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Into the Abeyance

I was pushing twenty-two. It was May or June of 1979, and it was the year, maybe the month I was graduating—in absentia, what else.

Some people I knew were putting on a poetry festival in Cambridge, and I went along to some of the events in the big old Corn Exchange, where the Clash had played, and Richard Hell. My relationship with poetry was that I scorned it, and felt sorry for it. I actually meant words at all times, I didn't want to be a rock star or a comedian, but poetry as it seemed to propose itself to me—or to me then—was awful. A type of crippled language that couldn't say what it meant, that was always—like Cambridge, like England—nostalgic for better times, a hopeless anachronism, little better than lavender spats. And yet it was what I was trying to write—fiction had defeated me—and, where possible, to read.

I had known poets before, had had an English teacher who was one, and a geography teacher; at school older boys had worn their ties "at half-mast" when Pound died and Auden died, but probably this was my first veritable experience of poets. I don't think my expectations were keyed up. I wasn't cynical so much as unhopeful.

Into this abeyance marched—well, several people, but most particularly Hans Magnus Enzensberger, who sounds like several people anyway, and certainly does the work of several people. (He writes political essays, and has translated the complete nonsense verse of Edward Lear—and I daresay one could span the arc wider than that.) Enzensberger read, in German, and in English, which I calculated might be his third? or fifth? language (after Spanish, Finnish, and Italian), from his long poem Der Untergang der Titanic (published the previous year in Germany; The Sinking of the Titanic—in his own sparkling translation—appeared in 1981). It was immediately apprehensible, it was funny, he read it and talked it with grace and self-deprecation, he beat, in other words, the English at their own game. And this, incredibile dictu, was a countryman of Gert Fröbe's! In the ratty, rather summer-proof England of the seventies he dazzled in his part Monsieur Hulot, part Paris 1919 John Cale white clothes—Tom Wolfe hadn't been thought of—and it was all casual. He knew how important it was—in England!—not to be trying, or not to be seen to be trying. I think he even wore plimsolls. It was—pace Yeats—as though he had not a sword, but a Dunlop Maxply upstairs.

He read his wonderful confection of the Titanic, which incorporated documentary material, old blues songs, recollections of the end of his time in Havana in 1970, descriptions of famous paintings. His poem was an elegy to Capitalism, accidentally—or perhaps it wasn't an accident?—twinned with a lullaby to Communism. It was the Titanic going down—or maybe it was the ship-shaped island of Cuba, the thorn in America's side, after the failure of the sugar gamble. If cleverness had rosy cheeks and a smile on its face, it would be Hans Magnus Enzensberger. He illuminated us. He illuminated me. I didn't speak to him till many years later, but I was always grateful to him.

Related

  • 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,...

Prose from Poetry Magazine

Into the Abeyance

Related

  • 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,...

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