So Much Better Than Most Things Written on Purpose
This Dialogue of One: Essays on Poets from John Donne to Joan
Murray, by Mark Ford. Eyewear Publishing. £17.00.
Where Have You Been? Selected Essays, by Michael Hofmann. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $35.00.
Few people write poetry well; fewer write well about poetry; and fewer again manage to do both. By this yardstick, Mark Ford’s This Dialogue of One and Michael Hofmann’s Where Have You Been? look to have it all sown up between them: two exemplary tutorials in how to write about poetry by a pair of the best poets in the Anglosphere. What’s more, each book is an accident, cobbled together from essays and reviews, and thus (in Elizabeth Bishop’s words for Madame de Sévigné) “so much better than most things written on purpose.” Basil Bunting likened assembling his Collected Poems to screwing together the boards of his coffin, by which logic collections of literary journalism are more like wayside shrines (reviews, after all, are often hit and runs) or dedicated park benches, ideal for a quick stop but not the kind of place one fancies lingering for eternity. As such, literary journalism seems ideally placed to ponder the connection between quotidian critical horse-trading and the longer views of posterity.
One poet whose thoughts were seldom far from “whispers of immortality” is John Donne, subject of the first essay in Mark Ford’s collection. Ford imagines Donne’s congregation greeting his cadaverous appearance at the end of his life with Ezekiel’s “Shall these bones live?” For extended stretches of his posterity, the answer was “No.” To Samuel Johnson, metaphysical poetry was “violent and unnatural,” and to Coleridge Donne was “rhyme’s sturdy cripple,” “whose muse on dromedary trots.” The revival of Donne’s reputation in modern times owes much to T.S. Eliot’s early literary journalism, but the version of the canon sketched in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” gives little sense of the accidents of the literary afterlife by which Donne and other poets achieve or lose their berth in the canon. Rather, Eliot writes, “the existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves,” modified by the introduction of new works of art, but in ways that confirm the underlying continuity of the “mind of Europe.” Even when no one read him, Donne retained his intrinsic value, like the tree in the forest conscientiously emitting a noise when it falls over, with or without anyone there to hear it. It’s nice to have the canon to hand in any argument as an impersonal force of nature, impervious to any preferences of ours. A colleague of mine once pitched an edition of Elizabeth Barrett Browning to a London editor, and received a fairly unanswerable rejection, as rejections go: “Posterity has spoken.”
The Olympian impersonal note struck by Eliot is difficult to strike in a mere book review, however. John Redmond, a critic of a pragmatist bent, has suggested that it is not the task of the critic to be unfailingly right, but to make a case; and while Ford and Hofmann are adept at burnishing their opinions with a look of permanence, their manner is at a far remove from Eliot’s curating of canonical certainties. Neither Ford nor Hofmann is likely to call for back-up from the “mind of Europe” — too marmoreal an entity by half for reviewers of New York Yiddish poet Samuel Greenberg, subhuman antipodean redneck Les Murray, or Walt Whitman. Hofmann’s title, Where Have You Been?, is doubly apt: first as a response to the poetry air-miles the critic has clocked up, but second as an acknowledgement of the eureka moments along the way, such as the poetry of Karen Solie (“the one by whom the language lives,” according to Hofmann, echoing Joseph Brodsky). Skimmers of Ford’s and Hofmann’s contents pages will also be struck by the near-total absence of reviewees from their gene pool of immediate contemporaries. Readers turning to these books in search of updates on British poetry will learn nothing of Carol Ann Duffy, Don Paterson, Simon Armitage, or others of the post-New Generation age. In his last book of essays, Behind the Lines, the Freiburg im Breisgau-born Hofmann described British writing as being at the “edge of my circle,” while Ford’s birthplace of Nairobi might account for some of his centrifugal tendencies (a study of French eccentric Raymond Roussel, as well as his unmatched engagement — for a British poet — with the work of John Ashbery). Try imagining a Randall Jarrell who never wrote about Bishop or Lowell. The folks at home, wherever home may be, can potter away all they like on Britannic poetry of the post-Thatcher era, but for Ford and Hofmann the action is elsewhere.
