(Osman Yunus Bekcan/Unsplash)

In The Art of Attention, Donald Revell praises Robert Creeley’s “Oh Max” by clocking its speed: “It certainly does go fast, and then faster. Velocities, I think, are what prove our poems true. They are the aspiration of words approaching light-speed.” If anyone can make words exceed the speed of light, it’s the poet, translator, and critic Michael Hofmann. Reading Hofmann, you feel like you’re playing a game of catch-up that you know you’ll lose, though the losing is more exhilarating than deflating. Hofmann’s mind works faster than your mind; his language is always ahead of you, “tripping over itself, setting off at an angle / into the thickets of vocabulary,” to borrow some lines from his poem “Daewoo.” (I should say, his languages are always ahead of you. Born in Freiburg, Germany, raised in England and Scotland, and now teaching at the University of Florida, Hofmann seems to publish a new translation—of Franz Kafka, Alfred Döblin, Gottfried Benn—just about every year.)

One of Hofmann’s recent poems, “Broken Nights,” opens like this:

Broken knights.
—No, not like that.
Well, no matter.
Something agreeably
Tennysonian (is there
Any other kind?)
About ‘broken knights.’
Sir Bors and Sir Bedivre.
In my one-piece pyjamas—
My it-doesn’t-matter suit,
With necessarily non-matching
—Matchless, makeless, makeles
Added top, I pad
Downstairs to look
At the green time
On the digital microwave.
My watch, you must know,
Died on my watch
All at the top, at midnight,
After a few
Anguished weeks of macro-
biotic stakhanovite
5-second ticks,
And I haven’t had
Time, it seems,
To get it repaired.

“Broken Nights” charges out of the gate and, with its two- and three-beat units, rushes through fifty lines in a single, skinny stanza. The poem begins with a homophonous mistake. The speaker planned to talk about broken nights—those darkened stumbles to the bathroom during the “weewee hours,” as he puts it. But, what the hell, he can make it about broken knights, too. “Well, no matter.” It’s no big deal to improvise if you can, and Hofmann most certainly can. But this line also suggests that, in the end, poetry is not so much about matter as it is about manner. Or, rather, the manner is the matter. It’s the style, not the subject, that makes the poem move.

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“Broken Nights” concerns time: the difference between the age of digital microwaves and the age of Sir Bedivre; what it’s like to feel short of time and what it’s like to feel as if you have time to kill. (Is there a more disheartening experience than waking up, thinking that it’s morning, only to realize that it’s still the dead of night?) But the matter of time works here only because Hofmann has stylized it, given it a fitting form: “matchless” versus “makeles” (Middle English for without an equal or companion); Sir Bors’s suit of armor becoming the speaker’s “it-doesn’t-matter” suit, which itself echoes the earlier “Well, no matter.” Hofmann moves rapid-fire through different registers and idioms, from the Tennysonian to the Stakhanovite, the lyric to the demotic. As he writes of the Italian poet Eugenio Montale in his new book, Messing About in Boats, “His poems are like a disbanded Noah’s Ark, you see loads of creatures everywhere.”


Once you start messing about in poems, you end up in a very different place from where you began.
Michael Hofmann (Courtesy of Oxford University Press)

Messing About in Boats is based on Hofmann’s Clarendon Lectures, which were delivered at Oxford University in 2018 and 2019. Reading the book—elegant, funny, learned, and very strange—I was reminded of listening to Marilynne Robinson’s 2009 Terry Lectures at Yale. Those lectures, which eventually became Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self, were difficult to follow in person: not because Robinson isn’t a good speaker (she is) but because her argument had real ambition and a style that asked to be dwelt with, savored. The best I could do was get a feel for the moves she was making and wait for the book version to arrive.

I don’t know how Hofmann’s lecture series actually began. But here is how the book opens: “Ship of fools. Death ship, ark, ghost ship, slave ship, clipper, warship. Factory ship, trawler, galley, hulk. Lighter and collier and tug, aircraft carrier and tanker, container ship and banana boat. Dhow, pinnace, trireme, felucca, knar.” The catalog goes on and on and on. Hofmann names imagined ships (the Dawn Treader, the Pequod) and real ships (the Titanic, the Windrush). He names poems about ships (Pound’s The Cantos) and novels about ships (Conrad’s Victory).

Surely, we’re meant to think of Book Two of Homer’s Iliad, where the poet sings of the army that sailed to Troy and, in the process, gives a lesson in ancient Greek geography and political power. What purpose does the catalog serve for Hofmann? To give a sense of spatial and temporal vastness before homing in on the supposedly limited subject matter at hand. “Casting about for a subject,” he writes, “I abruptly jibbed and thought: wrong. I want something contained. I don’t want to nibble at an elephant, so let me strain at a gnat. Let me write what feels like a lot about a little.” So, Hofmann decides upon his subject: four poems about boats from four different periods in four different languages. He starts with Rilke’s “Emigrant-Ship, Naples” before moving on—one poem per lecture—to Rimbaud’s “The Drunken Ship,” Montale’s “Boats on the Marne,” and Karen Solie’s “The World.” A properly gnat-sized theme, at least compared to the elephant-sized theme of “boats in literature.” But part of the argument of Messing About in Boats is that, once you start messing about in poems—that is, once you start attending to their textures and affiliations and echoes—you end up in a very different place from where you began. Emily Dickinson wrote, “There is no Frigate like a Book / To take us Lands away, / Nor any Coursers like a Page / Of prancing Poetry.” Under the direction of a critic as intelligent and daring as Hofmann, criticism can be a good means of transport, too.

