MPT FEATURE

Afterthoughts on the Mug's Game

Series 3 No. 4 - Between the Languages

I doubt that my case would have been essentially different if I had not been displaced at the age of nine from one country, one language, to another. I can imagine no personal or literary development in the world as it is that could run in a straight line or a closed circle.

To me, my life and work are a jigsaw puzzle with more pieces than I can ever put together.  I tried once, some thirty years ago now, for a book about my early years I called not an autobiography but ‘intermittent memoirs - intermittent because even then I was too conscious of the holes in my memory that could not be filled with the documentary evidence I did my best to collect.  One reason why I never wrote the projected sequel about later years is that my own case became less and less interesting to me, except as a gauge of phenomena and developments outside myself that did continue to concern me.  But the essence of such experience had gone into my chosen medium of verse, by that process of condensation which Ezra Pound distinguished from the process of functional prose by deriving the German word ‘dichten’ – to make poetry from the adjective ‘ditcht’ – dense or tight.  This etymology is spurious, but ‘ben trovato’.  Pound’s enemies could have pointed out that ‘dichten’ derived from nothing less prosaic than ‘dictare’, probably going on to connect this derivation with Pound’s leaning towards dictators.  Even thirty years ago I also knew that any autobiography I could have written would have been a work of fiction – a selection from the events and concerns of my life and work, a collaboration of memory with imagination, with which it is inextricably bound up; not a chronicle, like the one I had attempted, but a transmutation of the material.  And after one abortive novel written in my youth I recognised once and for all that a full-length work of prose fiction was not for me – not even as a translator!

By 1972 I had also begun my retreat from the literary scene in Britain and the USA, with the consequence that my book of memoirs received no more attention than my books of poems in Britain, and none at all in the USA, where the book was not published, and that my British publisher at the time was discouraging about the sequel or complement I might have produced.  Then, in my later middle age, after the Thatcherite cultural revolution, I did experience something like alienation, feeling that all I had done or might still do had no place or function in the new order.  Over the centuries, the British institutions had been formed by a tug between conservative pieties – dismissed as hypocritical or snobbish by those who did not share them – and radical ferment, leading to compromises and equipoises like the capacious Anglican Church with its many mansions, a monarchy hedged in not by a constitution but by  parliamentary  proceedings, and our post-war welfare state, in which class differences were levelled upwards, generously and benevolently.  The new money free-for-all put an end to both traditions.  Old conservatives who had assented to the welfare state, together with Liberals and Socialists, were eliminated one by one as ‘wets’.  ‘Democratic’ was confused with ‘demotic’, the culture levelled down, ‘dumbed down’.  The new ‘Conservatism’ was as little about the conservation of anything but the growth of profits as New Labour was to be about productive skills and labour or the radical tradition it found it expedient to incorporate into its name.  ‘Modernization’ now meant not progress in any direction – the culture itself having become ‘post-modern’ – but the maximization of profits.  In this would-be egalitarian society a new under-class was created, that of the losers in the rat race, now excluded from the solidarity that had sustained the former working classes, who since the 19th century had become upwardly mobile by education, self-education fostered by their social ‘superiors’.

Anything I could now write in plain prose - or plain verse, for that matter - had become too plain to be noticed or understood, when double-talk, duplicity, ‘spin’, ‘sound-bites’, and ‘rip-off’ had taken over in the public realm; and for most of those at the receiving end – always and everywhere – it’s less uncomfortable to make what use they can of a devalued coinage than to reject and resist it.  In that climate it was best for me to concentrate on the ‘non-events’ of my latest long poem, cultivating that silence from which the music of poetry has always sprung, with only rare intrusions of other noises.  

Here I can’t help thinking of my paternal grandfather, who had written under the family name or the pseudonym Burghammer.  My mother told me that before he died, at about the time of my birth, he had not only been silenced as a writer by the pressures of earning a living, but reduced to total silence by the professional dishonour inflicted on him by two of his five children, a dishonour that broke his heart.  If, more than once, my heart came close to being broken, it was also mended again and again, by love and defiance.  Had my grandfather been a poet, rather than a critic and a mediator, even his terminal silence could have elicited words of a kind – words addressed to no one or anyone.  

So I doubt that my case would have been essentially different if I had not been displaced at the age of nine from one country, one language, to another.  I can imagine no personal or literary development in the world as it is that could run in a straight line or a closed circle.  When I still practised literary criticism, which I have given up, I looked for the truth about writers in their contradictions, that quarrel with oneself which Yeats said generates poetry, as distinct from rhetoric – though Yeats may now seem a rhetorical poet.   My one book-length critical work, The Truth of Poetry, was a study in tensions and extremes that clashed and met either within the work of a single writer or in the possibilities of all poetry within the temporal and linguistic bounds of my enquiry.  In order to write that book, over a period of at least ten years, I had to break with my academic specialisation as a teacher of German, in which I had always felt uncomfortable – as in any specialisation whatever, other that in the craft of poetry, the mug’s game to which I had chosen to devote my life.  