Internationalism in poetry is a telescope trained on writing invisible to the naked eye, but it can be a distorting mirror too. Anyone who has studied the poetry section in a foreign bookshop will know the disorienting experience of realizing there are still people who think the most important modern American poet is Charles Bukowski. The first thing to say about Ford and Hofmann’s internationalism is the heavyweight rebuke they represent to lumpen Anglocentrism, in a world where — as we recently learned — a mere 93 books of poetry in translation were published in the United States in 2014. Ford writes on Baudelaire and Alfred Jarry, and the German half of Hofmann’s book deals with Gottfried Benn, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Max Beckmann, Kurt Schwitters, Arthur Schnitzler, Thomas Bernhard, Günter Grass, and Robert Walser, plus a critical assassination of Stefan Zweig. (Just to give some idea of scale here, the Ford book is shorter than the Hofmann, but several of the essays in Hofmann’s are shorter than anything in Ford’s.) Discussing Baudelaire, Ford echoes Françoise Meltzer’s suggestion that the French poet is incomplete these days without the work of Walter Benjamin: critic creates poet. The same inversion is often true of poetry in translation, where famous translators can absorb their foreign poets like multinationals completing a hostile takeover; the fact that Rilke can’t get his name onto the cover of the Faber edition of “Don Paterson’s” Orpheus tells us something not too salutary about Anglophone visions of world poetry today and their implicit power dynamic.
More often, in the old joke, translators are like goalkeepers: pilloried for their mistakes while their humdrum successes go unsung. When goalkeepers do get noticed it tends to be for something outré, like Colombian shot-stopper René Higuita’s scorpion kick. Hofmann on translation is no less preposterous. In Behind the Lines there was his vivisection of Péter Nádas’s A Book of Memories (“it deforms a void”), and here there is his full-on assassination of Alissa Valles’s Zbigniew Herbert translations. The wresting of Herbert away from his long-time translators John and Bogdana Carpenter is a sorry saga, and whatever one thinks of Valles’s versions one cannot envy her being stuck in the cross fire. Also worth pointing out, not that he conceals the fact, is that Hofmann reads no Polish. “But where is the fidelity, you may say,” he writes of his aim, as a translator, to “make a difference”: “where is the accuracy, the self-effacement, the service?” Hofmann has used the pages of this magazine to answer a reader working on the Venn diagram model of word-for-word equivalency in translation with “There is no more dismal — or, frankly, stupid — way of reading a translation than to pick on single words.” There are some translators, he writes, who will work not just from a dictionary but a period dictionary, to avoid rendering anything Hölderlin said in German into anything Johnny-come-lately Ashbery might say in English. After which, as Hofmann observes, they presumably go and track down a two-hundred-year-old reader to complete the circle of authenticist solipsism. Flannery O’Connor thought the short story was at risk of “dying of competence,” and in translation, too, competence is the enemy of excellence. When Robert Lowell translates lice (a legal dispute) in Baudelaire as “lice” or Ezra Pound translates tacta puella (girl touched [by the sound of music]) in Propertius as “devirginated young ladies,” we savor their mistakes as the mistakes of major poets in their own right. Readers without a knowledge of the original will miss the joke, but comedy is never improved by stopping the act for an explanation and Hofmann is unapologetic about his conception of translation as “an extension (a multiplier!)” of writing a poem, rather than a dutiful substitute for independent creation. The opposition of original and target language is muddied in Hofmann’s case by his being a native speaker of English and German, so however skewwhiff reviewers might find his translated German (an outraged A.S. Byatt drew up a kill-list of words like “sprog” and “gobsmacked”), it’s not as though he’s doing it by accident. As a non-rhymer, Hofmann needs to be inventive about making things difficult for himself, and ups the ante with a death-by-misadventure alert for translators working on dual-text editions:
A poem translation can feel like the bundled-up corpse of an insect that’s got caught in a spider’s web, an overzealous parcel, attached by a thousand threads to the thing that will wait for it to die and then eat it.
