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A Black Hat, Silence and Bombshells : Michael Hofmann at Cambridge & After

The black hat and the black coat I was familiar with, before I knew their owner. It was Cambridge, the beginning of the Michaelmas Term, 1976. My second year, I was half way up Castle Street, in the dampest digs in town. I recall a kind of fug over everything, from the rank stairwell, to my second-floor room. Cooking, laundry and gas. To employ a Hofmannesque tripartite construction. And damp. Our heavy landlady would toil up and down the stairs, usually with a child in tow. We were a huddled group of exiles from college, all of us reading English, though not in any way strenuously.

 

It was Victorian Novel term, and my second-hand copies of Little Dorrit and Middlemarch lay unopened on the table, where they began to grow verdigris. It was more important at that time to be considered a thespian, which was apparently what ‘the beautiful people’ did, and most of them were ‘reading English’. A part in a play at the ADC, and above all, to be seen in the mirrors of the ADC bar, that was the glamorous thing. And to meet budding actresses. I was no good at it, though. So the other thing was to gather in a friend’s room, slump to Dylan – these were the years of his great revival (or one of them), Blood on the Tracks, Desire, Street Legal  and smoke. One of our group rolled joints studiously, sitting up at a desk, and it looked uncannily as though he were writing an essay. So ‘writing an essay’ became code for rolling a joint. It was not done, in those far-off days, to be seen working (though it turned out some of us had been, traitorously and furtively). And it must have been in the rare studious moments at my table, in those damp digs in Castle Street, that I first glimpsed the figure in black, apparently surveying the town from the top of Castle Hill.

 

If I had known my Balzac, I might have thought – there is Rastignac, when he climbs to the top of Montmartre and cries out his challenge to Paris, the city he intends to conquer: A nous deux maintenant! As it was, having in my first year read medieval drama, I thought this was a symbolic figure, placed there as the scourge to my idleness and lust. I spoke excitedly of the fitful apparition in the black hat to my friends. They were inclined to disbelieve me. From what I later understood, it seems my vision of Rastignac was the more accurate, for the figure in black turned out to be a fresher at Magdalene, hence the proximity of Castle Hill. It was also rumoured that there had been some scandal in the interviews for English at Clare, and that an interviewee had spent a night in protest, sitting under Clare bridge. I did not then connect the two figures, if they are to be connected. Under the bridge, or on top of the hill, whoever it was clearly had a gift for the theatrical gesture, and also for getting unusual perspectives on a place.

 

I cannot exactly remember my first – real and not ghostly – meeting with Michael Hofmann; but I consulted a mutual friend, the art historian James Malpas – a polymath who back then would alternate Strauss’s Tone Poems with tracks from The Clash, and kept an assiduously detailed journal. James tells me the meeting was at a party in ‘a resplendent Clare Gardens, due to the recent floods’ in June 1978, my last year, when I was back in college. James had already spoken with some awe of the poet in the year above him, a figure who excited intense speculation, a loner who wore a black hat, and whose sparsely furnished room sported an enormous poster of James Joyce, also in a black hat. By that time, I was implausibly half in charge of the University poetry society: we hosted the visit of a frail, seraphic David Gascoyne, barely emerged from a long period of alienation, the altogether more robust and drunken visit of George Barker, who made my girlfriend cry by suggesting she give up Chinese and have babies, and even a youthful Andrew Motion came down from Hull, to read to us. I don’t remember Michael attending any of these meetings, and certainly not the weekly workshop, a sometimes untender forum where some of us cut our teeth. And it was not until we had met a few times that – I recall this vividly – on the turn into Trinity Street by the Round Church – I was recounting the story of the figure in black, when Michael confided in his soft-spoken, dulcet tones that the figure in question must have been himself. 

