Michael Hulse’s session was the first of the daily “Poem and a Piece” lunchtime events at the Dundee Literary Festival. The handing out of food and drinks to the audience was a little clumsy at the start but not disruptive enough for anyone to get annoyed about. Other than that, nothing disturbed Hulse’s readings and discussions. He is a good, confident speaker and the pace of his reading matched the pace of the poems expertly. This became key, as his poetry’s modern architectonics made me question its relevance today. This was especially so as his audience was made up of at least 80% senior citizens, while many of the festival’s guest writers and publishers were in their early twenties.
I had not read Hulse’s work before his appearance at the festival and researching his work introduced me to an interesting biography. Hulse was raised in both England and Germany, and then went to study at St. Andrews University. He then worked as a translator at Durham and Oxford University (he has translated over sixty books from German, including works by Goethe and Rilke), before returning to Germany to settle as a translator and poet. Unfortunately, as I familiarised myself with his work I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy his Romantic poetry. Neither was I sure whether his Gothic and organic style owned a place in the poetic world today.
The something-of-the-past throughout Hulse’s work is its trophy feature. His Romantic (and romantic) language refutes the pace, action, performance, and experimental nature that came out of The New York School and evolved into many of the elements that make up contemporary poetry today. These poetic voices (Chuck Bukowski, Robert Hass, Richard Siken) provide the instant gratification that readers expect nowadays. Readers who don’t have the patience to wait a chapter, a page or even ten lines for a reveal. And they don’t have more than four seconds to spare for a conclusion.
So where does this leave Michael Hulse and others who are about the slow and longing poem? Their poetry asks questions and wants us to take time to find the answers. It wants to breathe and have a cup of tea (or maybe an Apfelwein for Hulse) and wonder.
We can explore this through the poet’s emotive reading of his ‘Welcome Poem’, in which he compares his awe over the birth of his own daughter with the infanticide of another young girl that he heard about in the news. He contemplated how he began; formulating a new self when his daughter was born, at the same time wishing he could be “under /the bridge/ arms outstretched” to catch the little girl who was killed by a man with no paternal integrity. His young, self-reflecting muse inspired other poetic wonderings, such as his position on resurrection and what would happen if Eurydice “made it out of the underworld”?
It is this nature that I believe makes poetry timeless; poems wonder. Wondering is not a transitory act and it will not be controlled by style. We are attracted to poetry because of the space in which it allows us to wonder; therefore Hulse’s poems function as much as Bukowski’s do. One might try to ignore Hulse’s rhythm and speed through his poetry to grab the answers, but his expert grasp of language (perhaps from studying and playing with different languages for decades) effect that his poems will negotiate the space. So whilst I might find his poetry dragged out, there are lines, images, themes and more that I will enjoy, consider and make sense of myself.
Wondering is not lost in translation. As Hulse said beautifully on the stage, “Every poem is the deaf Beethoven”; without ever hearing it you can hear it in your head.