This is translator/critic as reverse vampire, a grave-robber, but one intent on draining blood into, not out of, the host text. Like Seamus Heaney’s Tollund man, that “bridegroom to the goddess,” the translation offers itself up for burial alive that others may live.
On Ford’s side, Hofmann’s polyglot omniscience is matched by a commitment to turning up poets that might as well write in Sumerian for all the attention they have managed to pick up in English. For a Faber poet championed by John Ashbery and Helen Vendler and, like Hofmann, regularly spotted in the London Review of Books and New York Review of Books, Ford does an excellent impersonation of one of British poetry’s natural outsiders, but his commitment to the badlands of the neglected, the forgotten, the never-read-in-the-first-place, really is impeccable. Every critic who has grumbled at a lazy canonical consensus, or the settled science of the prizewinners’ lists, should ask themselves: When did you last rescue a poet from utter oblivion? Ford does so here in the first-ever essay on Joan Murray (1917–1942), Auden’s opening choice in his twelve-year stint as a Yale Younger Poets judge. By the looks of it, Ford may have turned up something special, but the curious have no easy way of corroborating his findings: any copy of Murray’s Poems (1947) I see online commands a three-figure price. This adds a tinge of melancholy to Ford’s library-cormoranting. Once again, shall these bones live? Another essay presses the merits of A.S.J. Tessimond and Bernard Spencer, midcentury English writers of no school and almost no reputation, though now restored to print. Ford compares Tessimond to Thomas Lovell Beddoes, Victorian poète maudit and favorite of Ashbery’s, a poet who drifted so far in his German exile from the home country that he began to forget his English.
The hinterland of English-language poetry written by non-native speakers is ideally suited to Ford’s transnational understanding of the canon, as explored in an essay on the Vienna-born, Yiddish-speaking Samuel Greenberg. This time Ford hasn’t quite got there first: Hart Crane picked over his work in the 1920s and plundered it for “Emblems of Conduct.” Greenberg’s grasp of idiomatic English was shaky (“Ah! thus fathomed crowns earnestly will woe thee!”), but when Crane expressed misgivings about exploiting this hapless (and dead) innocent, Malcolm Cowley and Allen Tate reassured him his borrowings were “quite legitimate.” In a variant on Eliot’s wisecrack about good poets borrowing and great poets stealing, it would seem (pace Kenneth Goldsmith) that when students do it it’s plagiarism, but when published poets do it it’s intertextuality. Another poet from this twilight zone is Ivan Blatný, a Czech refugee in postwar Britain whose confinement in a psychiatric hospital meant that, for many years, his writing was thrown away unread. Blatný comes up by way of another mid-century English neglectorino (also, as fate would have it, admired by Ashbery: only connect!), Nicholas Moore, whose work fell fatally out of fashion after the Movement takeover of the 1950s. Literary history loves a disappearing act — Rimbaud, Weldon Kees, Rosemary Tonks — but Moore fell into the altogether blander category of the still-prolific poet that nobody wanted to read or publish. Ford compares his fate and Blatný’s to that of Emily Dickinson, whose draft disjecta membra have been the subject of a sumptuous facsimile edition (Marta Werner and Jen Bervin’s The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems). Never mind the vagaries of the critical afterlife, which scraps of paper get thrown away and which become archival fetish objects is a cruel and capricious business too.
