Propria Persona (Propria Poesia). On the work of Michael Hamburger
'shook hands, as over a vast'
At times a person who speaks two languages may feel an inbetween that is not covered by either of the two languages. From this observation he may find himself equipped with a sharpened sense for an unspeakable zone. This inbetween zone, a kind of nowhere, is wordless and at the same time intensely worldly, blank while at the same time at the center of something, a crisis, a critical silence, a space for instability, a place for change. Although there seems to be nothing there (if one had to use words) this period is very lively, it seems to be active because it is charged with namelessness, it is full of the intensity of not knowing. As soon as more than a single language is present all that appears to be identical and defined comes close to being drawn into a disengaging activity. In that silent center a tree is very different from what we call a tree, a river from what we call a river. A house isn't a house, and a table is not a table. Instead, the individual identity, the individual thing swings open, it loses itself into the wide. The wider this non-identical, unattainable, inestablishable body opens the greater is the ability to link up with and encompass what is other, diverse, rich. Losing and finding turn out be involved in the same movement, they are opposites b e c a u s e they are identical, they are linked by their inbetween zone, i.e. by tension.
A writer who adjusts the performance of his language to that collapse of language will probably always feel he is writing on the verge of not being able to write. This doubt will probably keep that writer from speaking about what is 'here' and 'now', especially the here and now of the truth and the here and now of the self. lf he does choose to speak about the self, it will be the self within nowhere, the immense or silent self, i.e. the identity that is not separated from its opposite but deeply involved in tension. He who has two languages will find that most of what should be said is inbetween the two languages, real because not to be addressed in terms of meaning, coherence, explanation, strangely real, silently real.
When I began to understand Michael Hamburgers writings I found myself being drawn out of bounds, into a kind of justice beyond definite lines. When I first met Michael Hamburger he was so quiet because he was not giving me definite lines. We startet to speak about 'don't stop here', 'look out there', 'travel, as before', 'don't readily trust what is outside the wide gap'. Don't be content; therefore be content. Don't be sure; be sure. Ariel in The Tempest sings of a 'sea-change', a point where two opposite movements meet, a so impressive word, because it covers an ununderstandable expanse; 'sea-change' merges what is momentary with what is almost all there is, turn of the tide and turn of time; the word is so remarkable because it is protected against elegance, against easy operation, against wonderful suitability, an expression cool, harsh, faithless, believable. 'Nothing of him that doth fade, / But doth suffer a sea-change / Into something rich and strange.' I found the lines on Shelleys gravestone in the cimitero acattolico in Rome. Ariel is saying that what is lost and gone (sunken into the sea - Ferdinand's father drowned near an unknown, distant island, Shelley's boat capsized off the coast of La Spezia) will transcend itself, there is a richness beyond what we have in the form of categories. Ariel is saying, wo don't yet know much about richness and strangeness. Ariel of course is not a follower of religion, he is pointing towards reality.
The writer whose impulse to write comes out of a silenceis not in need of prophets and prophecies. The prophet is demanding stability. The prophet addresses the truth to integrate it, ultimately to subordinate it. But the opposite of balance and integration and stability, the opposite of prophecy is praise. To praise is to acknowledge what something is without covering it up, without tormenting it With truth. To praise is to give oneself up - without this double movement, without this splitting, this paradox, we can only speak on the level of agreement, we can only trade our words, language is surrendered to consistency, contingency, language is no longer the open phenomenon, the instant of the opening eye, the unsteady flicker of lights. The unsteady is probably the central aspect with which Michael Hamburger dealt when he wrote the larger surveys of German literature and modern poetry, Reason and Energy, I957, The Truth of Poetry, I969, A Proliferation of Prophets, I983, and After the Second Flood, I986.
Wollen wir uns finden, so dürfen wir nicht in unser Inneres hinabsteigen: draußen sind wir zu finden, draußen. Wie der wesenlose Regenbogen spannt sich unsere Seele über den unaufhaltsamen Sturz des Daseins. Wir besitzen unser Selbst nicht: von außen weht es uns an, es flieht uns für lange und kehrt uns in einem Hauch zurück. Zwar - unser 'Selbst'! Das Wort ist solch eine Metapher. Regungen kehren zurück, die schon einmal früher hier genistet haben. Und sind sies auch wirklich selber wieder? Ist es nicht vielmehr nur ihre Brut, die von einem dunklen Heimatgefühl hierher zurückgetrieben wird? Genug, etwas kehrt wieder. Und etwas begegnet sich in uns mit anderem. Wir sind nicht mehr als ein Taubenschlag.
