Month: May 2008

13. ‘An extended passport application’ – the poetry of Michael Hofmann

Michael Hofmann
“It’s almost as though my poetry is an extended passport application… It’s an attempt to be naturalized. I think I’ve failed to be naturalized and therefore there is this German residue about things. It’s something I feel haunted by…”

I’m delighted that the first poet to appear on Podularity is Michael Hofmann. I’ve known Michael for several years and greatly admire his work as a translator, but his poetry has been a comparatively recent – and very pleasurable – discovery for me.

George Szirtes, reviewing Michael’s Selected Poems in the Guardian recently, said of his work:

‘A Michael Hofmann poem is now a rare, strange, much valued item. Strange because, at first glance, many of the poems seem no more than frayed notes concerning a mood between depression and despair; but then something in that fraying catches at you, either some odd shift in register, or maybe just a sense that as your eyes are blithely passing over the words suddenly a hole has opened up beneath them and you are falling through the language, into a world of cries.’

Selected PoemsIn the programme we talk about Michael’s relationship with the German and English languages and how he moves between the two; his relationship with his late father, the German novelist, Gert Hofmann, which forms the explicit or implicit subject matter of much of his poetry: ‘these two men meet up to divide the world between them and this is how it goes: my father gets prose in German and I get poetry in English, and we each go away feeling happy’ and his fondness for depicting interiors, which in his poetry appear as ‘one’s exoskeleton, the place where one hangs one’s trophies or displays one’s wounds’.

In the course of the podcast he also reads several pieces from his recently published Selected Poems.

12. A Chinese character

T. H. Barrett
“I think the burning question is: we think of printing as having revolutionized intellectual life in Europe, how come it doesn’t appear to have revolutionized intellectual life in China? There’s no great fanfare when it arrives. It seems to creep in and people don’t talk about it much for quite a long time. That was the problem I was trying to address overall.”

This week I’ve been at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London to see Professor of East Asian History, Tim Barrett. It was the title of Tim’s recent book – The Woman Who Discovered Printing – which made me keen to meet him. After all, most of us have grown up with the idea that printing was invented in medieval Germany by Gutenberg. In fact, Tim’s book shows that printing was already well-established in China many centuries before Gutenberg, and that Europeans had probably seen eastern wood-block type at a period when they were too far behind China technologically speaking to make use of it.

Woman who discovered printing book jacket

Perhaps our difficulty in the West with acknowledging the great advance the Chinese had over us (cultural prejudice aside) is how very different the story of printing looks from China. The woman in Tim’s story, for example, is not a artisan or a scientist, but Empress Wu, the only woman to rule China single-handed in its long history.

And her interests in the fledgling craft of printing around 700CE was stimulated not by a desire to spread knowledge, but to reinforce her own position. You can hear how she did that and how Tim has pieced together the evidence in the podcast.

In the programme, we touch on the possible impact of climate change on the development of printing and the role of Buddhist texts which were never meant to be read. You can also hear about the impression (if you’ll pardon the pun) made in the history books by one Gong the Sage, who, with his magic inks and words which appeared on paper when he blew on it, may be the very first printer in recorded history…

Reading Tim’s book provided me with a list of further titles I wanted to track down. Here is my personal selection:

Elizabeth Eisenstein: The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe

Blake Morrison: The Justification of Johann Gutenberg

John Hobson: The Easten Origins of Western Civilisation