Literary criticism has two purposes, said Eliot: the “elucidation of works of art and the correction of taste.” Ford’s elucidating torch has a long reach, but when it comes to correcting taste, Hofmann is out on his own. The man of genius is duty-bound to attack, Thomas Bernhard said, and those unfamiliar with Hofmann’s natural pugilism may read his attack on Stefan Zweig and assume he has succumbed to a dose of Bernhardism, or critical Tourette’s syndrome. Zweig is “uniquely dreary,” his suicide note “more like an Oscar acceptance speech” — “just putrid.” Even the unexceptionable (you might think) fact that Zweig quite enjoyed writing becomes a giveaway sign of his second-rateness. By the end of the essay we feel, to quote Hofmann on Bernhard, that “something is being clobbered so hard that we — quite possibly mistakenly, and out of the goodness of our hearts — laugh.” One pictures John Goodman in Barton Fink charging down a hotel corridor in flames with a shotgun, bellowing “I’ll show you the life of the mind!” For Hofmann it is a given that ours is a tarnished age (“our postepistolary (no joke), postliterary, almost postalphabetical decline,”) and like a dragon breathing fire in his sleep he can’t help throwing out anathemas on no discernible provocation from the matter at hand (“Most poetry written nowadays is again as sanctimonious and as imperially overblown as in the 1940s and 1950s”). When Dennis O’Driscoll’s posthumous essay collection, The Outnumbered Poet, appeared in 2013, Theo Dorgan in The Irish Times found himself struggling with O’Driscoll’s inexplicable “proclivity for pronouncing judgement” — a professional shortcoming in a critic if ever there was one. Those unhappy with disruptive reviewers will often appeal to the calm of future canons, in which all our local rows have been resolved. Talent, like murder, will out, runs the argument. But posterity will always need a bit of a push to get its engine running. Perhaps it was in bad form back then too when prewar reviewers suggested that the forgotten Pulitzer Prize winners Margaret Widdemer, Leonora Speyer, Robert Hillyer, Audrey Wurdemann, and Robert P.T. Coffin had been promoted beyond their bardic pay grade.
Hofmann doesn’t confine himself to unqualified noes, when a no it is. A review of Adam Zagajewski stands out for its downgrading of the praise Hofmann has previously doled out to this poet. Zagajewski has become Parnassian, he finds on rereading, too practiced at producing “poetry as a sort of preserve, praise for the sake of praise,” bestowing his benedictions on everything in sight like a punch-drunk pope. The suggestion that Zagajewski’s émigré status, or collusion with other people’s expectations of the émigré poet, is complicit in his decline strikes an uneasy note: there are few things sadder than the émigré poet brewing his export beer under license and slowly watering it down until it may as well have been Coors Light all along. Perhaps Hofmann’s sharp tongue is designed to ward off this fate for himself. He is quick to slap down any signs of boosterism: “a word I certifiably use for the first and last time in print!” he says of his description of Ted Hughes’s Collected Poems as “awesome,” before later in the same paragraph calling Hughes “arguably the greatest English poet since Shakespeare.” It’s a daring gambit, even if the essay that follows fails to dispel my misgivings about Hughes. For me, Hughes enjoys the uneasy distinction of being most famous for his worst work, with Birthday Letters (his “greatest book,” thought Andrew Motion) the overcooked limelight-stealer-in-chief in all its determinist melodrama. A panegyric to Frederick Seidel features a dig at “the blandly vegan compound of contemporary poetry,” the one Hofmann barb this vegan poet-critic jibbed at, though it also made me wonder whether sacralized animal harm isn’t fairly close to the heart of what’s wrong with his beloved Hughes. Like Prince Charles, Hughes combined a meat eater’s version of animal love with a belief in the hereditary divine right of our fox-hunting overlords. This is where Hofmann’s comparison of Hughes and Lawrence derails, for me. It also made me wonder about Hofmann’s fondness, in Hughes, Seidel, and supremely in Lowell, for troubled patriarchs, terrors of the earth, poets seldom found in these postliterate times below the snowline of the NYRB or other such altitudinous venues.