If we are to find ourselves, we must not descend into our center: outside is where we are, outside. As the transparent rainbow our soul spans the continuous tumble of what is. We do not possess our self: it is blown towards us, it escapes us for long moments, and recovers us in a breath. Yes - our 'self'! How metaphoric the word is. Feelings return that found a shelter here before. But are they really the same as then? Is it not rather what they hatched - driven back here by a dark longing for home. Enough, something is back. And something meets within us with some other. We are but a dove-cote.
This Passage from The Dialogue about Poems, of I903, by Hugo von Hofmannsthal offers a key to what Michael Hamburger is trying to say when he reaches out to analyse and present a literature. A Proliferation of Prophets, where the above Passage is quoted, is not a work with a final conclusion, a summary, a statement of what is valid and can be termed and terminated, it is a search for the unsteady, for the other form of integrity. Gabriel in Hofmannsthal's Dialogue is expressing that intense moment'when the outside reveals a sudden formation and the self dissolves into something rich and strange', into something vast (vastus). I believe all of Michael Hamburgers essays on literature are ways of reflecting on how to speak about reality, how to seek reality. But reality, just as the self, is not manifest. Michael Hamburgers essays are on movement. A Proliferation of Prophets (the title is slightly misleading) is a book about two distinct kinds of literature: a literature that expresses the self, and a literature that loses the self. I find the direction of the book to be very similar to that of many of Michael Hamburgers poems; it arrives at concluding points in a casual way, but the concluding point is not a final point, it is where something begins to open up - something or somebody beyond - for instance a writer like Robert Walser.
A tiny but significant instance occurs in 'Kleist in Thun' (I9I3), one of the works in which Walser seems to forget himself so completely that this need ought to be in abeyance, by wholly merging himself in his subject, so that fact and fiction are one. Yet one Paragraph begins, 'About ten o'clock in the morning, if you like'. The German 'meinetwegen'. is more brutally off-hand, with its suggestion of 'for all I care'. Christopher Middleton's version, 'Possibly about ten oclock in the morning', takes the sting and twist out of that word - clearly because Middleton felt that its self-consciousness could only be damaging in that context. Another intervention of this kinds occurs in (...), 'Sebastian I' (I9I4), where Walser interrupts his story to write: 'Noon is approaching, and we who are writing this would like to finish it before lunch if possible.' If that is funny, it is also disturbing, and the mock-official 'we' adds to the alienation effect. (p. 262)
Robert Walser, I believe, is attacking what one could call power. He introduces components that are out of reach, stylistic cracks, strange anti-systematic particles - yet not to prove his point of view, or any point of view. He reaches down to what is Minute, unspectacular, almost unreal, grey, insignificant, modest, dismissable. In Die Rose / The Rose Walser writes: 'To be frank about it, I am a Chinese, that is to say, a man to whom all that is small and modest seems lovely and delectable, and who is horrified by all that is big and pretentious.' Walser's 'for all I care' is probably one of those highly intense moments in literature that Michael Hamburger is looking for; it is an intensity almost inconceivable and therefore, paradoxically, so great, a Moment of disintegration almost - but disintegration is not that grand Moment that the word may suggest, it is necessarily a very small phenomenon, because it is close to silence. 'For all I care', is an expression of silence.
The writer of the 'non-Chinese' type is Thomas Mann. What Thomas Mann lacked (to be a Chinese) was the capacity to lose himself, to lose track of his designs, to react to something unknown or unsuspected along the way. We have here a work of significance, whereas Walser's literature is something that lies beside significance, off- center.
