Michael Hamburger In Conversation

Michael Hamburger 1974 R.B. Kitaj 1932-2007 Presented by Rose and Chris Prater through the Institute of Contemporary Prints 1975 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/P04542

‘Some of the poems I wrote in the USA are responses to my discoveries of wilderness and wild life, on the walks that were my main compensation for enforced absence from home, others to the civilisation that has become ours, since American monetarist and free market ideology were imported by Margaret Thatcher.’ p.16

‘Paradox has been at the root of my life, as a poet and otherwise. That may be why it’s been as difficult for me to make sense of what I’ve been or done as it’s proved for other people.’ p. 19

‘All I can say now is that I’ve made peace with parts of both Pound’s and Eliot’s works, in the teeth of their opinions and stances, because good poetry is always more and other than the opinions that went into it or can be read out of it.’ p. 20

‘[English literary] snobbery has diminished, replaced by sensationalism about ‘celebrities’ and the cult of publicity for publicity’s sake, measured in figures not quality, and the political prejudice has been replaced either by tolerance or by indifference. Now it’s indifference to all good writing that isn’t sensational my translations are up against; and it makes little difference whether they are from the German or another language, when the same indifference meets even the work of English poets who happen to have won no competitions nor attracted publicity for something other than the merit of their work. The nearest things to general assessments of a writer’s work now appears in obituary columns. If the better newspapers were interested in extending that privilege to writers who have withstood neglect and are still kicking, they would have given that amount of space and care to people who are only candidates for death; not as a boost to those writers but as a service to readers.’ p. 44

‘It’s the disappearance of criticism, not notice, that is fatal to the continuation not of imaginative writing, but of its reception; and the substitution of irrelevances for criticism …’ p. 44

‘No one but Michael Hofmann has ever seriously set up the Aunt Sally he pretends to knock down. It is true that readers of Celan’s last poems have been exasperated by them beyond the bounds of deciding that he went too far, driving his language beyond the bounds of what poetry can do. I have no quarrel with such readers who are free to give up and look elsewhere.’ p. 47 [Hofmann argued in his review of Felstiner’s book on Celan that ‘there is even a case for saying there is no point in translating’ Celan.]

‘I’m sure I’ve been as irascible  as the rest of the tribe [‘literati’], but although I can always be relied upon to moan about something – and my friend Christopher Middleton used to call me ‘Gloomburger’ – I’ve done my best not to squabble in my own interest, but about matters I feel strongly about. I must say, too, that in a world always imperfect I find nothing more boring than an obligatory cheerfulness; or the pretence of it that’s expected of one. It doesn’t make for interchange of any kind.’ p. 64

Michael Hamburger: In Conversation with Peter Dale (1998)

Michael Hamburger’s String of Beginnings

To read Mathias Enard’s Compass and Michael Hamburger’s String of Beginnings in the same year is to be blessed. Doubly blessed. The gods of serendipity sometimes endow fortunate readers with such divine favour. Virginia Woolf contemplated reading King Lear, with the question, “Do I want such a strain on the emotions?”, answering, of course, pining reader that she was, “I think I do.” But esurient readers are equally blessed and cursed: the question always of what to read after scaling such peaks. Who can once again place such strain on our emotions?

One senses such diffidence in Michael Hamburger’s memoir, String of Beginnings, written of his early life from the perspective of his late forties. He attempts to subvert the fictional nature of autobiography by relying only on documentary evidence of the time: letters, diaries, fragments of a written life. The purism of eschewing memory and reconstruction from a work of autobiography is revealing, and marks Hamburger’s approach to both poetry and translation. He writes, “Had it not been for a crisis in my personal life that made it necessary for me to discover as much as I could about my formative years, so as to break the pattern they had set up, I was past wishing to write about myself at all.” Not, of course, that Hamburger discloses the nature of this crisis. This is a reluctant memoir.

His memoir captures the essence of an extraordinary time, of lives disrupted by the conflicts of 1939 to 1945; of the suspension of his education at Christ Church, Oxford, to serve in the British Army, and the subsequent return to his education and writing, altered irrevocably by his wartime experience. He writes, “So, in the end, I don’t know what the Army did to my writing. Even the books I glossed in barrack-rooms did something to me, though I’ve forgotten what most of them were about. Everything I saw and heard and felt did something to me, though I’ve forgotten most of the details. That’s one reason why one writes: sooner or later almost everything about a life is forgotten, by the person who lived it and by the others.”

In the end, what penetrates most, despite Hamburger’s self-effacement, is the admirable and lovable nature of the man himself, which is most clear, ironically, or perhaps typically, not in his own self-reflection, but in the way that he perceives and describes the other people he encounters. In an exquisite section on his friendship with half-forgotten Welsh poet, Vernon Watkins, he reproduces part of a letter Watkins wrote to him about the German poet, Heinrich Heine; “The nature of his genius is elusive, and so many readers treat the mask as absolute, whereas I think Heine really believed only in love, and rarely found it.” It isn’t surprising for Hamburger to single out such a sentence as it expresses a sentiment I am certain was equally true about himself.

Lines on Brueghel’s “Icarus”

Michael Hamburger’s poem is on my mind today, which I unapologetically quote in full below. I’ve always loved the viewpoint that Hamburger chooses for his poem.

The ploughman ploughs, the fisherman dreams of fish;
Aloft, the sailor, through a world of ropes
Guides tangled meditations, feverish
With memories of girls forsaken, hopes
Of brief reunions, new discoveries,
Past rum consumed, rum promised, rum potential.
Sheep crop the grass, lift up their heads and gaze
Into a sheepish present: the essential,
Illimitable juiciness of things,
Greens, yellows, browns are what they see.
Churlish and slow, the shepherd, hearing wings —
Perhaps an eagle’s–gapes uncertainly;

Too late. The worst has happened: lost to man,
The angel, Icarus, for ever failed,
Fallen with melted wings when, near the sun
He scorned the ordering planet, which prevailed
And, jeering, now slinks off, to rise once more.
But he–his damaged purpose drags him down —
Too far from his half-brothers on the shore,
Hardly conceivable, is left to drown.