A Mug's Game was the title of my book of memoirs, the first version of it, though I changed the title for a second version published in 1991, not wishing by then to make too much of its derivation from a remark by T.S. Eliot about the vocation, and substituting a title drawn from a poem of mine, String of Beginnings.  Though the Eliot epigraph, too, had to be replaced, all my later experience had confirmed its truth – not only for Eliot but for poets less eminent than he was when he made a remark so uncharacteristically personal and confessional, however general its formulations: “As things are, and as fundamentally they must always be, poetry is not a career but a mug’s game.  No honest poet can ever feel quite sure of the permanent value of what he has written: he may have wasted his time and messed up his life for nothing.”

Well, not only did the posthumous edition of Eliot’s letters have to be suspended after one volume, because it had come up against a consensus adverse to him, but ‘permanent value’ had become too big a mouthful for any poet to perpetrate in public, even if in his or her heart it remains the only possible incentive and justification for what cannot be a career.  At the height of his fame T.S. Eliot had been invited to address the Conservative Party, on the strength of his professed allegiance to the established Church and the monarchy.  It was to be a government that called itself Conservative which made the royal family subject to income tax, therefore competitive in the market economy and symbolically redundant.  T.S. Eliot will have turned in his grave. 

The aspiration to the (immortal) fame which to Milton was “that last infirmity of noble mind” became mere delusion and vanity when fame had turned into instant, promiscuous and often fortuitous celebrity; and even before that state of affairs it had been quite possible for a poet to keep up the mug’s game in total obscurity or rejection.  At the age of 18 or 19 in a Soho pub, I asked my friend John Heath-Stubbs whether he had ever had a poem anthologized, thinking in my naivety that this made all the difference between being called and being chosen.  A few decades later I had to clear out a hundred contributor’s copies of anthologies in which I was represented with poems or translations, keeping only those I thought of some significance.  Decades after that, far from having graduated to immortality by anthologization, I had amassed a new lumber of such volumes, including many in foreign languages or scripts in which I can’t even make out my name – from Arabic to Chinese; but in my country was now omitted as a poet from all anthologies treated as representative.  Cultural correctness now disposed of me with the phrase “better known as a translator” or simply ignored the poems I have written.  The same cultural correctness now tends to be racist, nationalistic, sexist (or genderist, to use the current term), classist and agist, perpetually rubbing in the differences while proclaiming a would-be egalitarianism.  (Real equality begins where it’s taken for granted, not asserted or enforced.)  Whatever competent or distinguished critics had written about my work in the past, these omissions could always be justified on other grounds, the dubious ‘permanent value’ a poet can never be sure about in his or her own case; and criticism itself has been largely diverted from texts to the personalities of their authors.

The most dramatic change since T.S. Eliot’s lifetime is the degree to which electronic media have replaced the written word – and the spoken word, for that matter, where it has become a gabble in competition with the abbreviations of those media, because time is money.  The effect of this on generations that receive most of their knowledge not from immediate experience, nor from original texts, but from the television screen or from computers is so blatant that it needs no elaboration here.  Its effect on poetry – its reception, if not its production – is not only a psychic one, in that more and more young people have grown incapable of sustained attention to anything whatever, other than images and sounds projected for instant consumption or instant distraction – distraction from what?, one begins to ask oneself – but a practical one that extends to the non-career.  The internet is not subject to those copyright laws that gave authors some measure of control over the use of their work and a minimal share in the form of royalties or fees.  If a poem is used on a website the author need not be so much as informed, let alone paid for a publication now treated as an advertisement; and even the most vain of authors cannot live by advertisement alone.  Needless to add, the question of ‘permanent value’ does not arise at all in media that are random, insatiably and indigestibly cumulative, conveying information about this, that and anything without end.