 

It is difficult and delicate to write about a friend and contemporary, still in the prime of life and in rude health! – who has become – this volume proves it – a considerable literary figure, and one that has influenced many of us. Still, since I have accepted the challenge I must hope for the subject’s indulgence, and the reader’s, if I strike the personal note – for I cannot honestly write about MH, especially in those early years, with the dry impersonality of the critic, as though – to quote from Acrimony – ‘half my life had never happened’. We were close. There are poems in the first part of Acrimony which recount shared experiences. I see no reason to conceal this. Michael stayed with us in France – in ‘The Realm of the Senses’ he observes how ‘The yellow Citroën sits up and fills its lungs’ – this was my battered old Lemon that became a rusting eyesore in the pretty medieval town north of Paris, where we lived. In ‘Epithalamion’, a persona speaks, or a voice, ostensibly my own as the bridegroom, which recounts a wedding in which, ‘ladies hats outnumbered our friends’, and improvises freely on an anecdote about the honeymoon I told after the event – the Fawlty Towers like set-up where the owners were obsessed by their dying dog in the drawing room – and the geese that met us on arrival and tapped censoriously at the car door. Michael came to our wedding in 1982, and I received his poem with some bemusement at the time. It seemed a liberty taken – the event and setting were wholly recognisable – but then in his quiet way he could always take liberties with impunity, sometimes breathtakingly – épater les bourgeois! was a part of his talent. He could always drop a bombshell, in perfectly dulcet tones. Early on, perhaps unconsciously, but later quite consciously, he declared war on the ‘expected thing’, especially in a place as hidebound as England. In retrospect I now see the poem has actually refocused my own vision of the occasion – and his apprehension of our, or at least of my unease was correct. A few weeks later he presented my wife Bridget and I with a proof, and said, please accept this in a spirit of solidarity. I did then, on trust, and I do now – re-reading the poem it is the sympathy – the empathy – for our plight, caught up and somehow stranded in the ‘social mill’ – that comes through clearly, and it is also very funny. It was startling, sometimes disturbing, often engaging, and always riveting to relive shared experience through the filter of a Hofmann poem.

 

But his early poems did just that – they were startling, disarming, shocking, disobliging, funny, and above all sophisticated. They were low-key and off-key, and they were knowing. They gave off a tang, like a violent dose of salts. They had European smartness and range, unavailable then to most of us, and they were politically savvy. They were also intimidatingly modern. Il faut être absolument moderne is as axiomatic for Hofmann as it was for Rimbaud. It is a memorable moment in my own literary life, when I found – it must have been mid-June 1978 – a bundle of poems, half-tucked under the bed in my college room on which he had been sitting, left there by Michael for me to find, after he visited me for tea. I cannot exactly say (I wish I could!) that I ‘discovered’ Michael Hofmann; for one thing I didn’t have the clout – as Craig Raine or Hugo Williams did and were to do later on – to announce him ‘to the world’ by publishing him, but I must have responded quickly, and with the greatest possible encouragement. Certainly I was among the very first to read the earliest poems. I don’t need to have them by me, the phrases remain – ‘the fridge bellowed like a young tractor’; ‘there was a new régime: we had curried dragon for breakfast’; ‘the snake-headed street-lamps’; ‘I rode my bicycle very slowly round the block, once’. This last line, if I am correct, was the end of a poem called ‘Solemn Young Poem’. It struck me even then that MH was a league ahead of the rest of us; while we were writing solemn young poems, he was writing a poem entitled ‘Solemn Young Poem’. He was streets ahead in his controlled irony. The poems we offered up to the workshop had all the usual faults of youth – they were over (or under) literary, they were showy or they were awkward, they were not sufficiently formed, or seen ‘in the round’. Hofmann’s seemed to spring into being fully formed. He was a phenomenon, an énergumène as the French say.

 

In an interview he gave some years later, Michael recalled his Cambridge years, and he mentioned knowing Peter Robinson and myself, and commented ‘but there was no sense of common purpose’, and in that he was right. How could there be? I at least could not fathom where these poems of his – and in those days they had a Surrealist, or perhaps even an Expressionist tinge to them – came from. I had emerged from reading Yeats entire, an experience which shook me to the core, but also started me on a dangerous, hieratic, metaphoric process which involved the idealisation of experience, the ‘vision of reality’, the impermeable artefact, the golden bird of Byzantium. I was inspired in particular by his translation of Maud Gonne into a being with almost legendary attributes — ‘was there another Troy for her to burn?’ etc. All that grandiloquent, high-falutin muse-poetry stuff. Nothing could provide a greater contrast than Hofmann’s confessions of unease, aphasia, disenchantment, in his minute, porous and culturally up-to-the-minute descriptions of London, Cambridge or Munich, his local dystopias. He found his material so much closer to hand, in the lovingly listed attributes of his own ‘damp lung of a room’, or in the habits of his co-tenants in the rambling house in Chaucer Road, Cambridge (my tuppence worth of annotation to ‘Between Bed and Wastepaper Basket’…) The increasingly personal – say, rather, the overtly autobiographical – content which seeps into Nights in the Iron Hotel and reaches its high point in Acrimony, also left many of us, including myself, bemused, admiring, gob-smacked, dazzled and to an extent uneasy. 

