The first poem in Michael Hofmann’s new book, One Lark, One Horse, is a missing-person report spoken in the voice of the missing person:
Nothing required an account of me
And still I didn’t give one.
I might have been a virtual casualty,
A late victim of the Millennium Bug.
No spontaneity, no insubordination,
Not even any spare capacity.
“The Years” alludes to a period of silence in Hofmann’s poetic career that lasted for nearly two decades. Between 1983 and 1999, Hofmann published four volumes of poetry in Britain distinguished by his abrasiveness toward the world and his stormy relationship with his father, the German academic and novelist Gert Hofmann. And then he stopped writing poems. “I’ve forgotten what a poem is—or worse, can only remember,” Hofmann admitted in 2005. He momentarily broke his silence in 2008, when “The Years” appeared in Poetry, and the next year with a Selected Poems that included seven new poems, but he then remained quiet until last year, when the publication of One Lark, One Horse in Britain brought his period of poetic silence to a close.
Mixing self-mockery and disenchantment, and speaking about silence through a clenched grin, “The Years” doesn’t so much explain the silence as break it with a quintessential Hofmann gesture. Yet the poem is more than an expression of the anguish and antagonism that have characterized his work since his first poem, “Tea for My Father,” an icy glimpse of his father’s psychological cruelty, was published in 1979. It’s also an example of the theatricality that can make a Hofmann poem comic or unsparing, or ensnare it in single-mindedness. “Nothing required an account of me/And still I didn’t give one”—with the emphasis of the second line falling on that defiant, prideful, pedestrian “still.”
Michael Hofmann was born in 1957 in Freiberg, West Germany. His father and mother were from Saxony, “newly arrived Ossis, long before such a word existed,” he has recalled, and “both of them had starved during the war.” Gert earned a Ph.D. at the University of Freiberg, writing a thesis on Thomas Mann and Henry James, and in 1961, through the German Academic Exchange, he was hired to teach German literature at the University of Bristol. Life for the Hofmanns became transient. The two years in Bristol were followed by two years in Edinburgh, two years in the United States, and another sojourn in Edinburgh. As the family cycled through different variants of English, they continued to speak German at home, which had some comic reverberations. As Hofmann writes in “The Machine That Cried,” from Acrimony (1986), his second book:
My first-ever British accent wavered
between Pakistani and Welsh. I called Bruce’s record shop
just for someone to talk to. He said, “Certainly, Madam.”
Weeks later, it was “Yes sir, you can bring your children.”
In 1971, the family splintered. After having returned to West Germany, Gert Hofmann accepted a teaching position at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia. His wife and three daughters settled just over the border in Klagenfurt, Austria, with Gert shuttling between the two cities. The son was left behind in England—or “jettisoned,” as he writes in “The Machine That Cried”—and packed off to Winchester College, an ancient private school. (Among its alumni are Sir Thomas Browne, Lord Alfred Douglas, Freeman Dyson, and lots of cricketers.) From there Hofmann attended Cambridge as an undergraduate. He read poetry, especially that of William Butler Yeats, Wallace Stevens, and Ezra Pound, and after borrowing a friend’s omnibus edition of Life Studies and For the Union Dead, he fell for Robert Lowell. Another friend at university, the poet Stephen Romer, has recalled thumbing through Hofmann’s copy of Lowell’s Selected Poems and immediately noticing that many of the poems had been annotated “line by line with a tick or a cross—according to whether in his judgment the lines worked or they did not.”
When Hofmann was at Cambridge, other poets there were, like Language poets in the United States, purposefully turning their backs on the lyric “I,” yet under Lowell’s influence Hofmann embraced it. “One of the great virtues of Lowell’s poetry,” Hofmann explained in a 2003 review of Lowell’s Collected Poems, is “a closeness—however manufactured—to speech.” Hofmann stayed on at Cambridge as a graduate student, undertaking a dissertation on Lowell that remained unwritten, and left the university in 1983. There “was never anything I wanted to prove about him. I didn’t have a ‘thesis,’ in any sense,” he admitted in the 2003 review. “I still don’t. Instead, Lowell is someone I continually reread.”