I have written elsewhere – in an essay included in my book Testimonies of 1988 – about the survival of poetry in historical circumstances or conditions of which I am aware.  Poems were written or recited even in extermination camps – or preserved in one person’s memory, like the later poems of Mandelstam.  As long ago as the first industrial revolution in Britain, the end of poetry was predicted, as by Thomas Carlyle.  The prediction was proved wrong, both because the squalor brought in by that revolution created a need to escape from it – the Romantic movement – and because an expanding readership, even for poetry, could be served by the mass production of written texts.  The reversal of that development may now look like the end of a whole culture, the literate one, in which literacy was bound up with an awareness of the past – a selected past, therefore ‘elitist’ in the terminology of those who confuse class resentments with considerations of quality.  This reversal is still resisted here and there, by dwindling minorities; but other threats of environmental, economic and political disasters detract again and again from the urgency of the resistance, not that it is not the continuity of one culture, one civilization, but of life on our planet that is in question.  Any prediction about the future of poetry would rest on the complacent assumption that the larger destruction can still be averted.  

So much had to be said before I could bring myself to write anything more about my own case, displacement from Germany to Britain in childhood or the multilingualism that seems as natural to me as the opposite seems to others.  Throughout a millennium and more, educated Europeans had to be proficient in a dead language, Latin, if not Greek and Hebrew also – a Latin which was not dead where it functioned as the lingua franca in the Babel of modern languages and dialects in Europe and beyond – much as English can still do in India.  Milton wrote poems in Italian, and in the next century William Cowper translated Milton’s Italian and Latin poems into English, the languages in which both of them had been born to speak and write.

What’s more migration, dispersal, and resettlement have become the rule, rather than the exception, in many parts of the world, as throughout recorded history, not least that of Britain and America.  When a Welsh nationalist critic described me as a ‘rootless cosmopolitan’, I had to tell him that in fact I had become a stick in the mud as a poet, drawing most of my imagery from a single region of England that has become my home.  It is plants, not human beings, that are physically rooted; and long ago Remy de Gourmont distinguished the uprooted - déracinés- from the transplanted.  This applies even to non-human nature, plants and animals.   Most of the trees most wide-spread in Britain were introduced from foreign parts at one time or another.  One of the most prolific weeds or wildflowers in Britain and continental Europe now is the Himalayan balsam.  An American grey squirrel has displaced the European red squirrel in all but the wildest parts of Britain.  One of our commonest birds now is the collared dove which until a few decades ago was confined to Eastern Europe.  Until exterminated by genocide, the South American coypu, a large vegetarian rodent, spread all over the East Anglian marshlands on which I live.    In my East Anglian garden, exposed to fierce winds from the North Sea, trees from America, even Mexico and Nicaragua, as from China and Japan, do as well as trees regarded as indigenous since the records began.  Much the same is true of culture and the arts, from agriculture and horticulture, their products and implements, to architecture, sculpture, painting, musical composition and the verse forms dear to traditionalists.

As for me, my bibliography attests that I have translated and written about more German language authors than I can enumerate here.  Though at school I began to specialize in Modern Languages, I could not take up the Exhibition (scholarship) I had won to Christ Church, Oxford, without passing an entrance examination in what is not a modern language, Latin, still obligatory at that time, 1941, for students of any subject, and in retrospect I wish that my early specialization had not been forced on me, at the expense of the Ancient Greek I should otherwise have learnt.  The first and main modern language I did learn was French, and there was a time when my French was better than what remained of my childhood German and the book German that complemented it.  My first book of translations, completed at the age of 18 and published when I was 19, was from the German poet Hölderlin, on whose difficult texts I was to go on working off and on for half a century; but my second book of translations was from the French of Baudelaire, done in 1944 when I was an infantry soldier in the Shetlands, and still in print with an American publisher, City Lights.  With very few exceptions, foreign influences on my earliest poems were more French than German.  What impelled me to make German my main subject when I returned to Oxford after military service was my renewed contact with the spoken languages as an interpreter for German prisoners-of-war in Austria and as headmaster on an Army boarding school staffed with Austrian civilians, as well as British teachers.  As a soldier in Italy I had also taken up Italian, at first by reading Dante in a bilingual text that could easily be carried in a kitbag, the Temple Classics edition.  Though it was already too late for me to pick up another language in the way I had plunged into English as a boy, I was to translate one Italian poet, Franco Fortini, with his help and the odd howler, a few Italian poems by others needed for my critical book and - more recently - two poems by Leopardi I had long lived with.   More recently still it was some lines of Dante used as an epigraph for the latest book I have translated, W.G. Sebald’s After Nature, which also called for a version of a Latin epigraph from Vergil.  The Truth of Poetry has also elicited versions of poems in Spanish and Portuguese, languages I can’t begin to speak.  When the Romanian poet Marin Sorescu asked me to translate poems of his, I was able to do so because Romanian is a partly Romance language and because the virtuoso German poet Oskar Pastior allowed me to cannibalize his excellent German versions of these poems.  When I tried to translate from languages I can neither speak nor guess at, by way of literal cribs or trots, I found myself groping in the dark for Hungarian and liberated by ignorance for the one poem I was asked to translate from the Chinese, so much so that I could place this version in my Collected Poems and it has been translated in turn into German as a poem of my own – a chinoiserie.  Because my curiosity about the state of post-war Europe drove me into Displaced Persons’ Camps out of bounds to British soldiers in Austria, camps filled with refugees from the Baltic, Ukraine and Tito’s Yugoslavia, I was brought up against the limits of my capacity to absorb more languages, including Russian.  It has been hard enough at first to adjust to the Carinthian dialect, when my brain sponge was reaching saturation point for languages.  

