Nationality: German. Born: Freiburg, 25 August 1957; immigrated to England in 1961. Education: Attended schools in Bristol, Edinburgh, and Winchester; Magdalene College, Cambridge, 1976–79, B.A. (honors) in English 1979; graduate study at University of Regensburg and Trinity College, Cambridge, 1980–83. Career: Since 1983 freelance writer, London. Since 1993 teacher in Creative Writing Department, University of Florida, Gainesville. Visiting associate professor, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, fall 1994. Awards: Cholmondeley award, 1984; Faber memorial prize, 1988; Schlegel-Tieck prize, 1988, 1993; Foreign Fiction prize, Independent, 1995, for The Film Explainer; Arts Council bursary, 1997, for Approximately Nowhere. Address: c/o Faber and Faber, 3 Queen Square, London WCIN 3AU, England.
Nights in the Iron Hotel. London, Faber, 1983. Acrimony. London, Faber, 1986.
Acrimony. London, Faber, 1986.
K.S. in Lakeland: New and Selected Poems. New York, Ecco Press, 1990.
Corona, Corona. London, Faber, 1993.
Approximately Nowhere. London, Faber, 1999.
The Double-Bass, adaptation of a play by Patrick Süskind (produced London, 1989). London, Hamish Hamilton, 1987.
The Good Person of Sichuan, adaptation of a play by Bertolt Brecht (produced London, 1989). London, Methuen. 1989.
Editor, with James Lasdun, After Ovid: New Metamorphoses. London, Faber, 1994; New York, Farrar, Straus, 1995.
Translator, Castle Gripsholm, by Kurt Tucholsky. London, Chatto and Windus, 1985; New York, Overlook Press, 1988.
Translator, Blösch, by Beat Sterchi. London, Faber, 1988; as Cow, New York, Pantheon, 1990.
Translator, with Christopher Middleton, Balzac's Horse and Other Stories, by Gert Hofmann. New York, From 1988; London, Secker and Warburg, 1989.
Translator, The Legend of the Holy Drinker, by Joseph Roth. London, Chatto and Windus, 1989; New York, Overlook Press, 1990.
Translator, with Shaun Whiteside, Emotion Pictures: Reflections on the Cinema, by Wim Wenders. London, Faber, 1990.
Translator, The Logic of Images, by Wim Wenders. London, Faber, 1991.
Translator, Right and Left, by Joseph Roth. London, Chatto and Windus, 1992.
Translator, The Story of Mr. Sommer, by Patrick Suskind. London, Bloomsbury, 1992.
Translator, Death in Rome, by Wolfgang Koeppen. London and New York, Penguin, 1993.
Translator, The Film Explainer, by Gert Hofmann. London, Secker & Warburg, 1994.
Translator, The Lord Chandos Letter, by Hugo von Hofmannsthol. New York, Penguin, 1995.
Translator, The Man Who Disappeared (Amerika), by Franz Kafka. London, Penguin, 1996.
Translator, The Land of Green Plums: A Novel, by Herta Müller. New York, Holt/Metropolitan, 1996.
Translator, The Act of Seeing, by Wim Wenders. London, Faber, 1997.
Translator, The Tale of the 1002nd Night, by Joseph Roth. New York, Picador, 1998.
Translator, The String of Pearls, by Joseph Roth. London, Granta, 1998.
Translator, Rebellion, by Joseph Roth. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1999.*
Critical Studies: Chapter on Hofmann in Instabilities in Contemporary British Poetry, by Alan Robinson, London, Macmillan, 1989; Robin Robertson, Michael Hofmann, Michael Longley, London and New York, Penguin, 1998.* * *
In "Withdrawn from Circulation," from Acrimony, Michael Hofmann says of a past self, "Nothing quite touched me." The flip, restless detachment is typical of his poetry's original dealings with personal identity. Hofmann frequently occupies and yet undercuts the privileged position offered by the word "I." "Withdrawn from Circulation" sees how conditioned a supposedly unitary self was: "the slick, witless phrases I used about girls /were a mixture of my father's and those I remembered //from Mädchen or Bravo." In this poem, as in others, Hofmann's deadpan fooling with the inanimate hints at a larger dislocation. The poem brings the lyric "I" and the mess of history into a connection that is unnervingly (and in this case literally) contingent:
A few doors down
was the cellar where the RAF kept the Berlin Senator
they had kidnapped and were holding to ransom.
