Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Dead Poets

The English poet, and translator Into English of German Poetry, Michael Hamburger, died a couple of years ago. He was after all in his eighties, but even so it was a great loss. I think 'Wild and Wounded' was his last book; here is a review I wrote for, I think, the London Magazine:



Michael Hamburger, ‘Wild and Wounded’ Anvil, 84 pp., £7.95


Anyone lucky enough to have heard Michael Hamburger reading his own poems or his translations of others’, or talking about poetry and translation with asides on the idiocies of twenty-first century society, will think ‘Wild and Wounded’ — it could be a Tom Waits song — an appropriate title for this eightieth birthday collection. Yeats hoped to be remembered as a ‘Foolish, passionate man’; Hamburger will be remembered as combining passion with an incisive analytical intelligence which gives his English versions of such difficult poetry as Paul Celan’s their unmistakable authority.

All translators of poetry must themselves be — more or less — poets, and in Hamburger’s case it is more rather than less, as he has shown with earlier volumes and a Collected of ten years ago. There have been several other volumes since that Collected, and I would particularly recommend ‘Late’, an extended meditation on matters autumnal.

What is particularly striking about the poems in this collection is their similarity to those of Gerard Manley Hopkins. For all that it is now 160 years since the birth of Hopkins, his idiosyncracies of alliteration, assonance, and particularly syntax have resisted absorption by twentieth-century poets; any attempt at imitiation comes out as parody. It takes a poet of maturity and great technical skill to take these things and make them his own, but just as the last chamber works of Schubert show the influence of the late Beethoven quartets yet are quintessential Schubert, so these poems keep reminding us of Hopkins while being unmistakably by Hamburger. If for nothing else — and there is a great deal else — then the poetry here will be remembered for its successful coming to terms with that strange and difficult work with an ease and naturalness that were perhaps what Hopkins was desperately seeking.

Like ‘Late’, ‘Wild and Wounded’ is valedictory, perhaps ominously so, indeed the last poem is called ‘Ave Atque Vale’. One hopes Michael Hamburger will be with us for a while yet. English letters — German too — will be poorer for his passing.

Simon Darragh.

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