From Lowell Hofmann learned a great deal about style. His first book, Nights in the Iron Hotel (1983), has more than eighty ellipses. Like Lowell, the young poet used the ellipsis to suggest vulnerability or hesitation, to suspend transitional links, but also to dramatize a sense of deficiency: “Acid rain from the Ruhr strips one pine in three…/To supplement their living, the neutral Danes/let out their houses during the summer months.” Sometimes an ellipsis heightens a sense of vanishing: “Not for long, nor for a long time now…//Later, your jeans faded more completely.” Like Frederick Seidel, whose early poems also channeled Lowell, Hofmann brazenly links together four or five images or ideas, described mostly with nouns and adjectives: “Sachwörter as opposed to Zeitwörter,” as he puts it, “thing-words” instead of “time-words.” The aim is to compress time and narrative into a catalog of distinct particulars. Here are the concluding lines of “Albion Market,” from Acrimony, which describes Bayswater, a rough area of Thatcher-era London:
A man came down the street with the meth-pink eyes
of a white rat, his gait a mortal shuffle.
A British bulldog bowler hat clung to his melting skull.
…Game spirits, tat and service industries,
an economy stripped to the skin trade. Sex and security,
Arsenal boot boys, white slaves and the SAS.
But a Hofmann catalog can be more than an edgy variety show. In “Pastorale,” from his third volume, Corona, Corona (1993), a roadside landscape is turned into a metaphor for a society scarred by destruction and violence:
The slewed census-taker on the green verge,
noting a hedgehog’s defensive needle-spill,
the bullet-copper and bullet-steel of pheasants,
henna ferns and a six-pack of Feminax,
indecipherable cans and the cursive snout and tail
of a flattened rat under the floribunda ivy,
the farmer’s stockpiled hayrolls and his flocks,
ancillary, bacillary blocks of anthrax.
More so than in “Albion Market,” the catalog of thing-words in “Pastorale” is coordinated by the music of the lines, a cacophony of colliding consonants and jarring internal rhymes. This is a cruel pastoral, one of several in Corona, Corona in which debris is saturated with a highly exaggerated, almost expressionist sense of the macabre. The catalog dredges up Hofmann’s fears of becoming waste, and the poem’s harsh staccato exaggerates its post-apocalyptic theatricality. Hofmann has praised Otto Dix for the Schonungslosigkeit, or unsparingness, evident in his paintings of Weimar Germany. “Pastorale” has Schonunglosigkeit as well: it prefers irony to tragedy, gruesome spectacle to wonder, and opts for a mood of cruel exhilaration when emotional closure seems impossible.
This mood dominates the poems in Acrimony about Hofmann’s father. In 1979, after several decades of teaching and writing radio plays, Gert Hofmann started to write fiction, and in his son’s poems about their relationship the struggle for paternal attention is aggravated by a struggle over writing and authority. “I wanted to share your life,” the son writes in “My Father’s House Has Many Mansions.” “I wanted your mixture of resentment/and pride in me expanded to the offer of equality.” No genuine offer was forthcoming, as he writes in “Errant”: “Once you offered me your clippings file—the human touch!” In Acrimony he retaliates with a rap sheet of minor paternal offenses. From “Bärli” (which is the diminutive form of “bear” in Swiss German): “Your salami breath tyrannized the bedroom/where you slept on the left, my mother, tidily,/on the right.” From “Errant”: “Under your eyes,/clarified by balloon spectacles, I see bleak anal pleats.” Hofmann knows, however, that by isolating his father’s flaws he is also testifying to his own, which wins him no vindication: “Every year, the heraldic plum-tree in your garden/surprises you with its small, rotten fruit.”