Casual yet tense, close to the movement of prose but not without a certain frayed music, the lines illustrate the distinctiveness of Hofmann's poetic voice.
At the heart of Hofmann's already impressive achievement lies his management of detail, rhythm, and tone. His first collection, Nights in the Iron Hotel, shows a poet alert to the otherness of others. "You move the fifty-seven muscles it takes to smile. /It's strange to see you again," he writes in "First Night." The opening line makes strange a familiar action, but the second expresses a feeling of strangeness in a familiar way. The juxtaposition is sharp and troubling, the poem refusing to let itself or its reader settle. In "White Noise" the poet's awareness of his fellow lodger's routines and isolation is expressed with laconic brio:
… Trailing cigarette smoke and suspicion,
you prowl through the house, accident-prone
and painfully thin in your sepulchral clothes.
Reality filters through your tinted spectacles.
The opening suspension points are a signature of Hofmann's, implying trailings off, new starts, changed angles. Judgment, the lines suggest, would be impertinent, involvement impossible, for to render the "reality" of the "you," whose existence consists of fearing reality, demands that the poet observe. But observation in Hofmann is not afraid of metaphoric verve, and the poem ends with the "you" described as "delirious, trembling, /a pile of leaves." These phrases are suggestively anticipated by the opening line and a half of "Myopia in Rupert Brooke Country," the collection's preceding piece: "Birds, feathers, a few leaves, flakes of soot— /things start to fall." This poem handles its ironies about England in the 1980s lightly and questioningly:
A hot-air balloon sinks towards the horizon—
the amateur spirit or an advertising gimmick?
Hofmann's poetry is highly politicized, yet it does not express opinions so much as attend to the signs through which a culture expresses (or disguises) itself. "Shapes of Things" avoids exhortation or protest. Such impulses are potent absences in what ends up as an impassively offbeat footnote to the fact that "we are living in the long shadow of the Bomb."
Acrimony, Hofmann's second collection, is among the most significant volumes to have been published by a contemporary poet writing in English. The collection is divided into two halves. The first consists of poems that often deal with being, as one title has it, "On the Margins." Some explore issues of gender, and others move between related, if apparently separated, worlds. "Aerial Perspective" half recalls the Auden of the hawk's or the helmeted airman's vision as it focuses on places "where the picturesque collides with the strategically /important." But the poem's air of aloof authority is undercut by its feeling for the vulnerability of "us blips" observed by "the big AWACS aircraft." Emotional difficulties and political tensions rub shoulders in "Impotence." Two of the most striking poems in this section are "From Kensal Rise to Heaven," which records with teasing inventiveness signs of "change and decay" in contemporary London, and "Albion Market," whose appositional details compose a picture of England that crackles with level-toned, satiric disgust.
The book's second section shows Hofmann on territory more familiar in British poetry—the domestic. But few poems about families have the ruthless perceptiveness or feeling for wider implications of Hofmann's poems about his relationship with his father, the writer Gert Hofmann. For all its greater intimacy, the second section shares with the first a concern with patriarchy, authority, the construction of masculinity. In "Day of Reckoning," for example, Hofmann notes that "I kept a tough diary, owned a blunt knife, /and my mother sat in the back with the girls." What makes the poems impressive is their verbal precision and their emotional range; they include and link feelings of accusation, rage, insecurity, physical disgust, frustrated love, and not wholly stifled admiration with the respect of one professional for another. The sustained, unrhymed, long-lined couplets of "Author, Author," for example, drive toward a conclusion that achieves cathartic release in the act of denying the possibility of "consummation":
I ask myself what sort of consummation is available?
Fight; talk literature and politics; get drunk together?
Kiss him goodnight, as though half my life had never
Hofmann's collection K.S. in Lakeland: New and Selected Poems introduced his work to an American audience. The volume draws together poems from his first two volumes and includes work previously uncollected. The new poems are crisp and deft, and the book is cannily organized. In the first part, for instance, which is largely made up of analyses of love or "unlove," "Nights in the Iron Hotel" (originally in the poet's first collection) is followed by "Between Bed and Wastepaper Basket" (originally in his second). The literal and emotional territory they occupy is similar yet not the same, the first poem fascinated by "anaesthesia," the second inching its way to a minimal staving off of "failure": "We failed to betray /whatever trust was placed in us."
