,

both of us low on our last, stolen day of the month,
uncertain, rather formal,
a day of headaches, peaches and carbonated water,

by the stone pond whose ice you smashed as agirl...
or how we wound up
jubilant, a seesaw at rest, not one foot on the floor.

Of this (and another) poem Hofmann says,

I think the tension in my stuff, or the “jokes”, as I’m apt to describe them, the pervasive irony – everything is more or less than what it seems – the collisions between words and dictions, “dicke Luft”, “approximately nowhere”, “iron hotel”, what have you – is absolutely characteristic. It’s not a function of balance, though. I probably have contempt for pre-ordained balance! If balance happens to result, as I guess it sometimes does, like in that poem, ‘Fucking’, it’s an ironic balance. In my poems, if things are resolved or cancel each other out, that’s almost the least important thing. What matters much more is the sense of colossal “mental fight”, as the wretched hymn says, totting up these listing, Babel-like lists to reach a tiny residue, salt, a firefly, slabs of cake – or, alternatively, an oxymoron, or a mingled and surprising assertion, an early departure, a pair of scissors in our pockets, or “Do you think I’m real?” The way these endings are “produced” from the poems is what makes the poems interesting, if they are. Each poem is a calculation, a kind of improvised piece of algebra, a thinking in images. The improvisation, the surprise, is what guarantees them. If this book is different from earlier books, it may be because I’ve discovered “middles”. I’ve always liked beginnings and endings before, but this is the book with added “middle” – all those torrential, asyntactical compilations of things...


Cheshire Cat said...

I tend to be wary of poets who analyze their own poems. The reference to Montale is puzzling, to say the least.

Read any of the Murray yet? He's brilliant.

Space Bar said...

Cheshire Cat: Actually I should have made it clear that he is aanswering a specific question in an interview - the link will take you there.

In general I agree with you, but sometimes there is something one might want to say, or draw lines between one and several other poems, and an interview or conversation is a useful place to do that.

Haven't started on the Murray yet. It's Collected Poems, what's more!

Cheshire Cat said...

Space Bar, I know, hence the reference to Montale.

If there is something additional one wants to say, I take that as an indication the poem has failed. The poem is precisely what one wishes to say about the poem.

And in this specific case, Hofmann is doing a great disservice to himself. "the pervasive irony is absolutely characteristic"? Give me a break. Who does the guy think he is?

I'm actually neutral about the poem - it's not bad, but not particularly memorable either. But the interview has turned me against him. To think that he has the nerve to compare himself to Montale!

OK, I think I'm done with the outrage :)

??! said...

one agrees. besides, anybody who takes 15 lines to say -
"I don't know how I come up with these absurd phrases. And I throw them together, and hope they make sense. Actually, I try to construct it properly so that it makes sense. Wait - I just contradicted myself. Dem!"

??! said... an idiot.

Space Bar said...

Cat, ??!: :D I wonder if Hofmann feels the knife of every word as you utter them.