 

How this early, fully-formed poetry came into being was for the moment a mystery, and Michael certainly wasn’t telling. Perhaps I was not asking, or daring to ask, either. I never sought to intrude like that, and nor did he. Discretion reigned. There were unspoken, mutually accepted ‘no-go’ areas in our conversations. Of his personal presence and charisma, and of (let it be said) his great good looks under the black hat, one could dilate at length, though he would hate it. But everyone who met him experienced, underwent, overrode, shared or suffered his silence. Michael in those days was intensely silent. Some took it for arrogance, others for shyness. Certainly he could ‘out-silence’ anyone I knew. An anecdote recounts the dry comment of one of his Cambridge tutors, who remarked when MH reappeared at a supervision after several weeks of unexplained absence, ‘Ah, Michael, there you are, we have missed your pregnant silences…’ I believe he was not unduly troubled by remaining silent, and yet it was in my experience an ‘attentive’ or even ‘expectant’ silence, and he was glad when it was broken, or a subject was broached that he could enjoin. It was most painful in moments of one’s own dismay – when his silence was not required, but comforting speech rather, and this he could not easily offer – but there again one apprehended an acute ‘fellow-feeling’, even if it remained unvoiced. For his experience of unhappiness, of unease, of general difficulty (‘we are fascinated by our inability to function’) we need only turn to the poems. And there too we may find traces that explain this habit of silence. A study could be made of modes of silence in Hofmann’s work – not silence in any grand Steinerian sense, related to the ‘unsayable’ – but the physical constriction, the ‘shroud of earnestness and misgiving’ as he himself puts it in ‘Night Hawks’, the poem dedicated to James Lasdun. In Acrimony we find the condition included in the poem ‘Impotence’:

 

Most evenings, I was aphasic, incapable of speech;

worn down by tolerance and inclusion.

 

In the word-perfect poem ‘Friction’ we find a couple suffering:

 

Our silence is irksome and confrontational,

As you sit across from me, I could wish you away:

turning the pages of a book, your pen grinding

on my paper – I quarrel with each manifestation.

 

 

More significantly perhaps, is the review of his childhood, especially in relation to the looming figure of his father Gert Hofmann (who is key to understanding so much of the poet’s personal drama) :

 

(My own part of the conversation: thin, witty, inaudible,

as though I’d spoken in asides for twenty-five years.)

                                                                                (‘Author, Author’)

 

Or how any attempt at conversation on the part of the young child was literally drowned out by the continual noise of the father’s radio :

 

I kept up a constant rearguard action, jibing,

commenting, sermonizing. ‘Why did God give me a voice,’

I asked, ‘if you always keep the radio on ?’

 

I note that the same poem (‘Fine Adjustments’) contains an almost prophetic reference to Joseph Roth – ‘Once before, I left some lines of Joseph Roth/ bleeding on your desk’ – recruiting Roth as an ally in this filial confrontation with the father is obviously fraught with promise.

 

The speech of the father disparages, either by its bluntness or its boorish ineptitude, and the longed-for ‘consummation’ – a moment of genuine inclusion, as of men talking equal to equal – is endlessly deferred and frustrated. Either that, or it is the pointed tolerance and attempt to include him made by his adoptive family in England – that reduces him to aphasia and exasperation. Despite his humorous treatment of it, no one should underestimate the culture shock Michael felt when as a boy he was ‘jettisoned’ (as he puts it in ‘The Machine that Cried’) in England to be educated. Much of the observational bite and humour of his poetry comes from ‘having an edge’, or being at a slight angle to his adoptive country, which was then very much England, even if he gravitates more towards Germany and the US these days. For myself, and I think it was the same for many of his contemporaries, it was not until the publication of Acrimony in 1986 that the full nature of Michael’s overtly Oedipal drama was made plain – or indeed that the existence of his father – the celebrated German novelist Gert Hofmann, a master of irony, black humour, and controlled hysteria, capable of writing scenes of great cruelty and honesty – was brought home to us. The difficult relationship, the love-hate that characterises it – underpinned by a fierce loyalty – was made even clearer by the strange BBC documentary, in which Michael travelled out to Munich with a camera crew, to interview his father (and his mother) about Gert’s writing and his past, in what came across as a very public ‘settling of accounts’. There had been other famous sequences to fathers by near-contemporaries – Paul Muldoon and Hugo Williams, notably – not to mention the all-important example of Robert Lowell’s more general family history in Life Studies, but nothing quite prepares for the honesty, passion, anger, dismay – and wit – of ‘In My Father’s House’. Once again, it was fully-formed poetry.