As indicated by his book’s title, Hofmann is interested less in offering a synthesizing account of what boats mean in poetry than in poking around in some poems that have boats in them. It’s criticism as a kind of loitering. He notices things (Rilke’s poem opens with the command, “Think”) and then speculates on how they work (“The impossible is Rilke’s terrain, and the conditional or subjunctive his mood”) before moving on to new observations. In his second lecture, Hofmann reads Rimbaud’s phantasmagoric poem, which is spoken from the perspective of a boat, and tries to locate “the speaker’s absolute centre,” “the irreducible thing in it that says ‘I.’” “Is it the quasi-coffin, the ‘coque de sapin,’ the pine-plank hull in line 18? Is it the ‘presque ile,’ the floating island, or the ‘bateau perdu’ or the ‘carcasse ivre d’eau’?… Is it the two prayers called out near the end, in the antepenultimate stanza: ‘O que ma quille éclate! O que j’aille a la mer!’… The droll idea of ‘going to sea’—almost of going to seed—while at sea.” Hofmann considers, it seems in real-time, all of these possibilities before landing on a remarkable conclusion: “It reminds one of the idea of le Corbusier that no building is finished until it is standing in ruins. There are perhaps no sober boats.” Hofmann’s prose is loose-limbed and intoxicated with detail. There are perhaps no entirely sober critics, either—or at least no good ones.


The critic isn’t messing around by boats or even with them; he’s on board, getting his hands dirty in the engine room.

Hofmann doesn’t attempt to connect Rilke’s poem about desperate emigrants on a ship in Naples to Karen Solie’s poem about a luxury ship in which, as he writes, “the resident passenger proprietors have taken a vow not of poverty but of wealth.” There’s not even much of an attempt to provide “a reading” of each individual poem. Consider the book’s title again: Messing About in Boats. The critic isn’t messing around by boats or even with them; he’s on board, getting his hands dirty in the engine room. Each essay is a master class in close reading, which, like good poetry, must be both patient and restless. Hofmann spends long stretches with micro-level formal effects: Montale’s use of what Hofmann dubs the “continental comma, the comma splice, a hitch to different action,” rather than the semicolon. But, after dwelling with some small grammatical or stylistic detail, Hofmann will suddenly sail off to other seas. A single paragraph on Rimbaud jumps from the poem’s overarching structure to its breaking of traditional French prosody to Robert Lowell holding forth on how Rimbaud “hated meter and syntax” to Kafka’s sense of pain as “a currency” to a line from Samuel Beckett. Elizabeth Bishop, the epistolary recipient of Lowell’s thoughts on Rimbaud, once claimed that writers of Baroque prose sought “to portray, not a thought, but a mind thinking.” That’s exactly what Hofmann’s criticism offers us.

In a previous essay collection, Hofmann described “the way one reads, which is to question, to cross-refer and compare, to doubt, to go behind the back of words, to tap for hollowness and cracks and deadness. One reads not with a vise or glue, but with a hammer and chisel, or an awl. It’s not—or at least not by intention, or not immediately—a consolidating or fortifying activity, but more like looking for safe passage across a frozen river.” Whether or not this is how “one” reads, it’s definitely how Hofmann reads: doubting, tapping, hammering, always looking. No critic working today is better read than Hofmann, and few write with such style and wit.

It’s worth reading Messing About in Boats just for the parentheticals. Of Rimbaud’s agentive bark: “The boat is free, has self-determination, can vote and fight and smoke and drink and marry and leave home. (And the greatest of these is leave home.)” Like Montale, Hofmann uses “the continental comma” to great effect. Here he is on the speaker of Solie’s poem: “He is a cruise-ship explainer, conversant with the details from the brochurage, and a whizz at the style, but like Odysseus and Crispin, or Ahab and Nemo, he is a mental voyager as well, the obnoxious coupon-cutter with added extras, the businessman listening to the good angel perched on his right shoulder—on his left there is a chip.” In his conclusion, Hofmann admits that he hasn’t concluded much. Well, no matter: his style of criticism, just like his style of poetry, isn’t in the business of conclusions. “The principle of Messing About in Boats,” he writes, “is the Schengen principle. It is that poems, and an interest in poems, like goods and services and human beings, should be able to travel freely.”

Messing About in Boats
Michael Hofmann
Oxford University Press
$38.95 | 128 pp.

Anthony Domestico is chair of the English and Global Literatures Department at Purchase College, and a frequent contributor to Commonweal. His book Poetry and Theology in the Modernist Period is available from Johns Hopkins University Press.

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Published in the November 2021 issue: View Contents
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