Approximately Nowhere, in part a coda to Acrimony, appeared six years after Gert Hofmann’s death in 1993. In the book’s first section, in poems less acidic than those of Acrimony but no less confrontational and unresolved, the poet revisits his father’s life and their mutual unwillingness to grant each other recognition. In the third and final section, Hofmann writes about his own tribulations as a father, and his defection from his partner and mother of their two children to a new lover. He’s finally traded places with his father, who had girlfriends in Ljubljana while his wife kept house in Klagenfurt. In “Birds of Passage,” from Acrimony, Hofmann acknowledges his mother’s revulsion at his father’s trysts: “I don’t want to watch the circus/of my husband’s homecoming, a bankrupt show/of defensiveness, guilt, and irritability.” The poem itself is a complicated show. It is written in the voice of Hofmann’s mother, and although the lament breaks her silence, she sounds a lot like her son. His rhythms, tone, and manner of address fill the poem, not unlike the way his father’s breath permeates the bedroom in “Bärli.” The son writes about his father in a way that exaggerates their roles and captures the ironies of their male-centered relationship, to the point of eliminating the differences between them.
In Approximately Nowhere, when writing about his and his new lover’s relationship and its emotional snares, Hofmann openly repeats the patterns of his father’s life: “A zero sum game, our extravagant happiness, matched or cancelled/by the equal and opposite unhappiness of others.” Here at least some equilibrium, if not equality, is achieved. This poem, bluntly called “Fucking,” ends: “how we wound up/jubilant, a seesaw at rest.” The game is zero-sum, because in “Litany,” the volume’s concluding poem, extravagant happiness wins out. The poem is a single sentence that casually unfolds over forty prosy lines, and as its rhythms quicken Hofmann becomes a satyr: “The May air full of seeds, alder and plane and sycamore,/generative fluff, myself fluffy and generative,/wild-haired and with the taste of L. in my mouth.”
Another L. is present in the poem. The third section of Approximately Nowhere recalls The Dolphin (1973), in which Robert Lowell writes about the end of his twenty-three-year marriage to Elizabeth Hardwick and his new relationship with Lady Caroline Blackwood. Hofmann tips his hand in “Summer,” which takes its epigraph from The Dolphin’s “Dream”: “For months the heat of love has kept me marching.” Lowell famously and questionably included in The Dolphin poems containing passages taken from anguished letters written by Hardwick—who did not want him to leave—without asking her for consent. In “et prope et procul,” a poem addressed to his absent lover, Hofmann looks to out-Lowell Lowell:
You sleep in a nest of my dirty shirts,
while, five or six zones adrift of you
and in temperatures close to blood heat, I keep my balls
coddled in your second-best lace panties
for the duration.
It’s a curious thing, celebrating your new love by blatantly advertising your dirty laundry, no matter how trite the Shakespearean allusion. But then Hofmann, writing poems that mean to be at once honest and cruel in their subject matter, and that sometimes seem to crave the spotlight of controversy, is, like Lowell, not inclined to reticence. In Approximately Nowhere, the small, rotten plums do not fall far from either branch of the heraldic tree.
That tree is nowhere to be found in One Lark, One Horse. What endures is Hofmann’s sense of rootlessness, heightened by his awareness of the days and years steadily sifting down a hole. In “Lindsay Garbutt,” a short prose piece that opens the book, he writes, “I’m past the age of reading, and well into the age of re-reading,” and then adds, “I don’t re-read either.” Except that we learn from “LV,” the book’s second poem, in which Hofmann describes his fifties as “the years of re-reading (at arm’s length),” that he does reread. Adding to the mischief are the prose piece’s title, which borrows the name of the editor who commissioned it, as well as the title of the book, which alludes to a Jewish joke about lark pâté: Goldberg’s deli is always full of customers, and Cohen’s always empty. The reason? Goldberg sells lark pâté. How can you afford to prepare it? Cohen asks. I mix one lark with one horse, Goldberg replies. This blend of teasing, contradiction, and omission in the book’s opening pages may be Hofmann’s longest ellipsis yet.