Once more in A Proliferation of Prophets, Michael Hamburger draws the attention to an even more extreme form of language that speaks beside significance. The last chapter of the book deals with The Dispersion, with the emigration of German and Austrian writers after I933. The dispersion, as Michael Hamburger points out, does not end in I945, because many writers could not decide to return home after the end of National Socialism. One of those who did not return home was Franz Wurm. Wurm had come to England from Prague as a child, he went to a public school and was educated at Oxford. Ho~wever, he chose to write poetry in German, i. e. he chose to write poems 'beside' where he could have written them, to a certain deme he even wrote outside of himself. One of the poems translated by Michael Hamburger (for the anthology German Poetry I9I0 - I975) is VOLL MÜSSEN / FULL OF MUST:
Ein Ort mein Ort vertauschbar ersetzbar wer braucht
Orte wer meinen Ort verlass, ich ihn keiner
Wird ihn erobern Ort nicht zu nehmen warum dann
Fortgehn voll Müssen ein Ort und ein Ausgang
Keinem zuteil Ort namenlos Winkel
Im Auge des Wachseins Ort nichts und hier
Aber Zimmer Sessel Bett Wand Tür und die Klinke
Die Klinke Fortgehn Strasse Wiese Wald Halm Lehm
Ist Bin - Bitte um Zeit
Ist Bin - Bitte um Sein
Ist Bin - Bitte um Ich
Tanzend auf der Spitze des Atems
Auf der Spitze
A place my place interchangeable dispensable who needs
Places who my place if I leave it no one
Will conquer it place not to be occupied why then
Go full of must a place and an exit
Allotted to no one place nameless corner
In the eye the place of wakefulness nothing and here
But room armchair bed wall door and the handle
The handle going street meadow wood blade of grass even clay
Is Am - Beg for time
Is Am - Beg to be
Is Am - Beg for I
Dancing on the needle-point of breath
On the point
The words of this poem are obviously written in great strangeness, they are close to losing the power to name something, to establish relation, they cannot hold onto anything, and there is nothing to be sure about in this poem. Michael Hamburger comments on the poem: 'Personal identity, its grounding, and language - all have ceased to be something given, becoming somethingtbat can be found only by an act of daring, a going away or a plunging into uncertainty.' Place time, presence, and self seem to have become indefinite. Nothing and here are almost identical. A landscape appears in the poem, from room chair bed door wall the movement proceeds to street meadow wood and grass, and the poem cannot offer any quality to hold all these together, the landscape remains strange. Instead of offering synthesis the poem offers high intensity.
Entering uncertainty and intensity: Michael Hamburger has written two big cycles of poems that reflect on place - how to address place, how to not occupy it, how to leave it open and unspoken of, how to find a true relation, a loving relation. Place in these poems also becomes language, words, rhythm, it becomes self, non-self, and diversity. The first cycle Travelling has an underlying structure of losing, not so far away from the above quoted poem by Franz Wurm. The second group of poems finds the identity in continuous movement and continuous arrival. The first lines of Travelling address many places, one of them is in the South of Austria, in Carinthia, a country of high mountains and many lakes:
Mountains, lakes. I have been here before
And on other mountains, wooded
Or rocky, smelling of thyme.
Lakes from whose beds they pulled
The giant catfish, for food,
Larger, deeper lakes that washed up
Dead carp and mussel shells, pearly or pink.
Forests where, after rain,
Salamanders lay, looped the dark moss with gold.
High up, in a glade,
Bells clanged, the cowherd boy
Was carving a pipe.
And I moved on, to learn
One of the million histories,
One weather, one dialect
Of herbs, one habitat
After migration, displacement,
With greedy lore to pounce
On place and possess it,
With the mind's weapons, words,
While between land and water
Yellow vultures, mewing,
Looped empty air
Once filled with the hundred names
Of the nameless, or swooped
To the rocks, for carrion.
This too is a poem that cannot hold on to what it experiences. But it is driven by, a kind of assured hesitation. The poem continuously hesitates, to then add further movement, further details, further experience. Mountains, short pause, lakes, intervall, I have been here before, interruption, and on other mountains, then a specification: wooded, then another interruption, followed by a new detail: or rocky. The poem is sure of not being sure, it drops down the page into further specifying, rhythmical additions. Instead of arriving at, the poem moves on. In Suffolk, the counterpart to Travelling, begins with the lines:
So many moods of light, sky,
Such a flux of cloud shapes,
Cloud colours blending, blurring,
And the winds, to be learnt by heart:
So much movement to make a staying.