 

The name of Lowell has been broached, and his is of course the central influence on Hofmann’s early poetry. Others will surely testify to this. I rarely met Michael without a copy of one or other of Lowell’s volumes in his pocket or his knapsack—frequently I think the Lowell not just of Life Studies or The Dolphin, but also the ragged, baggy, all-inclusive fourteen-liners that make up Notebook (a book, incidentally, that is amply represented in the selection from Lowell he made for Faber’s Poet-to-Poet series). One particular memory in relation to this: in his room in Chaucer Road in Cambridge, I once picked up a copy of Lowell’s Faber Selected (the yellow one, I think, with the poet’s portrait, smiling genially out from behind a pair of crooked spectacles). Many of the poems Michael had annotated line by line with a tick or a cross – according to whether in his judgement the lines worked or they did not. I was forgetting, as I write this, that during the post-grad years in Cambridge in the early ‘eighties, Michael was in fact working on a PhD on Lowell, though it was never completed. In the end, as he wrote to me, he was ‘half pushed, and half crawled’ out of the programme, and he left Cambridge to settle in with his girlfriend in West Hampstead. The other poet he introduced me to was John Berryman, in particular to the collection Berryman’s Sonnets. Berryman also had a tortuous relationship with his father – though in his case the father was dead – through suicide or misadventure he was never absolutely certain – and the concealing of certain facts by his own mother aggravated the poet’s own emotional instability considerably. I came late to realising the extent of the American influence in Michael’s early work – there was Lowell and Berryman, but also the colloquial, wry, inclusively low-key Frank O’Hara, and he spoke enthusiastically of Weldon Kees and James Schuyler.

 

Michael remained in Cambridge, and in 1978-79, just as our friendship was getting going, really, I went to the US. Our early friendship was oddly characterised by near-misses and failed meetings, ‘by-passes and flyovers’ as Michael once put it. I went to Lowell’s old stamping ground Harvard, as it happens, where I was not happy, sensing a subliminal steeliness about the place, despite the cheery American bonhomie. I mention it because MH, significantly, was the only person, when I went home briefly at Christmas, to notice that something was amiss, though I took care to hide my true state of dismay. After that I moved to France, which turned out to be for the duration, but we still met frequently, in London, and when he came to stay with us in Paris – picnics and cigarettes on the roof in Montmartre – or in Senlis. Then he went to Germany, and after that to Florida, for at least a third of every year. There was a holiday in Scotland, and a slightly hair-raising trek in the Pyrenees with my sister. Meetings have become rare now, but they remain precious. Walks over Hampstead Heath, a particularly competitive game of Scrabble at Thanksgiving a few years ago, at the home of James Lasdun in the Catskills. Soon after I returned from Harvard, Michael’s poetry started to be published – many will remember that startling full page in Quarto, and how it was followed up by his inclusion in Faber’s Poetry Introduction 5. We looked on in awe, gob-smacked yet again.

 