In “LV,” which follows “The Years,” Hofmann indirectly assesses himself at middle age:
The years of taking the stairs two at a time
(though not at weekends)
a bizarre debt to Dino Buzzati’s Tartar Steppe,
the years of a deliberate lightness of tread, perceived as a nod to Franz Josef
thinking with his knees and rubber-tyred Viennese Fiaker.
The years when the dead are starting to stack up.
Hofmann deflates himself a little here, but he still fears becoming an anachronism like Franz Josef, the Hapsburg monarch who died in 1916, two years before his empire collapsed, or the hero of Buzzati’s 1940 novel, a military officer whose lifelong preparation for an epic battle that would lend his existence meaning comes to nothing, and who ends up dying alone in a country inn.
The psychological mannerisms of “LV” reprise the pessimism of Hofmann’s earlier work. “At the end of my feeding-tube, I didn’t realize/that to stay anywhere on the earth’s surface is to bleed,” he writes in “Giro Account,” from Acrimony. “LV” does represent a departure of sorts for him, however. This catalog of observations, anecdotes, and incidents is written in a line that is relaxed and has gained amplitude. The ellipsis, used sparingly in Approximately Nowhere, has been retired, and a sporadic use of anaphora creates an incantatory music that’s new to Hofmann’s work:
The ninth complement
of fresh—stale—cells, the Late Middle Years
(say, 1400 AD—on the geological calendar),
the years of the incalculable spreading middle,
the years of speculatively counting down
from an unknown terminus,
because the whole long stack—
shale, vertebrae, pancakes, platelets, plates—
won’t balance anymore, and doesn’t correspond anyway
to the thing behind the eyes that says “I”
and feels uncertain, green and treble….
The sound of the lines creates a degree of detachment that allows Hofmann to take a prosaic view of his aging self. Earlier in his career, disarray could make him feel anxious and helpless, drawing out his assertiveness and sense of antagonism. In One Lark, One Horse, Hofmann has learned, sometimes, to find humor in diminishment. “Another one of those Pyrrhic experiences. Call it/an expyrrhience,” he writes at the beginning of “Cricket,” and then goes on to describe a game between “two mid-table counties/at the end of a disappointing season, no local rivalry or anything like that,/very few people there, the game itself going nowhere slowly//on its last morning.” The poem concludes with a leisurely mock-epic account of a groundsman’s pratfall and the small crowd’s reaction to it: “A malicious laugh, widely dispersed and yet unexpectedly hearty,/went up on all sides of the ground. Soft knocks that school a lifetime—no?”
When Hofmann’s humor turns sarcastic, however, his poems become more calculated in their manner. “Higher Learning” is a satire of the contemporary university, specifically the University of Florida at Gainesville, where Hofmann has taught since 1994. It is spoken in the voice of an administrator or weary tenured department head:
We casualize the support staff. Who’s scared of a few roaches and spiders.
We empty the bins once a week, then once a month. Are we serious about paperless learning or not?
We stop the water fountains. Don’t replace bulbs, call it green, and save thousands.
To think big, you’ve got to dare to think small.
In a 1995 essay about Robert Musil, Hofmann praised the Austrian novelist for his treatment of characters in The Man Without Qualities: “There isn’t a character who is presented without mockery—not least for taking themselves so seriously.” “Higher Learning” mocks corporate strategies and their enablers in the university, yet as the mockery is piled on—“We get some proper K Street chops into our fundraising effort./Personalized databases. Twitter feeds. Birthday messages. Con-dolences and -gratulations”—the poem turns rhetorical and false, echoing its antagonist, and its authority comes to rest on sounding victorious over a very soft target (not the only one in the book). Lacking a sense of wit, the poem is entranced with its own mockery, and offers no alternative to mockery. As invective, it pales in comparison to the “greasy till” in Yeats’s “September 1913” or Allen Ginsberg’s attacks on Moloch in “Howl,” which express surprise, bitterness, and shock.