The Lowell agon has been Hofmann’s lutte avec l’ange from the start, all the way back to that abandoned PhD on him at Cambridge. But here and there in Where Have You Been? there are signs of dissent. Hofmann bewails the reluctance of New York School admirers to grant Lowell his place in the sun alongside Schuyler and O’Hara, then confesses to the “heretical thought” that perhaps he likes Schuyler “better than Lowell.” And then there is Bishop, whose relationship with Lowell has come to resemble the husband and wife figures in ornamental Black Forest clocks, one forever forced to go back inside before the other can come out. There are some critical either/ors that define whole eras: Wordsworth v. Coleridge, Miłosz v. Herbert, Levertov v. Duncan, but none — for Hofmann — more epic or inexhaustible than this. “Epic” is exactly the wrong word to apply to Bishop, that least demonstrative of writers (Hofmann flirts with applying “unurgent,” used of a motorboat in “Cape Breton,” to the poet herself), while simultaneously too obvious a put-down of Lowell. What might have made for epic conflict between two alpha males is displaced in the subtlest ways in the ceremonial pas de deux they danced round each other over the decades. On at least two crucial occasions, the publication of Imitations and Notebook, Bishop treated Lowell to potentially devastating critiques (“art just isn’t worth that much,” as she said of his recycling of Elizabeth Hardwick’s letters), but among the most damning accusations Hofmann levels against Lowell is how, by contrast, he seems not to have absorbed Bishop’s work at all. “Received. Off to Carlow for a few days,” wrote one of James Joyce’s brothers, acknowledging a copy of Ulysses, but Lowell doesn’t do much better when faced with a reference to “awful but cheerful” in a Bishop letter (“the future looks cheerful, but at our age who can ever tell”). Has he even read the poem? Quite possibly not.
Hofmann doesn’t much care for pre-Life Studies Lowell, preferring the poet in his dilapidated senescence, but his powerful nostalgia for the alpha male team-sheet is a marked difference from Ford. (Ford’s modern American canon tends more to Eliot, Stevens, Mina Loy, Jarrell, Ashbery, and James Tate.) While happy to bat for Schuyler and the New York School, in the main Hofmann shows no great interest in their more recent British or Irish equivalents (his favorite contemporary British poet appears to be Tom Paulin, which earns him points for ingenuity if nothing else). In a piece on Basil Bunting he conjures the “uchronia” of what “progressive verse” might have become if Pound and Eliot hadn’t disappeared into “funny money” and High Anglicanism, but Hofmann isn’t, in the main, very exercised about haring after it. Are these local blind-spots the price we pay for Hofmann’s globe-trotting perspectives? A good test case is the essay on that enforcer-in-chief of literary London, Ian Hamilton. “Though Ian Hamilton died in 2001 of cancer,” Hofmann begins his encomium, “I still see him sometimes in party rooms, at literary gatherings ... ” It may come as a surprise to American readers of Hamilton’s biographies of Lowell and J.D. Salinger to learn that he was a poet too, but the crowding out of the poetry by the prose was all part of the Faustian pact, the bullshit-busting critic painting the poet into a smaller and smaller corner. Hofmann writes touchingly of the glum-faced miniatures of The Visit, prodding delicately at parental death and marital breakdown, but when Hamilton tries to make poetry out of the world of literary journalism (in “An Alternative Agenda,” with its cameo role for “Ian Hamilton,” “All-purpose lit. hist. hack, / Invisible behind a cloud of smoke”), the atmosphere turns stagey and grotesque. This would be the same hack figure we find ploughing through “The Middle Years” in “Biography,” before the last line springs its trap: “Now look at him. Who turned the page?” The hardboiled quality is all to the good, but suggests a certain self-martyring, applying the screw to his own thumbs and turning it, too. It’s revealing that Hofmann should say of the Hamilton project that he ran his magazines “without really making any discoveries or launching any notable careers”: were they not, at base, “gloriously exclusionary enterprises, ideally diminishing to a single angel (who?) on a pin.” If Hamilton wanted to kill a book, he would rough it up in The Observer, come back anonymously for seconds in the Times Literary Supplement, then find a minion to finish it off in The Review, which he edited. Such are the stories one finds lovingly recycled by Hamilton’s young men (Clive James, Craig Raine, David Harsent), half in a spirit of cowed awe, half in the hope that one of them might break the cycle and elicit a wintry nod of approval from the maestro at last. Who then has Hofmann discovered, or championed for the export market? Step forward Karen Solie. Really, excellent though Karen Solie is, why not Jen Hadfield, Alan Gillis, or Justin Quinn?