The second part consists of more political pieces. Among the new poems "Summer '87," a coded account of the aftermath of Chernobyl, is especially striking; the lines "Every Friday, the newspapers gave fresh readings, /and put Turkish hazelnuts on the index" show the poet's observant eye and sardonic humor. The third part incorporates the "father" poems from Acrimony. Another new poem, "The Late Richard Dadd, 1817–1886," about the "fairy-painter, father-slayer," supplies a wry coda to the intensities of "Author, Author." In the fourth part "the autobiography draws out, lengthens /towards the end" ("By Forced Marches"), and the concern with ends—personal and cultural—finds elegiac expression in what is possibly the best of the book's new poems, "A Minute's Silence." This piece, written in memory of Michael Heffernan, reveals how well Hofmann's manner can adapt itself to the articulation of straightforward feeling, not that the poem sacrifices a jot of the poet's typically angular self-awareness, which is used here to convey a previous absence of awareness:
I'm sitting coiled over my letter of condolence,
head down, left elbow out, the verbs tramping stiffly
into the furthest corners of mood and tense, closed
conditionals, Latin and peculiar pluperfects,
like Hofmannsthal's …. "I had had no idea …."
Many of the new poems in K.S. in Lakeland appear in Hofmann's later collection Corona, Corona. This volume is marked by great rhetorical assurance, the phrasing often possessing "an air /of having been given a spin" ("Kurt Schwitters in Lakeland"). The linguistic freshness covertly celebrated here runs through the book, forming a zestful counterpoint to Hofmann's penchant for ironies and deflations as he plays the private against the public. One example is the opening of "'"50s Cuba": "It was the farcical fast fast slow world /of dancing, miscegenation and cigars." Another is the close of "On the Beach at Thorpeness":
Roaring waves of fighters headed back to Bentwaters.
The tide advanced in blunt codshead curves,
ebbed through the chattering teeth of the pebbles.
Jaw jaw. War war.
In the final line "chattering" speech sardonically glimpses an undesirable alternative.
Although the poems overlapping with K.S. in Lakeland may be the best things in Corona, Corona, the whole volume is a confident restatement and development of Hofmann's themes and styles. Among the most fascinating new poems are the final section's responses to Mexico. Hofmann deftly avoids the temptation to show us his holiday snapshots, though occasionally he is too content with a syntax of deadpan enumeration. In "Aerogrammes, 1–5" and "Guanajuato Two Times" the poet comes at an old sense of estrangement with a new power of invention. In the latter poem repetition as a stylistic device is Hofmann's means of exploring repetition as a seemingly possible and yet finally impossible imaginative state: "I could stand and sway like a palm, /or rooted like a companile, crumbling slightly /each time the bells tolled, not real bells /but recordings of former bells /and never for me."
The best poems in Hofmann's next volume, Approximately Nowhere, are elegies for the poet's father and tense celebrations of a new relationship, and the dominant technique is that of the adroitly handled list, which is ideally suited to associative swirls of memory and to stabs of observation. Such stabs have as their target less the symptoms of late capitalist England, as in Hofmann's earlier poems, than the poet's own newly exposed and self-lacerated heart. In "For Gert Hofmann, Died 1 July 1993," the poet's eye touchingly notes "the blinds at half-mast" and "my father /for once not at his post," where the fact of death is negotiated by the line ending. When elsewhere he notes "the alarmingly long screws" taken from the coffin by an undertaker, his jokiness ("as though someone would try very hard /to get out or—you would have said—in") is offbeat and yet unexpectedly warm in its evident affection for the now dead father.
The volume contrives to be at once confessional and detached in its account of the poet's private life. The poem "Fucking" describes and provides a motive for this complicated emotional balancing act, which takes on physical form in the poem's conclusion as the lovers become "a seesaw at rest":
A zero sum game, our extravagant happiness,
matched or cancelled
by the equal and opposite unhappiness of others.
The poetry works by finding a language adequate to "a zero sum game." The balance tips in favor of "extravagant happiness" in the final poem, where the volume's characteristic listing turns into a "litany." Throughout the collection Hofmann quietly challenges himself and his readers as, with an artistry so understated that it becomes almost exhibitionist, he persuades us to experience with him category-defying states of feeling.