The surprise of One Lark, One Horse is that there’s another Hofmann lying low in the book, a poet who doesn’t depend on mockery or complaint in order to have something meaningful to say. He’s there in “Hudson Ride,” a poem about departures and drift, classic Hofmann subjects. The poet sits in the rear of the last car of a train traveling alongside the Hudson River, and as he mulls over a failed relationship he gazes out the window: “Red and yellow bittersweet; Poughkeepsie;/the ice jags are silver, rush spikes gold/in the blue December,” and later, “Ice blinds and dries. Dazzles and steams./Swans outside Croton.” These plain descriptions of common things are graceful and precise; the rhythms are gently varied, and the tone is relaxed. At the poem’s end, Hofmann looks again at the river valley’s landscape, and this time his vision is historical and mythical:
Now here come the hard options: the cracked old Nabisco plant,
West Point, Indian Point, Ossining, Rockland Psych.,
Drachenfels. Bacharach. Loreley. Loreley. Loreley.
The options are starkly different: an American one of economic decay, military and nuclear power, and confinement, and a German one of temptation and danger (a Loreley is a siren who sits on a cliff above the Rhine, and whose song distracts sailors, causing them to smash their ships). Each is a potential trap, yet strikingly, Hofmann remains tentative, subdued, and nothing is resolved.
“Derrick,” first published a few years after “Hudson Ride,” is an elegy for a neighbor of Hofmann’s in London. Here are the third and fourth stanzas:
his steel-grey hair
by a steel comb.
graphite racket, retired
from something or other,
A plangent sonorousness.
If I have it right,
India. A grandfather
in spe, then fact.
He was shy, I was shy.
In “Albion Market” and “Pastorale,” details are poker chips, the tokens of a gamble, of what Hofmann thinks he can get away with to win a hand. “Derrick” is different. The description is limpid, meticulous, and the tone warm while permitting no false intimacy. Because the poem continues in this vein—“At the height of things/he fed me clippings/from the Telegraph,/and we talked about/militaria (I was translating/Ernst Jünger—/though not in time for him)”—it comes as a shock when Hofmann reveals that Derrick and his wife are dead: “Like a hardy perennial/he stood there//under his wife’s hollyhocks—/now both under the ground.” Hofmann continues, noting signs of the couple’s rootedness—“the orphaned court,/the problematic flowerbed/improbably flowering”—and then abruptly concludes with a brief lament for himself: “More local connections/than I’ll ever have.” These lines sound insufficient to the occasion; insufficiency, however, or the expression of a vulnerability no longer closely guarded, could also be what they convey.
When Hofmann admitted in 2005 that he had forgotten what a poem is, or worse, could only remember, his theatricality had gotten the better of him. That same year his anthology The Faber Book of 20th-Century German Poems was published in England. He not only edited the bilingual volume but also translated fifty-seven of the poems—nearly a third of the book’s contents.
One of those poems is “Chopin,” which Gottfried Benn wrote in 1948 at the age of sixty-two. In an essay published three decades ago, Hofmann praised Benn for his “habitual dejection”: “a mood, a tone, equanimity, indifference, exhaustion, a kind of dandyism, a matter of words, a pretext for vocabulary.” Hofmann stressed that Benn’s nihilism and misery is pure because his poetry is not divided against itself. In a recent essay about Benn, Hofmann changes his mind—or at least sees a different side of him. Late in Benn’s career, he writes, “the hardness of his early style—the ‘gargoyles’—is replaced by human tenderness, empathy, puzzlement, a kind of unfocussed but unavoidable sadness.”
Did Hofmann’s interest in “Chopin” anticipate his own evolving tastes as a poet? It’s hard to say, but in poems like “Derrick” and “Hudson Ride” Hofmann does manage to tame the gargoyles of his earlier work. Here are the concluding stanzas of “Chopin,” in Hofmann’s translation:
certain of his Preludes
in country seats or
through open French windows
on the terrace, say, of a sanitorium,
will not easily forget it.
He composed no operas,
only those tragic progressions
from artistic conviction
and with a small hand.