When I was in Germany in 2011 someone asked me about Michael Hamburger, who died in 2007. I had a firm idea that his poetry wasn’t very good but was aware I hadn’t read very much of his work. Rosvita was convinced he was a really important modern English poet, and I was embarrassed about it. This followed W.G. Sebald’s book which had a long account of a visit to Hamburger in East Suffolk, and a German TV programme which followed Sebald. In 2014 I took a few minutes off from a poetry weekend at Birkbeck to go shopping and found a copy of Hamburger’s 1973 selected poems. Conclusion? I still don’t think it’s very good.
Hamburger was born into a Jewish family in Berlin in 1924 and was able to escape to England in 1933, with his immediate family. The fate of the Jewish community in Germany made ’survivors’ guilt’ likely to feature in his self-awareness. His grasp of German was that of a native but his grasp of English language and culture was also that of a native. I don’t know whether he could write poems in German, but it is obvious that he had all the English you need and that the style of his poems is not related to having limited English.
We can clear the ground by saying what his poems achieve. They present a complete picture in which the existential state of the poet writing them embodies their whole relationship with geography, other humans, and feelings, and in which every detail of the poems reflects this fundamental condition. All parts of the poetry sustain the other parts, and as we read more of it we travel deep into this fundamental condition. It is a poetry which explains modem history by going steadily into specifically modern states of mind. The theme is in fact of not feeling at home anywhere, of leaving a place and not arriving - emotionally - in a new place. This condition is a clearance of attachments which may open the way to new lands, but in itself it is depressing - we feel it as loss. The poems move from scene to scene but the scenes have no point unless to say that this is not where you can live and be.
The clearance might be of national socialist feelings but as I read it I relate it more to the emptying of imperialist fantasies and accepting a Britain with no Empire. The poems have that elevation which allows them to symbolise different things.
‘In a Cold Season’, from a 1969 volume, evokes a concentration camp bureaucrat (Eichmann) and the murder of his grandmother. It is a remarkable poem in its rigorously external technique and its patience in evoking the deskbound murderer who abolished people without even hating them. It is hard to take. That demonstrates its adequacy.
His poetry is artistic, all the parts of a poem are integrated to a given purpose; he was a reflexive writer - capable of absorbing the ambient literary ideas and creating sophisticated poetry out of a dialogue with the contemporary. The conventional view would be that a period of commitment of literary figures (1929-50?) was followed by an existentialist period where they explored ‘existential positions’ which were often depressing in colouration, and that this was followed (after 1960 or 1965) by a phase of hedonism - when books are designed to give pleasure and are about pleasure in life, with a radically reduced level of significance, in the sense of offering generalisations about the human condition. ‘Ownerless Earth’ belongs to the postulated existential period. It makes us long for hedonistic poetry, which appeals to the artistic sense and creates new areas of sensibility. In the period 1939-60 (roughly) Europe went through poverty caused by war, where not through death and the fear of death caused by war. It was not a good time to be alive. It may well be that poetry had to reflect that. Hamburger’s poetry is steeped in experience and recovers a time of low consumption - ’forced saving’ during post-war reconstruction. It has the quality of authenticity to a high degree. It is a story that actually happened.
Yvan Goll wrote, even in the 1930s, a sequence called ‘Jean sans-terre’, John Lackland, which was about the situation of someone whose home had been taken over by dictatorship. Goll wrote it in French but had earlier written poems in German. The concept is the same as for Hamburger’s poetry. Again, the problem is that the poems in ‘Jean sans-terre’ don’t go anywhere, the basic situation does not evolve. The idea is to teach us ‘this is how it is to be displaced’. I am glad that Hamburger did not write from the emotional situation of an eight year old, before he lost his family. Important as that might be, an act of memory of what deserved to be remembered, he renounced it and this climbing out of nostalgia and regression is part of his artistic message: you don’t own the past, along with not owning the earth. In view of Goll’s book (which I don’t think anyone reads any more), we have to ask about the ultimate originality of ‘Ownerless Earth’. There is no comparable book in English poetry.
‘Jean sans terre’ is about rootlessness - but it is not open in the sense that each new poem is full of new possibilities. To present authenticity, it is very predictable - every poem is about the same inescapable situation. The idea of ‘travelling’ would also be compatible with radical inventiveness, not clinging to a preset poem design but discovering the new form as you went along.
The centrepiece of the Selected is ‘Travelling’, fourteen pages about not belonging anywhere.
Slowly, detained by love,
He went, but never
Slowly enough for Earth
In her long slow dream
That has not finished yet
With the gestation of man,
The breaker of her dream,
And has not finished
Digesting the teeth and bone
Of her dinosaurs.