It’s rare to find oneself worrying that an author under review might be overqualified for the job at hand, but world-bestriding is nothing without depth-perception, too. Keen to spread the word about Les Murray in the early nineties, Blake Morrison tried to sell him as a package deal, one quarter of an international “superleague” that also included Heaney, Walcott, and Brodsky. On this logic, poets go global by leaving their local specificities behind. I thought I detected a whiff of cosmopolitanese in an aside on “plastic Scots” in Hofmann’s essay on W.S. Graham; the Scottish-born Graham lived in Cornwall and was skeptical of Hugh MacDiarmid’s use of “Synthetic Scots,” a phenomenon Hofmann, with apparent disapproval, notices has been raising its head again in recent times. If it’s all right for Hofmann to drop an incredibile dictu here or a Bleistiftgebiet there, reciprocal rights should be extended to a Scots “scunnersome” or “wanchancy” as part of the critical vocabulary, one would have thought. The only reason not to would be the assumption that some languages pass muster, internationally, while others are condemned to the “authentic and the limited and the local” register for which Hofmann expresses sharp distaste. I say “apparent disapproval” of poetic Scots, since soon enough Hofmann is recalling eight boyhood years in Edinburgh and the trace elements (“postie,” “wee,” “agley,” “first-footing”) he finds they have left in his translations of texts with no Scottish dimension at all.
At the heart of Hofmann’s poetics is a narrative of decline theory. Poetry has lost face since Lowell’s time, descending in the States into a “banal derby between two awful teams,” while Britain makes do with its “variety show” of cheery populism. For the real titans, you have to go back to the twenties and the “apotheosized” generation of Eliot, Frost, Stevens, Pound, Yeats, and Bunting. Another aspect of Hofmann’s declinism is a sense of how long it has been since poetry enjoyed anything like the prestige of fiction. Where Have You Been? is in two parts, with non-Anglophones and fiction writers occupying the second, though the fiction writers are entirely non-Anglophone too. Hofmann’s thoughts on his American poets turn irresistibly to the state of the nation, but where his essays on Benn and Enzensberger are shadowed by pieces on Walser and Bernhard, his American poets are not placed in dialogue with Bellow, Pynchon, or Roth. This leaves Lowell and Seidel all the more splendidly (abjectly) exposed as laureates of the post-imperial American moment. Ford sticks more closely to poetry than Hofmann (a few pieces on poets’ prose aside) and is less given to headline-stealing statements, but writing on Jarrell he notes the American’s “concern for the helpless or voiceless or overlooked.” It’s a quality much to the fore in This Dialogue of One. How predisposed, in the light of these essays, might Eliot’s canon be to opening the door at last on A.S.J. Tessimond and Samuel Greenberg? Writing about Eliot or Baudelaire, Ford never loses sight of the slender margins between the drowned and the saved, the easy walking distance from The Waste Land to James Thomson’s Victorian penny dreadful (subject of another essay), The City of Dreadful Night.
The concept of critical “discoveries” has a quasi-scientific ring to it, and as he showed in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Eliot was happy to raid the chemistry lab in his attempts to bring an air of authority to his literary journalism. In “Dark Caverns: The Correspondence of T.S. Eliot,” Ford assesses the price Eliot paid for his self-transformation into the Pope of Russell Square. A reader “would hardly guess he composed verse at all” from surveying Eliot’s letters, in all their desiccated, epic sprawl. This was the Eliot who would turn up to dinner in a “four-piece suit,” thought Virginia Woolf, but when Ford diagnoses a case of “post-traumatic calm” in Eliot’s behavior he brilliantly sees past the façade, and reminds us of the personal bargain all poet-critics strike with their prose identities. For many years readers took the parsonical performance at face value but, as Ford reminds us, in reality Eliot’s prose was the jungle in which the beast of his poetry could most effectively camouflage itself, hiding its private griefs and wounds in plain view. Where Ford’s prose is concerned there is a deceptive mildness at work, allowing him to slip from anecdotage to the critical sucker punch without us noticing. Ford is adept at identifying the narrow margins between poetic success and failure: the unnerving continuities between Blatný the famous Czech poet and Blatný the unknown Ipswich mental patient, the contrasting fates of poor lost Samuel Greenberg and lucky lost-and-found Emily Dickinson.