Here I must mention that when I was presented with a gold medal by the Society of Linguists, only its receipt by post saved me from having to refuse it or suffering painful embarrassment at its presentation, since I don’t think if myself as a linguist at all, only as a person with a boundless interest in what can be communicated and not communicated verbally, in literary texts or other media.  From earliest childhood onwards this interest extended to animals and mute plants.  In later years I wrote a poem called ‘Conversation with a Blackbird’, only one of several in which I tried to transcribe or translate animal sounds.   So the many translations I have done, to me, were not linguistic exercises but responses to the most diverse phenomena – explorations less of affinities than strangeness.  The more difficult and strange a text, the more challenging it was likely to prove, like the texts of Hölderlin and Celan.  From Celan’s poems I could take nothing I am aware of for my own; from Hölderlin nothing more palpable than a way of breathing.  Accessibility, in that process, had more to do with empathy than with knowledge of any kind, linguistic, historical or textual.

The crux of my displacement at the age of nine, from Berlin to Edinburgh, is that it occurred at an age when adjustment is either immediate or impossible.  I compared the sudden change to a child’s being thrown into water so that it can learn to swim – for survival.  My Berlin childhood had been so oppressed by restrictions, even before the Third Reich, that when I was quite able to swim I dropped like a stone into the water of the Havel, at Kladow outside Berlin, and had to be rescued from an unconscious wish to drown by the second of the governesses who had oppressed us – not a benevolent disciplinarian like our first, but a sadistic one with a resentment that had contributed to my state of mind.  In Edinburgh, without a governess at last, I recovered my will to survive.  This meant acceptance into a community of schoolboys, made possible only by almost immediate linguistic assimilation – and by my plunge from the highest springboard of a swimming-pool, to the admiration of my fellow pupils not as familiar as I was with water, thanks to my grandfather’s house at Kladow and perhaps to earlier sea-side holidays on the Baltic coast.  I was then invited to join a street gang from the school, George Watson’s, that picked fights with boys wearing the uniforms of other Edinburgh schools – when in Berlin my three siblings and I had never been allowed to go anywhere but to school without adult supervision, or play with children not approved by the supervisors.

So the fall from upper-middle-class prosperity and status – my father had been a professor of paediatrics as well as a family doctor, and in Germany professorships were prestigious – proved my liberation from an increasing introversion that had become morbid.  But my father had to sit all day long over textbooks in a language still foreign to him during the year’s crash course in all branches of medicine he had to absorb so as to be allowed to practise in Britain – where paediatricians did not work as family doctors and no professorship awaited him – on money borrowed to pay the rent of the furnished Edinburgh house, since he had made over what savings he had to his widowed mother, who stayed behind in Berlin until transported to her death, probably in Poland.  All we ever knew, from a Red  Cross message, was that she had ‘gone on a journey’.  Within a year of that, in 1940, my father succumbed to an incurable illness.  Meanwhile, in a Britain still civil, I had been able to outgrow the necessary macho phase, though a few fights were still needed at later schools.

But the phases are recorded in my memoirs; also, that assimilation had governed my forebears ever since the eighteenth century Enlightenment, the emancipation of the Jews from their ghettos and the Code Napoleon, whose solution to the ‘Jewish Problem’ was the opposite of Hitler’s in that the Jews were to disappear not by genocide but by their absorption into the majority.  This earlier trend was to be reversed, on the basis of a eugenics drawn from cattle-breeding, adopted out of resentment with mass appeal.  Just because the ideology was absurd, it had to be implemented with an unprecedented thoroughness and bureaucratic efficiency, so that the method would justify the madness.  Had the Third Reich lasted longer, its ‘final solution’ would have extended to those of partly ‘non-Aryan’ provenance, as intended, then those of Slavic or other non-Germanic descent.  If it had, the German population itself would have been reduced not only to the ‘purity’ but to the size of an aboriginal tribe – a logical conclusion hardly compatible with world domination, quite apart from the losses incurred by war and the increasing risk of internal revolt.  

