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Michael Hofmann - Changes


Birds singing in the rain, in the dawn chorus,
on power lines. Birds knocking on the lawn,
and poor mistaken worms answering them ...

They take no thought for the morrow, not like you
in your new job. - It paid for my flowers, now
already stricken in years. The stiff cornflowers

bleach, their blue rinse grows out. The marigolds
develop a stoop and go bald, orange clowns,
straw polls, their petals coming out in fistfuls ...

Hard to take you in your new professional pride -
a salary, place of work, colleagues, corporate spirit -
your new femme d'affaires haircut, hard as nails.

Say I must be repressive, afraid of castration,
loving the quest better than its fulfilment.
- What became of you, bright sparrow, featherhead?

poem by Michael Hofmann
republished with permission of the author
first published in The New Yorker
from Acrimony (Faber, 1986)

I've loved Hofmann's poetry since I first came across an old copy of what I still think his best collection, Acrimony, some years ago. Despite frequent comparisons to Robert Lowell, he strikes me as a remarkably original poet, something I tried to get at in this critical piece on his work. I'd agree with what A B Jackson once said on Rob Mackenzie's Surroundings too: that, simply and often brilliantly, with Hofmann's brand of 'plain style' poetry "you get a real sense of that definition of a poet as one who makes Good Choices, out of all the thousands of possible ones: [...] that knack of hitting the right nail."

'Changes', the poem published above, is from Acrimony, and is also included in Hofmann's Selected Poems, published by Faber last year and something I'd highly recommend to those not familiar with his work. In his review of the book on Tower Poetry, here's what poet-critic Simon Pomery had to say about the poem:

'Changes' is a portrait of a lady in the time of Thatcher, comparable to the fearless but hopeless Marlene of Caryl Churchill's Top Girls. It illustrates how the ideology of an age impacts upon the individual. Here is a tercet:

'Hard to take you in your new professional pride -
a salary, place of work, colleagues, corporate spirit -
your new femme d'affaires haircut, hard as nails.'

Satire leaks through the use of plosives. There is a latent invective spit in those clipped p's, the world of fast tracks and grad schemes, of 'corporate' 'colleagues', is exposed as worthless, the invective articulated through cussing c's. The phrase 'corporate spirit' draws attention to the genius below the surface of the quotidian: its Latinate prefix, 'cor-', means heart, 'corporate spirit' is oxymoronic, and the heartlessness of the beloved's Thatcherite uniform is exposed for what it is: on the surface she looks 'hard as nails', but beneath it her heart has shrunk to nothing. Hofmann's final lyrical query 'What became of you/ bright sparrow, featherhead?', laments the road taken to the office, to profit for its own sake.

A good reading of the poem I'd say - 'Changes' is one of my favourite Hofmann poems exactly because it so well exemplifies his ability to address something personal, emotional and detailed while also making deft social commentary and wider observations about the age. It's something he also does effectively in the many poems about his father, and in poems detailing foreign travel (particularly in a third book, Corona, Corona).

I'll also link, before I have to get on with some work, to this excellent new poem, 'Cricket', published in a recent(ish) issue of Chicago's Poetry magazine. "Did I say it was raining, and the forecast was for more rain? // Riveting. A way, at best, for the English / to read their newspapers out of doors, and get vaguely shirty / or hot under the collar about something." Spot on.