This double-billing was both welcome and apt for Michael Hulse, the distinguished poet, editor, translator and educator. Born of a German mother and an English father, he probed an identity and a “complex legacy”, acknowledging that the post-colonial weight of the British Empire was no less difficult than that of the Third Reich: “as if a patch of ground could have a passport “, “home is made in knowledge and forgiveness”.
Although born in Germany, Hulse was brought up in Stoke-on-Trent. However, he holds the Roman-founded town on the upper Mosel, with its countryside shrines and vines, as his soul’s home. His childhood pickings, both physical and sensory, through the rubble of that too-recent war continue to feed into his verse. This was an “inner landscape, loaded with significance”; in its terraced vineyards he witnessed the “unspoken contract between humanity and the landscape”, and wonderfully, the building of a “people’s cathedral”.
Quietly spoken, and erudite, Hulse has translated many of the German greats including Rilke, but he acknowledges “a debt to the byways rather than the highway of German writing”. Interestingly, for all his much acclaimed work as both a poet and a translator, when asked he replied that he did not write poetry in his maternal language. Thirty years ago, he had tried, but considered his work a bad pastiche of whoever he had most recently read. His roles as translator, poet, editor and teacher are quite distinct. Significantly, and admirably, the role he prioritises above all is that of husband and father. This may be heard in his poetry, where he can find the important and essential in the minutiae of everyday domestic life. If that is unusual in a male poet, it is also noble.
Hulse took 14 years to write his “conversation with his father” in The Secret History, a painful, searching collection which closes optimistically and beautifully with his welcome to his then unborn daughter. He explained the lengthy gestation of these poems and how long it had taken him to “come back to writing personal poetry”.“You can say what you like about your own experience but when someone else’s trauma is revealed, you must seek their permission.”Doubtless that strong moral compass has stood him in good stead in examining the complexities of his family life and heritage.
Hulse is “very suspicious of the fast effect” he hears in the word “performance”, liking poems “to be slow in the oven rather than a burger!” Despite his reservations, he is a very fine performer of his own work, with an admirably restrained tone, wonderfully voiced and lending great dignity to deep passions. He stood to read, and again that subtle, enhancing assurance was evident in his expressive body language and facial movement.
Like anyone who truly knows and loves another language, he is intrigued by those untranslatable aspects, and he was illuminating when explaining aspects of that in response to a question from the floor.
A delightfully humourous man, Hulse mentioned that he was “the creature with his teeth in the trouser leg”! (Very probably, he must have some aspect of that tenacity in order to achieve all that he does.) His commitment to good teaching practice had him establish “genuine editorial responsibility to students, including first year undergraduates” in the very prestigious Warwick Review. Nonetheless, he confessed a certain irritation with certain “tiresome PhD students”. Pressed by a questioner, it transpired that the students in question were pretty idle. I suspect that the man who once refused to go to bed before writing his poem for the day, even if it meant a haiku at 4am, had reason to be angered. I also suspect that this deeply civilized man would have dismissed them with more kindness than they deserved. Hearing him was a privilege.