What had not struck me when I wrote the memoirs was the French sympathies of both my grandfathers – one born in Prussian Silesia, the other in Mainz, in whose ghetto his ancestors had lived.  My paternal grandfather, Leopold, attempted to introduce French Naturalism into Germany, a decade or more before there was a Naturalist movement in Germany, and long before the Dreyfus affair.  Because all this grandfather’s papers were lost when his widow was taken out of her Berlin flat, all I have of his literary remains is a few letters to him by Alphonse Daudet and Zola.  (It was the editor of a book of Zola’s letters who passed on what little he could discover about my grandfather’s publications).  It can’t have been an accident that my maternal grandfather’s first name was Bertrand, and his father’s Louis – both not German, but French forms; or that his grandfather, too, was a reader of Zola and other French writers.

The social assimilation, though, was such that I never saw the inside of a synagogue until my friend Erich von Kahler took me into one in New Jersey in the ‘sixties’ or ‘seventies’, not for worship but for a lay speech he was delivering there.  When my paternal grandmother, born in Poland, spoke of going to the ‘Temple’, I imagined a Greek one.  No one else in the family ever mentioned such a place.   The very first prayer I learnt by heart was a childish jingle taught me by our Roman Catholic governess; and Hebrew was not among the languages of which I was given so much as a smattering.  One of my great-uncles, who survived the Third Reich in Berlin, had become a Lutheran and married an ‘Aryan’ of the landowning class – killed there in a mugging after the war throughout which she had stuck by her ‘non-Aryan’ husband.  Another great-uncle fled Berlin only at the last moment, surviving the war with his wife under an assumed name, with no ration cards, as itinerant farm labourers.  That survival made a mockery of the biological race laws; assimilation had gone so far as to invalidate them in practice; and on a visit to my family after the war this great-uncle was outraged by an anti-German remark, leaping up from the dinner table to protest that he was still a German – after being condemned to death as such, robbed of his house and possessions, deprived even of the pointer hounds of whose loss he told us with tears not shed for his murdered human friends.  My mother became a Quaker; and one of the last books read by my agnostic father was a selection of the works of Kierkegaard, when he was working on a psychological book he did not live to finish.  ( I was to write a little piece on Kierkegaard, included in my collection Testimonies).  

So it came about, too, that I was sent to distinctly Anglican schools after Edinburgh and spent most of my formative years in very British institutions – a Hampstead prep. school, a public school, Westminster – attached to the Abbey – Christ Church, Oxford – attached to the Cathedral – and the British Army – up to the age of 24.  As the poet I was already trying to become, I got some encouragement and assurance from being at a school, Westminster, which had produced poets for centuries, from Ben Jonson – a working class pupil when the school was a truly public one – George Herbert, Henry King, among other excellent minor poets of the ‘metaphysical’ kind, to Dryden and Cowper, in the earlier centuries.  It was a clever and precocious fellow pupil, Richard Wollheim, who read some of my first, and still somewhat Tennysonian, apprentice pieces and advised me to toughen up my verse by reading Dryden.  My first published essay, written in 1942 or 1943, while I was waiting in London for my military call-up, was on ‘John Donne and Metaphysical Poetry’; and my last academic job, in Britain, was a temporary part-time professorship that demanded only one weekly lecture and seminar on twentieth century English and American poets.

My inflated early poems, which made up in rhetoric for what they lacked in sensuous roughage, also remind me how much, at this period, I took to heart the religious worship in which I participated in all those institutions, although I never became a member of any Church or sect, and the theological teaching at Westminster, called ‘Divinity’, was decidedly liberal, if not positively ecumenical.  Many later quarrels with myself were to arise between the life-long effects of this taking to heart and a need just as strong for independence of mind.  The security to be found in any corporative membership had become suspect to me at an early age.  If that was to leave me an outsider everywhere, in spite of loyalties that could not be formalised or formulated, so it had to be.

Because George Watson’s had prided itself on ‘pure’, standard English, this was the vernacular into which I was initiated, and nothing was ever to shake that foundation, not even when my English had to become basic in the barrack-rooms I shared with other infantry privates, the lowest of the low in the class order only beginning to be loosened at that time.  If my father’s crash course had taken him to Glasgow, and my first British school had not been a private one, my linguistic initiation would have been very different indeed and my case complicated by regional, as well as class, divisions.  Later, I was to teach some ten semesters at universities and colleges in the USA as a visiting professor, also travelling widely there for readings and lectures from New Hampshire to Texas, from Montana to South Carolina.  Even in Britain this vernacular of mine had become an anachronism; but other vernaculars could serve me for only satirical or polemical purposes, the ‘low mimetic’ also demanded solidarity in barrack-rooms – a small price to be paid for the considerateness and kindness I received in these, so that at times I could even work at poems while sitting or lying on a palliasse, no table or chair provided for the lowest of the low.  However assimilated, I never anglicized my surname, and didn’t need to for these barrack-rooms; nor later, when my surname had become the name of a junk food, or because I was serving in a war against the country that gave my family that name.

