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