The question of how a critic’s authority can expect to rub off on his or her poetry applies to Hofmann and Ford no less than it does to Eliot, and it would be a naive reader that did not see a large amount of critical will-to-power on show in these books, or in critical prose in general. Of Auden, a critic who turned out unfeasibly large amounts of critical prose, Stephen Spender wrote: “[his] life was devoted to an intellectual effort to analyse, explain and dominate his circumstances,” an effort that ended up dominating his poems into something like submission, too. More rarely, the critic will operate in a kind of holy innocent’s trance of non-self-awareness. Lowell found Jarrell that rarest of things, a critic genuinely more interested in other people’s work than his own, constitutionally unequipped for the self-advancing and subtle (or not so subtle) quid pro quos by which reputations are made. As with nuclear disarmament, ethical stands in poetry-reviewing work best if everyone joins in all at once, failing which Ford’s fossicking on the fringes of the canon possesses enormous if vaguely somber integrity. Jarrell’s principled investment in criticism may even have hastened his end: when The Lost World harvested some unkind reviews in 1965 (“the intolerable self-indulgence of his tear-jerking bourgeois sentimentality”), the already fragile Jarrell was crushed, and in October of that year walked in front of a truck.
Where Have You Been? ends with an essay on Robert Walser, which notes the absurdity of commemorating a writer who walked everywhere by naming a train after him. There exists an uncanny photograph of Walser lying in the snow, dead where he fell on one of his endless tramps through the Swiss countryside. Ford and Hofmann are incomparable flaneurs, but the routes they follow from Baudelaire’s Paris to Walser’s Swiss asylum to Zagajewski’s Lvov are something more than pit stops on a grand tour for the super-cultivated. The republic of poetry they map is a fourmillante cité, a burrow, a tower of Babel, an abandoned library, an everywhere and nowhere all at once. If annotating books is a form of mapping, the further into these two superlative books I got the more I was reminded of Borges’s one-to-one map of the Empire: the most efficient response to these essays would be to trace a pencil line under every word in both. The review is the quintessential improvised form, but insofar as literary journalism can ever expect an upgrade from provisionality to permanence, it does so in volumes like Ford’s and Hofmann’s.
I mentioned the poetry “snowline.” Believers in long-form literary journalism of the kind represented by these volumes have long been accustomed to breathing thinner and thinner air in search of their reclusive quarry. A look at the small print indicates that most of Ford’s and Hofmann’s reviews were first published in the London Review of Books, New York Review of Books, New York Times, Guardian, and this magazine, but as the New Republic has recently shown, one by one the members are leaving the band. First everything migrated to blogs, then blogs gave up, and now? We’ve now reached the point where, half a century overdue, a Complete Critical Prose of T.S. Eliot is happening but in the form of an online edition for which readers are charged an annual fee, as though old TLS reviews were dogs in need of regular license-renewals. We can continue this conversation on Twitter, if you fancy, but if that’s where we’re headed don’t expect a sequel from me to “Tradition and the Individual Talent” anytime soon. I hope I’m wrong but perhaps posterity has spoken, as that London editor liked to say.
David Wheatley is the author of four poetry collections with Gallery Press, including A Nest on the Waves (2010), and the critical study Contemporary British Poetry (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014). He lives in rural Aberdeenshire, Scotland.