In today’s world, which Michael Hofmann describes as “blogal and instant and on demand,” where it seems we are all trying to consume as much content as quickly as possible, Where Have You Been? feels almost novel. These 30 essays—which focus mainly on 20th-century poets, but also visual art, film, prose writers, and some thoughts on translation—can in no way be read quickly or easily. Rather, Hofmann, who cares deeply about poetry, has created highly intelligent and passionate essays that are thoughtful, methodical, and intense investigations of art.
Where Have You Been?: Selected Essays
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014)
In his introduction, Hofmann offers up this collection as “a baroque convenience, a vade mecum, a few more connections, a few more lines, a further wrinkle of mapping.” This book certainly is baroque, most essays running much longer than anything you might find published online for breezy reading. In fact, some of Hofmann’s sentences run longer than your average blog post. But this seems to be his goal—to give us an essay we have to chew on for a while, his multi-clause sentences and obscure and antiquated diction all in the service of thought. That is, you have to work a little.
And that’s okay. Actually, it is beautifully fitting. Poetry, after all, should take some time, so why not also writing about poetry? Hofmann is a poet himself, as well as a translator and critic. It is safe to say that he has spent and spends most of his time thinking about, writing about, or creating literature. The prose in these essays is rich with image-laden similes. For example, he brilliantly likens the ordinariness and predictability of other poets, in comparison to Elizabeth Bishop, to “cellophane packs of cigarettes from a vending machine.” Although, occasionally you find a sentence that would hit harder and clearer without the added clause(s), or a sentiment or opinion that would feel less precious without the exclamation point. (All of the exclamation points seem to insist on an inscrutable inside joke.)
The first half of the essays, which begin mostly as reviews of poets or books of correspondence exchanged between poets, do much more than critique. Rather, they expound upon the current state of poetry. Hofmann’s disdain for the genre’s contemporaneity is evident throughout the collection, from his mostly 20th-century subjects to his content. For instance, he says that during Robert Lowell’s time, “poetry still belonged in every well-stocked library and mind.” In some ways, this book seems to be a kind of formal complaint, a plea for more “well-stocked minds” to return to the form. Although, he does identify one saving grace in the contemporary poet Karen Solie, who according to Hofmann “is indeed the one by whom language lives.” Even Hofmann’s writing seems somehow livelier throughout this essay; it makes me want to rush out and buy her collections immediately.
And yet, despite the lovely language and interesting commentary, after the seventh or tenth or fifteenth essay, Hofmann’s style begins to feel somewhat formulaic. He is a great user of lists, for example, and tends to begin each essay by spending a paragraph introducing the writer, and then another paragraph or two (or three or four) accounting for that writer’s every literary accomplishment, often in one long, multi-clause sentence. While he is thorough, this formula becomes a bit tiresome over the course of the book. But this simply reinforces Hofmann’s purpose in the first place—this book as a tool, something a scholar of John Berryman or a lover of Bishop might turn to in a time of need. In other words, perhaps Where Have You Been? isn’t the best choice for recreational reading, but rather for the serious student of poetry. Although, even this has a caveat.
While the essays collected here are fervently written, there is something about them—perhaps once they are all stacked on top of one another in a collection—that is unsettling. The problem I have is that the majority of the essays collected here focus on white male writers. While I don’t generally investigate every book I read for racial or gender bias, I think in the current literary (and political) climate, it is impossible not to notice. Hofmann’s subjects, it should be noted, do span the globe. But I think this book is an example of how the critic can at times create the canon. And this canon happens to be, perhaps unwittingly, whitewashed.
I was talking to a friend about the book and my problem with it and he said, “But aren’t the majority of 20th-century poets white guys?” While this is anecdotal evidence, I think his comment proves my point. The relationship between critic and writer is cyclical, meaning a critic can make (or break) a writer, who then becomes more (or less) critically acclaimed. Beyond that, a critic can even, as we see here, create a perception of an entire period of writing. So whom a critic chooses to write about becomes very important. And it isn’t that Berryman or Lowell or Hughes aren’t great poets. They obviously are. But when they are collected into a book like this, a book written by a white male poet, it becomes a kind of echo chamber. It makes you ponder the critic’s authority, perhaps unnecessarily. Throughout the course of this book I found myself asking: why should I take your word for it? You have a clear bias. It seems to me that any critic writing today has a responsibility to explore diverse voices, no matter what period they are writing about.
All this to say that yes, I have some qualms with Hofmann’s roster, but this book does offer really interesting commentary about poetry. (For me, the two best essays here are on Bishop and Solie, the two women who do make the cut, so perhaps I am the biased one. As Hofmann says, “We are all contaminated.”) He consistently makes valuable, apt observations. Of Bishop’s poetry he writes, “She seems to be continually revising for a closer approach to the truth.” And Hofmann also seems to be writing toward a sort of truth, in his case a truth that has to do with the value of art. He takes the time to understand not only the poem but also the poet, and after 30 essays, one thing is clear: his goal is seemingly to explicate the poem’s existence in the first place. And though these essays may take some work to get through, it is a refreshing return to thoughtful, analytical reading.