Despite the hurt and the dismay recorded in Acrimony, it appears that Gert Hofmann bequeathed to his son three precious things: a feeling for the writerly career (see Michael’s poem ‘Old Firm’ with its moving, vocative address, ‘Father, the winter bird writes bird’s nest soup’), a rigorous work ethic, and a sense of certainty about his own literary judgement. Michael Hofmann could and can unleash the most devastating criticism if he takes against a writer – his dismissal of Douglas Dunn’s Elegies comes to mind, or more recently of Craig Raine’s ‘martian’ device; there was a serious hatchet job on a Hungarian novelist which lingers in the memory, and more recently and conspicuously still, his dismantling of the life and work (and even of the suicide) of Stefan Zweig. These swingeing attacks can seem full of animus, and like his hero Joseph Roth he can get personal. He can be biassed and partisan. He can be decidedly contrarian – viz his famous dislike of W. G. Sebald whom he dismisses as Gothic, and ‘sub-Thomas Bernhard’ – an opinion he is proud to hold in the face of the almost universal approbation accorded to this writer. He is similarly forthright, and controversial, in his ‘robust’ approach to translating modern German poetry (Durs Grünbein, Gunter Eich, Gottfried Benn) which on occasion takes the Pound/Lowell position to an extreme. In the end, time alone will tell how this type of ‘versioning’ (that can work brilliantly, if the tone is just, and justified by the original) will weather. I predict that the best of Michael’s versions will eventually form a part of the Hofmann poetic corpus, much as Imitations does of Robert Lowell’s. Speaking of translation, we were involved, with Jamie McKendrick, in a kind of three-horse race – though an excruciatingly slow one – when we were charged by Faber in the late ‘nineties to edit their 20th Century Poems anthology series in French, German and Italian. It was perhaps our one acknowledged moment of ‘common purpose’.

 

Michael Hofmann’s poetry, as George Szirtes wrote, reviewing the Selected, is a poetry of the nerves, and that is right. It is a poetry of accumulated detail, selected by an antenna that serves a centripetal sensibility, an egotistical sublime that processes phenomena and inflects them by means of a strong subjective surge. I note that the lists and the lines get longer, and more inclusive of detail, in each succeeding volume. It is a poetry of surfaces, patient, content to explore, eschewing metaphor and the grand gesture, profoundly metonymic and ‘horizontal’… Trying to come to grips with it, I once defined it as ‘atheistic’ in its evolution of similes and apparently arbitrary, ad-hoc analogies forged out of wildly dissimilar and apparently rebarbative matter. Hofmann is the master of entropy – frequently he observes situations or relationships or matter in decomposition – how ‘All things tend towards the yellow of unlove’ –

 

                                                                  the marigolds

develop a stoop and grow bald, orange clowns,

straw polls, their petals coming out in fistfuls…

                                                                                              (‘Cinders’)

 

There is a law in narrative fiction which says that any given situation is either improving or deteriorating, and Hofmann places himself firmly on the side of the latter. But the verbal energy crackles, even as he does so.

 

It is premature to attempt to reckon up Michael Hofmann’s poetry, or predict exactly where and how it will stand in the future, but one can say that if Paul Muldoon enfranchised the poets of our generation by his linguistic euphoria, his playfulness and his winning tone, Hofmann gave us something equally valuable, a handle on our own helplessness, our fecklessness and unease. (I find I am using the preterite, but there is every likelihood he will produce more poetry…) He has the audacity to speak squarely and clearly out of his own experience, though he refrains, unlike Larkin, from speaking for everyone, and he makes only sparing use of the first person plural. Like Larkin’s, his poetry takes care – sometimes exasperatingly so – not to get above itself. His poems assume their solipsism unashamedly, indeed it is their salient feature. And by doing so, of course, we see ourselves in them. He helped us to grow up, and to use material that was so familiar and close to hand we scarcely noticed it. The distance he seemed to have, so early, on familial and relational issues that most of us would not have noticed – observing, for example, a little boy who has ‘the exemplary energy of the late child’ (‘On the Margins’) – is the kind of psychological insight that is usually the gift of the novelist. But the poet is still at the centre of the poem – ‘Back here, I feel again spiritless, unhappy, the wrong age’. He has also been central in establishing the anecdotal as a mode, perhaps the mode, of fin de siècle mainstream British poetry.

 

When we would meet in the early days, whatever the circumstances or the weather, however unpromising the surroundings, Michael would always prefer to walk rather than to sit in a café or a pub. An aerial presence, he preferred to be on the move. Getting comfortable, or remaining comfortable, was never Hofmann’s thing.


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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

was born in 1957 and was educated at Cambridge.  He has four published collections of poetry with the Oxford Poets imprint of Carcanet Press and is the editor of the Faber anthology Twentieth-Century French Poems. His acclaimed translation of Yves Bonnefoy's The Arriere-pays was published last year (Seagull Press, 2012), and his French Decadent Tales, new translations of fin-de-siècle stories, is due from Oxford World Classics in Spring 2013. He regularly writes on French literature and modern poetry for the Guardian and the Times Literary Supplement.

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