Sunday, June 01, 2008

1. White Noise - Michael Hofmann

Here’s my first NaPoReMo post. The basic idea is to read a poetry collection this month and comment on individual poems through each day of the month. The difficulty, as some have pointed out, is to write something worth reading for readers who don’t have the poem in front of them. That difficulty, of course, is precisely the challenge! Not easy, I know, and I’m sure I will sometimes succeed only in boring the pants off readers. The entries won’t be long though. I’ll try to compile a link-list of those taking part over the next day or two.

I’ve chosen Selected Poems by Michael Hofmann.

The opening poem, White Noise, is a real cracker. The poem’s subject, an unknown “you”, spends every day in his “monochrome room” with only the crackling of a radio, the “pre-war drone” of his vacuum cleaner, and awful music, for company. No surprises ever break into his routine. He still needs his daily vitamin pills though! But for what?

The poem could easily have drifted into maudlin depression, but doesn't, due to wicked black humour and originality of description. And also, a dramatic shift at the end whereby this man who operates his vacuum cleaner becomes the one swept into a corner of the room as “a pile of leaves.” Modern-day life conveyed as hedgehog existence.

To find a favourite line in this one takes some doing, as there are so many great lines, but this appealed to me:

“You hoover twice a week, and in my eyes
that amounts to a passion for cleanliness.”


Ben Wilkinson said...

Interesting that you should choose Hofmann's Selected, Rob, as I'm writing a critical perspective of his work at the moment. I agree, 'White Noise' is an excellent poem and one of the most arresting - and perhaps best - in his first collection.

Hope you enjoy the rest over the coming month.


Anonymous said...

I think my favourite bit is:

The jungle and the platitudes of sentiment
battle it out with technology ..

'Jungle' is such a surprising word, here. I doubt it's a reference to drum & bass, since that didn't roll around till the early 90s (I think).

Perhaps the word grows out of "that thrilling concerto for nose-flute" ... something a bit rain-forest-y maybe? That new age Sounds of the Amazon lark?

It sits at odds with the description of the guy's spartan room in the first stanza, with its 'single white rose', and all the elements of habit and control this guy possesses: the regularity of his routines, the limited repertoire played seemingly compulsively.

And that "thrilling" concerto ... I can't decide (and maybe don't want to) whether the narrator is being sarcastic here, or whether, in its own way, it actually is thrilling. Or perhaps trilling (which is how I mis-read it the first time).

So yeah, a wonderful portrait of a down-at-heel muso ... but not down & out, totally: still enraptured and blown away by the music .. whether drug-induced or not. Perhaps a victim of excess.

And in the end, you don't feel Hofmann is passing judgement on the character in any way.