Reading with others, Nelson Wattie

Dem Dichter des Lesens: Gedichte für Paul Hoffmann: von Ilse Aichinger bis Zhang Zao
Ed Hansgerd Delbrück
Attempto Verlag, Tübingen, DM39.90,
ISBN 3 89308 261 1

In a review of this book for the Swiss Neue Zurcher Zeitung, Angelika Overath remarked: “The editor, Hansgerd Delbrück, head of the school of modern european languages at the university in Wellington, conceived of the book in New Zealand, in cooperation with Wolfgang Zwierzynski in Tübingen. The New Zealand poets, unknown here and translated for the first time, should be something of a minor sensation. ‘A slightly plumpish lady, who is reading / fiction, raises a small umbrella, / a blue inverted saucer with a skeleton- /ship ribbing, not taking for a moment /her eyes from the book as splotching rain // pelts first the chairback, then splays out / to the pages of her novel…’ This is the beginning  of ‘Keep Telling the Artist’ by the astonishing Vincent O’Sullivan, translated into German by the no less astonishing young Felix Delbrück.”

How is it possible? A student at Victoria University of Wellington translating a poem by the professor of English into German and having it published in Tübingen? And other New Zealand poets — Lauris Edmond, Koenraad Kuiper, Bill Manhire, Alex Scobie — rubbing verses alphabetically with some of the most distinguished living central European poets, to say nothing of Spanish, French, Dutch, Romagnolo, Japanese and Chinese ones. None of it would have been possible without the man to whom this volume is dedicated, Paul Hoffmann, an Austrian intellectual, a New Zealand farmer, a professor in Wellington and Tübingen and a lover of poetry and of his fellow human creatures.

In a long essay in this book, an “intellectual autobiography” (to use the term of another Austrian-New Zealand refugee, Karl Popper), Hoffmann tells of his discovery of poetry through the Latin mass when he was a child, his exploration of Latin secular poetry in his early adolescence, his simultaneous absorption in the ancient world and that of modern poetry, the doctoral dissertation that he had completed at the age of 21 but could not submit because of his exile from Vienna, the 12 years spent as a farmer on the family property near Auckland (working manually 12 hours a day, reciting and mulling over his huge treasury of remembered poems, studying at night to complete his MA at Auckland University), the return to Vienna to submit a second doctoral dissertation (on the German poet Karl Wolfskehl, whom he had come to know in Auckland), the appointment in the early 1960s as lecturer and then professor of German at Victoria University and, in 1969, the appointment to a chair at one of the greatest German universities, in Tübingen. He writes above all of his life-long meditation on “das Dichterische” — the poetic quality — and the essay tells the story of his growing and maturing understanding of that quality. As we read, the mystery of the term shifts into clear reality for him and therefore for us.

Those of us who were privileged to study with Paul Hoffmann at Victoria owe our understanding of what a poem is primarily to him. The editor of this book says the same of those who studied with him in Tübingen. For me the revelation came in 1962 when Paul read the “Abendlied” of Matthias Claudius aloud, then pointed out the pattern of its sounds (the way “goldnen” in the second line echoes the vowel of “Mond” in the first; the transformation to a parallel but profoundly different echo in “Wald” and “schwarz” in the fourth line and all that means for the movement of music and meaning in the words…) and then re-read it. The excitement was repeated again and again — I will never forget the analysis of Rilke’s “Der Panther” nor, consequently, the poem itself. For me no reading of any poem since — in whatever language — has been uncoloured by the experience of those lectures.

Victoria University was a very different place when Paul was one of its professors: academic values were more important than financial ones; human warmth more greatly appreciated than managerial skills. The difference can be sensed in the architecture. The German department was then in a friendly old house on Kelburn parade. Paul was delighted with his tiny, sun-porch office and its adjacent garden and he conducted his classes in the slightly larger living-room next door.

If a class was due to take an hour Paul taught for two or three, enriching every minute with his wide-ranging mind. When we had a Monday class, he would say that he could not possibly get through the material if we had to take Queen’s Birthday or Labour Day off and, with the enthusiastic consent of the entire class, we would meet on holidays too, not wanting to miss more of Paul’s company than we needed to.

That house has disappeared and in its place is the von Zedlitz building, where pale, over-strained people spend the entire year without exchanging a word with each other, where the design of the building encourages one to rush along corridors, brushing wordlessly past vaguely familiar faces and disappear into an office. Of course there are clocks on every floor — and woe betide the lecturer who goes over time!

Yet even in that finer, more sensitive environment Hoffmann stood out. To say that his academic accomplish-ments, especially the astonishing range of his knowledge and his natural teaching skills, set him apart even from his most worthy colleagues is still to underestimate him. What distinguished him most was his sense of humanity and his academic qualities grew from that rather than the reverse. When he wanted a motto for the Wellington Goethe Society he had founded, he chose “Humanitas”; his inaugural lecture at Victoria was on “The Human in Modern German Literature”.

But he did not merely talk about this elusive quality: he demonstrated it, radiated it, lived it — and he still does. One need spend only a few minutes with Paul and Eva in their gracious living room in Tübingen — New Zealand books are a permanent part of its contents — and one is again transported into a world where things of the mind are of constant value — but no more so than things of the heart.