My first translations may have been my way of bridging the displacement from that country, separation from the relatives and friends left behind, from the open spaces around Kladow to which I owed my first moments of freedom and exhilaration, the diverse animals I had collected and looked after there, and what had been my family’s culture – though it was music, not language, that was my earliest love in the arts, and one practised by my father and mother.  Had I been a few years older when the displacement occurred, I might well have had to return to my first language as a writer of poems.  My friend Franz Wurm, born in Prague into a German-speaking family also fluent in Czech, was shipped to England in a children’s transport at the age of 13 and educated at an English boarding-school, then Oxford.  Because, unlike me, he had lost his immediate family, when told by an English friend that he would never make a good English poet, he reverted not to German but to French for his early verse – his German lost to him by association with the more grievous loss.  “It was only then that I turned to German, which for quite a while came from my reading rather than from the language spoken at home”, he writes in a letter.  He was then moved to re-emigrate to a German-speaking part of Switzerland, a neutral country by association, and became a German-language poet as linguistically inventive and idiosyncratic as his friend Paul Celan - who was even more multilingual by circumstance, but clung to German for poetry when he talked and corresponded with his wife and son in French, out of his very obsession with his mother tongue and the wound inflicted on his family and friends under German occupation.  Erich Fried, one of the most widely read German-language poets of his time, came to England at the age of 16, remained resident there, but never became wholly bilingual other than as a translator of texts ranging from Shakespeare to Dylan Thomas and Sylvia Plath.  Many other cases could be cited, each distinct for reasons too intricate to be unravelled here.

When towards the age of 30, I was induced to write unambitious critical pieces in German, they proved acceptable, though my syntax, like my attitudes, tended to be more English than German and my grammar could be shaky; but the attempt to function bilingually, at least in prose, precipitated an identity crisis for a year or two, leaving me stranded in a no-man’s land.  For a time I was able to produce German versions of English poems of mine that had found no other translator, or to collaborate with my earliest German translators if necessary.  To resolve the crisis, though, I had to put an end to the pretence of bilingualism.  The three tiny poems I wrote in German - for friends with little English - only brought home to me that my childish-cum-bookish German lacked the resources needed for poetry – resources of lived experience and association more than linguistic proficiency.  For better or for worse, it is the English language in which I feel at home – its wealth of short words, its range of many-layered meanings, its laxities and lazinesses even, its shedding long ago of cases, declensions and inflections, its freedom from grammatical compulsions, leaving most English speakers scarcely aware that there is or was such a thing as grammatical rules, if they were never drilled in a foreign language as law-abiding as Latin or German.  (Christian Norgenstern made fun of the bureaucratic and pedantic proclivities of his language in his well-known ‘Werewolf’ poem.  The dadaist Kurt Schwitters subverted them in his best-known poem ‘Anna Blume’.)

I too, was told early on by a friend that no one not born in an English-speaking country would ever write a good English poem.  I defied that warning as one of many risks incurred and defied throughout my life, not only by my choice of the mug’s game.  At a reading in Washington D.C. my fellow British poet George Macbeth introduced me as ‘the best German poet writing in English’, and I can never know whether that was a back-handed compliment of a kind I have got used to or a critical judgement.  I also gathered from a recent four-volume German anthology of British and American poetry that I am the most widely translated poet – into German – of its living contributors.  This, again, could be due to non-literary judgements, accidents of politico-cultural correctness or a generous act of restitution towards my person, and it could mean that the translatable gist of my poems does appeal more to German-language readers than to the English-speaking.  Interesting as the sociology and psychology of reputations may be in themselves, after 60 years of the mug’s game I can’t speculate how they apply to my case.  Whatever the reasons and motivations, I have received more prizes and more serious attention for my work in the German-speaking countries than in Britain; but this points to general differences in the status of the arts and the status of their practitioners.  Poetry especially is an overcrowded occupation, because, as Keats wrote, there will always be too many of us, and it’s simply too easy to produce something that looks like a poem but fails to sound or work like one.  No wonder, then, that in Britain most of one’s fellow practitioners – called ‘colleagues’ in Germany – turn out to be competitors, often mean ones at that.  With his tongue in his cheek or not, the magnanimous English poet Geoffrey Hill once spoke of “the rabble of one’s so-called peers”.  The book in which he did so, I was told, received no review in our country other than one I wrote.  From Germany I receive letters in which the formal address ‘geehrter’ (honoured) is heightened to ‘verehrter’ (admired or revered).  The British response to that is likely to be embarrassment or amusement, but there is more to it than an archaic formality.  Because I cannot bring myself to enter for any of our countless poetry competitions, the prizes I have been awarded were unsolicited, therefore honours as well as subsidies.  At a session of the Royal Society of Literature founded by a Hanoverian king to subsidize writers like Coleridge, who discovered very soon and painfully that the funds were no longer available, so that later elected Fellows of the society have had to pay a subscription fee for the honour – Lord Butler, its President at the time, presented a prize to John Wain for a book on Samuel Johnson, going on to say he was sorry to have gathered that John Wain now intended not to write another book of that kind but to return to his hobby of writing poems.  Most German poets I have known would have felt this to be a disparagement of their chosen vocation.  In England, for England, it was an instance of good sense – not a literary judgement or a personal one, but a confirmation, by a statesman, that the mug’s game is not a career, since no living can be made by it. 

