Sunday, June 15, 2008

14. Marvin Gaye - Michael Hofmann

The next seven entries on Michael Hofmann’s Selected Poems will be from the Corona, Corona (1993) section. The first few poems are very interesting, but I can’t cover everything. I’m going to kick off with Marvin Gaye. It gives the illusion of prosy reportage, but it’s not really.

The poem is written in unrhymed tercets. Each stanza contains a few facts about Gaye, some background facts, a little information (“Including duets, he had fifty-five chart entries.”), and so on. But the more ordinary facts are juxtaposed with some quite strange ones, everything in the same flat tone. So we learn that Gaye’s life “followed the rhythm of albums and tours,” but also that “He thought there was another word for ‘virgin’ that wasn’t ‘eunuch’,” a weird detail for a poem which appears to be setting out the significant facts of someone’s life.

The effect is unsettling. The poem effectively coveys the idea of a strange individual, of madness, and when we learn that “In Ostend he felt the eyes of the Belgians on him,” his paranoia is no surprise. The distancing effected in the final line – “A dog collar shot a purple dressing-gown, twice” (Gaye was killed by his clergyman father) – continues (shockingly) the flat tone used to describe Gaye’s life.

Plain style, a deliberate flatness, is often used in contemporary poetry, but sometimes the poems are really little more than prose narratives cut up into lines. I mean, they are poems, but I often think they could have been written far better. I write such poems myself at times and you can see them splashed all over current literary magazines, but I’m not often satisfied with the results - either the ones I write or the ones I read.

However, here, the flatness works really well. The emotionless reporting of facts, the way no single detail appears more important or relevant than another, is chilling.

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