prizes for losers

Michael Hofmann – Selected Poems

A poet's parsimony usually sparks one of two responses: either his heart was never in it, and the creative dribble may as well dry up altogether; or we applaud his towering self-command, the ringing proof that the poet in question has earned his stripes, with an infinite capacity for taking pains.

Poets, then, fall into two corresponding camps – the stingy and the bountiful, misers and spendthrifts. (Scholarly meddling can turn one into the other: there is Larkin's published verse, carefully disbursed in five slim volumes; and the Collected Poems, in which his output fattened alarmingly under the husbandry of Anthony Thwaite...)

Glancing over Ian Hamilton's (spare, economical) Fifty Poems, Michael Hofmann knows exactly which of the two types merits our admiration: “Each individual poem is pruned back to an austere and beautiful knot of pain. Poetry, by his practice of it, is not craftsmanship or profession, but catastrophe. I can't, in general terms, think of any better way for a poem to be. Most poems have a hard time answering the question: 'Is this really necessary?' Not his.”

Poetry as catastrophe: a poem as a nauseous compound of despair, insight, language and hope; but, most of all, a necessary reflex. As Douglas Dunn put it, “No one can explain/Melodic mysteries written down but wrung/First from the dishrag of a poet's pain/Before a word of it gets thought or sung.”

Hofmann shows himself to be particularly interested in those poets for whom the creative drive was compromised or crippled. He writes with awed dismay of John Berryman's working life – the sheer sweated labour of grinding out the poems, the crazily dauntless way Berryman lined up project after impossible project – the edition of Lear, for instance – while beleaguered by a slew of life-problems. Berryman's life seems to have been a succession of calamities, made the more so by his intellectual restlessness, and a Promethean energy and wilfulness. Hofmann would probably insist that the Dream Songs were well worth it all.

Hoffman's Selected gathers samples from his four collections – Nights at the Iron Hotel, Acrimony, Corona, Corona, and Approximately Nowhere – Lenten fare, perhaps. But each poem earns its keep, each counts, and there's none of what Coleridge called 'by-writing', dispensable poetic padding. Hofmann's imaginative banlieue is easily identifiable – it's so recognizably his - its inner weather, its atmosphere of post-industrial entropy, the American vulgarity, the bedsit squalor, the suburban bathos, the bad sex and worse politics - Hofmann could patent it, by Joseph Brodsky out of Frank O'Hara. An ironic, hungover squint at the by-blows of Thatcher's Britain, the early poetry is coloured also by the melancholia of the Old Europe, which deepened as Hofmann's career progressed. The tone is Bluesy and pungent, and there's something of the quality you find in the early Wim Wenders – American pop culture superimposed upon a post-war European wasteland, plaster statues of Elvis Presley erected on the Potsdamerplatz.

“My own poems,” Hofmann sighed in his review of Hamilton, “go like sequences of television quiz show prizes, prizes for losers, just one darn thing after another! Even with his example before me, how materialistic I have become, even in my own brand of negative materialism! How crass and compendious!” And to be sure, Hofmann's poetry is a Wunderkammer of disposable trash. One of his prime themes is the debility of modern consumption:

The branch line is under the axe, but it still runs,
rattling and screeching, between the hospital
lit like a toy, and the castellated factory -
a folie de grandeur of late capitalism.

He can be Hopperish and deflationary, as in the vaguely Bleaneyesque:

But being a salesman was dispiriting work. I ran myself
like an organisation, held out the prospect of bonuses,
wondered which of the tiny, sad, colourful bottles
in my freezing minibar I would crack next.

But the most thrilling poems, by a country mile, are those devoted to his father, the novelist Gert Hofmann. Anger and tendresse, confessions of inadequacy and fear, Hofmann's bitter struggle to define himself as a free distinct individual – and, by Approximately Nowhere, the unasked role of his father's elegist. He lapses into a note that seems uncomfortably crude and cruel; but it's the grievance of exasperated love:

Once I thought of you virtually as a savage,
atavistic, well-aligned, without frailties.
A man of strong appetites, governed by instinct.
You have gone to seed like Third World dictators,
fat heads of state suffering horribly
from Western diseases whose name is Legion...

If Hofmann can sound a little too hangdog at times, and if the busy too-muchness of his poetry becomes a touch indigestible, he can more often than not redeem himself with a bright lyric blazon, minimalist and modest, such as this – 'Megrim' – quoted entire:

Corners of the linden yellow like grapes...
back in July leaves blew. Rain wounds the window,
preoccupies the drainpipes, nourishes -
after a seemly interval – the mould spots
in the cornices. Stray nooses of wisteria
toss purposefully, aimlessly, who can say.

Exhaustion, a kind of anomie observant in spite of itself... There may be a clue to the frustrating sparsity of Hofmann's work in recent years – his poetic work; he translates at an amazing clip – in the preface to his translation of Durs Grunbein's Ashes for Breakfast: “There is a formidableness, a dauntingness about Grunbein that I don't have, perhaps can't do, and find it difficult even to respond to... there is a frontality and an abundance in him – massive poems, great sequences of numbered parts – that I can only wonder at.” Grunbein is Hofmann's secret sharer – as the translator suggests – but simultaneously an inhibitor; as Hofmann's father was before him, and, to a lesser extent, Joseph Brodsky. It's rather a pity that this fine poet – and fine reader of poetry, too, as his collection of literary journalism, Behind the Lines, attests – should discover that McNeice's “World is crazier and more of it than we think,/Incorrigibly plural” was a stern caveat to the poet whose ambition was to nail it in print. And discover also that, in this late hour of the world, the big, superconfident talent of a Durs Grunbein is the one only fitted to match it.

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