Prose from Poetry Magazine

Manifesto of the Flying Mallet

Second in a series of eight manifestos.
“Poetry is delayed, instant; unending, brief; electric, tiny. Each poem is an insurrection against the world before it existed–or a desertion from it.”

Poetry is—as the poet said, though his subject was butterflies—an army of stragglers. Contemporaries, aeons, and cultures apart slog wordlessly through the mud together, not at all pally, not at all like Virgil and Dante. There’s no uniform, no team shirt, no battle or plan of battle, no weapons, no organization, no hierarchy, no ranks or badges except for homemade ones that don’t count, enemies and detractors everywhere. Its colors you should think twice before rallying around (I don’t know what they are, perhaps sable on sable), and its only cavalry is the reader, and there’s only one of him or her, sitting at home minding his or her own business, without a horse to hand, or a thought of you. There are plenty of fellow travelers, whom you can tell from their air of confidence and impunity, and because they tend to get there faster. (Even though of course there is no “there.”)—How can I call anyone to the barricades?

What really matters in relation to poetry has probably never been said—Ezra Pound’s “logopoeia” (doing things with words) the nearest thing. All there is is confusion, pretense, contradiction, and instinct. Most of what proposes itself—or is hailed or dismissed—as poetry at any given time probably isn’t. Poetry is soluble intelligence, but it reserves to itself the right on occasion to be stupid. (And sometimes it is nothing but feeling or eyesight or glossolalia or journalism.) Poetry is subtle, but sometimes “as subtle as a flying mallet,” as the man says. Poetry isn’t about rules or about infractions, but there is something by definition rebellious in its use of speech for its own purposes. Poetry may be effective or ineffectual, but it is never overly designing. Poetry is delayed, instant; unending, brief; electric, tiny. Each poem is an insurrection against the world before it existed—or a desertion from it.

There are no plurals, only chance or temporary agglomerations. The only plural forms are what Wallace Stevens—plural himself, as you might think—referred to as “functionaries” or “hacks,” and Lou Reed as “jim-jims.” As the world shrinks and grows, there is only one thing: be singular. Ezra Pound said: be against all mortmain. Gottfried Benn said: disappoint the season-ticket holder. Say not the straggle nought availeth.

Originally Published: January 30th, 2009

Poet, translator, and essayist Michael Hofmann was born in Freiburg, Germany, and moved to the UK at age four. When his family returned to Germany, Hofmann stayed behind, first at boarding schools and later Magdalene College, Cambridge University, where he earned his BA and MA. His first book of poetry,...

Appeared in Poetry Magazine This Appears In
  1. February 3, 2009
     Just Kibbe

    Read me

    Remember me

    Destroy me

    Good art is memorable enough

    you don’t need to own it

  2. February 9, 2009
     Sean Smith

    Or just steal it. A lot of good art is

    stolen. Hell the idea of describing a

    scene or painting it, is that not just

    stealing what you saw, and ripping the

    feelings out of your own insides and

    pouring them onto paper one way or

    another? Ever wonder why it is so hard

    to explain something beautiful? I don't

    believe we were meant to, and that is

    exactly what makes it so much fun.

  3. September 3, 2014
     Ben Wilkinson

    "What really matters in relation to poetry has probably never been said..." - but Hofmann makes a good fist of getting as damn near to it here. Perceptive, funny, acute and downright truthful account of what it is to be a poet, and - the real clincher - what it is to carry on being one. (Which is to say writing poems, remembering why you started writing 'em in the first place, and setting aside/having a good hard laugh at all the other nonsense, including your own conceitedness when it rears its sorry ugly head). Ever since Poetry Magazine first printed this little piece I cut it out and pasted it next to my desk. Been a source of wisdom and resilience ever since.