Wednesday, June 25, 2008

22. Cheltenham - Michael Hofmann

Cheltenham recounts the story of a literary festival at which MH’s translation of his father’s book is being read by his mother. The poem starts with his elderly parents shuffling round the main square to the festival venue. The town is gloomy, an “old folks town.”

Ted Hughes is in the audience and afterwards asks MH’s father if he has ever “like an Innuit/ dreamed of his own defeat and death.” The next stanza is a classic:

My father, who’s heard some questions, but never anything
like this, doesn’t know Ted Hughes,
perhaps hears ‘idiot’, gives an indignant no
in his miraculously clear English.

The poem ends with the short November day coming to an end with a “grumpy early night.”

I suppose this poem was partly a vehicle for MH to tell this memorable literary anecdote, but the way he frames the poem does get to the heart of his father’s grumpiness, which was also the root of genuine humour. There’s some very good writing in this poem, especially in the first two stanzas.

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