In Britain this state of affairs makes for a humility that may or may not be a genuine one.  There is a kind of pride, also known as integrity, that one must allow others to see as arrogance, just as there is a seeming humility, often combined with bonhomie and charm, that lends itself to opportunist climbing.  No one could have been more proud in his dealings with the world than the poet of love and religious orthodoxy, Dante – humble enough, too, towards his pagan predecessor Vergil to make him his poetic guide – up to the point of separation.

This brings me to the mediating of mainly, but not exclusively German texts as a translator and critic – for which I was ‘better known’, at least until given later coverage in a British newspaper as a grower of mainly obsolete apple varieties.  A few of the translations have been reprinted, enlarged and revised over a period that seems long for such work.  Of my critical books only The Truth of Poetry remains in print in Britain, not in the USA, has appeared in German three times, Italian, Spanish in Mexico, and is about to appear in Portuguese in Brazil.  In retrospect I wonder how I could possibly have turned out so many books – by choice, not commission – much of the time while doing odd jobs or teaching for a living, travelling not for relaxation but more work, with energy to spare for physical labour in gardens when we had gardens to tend, as we did most of the time.  For the last 24 years it has been three and a half acres of land, on which I planted more trees than I have published books; and I think it is the physical labour of their conservation that has kept me going to the age of 81.  Most translation and criticism are as ephemeral in effect as my cyclically repetitive gardening chores – and as one can’t stop hoping a few of one’s poems are not, with the potentiality at least of outlasting the grower like a tree.

Beyond that I have little to say about my translations and criticism, subject as both are to market forces, the reputation stock exchange, its brokers and the fluctuations of all these.  Since auto-psychoanalysis is another mug’s game that does not attract me, I shall not pretend to understand why or how I was drawn to one text rather than another.  It is German-language critics who have tried to put the jigsaw puzzle pieces together in books and essays on my work – though a student of James Dickey in South Carolina came as close as anyone, for my early poems only, in the USA, telling me things I did not know about them.  Every translation I have done and every critical piece I have written also belongs to the jigsaw puzzle, each a requirement of its own in the first place.  If I can risk a generalization now, only about my translations from the German, it is that they were of texts I considered different in one way or another from anything written in English, therefore not unnecessary as additions to a literature already inexhaustible in its variety and range.  It could be the few mediaeval lyrics I attempted by Walther von der Vogelweide, a baroque sonnet by Andreas Gryphius in lines so irregular that it does not look like a sonnet, or later poets to whom I devoted whole books; and it could be short prose by Novalis, Kleist, Buchmer, Georg Heym or my contemporaries Eich, Grass, Heissenbuttel, Bichsel and Adolf Muschg unlike any others I know.  Of my Goethe translations, plays and poems, the one that gave me most trouble and pleasure was the least-known, the late dramatic fragment Pandora in which each speech is in a metre appropriate to the mythical speaker, an invention that transcends the stage it was written for and in which the heroine never appears, though she is present throughout in the speakers’ minds.  Hofmannsthal’s play The Tower is another play that strains the possibilities of the stage; but I translated it as a text to be read, and it made a powerful radio play, like plays written for radio by Günter Eich and Peter Weiss I also translated, when what was our Third Programme still had a use for this ‘elitist’ minority medium, an acoustic one in which poets have excelled.  Again it is in Germany that this medium still flourishes, in the teeth of television, which once seemed to threaten it with obsolescence – for how much longer is uncertain, when resistance to the junk and advertising culture may be crumbling even in that so Platonic (Egghead) Republic.