Making and breaking words,
He opened gaps, for a pulse
Less awake, less impatient,
Than his, who longed
To be dreamed again,
Out of pulverised rock, out of humus,
Bones, anthropoid, saurian,
And the plumage of orioles [.]
It is a flawless piece of writing. But the ruthlessness makes us unhappy. The theme of dinosaurs, and so the origin of the human species, is a typically ‘Apocalyptic’ motif, raising the visible scene to a level of significance which makes immediate and personal experiences seem insignificant. The theme is ‘anthropological’, theology at one remove. Abstraction and depression are akin: we can see back to the birth of the species only because everything in between has been erased, annihilated, discarded in the restless anti-desire of depression. The dinosaurs inescapably make us think of annihilation, of falling into aeons of non-existence. He evokes the places very vividly before leaving them; the abundance of details, the brilliance of editing, frame a message of emptiness.
To be grass, to be cud for cows. Not to know
The taste of meat or the taste of sugar,
To rise again from mud and be green,
Eat mud, eat carrion, but not with a human mouth.
(from ‘Homo Sum: Humani nihil etc.’)
The theme of the poem is that ‘nothing human is alien to me’ but that humans are vile - as exemplified by the Central American dictator Trujillo. Hamburger writes himself off with the whole species he belongs to; he wishes to exit into a lower plane of creation, to ‘be cud for cows’. This is an extraordinary poem: the intensity of its apprehension of political brutality could hardly be excelled. It is, again the longing ‘to be dreamed again’. It is a pessimistic poem but opens onto pantheism in the manner of John Cowper Powys. To become mud is one step higher than becoming rock.
The big thing in the TV programme was Hamburger’s orchard of apple trees, rare breeds which the commercial producers would consign to dying out, and a very aged man climbing up trees to prune them. If this is the big story and has to do with long time spans and attachment to a particular spot of earth, then it has nothing to do with his poems. In fact it contradicts what they say and even shows graphically why his tales of dispossession don‘t appeal and aren‘t great literature. Trees don’t go anywhere, they just keep growing all the time. So possibly his poems from 1973 to 2007 use new themes and are better poems. I count four appearances of the word ‘slow’ in the section I quoted (dated 1969-72): perhaps this is Hamburger moving towards the worship of trees, as things that don’t move.
Sebald admired Hamburger because S was involved in teaching German literature in English and Hamburger was the grand old man of this endeavour. Again, this was because of 30 years of accumulating knowledge, based on love and dedication. Stability. Purpose. Attachment. This is so different from the themes of restlessness and detachment which fill his own poems.
Ownerless earth. I don’t own any part of this earth. So, Germany does not belong to me. Inexplicitly, he is also saying that Israel does not belong to him. I can’t shed any light on this, but my guess is that he was very thoroughly a Western European and that the pioneer life of Israel in the 1940s was just not for him. He was not your typical first-generation Israeli. Hermlin went to Palestine in 1936 and became an apprentice to a book-dealer and antiques dealer named Zadek. OK, not everyone was out there digging irrigation ditches. I can see that Germans love the idea of someone who was, clearly, German, who represents age and stability, but who had no trace of a pro-Nazi or even a pro-communist past. He never wrote reportages on the Wehrmacht boys doing their bit, or shared a glass of wine with Ulbricht at a literary soiree. I suspect his poems will be much read in German translation - reversing the process of 1933, which fundamentally everyone wants to reverse.
I didn’t like ‘Ownerless Earth’ very much. My problem is that this is just a selected so there could in fact be other poems which would completely change the picture. My memory of the poems I read before is that they were noticeably reminiscent of other poems. I think it was ‘The Notebook of a European Tramp’ (1945-9) that I read. So ’Travelling’ was a repeat, twenty years later, of themes of ’Notebook’. I felt this was the silhouette of a great translator, that hypersensitivity to powerful literary creations made them capable of great feats excluding original creativity. He could recreate the ambience of Eliot poems but it was too much an imitation. The selected poems leave quite a different impression. He wrote a lot of poetry but some share of it sounds like Hamburger and not like Rilke, Spender, Eliot, or Huchel.
There is a story that Hamburger published a pamphlet of poems, when he was barely out of his teens, which he hated later. The proofs didn’t reach him and he didn’t have the chance to fix the problems - even his name was misspelt. I didn’t read his books because he does not show up well in anthologies - I always work from anthologies but they have built-in limits. He was young in the 1950s, published three books then; the business selected other poets of that generation and then moved on to market a new wave of young poets
There is a very useful interview at book length (60 pages), with Hamburger, by Peter Dale (published 1998).