Suffolk, the place, in this second group of poems, is not the region, is not what is given and what can be listed or narrated, it is a landscape of suddenness, something for the eye, it becomes so very visible, because in Travelling everything had been so fleeting. The experience of Travelling here finally makes the metamorphosis possible-. the place called Suffolk is a phenomenon made up of glimpses and flashes, it is
not meaningful but instead, literally speaking, visionary. A little later the poem says:
In dull light it was,
In a thaw, after a lifetime of looking
At earth and water, that here,
By the culvert, a kingfisher flew,
Flashing a brightness that seemed
Not of the place, of the day,
Of the season, climate or region;
So brief ly f lashed, to behind
A willow trunk, that no gaze
Would have caught it but for the mind's
Long waiting: the colour, foreknown,
Was in it, kingf isher blue.
And blue again, deeper.
What we have here is the opposite of autobiography. And that opposite is, as the poem suggests, a. 'lifetime of looking' and, belonging to that lifetime, the brief glimpse. Michael Hamburger himself mentions Blaise Pascals concept of 'inifini de petitesse' - another opposite of the idea of autobiography. The sudden moment, the tiny part is able to break through all that is fleeting, it reveals what could be termed as otherness, it is there and not there in the very same instance, appears and withdraws, suggests itself and withholds itself. In Pascal's Pens&s, fragment 72, I find:
Whatever boundary-post we choose to tie ourselves to and to hold on to, not one is fixed, each one slips away and when we follow it we lose hold of it, it slides away and escapes us in a flight with no end. Nothing slows down for our sake. That is the condition we naturally find ourselves in, a situation in all cases entirely the opposite of what we wish; we burn with desire to reach solid ground and a final lasting fundament to build a tower on that will rise into infinity; but all fundaments break and the earth opens deep, as far as the abysses.
It is again while looking at a landscape that Michael Hamburger mentions Pascal's Pensées, not Austria this time, but the South of France, the Provence. But not the landscape is the true reality, reality is only to be found in the 'inifini de petitesse', in the plants, the birds, the lizards, and the snakes. The landscape reveals itself in the scent of earth, flowers, and trees, in the quality of the light in a sudden special moment, in a gust of wind. All these realities cannot be made to last; for someone who does not enjoy walking they can hardly be experienced. Here of course we are very close to paradise, a paradise of no fundaments.
At the end of Michael Hamburger's autobiography A Mug's Game there is a dialogue on how to write' an autobiography. In this dialogue I find what to me seems to be the nucleus of the whole book and what time and again so attracts me when I read Michael Hamburger, be it essay, prose or poem, words casual and calm. One of the two speakers is aware that being a displaced person is a fairly suitable condition to let go of the idea of the self, i. e. to let go of a hallucination; suddenly displacement is a means of disillusioning. Displacement is in fact seen as an intellectual condition that ought to be encouraged and that will prove rewarding. Identity is something one should misplace, lose, forget. In order to finally begin to move - at this point autobiography becomes lucid. To put it in other words: autobiography is what is inbetween the identical units, it is something that moves in a silent zone, touched upon by language only in our self-forgotten moments or in slips of the tongue and the mind, found only by losing it, the propria persona of no one.
What is it that one sees in an epiphany? In the company of Michael Hamburgers writings the answer is that one sees a manisfestation of something silent. Epiphany is an interruption of identity. Epiphany is where there is more than one, where there is tension between two, where there is presence and absence, where there is difference. Epiphany is a proof for difference. It could well be that in a time of great displacement (this century probably is such a time) there is great epiphany, even if it is of the most difficult, terrible kind. I hesitate here, fascinated by what could be a move towards reality, unsure about what might turn out to be a traumatic experience. We are here at the extreme point of loss and arrival.
In one of Michael Hamburger's dream poems I find a similar ambivalence:
It begins near Venice,
A Venice of chasms and pools,
And above a coastline longer than vision
Into a south or east without end.
Always the question is
How far can I walk it
Across what frontiers
Into what vastnesses,
More golden mist,
Woods even denser, darker,
Mountains more mountainous
Above a more dazzling sea.
Always I am detained;
As by this new nation
Who are rarely visited,
Whose nationhood is a cause.
They needed me,
Appealed to my friendship,
Involved me in schemes,
Charged me with missions
To friends whom I never reached.
lf only I could move on
To the wilder, more alien countries
Farther along the road.
