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Posts Tagged ‘essayists’

Is There a Vespa?: An Interview with Michael Hofmann

December 4, 2014 | by

Hofmann, Michael (C) Thomas Andenmatten

Photo © Thomas Andenmatten

Michael Hofmann’s first collection of poems, Nights in the Iron Hotel, came in 1984, and in the ensuing thirty years he has translated more than sixty novels from the German and published five more poetry collections, along the way collecting numerous prizes for his work. He is the editor of an anthology, Twentieth-Century German Poetry, and in 2002 published a collection of critical essays, Behind the Lines. (This is far from a comprehensive accounting.) The thirty essays in his new collection, Where Have You Been?, visit a range of poets, novelists, and artists of the last hundred years, including Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Thomas Bernhard, Kurt Schwitters, and Frederick Seidel.

Hofmann’s essays are intense inquiries: he tunnels deeply, engages profoundly, and whether or not he likes what he’s read or seen, his essays ennoble the work under review. There’s a sense of humor, even joy, electrifying the enterprise. Of course, his criticism can pulverize, too—Günter Grass and Stefan Zweig are destroyed in Where Have You Been?—but most of Hofmann’s selections tend toward the form of one reader grabbing another’s sleeve and shouting, Come on now, this way! You’ve got to see this!

Though Hofmann doesn’t keep a computer at home—“usual Luddite setup,” he said at one point—this interview was conducted over e-mail. On a couple of occasions, he wrote from a stand-up terminal in a municipal library.

You’ve written that contemporary American poetry is “a civil war, a banal derby between two awful teams.” In Britain, it’s “a variety show.” These are grim assessments.

Discouraging, isn’t it? It’s just a fact that there are never very many poets around at any given time. I think poetry is always one or two poets away from extinction anyway. If it’s any comfort, it’s not a living tradition—it doesn’t depend on being passed from hand to hand. It could easily go underground for a couple of decades, or a couple of centuries, and then return. People disappear, or never really existed at all, and then come back—Propertius, Hölderlin, Dickinson, Büchner, Smart. Poetry is much more about remaking or realigning the past than it is about charting the contemporary scene. It’s a long game. Read More »

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Meeting Coleridge

April 10, 2014 | by

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Hazlitt’s self-portrait, 1802

William Hazlitt, born in England on April 10, 1778, had a diverse and storied career in the arts: he was an essayist, a philosopher, an art critic, a literary critic, a drama critic, a cultural critic, and—just to even things out—a painter. Despite their age, his essays remain surprisingly readable. They are, in their sense of purpose and their tweedy vastness, distinctly nineteenth-century English; Hazlitt’s subjects are so broad, so plainly monumental, that any undergraduate who dared to write on them today would be flunked immediately. (His essay “On Great and Little Things” begins, “The great and the little have, no doubt, a real existence in the nature of things.”)

Hazlitt also chose his acquaintances wisely, at least insofar as many of them wound up ascending into the canon: Wordsworth, Stendhal, Charles and Mary Lamb. His landlord was Jeremy Bentham. But then there was Coleridge, ah, Coleridge! In his 1823 essay “My First Acquaintance with Poets,” Hazlitt rhapsodizes about his first encounter with the poet, who would become a kind of distant mentor, though later there came the requisite falling-out. It’s a gushing account, endearingly thorough and fanboy-ish, full of deft turns of phrase—and it humanizes both men, reminding us that these two Dead White Guys were once … Living White Guys, with fears and ambitions and impressive heads of hair. Read More »

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