Despite the hints I have dropped here, I don’t know and don’t care whether or not some foreign residue characterizes my work as a whole.  As I write this I have received an article on my work – in German – quoting me as having distinguished between phases in my writing, one of mimicry, imitation of models, the next of ‘word-scepticism’, a certain distance between the matter communicated and the words chosen.  All learning, of course, is imitation of one skill or another, and very few poets indeed seem to have come into their own without an apprenticeship of imitation.  Foreigners, it’s true, are supposed to be recognizable by the meticulousness of their way of speaking.  But poets, too, pick their words if they aren’t out for automatic writing or an indiscriminate spontaneity; and, if they try to write prose that is accurate, they will be picking their words also, often with the many ‘buts’ ‘ifs’ and ‘perhapses’ for which Eliot was notorious in his essays.  Eliot was not as blatant an expatriate as Conrad, Joyce or Beckett, yet in his time the great divide between American and British English, American and British attitudes had already opened.

Reading two posthumous volumes of text by Paul Celan now – his correspondence with his devoted friend and searching critic Peter Szondi, and a collection of miscellaneous prose drafts and notebook jottings – I am struck by two things, other than by the fact that such books can still appear in Germany, meticulously edited and annotated.  One is the confirmation in both books of the damage done to an incomparable poet by malicious and fabricated accusations of plagiarism. (These had already been fully documented in a separate study.)  At times Celan could dismiss this campaign as the psychopathic phenomenon it was; but subliminally it precipitated his own paranoia, when a demented widow’s charges were taken up by accredited critics and academics, rubbing poison into the wound inflicted on him by earlier persecution and the murder of his parents in concentration camps.  The campaign began with the appearance of his first collection of poems in Germany and continued even when he had been driven into breakdown and suicide. 

The second is reflections on his own poetry, and so on the paradox that poetry shares a medium, language, with many other forms of communication, but not with their functions, which it may find necessary to subvert; in his own case, and insistence on the essential darkness that was not obscurantist, for all the scientific and esoteric allusions in his poems, and not hermetic, since he never ceased to hope that his necessarily cryptic messages could be received.  His poems were a groping in words for what he could not know before the poem found it, becoming not his but anyone’s.  Once the poem was finished, its author might not be able to elucidate it at all without betraying the darkness.  Hence Celan’s refusal to provide clues in the form of notes.  Any one poem’s itinerary could be neither retraced not repeated, preoccupied as a poet must be with the next poem’s groping in the dark, up to the final silence.

Mutatis mutandis, this accords with my experience, with what Keats meant by the ‘negative capability’ of poets and with the doubt built into the vocation itself so startlingly voiced by T.S. Eliot, a poet seemingly much more deliberate, more self-assured than Celan in his public stance and pronouncements.  It has a bearing, too, on why, ever since Plato, the place of poetry in any res publica – not least one as philosophical and ideal as Plato’s – has been suspect; and why many intelligent persons have no use for its processes.

But it is in classical Chinese poetry, produced over a period of some two millennia, that poetry’s imperviousness to social and political change is much more conspicuous than in any Graeco-Roman or Judeo-Christian tradition.  Wars, massacres, upheavals of dynasties, even the differences between successive religious creeds were intimated here and there by these poets – most of whom were civil servants when they could not or would not retire from public affairs – but not so specifically as to constitute a record of systems or events, just  as the individuality of these poets was subordinate to their continuity – and the continuity of human life as such among the ten thousand things.  

Another laconic revelation in Celan’s previously unpublished jottings is his remark that he had learnt more from the work of W.B. Yeats than from the surrealists always included among his antecedents.  This, too, rang a bell for me, recalling a time when a critic wrote that I was ‘ghosting for the ghost of Yeats’– not without justification, at that formative stage of my work; but it would hardly have occurred to anyone to connect Celan’s work with Yeats’s, since the affinity was not one of manner, diction or form, but of what Yeats called ‘heart mysteries’.

The Russian poet Svetabeva once remarked that all poets are Jews, probably meaning not their stubborn clinging to a minority faith and identity – the alternative to assimilation that has led to the present cruel impasse in Palestine – but that they remain classless, never wholly accommodated or uniform.  What counts in the end is not how we are labelled and classified, least of all by ourselves, but how we have coped with the identities partly imposed by circumstances, partly assumed by positive and negative responses to the circumstances.  Whether we accept the Fall as a dogma or as an incontrovertible myth, that separation from non-human nature gave each of us a measure of freedom and choice in the matter of who we are and aspire to be; but the judgement of how far the things we have done and made accord with the aspiration is not ours, and by writers must be left to critics as fallible as they are.  This is where an egregious mug’s game may link up with the human condition.

Michael Hamburger  

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