In the early eighties I was employed as one of half a dozen in-house readers at Jonathan Cape, in their old Bedford Square offices. We were all writers and it seemed to be understood that we would spend as much time keeping up with our literary pals as we did reading manuscripts. Poets and novelists would drop in for coffee, or we’d spend hours nattering with them on the phone. Magazine editors would come sniffing around for our latest discoveries. It was like a club within a club, complete with comfy chairs and stacks of periodicals; a last redoubt of gentlemanliness in a profession that hadn’t yet, quite, caught up with the rest of the world.
It was Hugo Williams, part of this cozy cabal for a period, who introduced me to Michael Hofmann’s poems, which had just begun appearing in the Times Literary Supplement. I have to admit I felt stricken by them. I could see at once that they were amazingly good, but also that they were good in ways that were going to have a calamitous effect on all my assumptions about poetry. I’d dismissed the possibility that one could achieve the kind of high-intensity experiences I was looking for in a poem by any other than the most elaborately wrought verbal means. To read these coolly stated, deceptively prose-like poems with their implicit disavowal of anything calculated or orchestrated, their apparent disdain for extended argument or metaphor, and yet feel the same ferocity of emotional and intellectual impact as I found in Yeats and Lowell and Plath, was a disconcerting revelation. It also didn’t escape me that this approach opened the poems to aspects of contemporary life — pop, politics, all the dreck and clutter of daily urban existence — that my own methods (such as they were) simply couldn’t accommodate, and naturally this added to the general sense of being undone. The coup de grace was that, for all their avoidance of conventional poetic effect, they were ravishingly beautiful pieces of writing; exploding with caustic wit, phosphorescent description, jags of plangent eroticism, and those squalls of weirdly joyous verbal music the like of which, to my knowledge, no one has produced before or since.
Hugo and I and Xandra Hardie convinced our bosses at Cape that we should sign Michael up and we invited him in to the office. Not surprisingly it turned out Faber were also interested, and it was gloomily understood that he would go there if they made an offer. They did and he went, but it took them a few weeks to come to the decision and by that time our rooms had become a regular port of call on Michael’s London peregrinations, and he and I had struck up a friendship.
As with the poems so, at first, with their maker. What initially
appealed to me — an unformed, murkily embattled twenty-three-year-old — was his diametric unlikeness to myself; his benign self-possession, global perspective, and air of having long ago figured out what did and did not need to be read, watched, listened to. Everything he thought interested me, and I was still pliable enough in my own views to learn new things and — thank god — unlearn some old ones. I can still hear myself trotting out some remark about poetry being a craft, only to be met with a pained furrowing of the brows and pursing of the lips and realizing the utter inadequacy and banality of this position. For a short time I tried imitating his
poems — an embarrassing memory comes to me of something full of preemptively resigned lust and knowingly disillusioned politics, all peppered with German and Latin and set in a tube station — but even when I’d realized the futility of this, I continued (and still continue) to find echoes of his highly distinctive tone, syntax, cadences,
stylistic tics, in my own prose and poetry. Specific images too, I realize, looking back. Where could the tampon “like a dipstick” in my poem “Buying a Dress” have possibly come from if not the “spark-plugs mixing with tampons” in Michael’s “Touring Company”? My appropriations stopped short of the black fedora he wore and the Balkan Sobranies he used to smoke, but a good chunk of his personal
canon quickly became incorporated into mine: Under the Volcano, Buddenbrooks, Musil, Schuyler, Bishop, Iranian movies...
I’m not sure what Michael got from me in return. I probably knew more about food than he did, or cared more, though he’s the only thin person I know who can out-eat me, and I’ve grown fond of his buttery cooking. In terms of literature I think I put him on to Brodsky; later I suppose Ovid. I couldn’t persuade him to read Auden properly or Burroughs at all, but I remember him being impressed by the presence of Brecht’s poems on my bookshelf, which he took to be the sign of a more cosmopolitan outlook than most English poets had. I don’t know if it really was that, but it raises one of the large things we did have in common, which was our uncertain relationship to our own Englishness; complicated by Jewishness on my side and Germanness on his. It wasn’t something we talked about at that time but we both surely felt it, and felt drawn to each other because of it.
We also had in common high-achieving, high-visibility fathers; again not something we talked about much, but it deepened the understanding between us, along with the sense of being a little oddly positioned vis-à-vis our own achievements. I suspect it bequeathed us each a bit of an aut Caesar aut nihil complex (there, some Latin), which has no doubt caused both of us difficulties at times, but which I like to think we’ve somewhat overcome, with a little help from each other.
I’ve been trying to remember those first years of our friendship. Of course I have the singular luxury of needing only to open those first books of Michael’s to bring them back: precise details as well as the general atmosphere. We ate long lunches at the Tramontana as per “Fidelity.” We went for epic walks around grotty eighties London as per “Nighthawks.” In Kensal Green Cemetery we rejoiced to see a gravestone with the name of a poet on it who’d dissed us both. We introduced each other to our mates and sometimes got together en masse — at Stephen and Bridget Romer’s house in Senlis, or Geoff Dyer’s squat in Brixton, or the Eric Gill /David Jones monastery in Capel-y-ffin that Robin Robertson organized every summer for a while.
We’re neither of us great talkers; when we did talk it was more about politics than literature, and possibly more about clothes than politics. Not much about girls (as Hugo once ruefully joked, “he doesn’t talk dirty,” but then nor do I). When we disagreed about something factual we’d settle it with a bet. In Mexico Michael declared with sublime intransigence that the Mason-Dixon line ran along the Canadian border, and that the flocks of obvious (if rather small) pigeons in Cuernavaca were in fact quail. These rare but striking lapses from omniscience put me in mind of Sherlock Holmes’s apparent ignorance of the fact that the earth revolves around the sun. The lacunae became, somehow, further evidence of the genius. And I suspect I am not the only friend of Michael’s who feels a little ploddingly Watson-like in his company, or, for that matter, who regards him as something like the Sherlock Holmes of British poetry: preternaturally attuned to reality, somewhat inclined to disappear, and always several leagues ahead of everyone else.
[This essay has been extracted from its original publication in The Palm Beach Effect: Reflections on Michael Hoffman, edited by André Naffis-Sahely & Julian Stannard (CB Editions, 2013). For more information about this book, click here.]