Things of the senses are precious too: when I last visited them in their Tübingen home, two years ago, I brought a bottle of New Zealand wine and as the hours sped by in a wide-ranging conversation on the memories, the books and the values we shared, Paul sat holding the bottle and setting it down, caressing it quietly and delicately, savouring with his hands this product of his other home. It is this devotion to the full range of what life has to offer, whether it be a beautiful abstract concept or a shapely tactile object, that is the essence of the humanity that both surrounds and emanates from Paul and no less from Eva. Most of all is the need to cherish and care for the delicate, fragile, vulnerable region that binds the sensory and the abstract. This constant effort is what combines the human quality with the poetic quality.

But there is another major dimension to “the poetic quality” as defined by Hoffmann in his essay and in his life. Poetry is profoundly subversive. This is not a matter of what it says — a common misunderstanding in Germany, where since the 1960s Rilke has been underestimated by young readers in favour of Brecht. It is a matter of how it says it. By preserving, revealing and using a vast range of potentiality in language, turning it indeed from the potential into the actual, poetry undermines the common uses of language, revealing them as shallow and ultimately impotent.

All successful poems — by no means just the most complex ones, but simple folk-songs, or comic dialect verses too — use language in ways that make the language of public speakers and wielders of power look clumsy and shallow. Hoffmann loves the poems of Brecht, not only for their political statements but even more for their revolution in language, their “deep structure” which is much more profoundly subversive than their “surface structure”. This is why he can equally or even more powerfully love the poems of apparently hermetic symbolist poets, such as Mallarmé and Stephan George. In the classroom more than 30 years ago Hoffmann explained the sheer audacity of George’s apparently harmless line, “Komm in den totgesagten park und schau”, and in the present essay he does so again, subtly and eloquently. His understanding of “the poetic quality” has grown and developed but has also remained true to itself.

Now Paul Hoffmann has turned 80 — he remarks wistfully that he is older than Karl Wolfskehl was when they met in Auckland. In Tübingen friends and students crowded the large lecture theatre, some sitting in the aisles, to celebrate the man and his birthday: in the evening students formed a trail and garland of candles like that of the Indian lover in “The English Patient”. In Wellington the occasion was celebrated too: the Adam Concert Room rang with poems in German, French, Italian, Romagnolo, Chinese, Japanese and English. This double “multicultural” celebration at opposite sides of the globe was the appropriate form for a man who sees “the poetic quality” as something universal though expressed with intense individuality and uniqueness in each poem.

This book is in the same spirit. A “festschrift” is conventionally a collection of learned, highly academic essays — like the one Paul’s friends gave him for his seventieth birthday under the editorship of Hansgerd Delbrück. Paul said he wanted no such gift for his eightieth, so Delbrück decided to do something different — to make an international collection of poems, many of them personally dedicated to Paul Hoffmann.

The fresh octogenarian was so delighted (when the secret was finally revealed) that he added his wonderful essay to the book — another unconventional step. The result is that one can leaf from the essay to the poems and back, the poems illuminating what the essay says of “the poetic quality” and the essay opening up ways to read the poems. The modest elegance of the book production matches its contents perfectly and there are many surprises as one turns the pages: handwritten Chinese and Japanese characters framing European poems and pictures drawn by Ernst Jandl and Christoph Meckel — two of the greatest living European poets — to illustrate their contributions.

Jandl, who combines comedy, eccentricity and experiment with more profundity than we mere mortals deserve, is matched by his companion of many years (though they live painfully, self-mockingly apart), Friederike Mayröcker, who contributes a frank and ruthless self-protrait called “clusters, für Paul Hoffmann”. These two, with Ilse Aichinger, represent the best of Paul’s contemporaries from his Austrian home. The five New Zealand poets represent his antipodean home and there are many more from his German home.

Hoffmann’s ultimate home seems to be the international world of poetry itself. Altogether there are more than 70 voices in the book (including the translators — an important inclusion for Hoffmann) speaking the universal language of poetry in a large variety of local and individual versions. It is precisely this seamless blend of universality and individuality that makes this work so worthy of its “onlie begetter”.

The book opens and ends with moving statements. Aichinger begins — by alphabetical coincidence — with a sentence that sounds truly Hoffmannesque: “The place of a poem is defined by silence.” Paul has taught us that the silence which exists before the poem begins and to which it returns is an essential part of its structure. Each poem has its own characteristic silence.

In a social sense silence was gigantic in New Zealand. Once Paul commented on people who regretted the absence of “culture” in New Zealand by asking: “Do you think you are isolated here with your musical and literary interests? What do you think it is like for me?” It was a rare moment of self-revelation; usually one learned about him more indirectly, through what he said about the words of others. This most sociable of men and his lavishly hospitable wife were always surrounded by friends, yet isolated as well.

During the past 10 years the readings and seminars which Paul Hoffmann has organised in the “Hölderlin Tower” in Tübingen have drawn poets from all over Germany and beyond. In discussions about poems and with poets under his gentle chairmanship participants have learned to penetrate deeper and deeper into “the poetic quality”. This book concludes with the last sentence of Paul Hoffmann’s essay: “After I had been alone with poems for many years, the happiness of reading with others was granted me.” Friends of Paul Hoffmann all over the world will wish that happiness to continue for many years.

Nelson Wattie is preparing a translation of Karl Wolfskehl’s New Zealand letters for publication in 1998, the fiftieth year since Wolfskehl’s death. 

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