Whilst the Venice of this poem remains an uncertain place - the chasms and pools could well be somewhere along the English coast - there exists also a great familiarity in many of Michael Hamburper's poems. In fact his latest book is about something very familiar and close: the trees in his garden at Marsh Acres - the poplar 'that took to the place', the willow fromn which 'my axe rebounds', the beech from the cuttings of which 'fire will draw a joss-stick fragrance' the birch, the yew, the elm, the elder, the hawthorn, the fig, the oak. From each poem in the book there is a wood-engraving, increasing the dimensions of place, privacy, tangibility. In the earlier poem The Glad I find a deep relation to place together with a sense for great operiness. The nowhere is closely, closely connected to the friendliness and familiarity of leafage and shadows, of sorrel, anemone, foxglove, strawberry, apples, pears, and moss. The flowers in the poem and the great silence suddenly become one:
All day in the glare, on the salt Iake's beaches,
All night in a fever, shaking.
That's done with.
My travels are over.
Somehow I'm here: glade in a dense wood.
Leafage makes lace.
The shadows are of it, in it,
The season is everymonth.
White sorrel around me, and white anemone,
Foxglove purple, strawberry red.
Apple shapes, pear shapes have lasted all winter.
And the snow gleams above dry moss.
You don't see it, you cannot see it,
Travelling still to a town the guidebook foretells:
How it is to have gone and returned and gone
And returned and forgotten to go
And forgotten the route and the place
And be there again, and be everywhere.
Stay with me love, till my fingers have traced the landscape
On your body and into your mind.
May we lie there, you ask; and how long.
By the hour, for ever, on a bed leased
From the turning trees and the conifers.
Leaving again and again,
Again and again left
To the dark and the whorled light.
Can you bear the silence between us?
You're of it, love, you are in it.
I fondle the silence between us
When I touch you and when I have lost you.
So late, nothing can part us:
We belong to the glade.
Strangeness and intimacy blend, producing a very special tenderness. But tenderness is only a different expression for disintegration! The poem is not an assembly, its positivism and materialism are of a light weight, there is a strong element of absence; the poem above all seems to be very wide. But with all its non-presence and transparency it is still involved in something that is continuously with us, like the flowers are with us, like the growth of sorrel, anemones, fox gloves and strawberries, the seasons, the weather, snow, rain, sun, day and night, the landscape, and then, inbetween them or within them, the great moments of silence. Everything, and we ourselves, is silence. The glade of the poem is what holds everything together.
Finally Michael Hamburger the translator - of Bobrowski, Büchner, Celan, Goethe, Hofmannsthal, Hölderlin, Huchel, jandl, Rilke, and others. There is, at this stage, no possible conclusion. Michael Hamburger's translation work is not connected with the idea of translating a sub-text, an original text, expressing the inner identity, the center of being. Translation is a means of setting out, it is directed outwards. Setting out means moving away from the present position, moving away from what is valid, acclaimed, in everybody's mind. Peter Huchel in England (as any poet in any place) - that isn't communication, it is a call. Franz Wurm's 'a place my place interchangeable dispensable who needs places' - this isn't an introduction to German literature, it is nothing less than an attack, an invasion from outer space. Mr Spielberg's alien from extraterrestrial worlds is so neighbourly. But who is it so close to our heart and. so alien?
In William Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale I find that great break of continuity again that I have been writing about here. It is first of all a topographical break, the Bohemia of the play is on the North African coast, not far from Sicily. It is also a break in the friendship between the kings of Bohemia and Sicily. And, in the words of Leontes at the very end of the play, the break ist also this wide gap of time'. The entire play takes places in a gap, i. e., if one were to change the level of this word, it takes place in a chasm, in the void, in an unfilled space, in an intervall. Ingeborg Bachmann has written a poem on the quality of this Shakespearean 'gap', it is a poem about the utmost losing, but also on the moment of being present. Ingeborg Bachmann's comment on Shakespeare's play is titled Böhmen liegt am Meer / Bohemia Is on the Sea (but the German word for Sea - Meer - sounds like Moravia):
Sind hierorts Häuser grün, tret ich noch in ein Haus.
Sind hier die Brücken heil, geh ich auf gutem Grund.
Ist Liebesmüh in alle Zeit verloren, verlier ich sie hier gern
Bin ich's nicht, ist es einer, der ist so gut wie ich.
Grenzt hier ein Wort an mich, so laß ich's grenzen.
Liegt Böhmen noch am Meer, glaub ich den Meeren wieder
Und glaub ich noch ans Meer, so hoffe ich auf Land.
Bin ich's, so ist's ein jeder, der ist soviel wie ich.
Ich will nichts mehr für mich. Ich will zugrunde gehn.
Zugrund - das heißt zum Meer, dort find ich Böhmen wieder.
Zugrund gerichtet, wach ich ruhig auf.
Von Grund auf weiß ich jetzt, und ich bin unverloren.
Kommt her, ihr Böhmen alle, Seefahrer, Hafenhuren und Schiffe
unverankert. Wollt ihr nicht böhmisch sein, Illyrer, Veroneser,
und Venezianer alle. Spielt die Komödien, die lachen machen
Und die zum Weinen sind. Und irrt euch hundertmal,
wie ich mich irrte und Proben nie bestand,
doch hab ich sie bestanden, ein um das andre Mal.
Wie Böhmen sie bestand und eines schönen Tags
ans Meer begnadigt wurde und jetzt am Wasser liegt.
Ich grenz noch an ein Wort und an ein andres Land,
ich grenz, wie wenig auch, an alles immer mehr,
ein Böhme, ein Vagant, d er nichts hat, den nichts hält,
begabt nur noch, vom Meer, das strittig ist, Land meiner Wahl
Are these houses green, I once more enter a house.
Are these bridges safe, to walk I have good ground.
All loving effort lost for ever, I lose it happily.
lf not I myself then someone else as good as I.
lf here a word adjoins to me, I let it join.
If Bohemia lies still on the sea, I believethe seas.
And if I believe in the sea, I still can hope for land.
lf it's I myself it's everyone just as much as I.
I have no wishes any more. I wish to run aground.
Aground - towards the sea, to find Bohemia.
Wrecked, I wake up peacefully.
I have grounded my belief and shall be lost no longer.
Come here, you from Bohemia, sailors, whores, and ships
without a staying. Won't you be Bohemians, you Illyrians, Veronese
Venetians. Play those comedies to make us laugh
Before we cry. Go wrong a hundred times
as I went wrong and always failed examinations,
yet I passed them all, each and every time.
Passed them like Bohemia which one fine day
was relieved down to the sea and now lies on the shore.
Still I adjoin to a word and to another country,
and ever more adjoin to all there is however slightly,
Come from Bohemia here, a vagrant, who has nothing, whom nothing keeps,
gifted with vision to see from the sea-struggle land of my choise.
The poem is closing in on something almost unbearable. But the unbearable is the only sea from which any kind of land comes into sight. This sea-bound, land-bound travel is the great movement of the poem. In this movement the unbearable becomes the unborn(e), it becomes light and wide and immaterial, sustaining nothing. In a way the poem is a praising and an overthrowing of desperation. - The desperation in Shakespeare's A Winter's Tale is a desperation about the structure of time, but also a praise of The Triumph of Time (the sub-title of Robert Greene's romance Pandosto which Shakespeare's comedy is based on). The tremendous breach in The Winter's Tale, the topographical disruption in the play, the I6 years time leap, the collision of worlds, in short: the disturbance of identity introduces the element of the other into the play. The homogeneousness of 'the day tomorrow as to-day', the 'boy eternal', the changing of 'innocence for innocence' are interrupted. The 'frisking in the sun' is challenged by a winter-reality. Throughout the play identity is provoked by transition. Unity is lead far out into the open, into the 'wide gap of time' at the end of The Winter's Tale. The very last words, spoken by Leontes, then are: 'hastily lead away' - a moment of metamorphosis of what has happended throuizhout the entire action of the play, almost a moment of displacement.
When recently I read about language-centered writing and displacement and avant-garde in the Times Literary Supplement and then in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung about the 'crisis of linearity' caused by 'decentralized thinking', I didn't agree. I think there exists a continuity of displacement throughout literature, a continuity and presence of real seconds beneath all historical statements " a history of seconds. In Michael Hamburger's work I find the real seconds, working lightly.
Vienna, March I989
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