The Uses and Abuses of Criticism

Michael Hofmann

“Nobody can advise you and help you, nobody,” Rilke wrote in his response to a request for advice and feedback from the nineteen-year-old aspiring poet Franz Kappus. “I know no advice for you save this: to go into yourself and test the deeps.”

Rilke’s first letter to Kappus in Letters to a Young Poet is one of the most polite and ineffective dismissals you’ll read. While it seems that he’s trying to dispatch with his young admirer, it would be the first of ten letters that he sent Kappus over a six-year period. A century has passed since their correspondence ended, but the book remains a staple in high schools and colleges, a primer on the questions that artists confront throughout their lives.

In the spirit of Rilke’s attempts (or skillful dodges) at giving advice, we asked FSG’s poets to tackle a question—or invent a new one—that lies within Letters to a Young Poet. Rilke’s letters have proven to be remarkably durable, but if poetry has changed at all, we need new answers to our questions, and new questions to answer.

Five FSG poets—Ange Mlinko, Rowan Ricardo Phillips, Michael Hofmann, Carl Phillips, and Karen Solie—heeded the call, and throughout April we will be sharing their advice to the Franz Kappuses of today. We’re pleased to present Michael Hofmann’s “The Uses and Abuses of Criticism.”

The big holy cheese Rilke declared that “more or less felicitous misunderstandings” are the most one can hope for from criticism. To him (he claimed), a review is a personal missive addressed to someone else. I don’t know if he’s referring to his recently past self, the author of whatever the work (though I don’t think it’s that), or just the “peanut-crunching crowd” (Plath), anything addressed to which he of course, like most of us, disdained. Fame, accordingly, is “the sum of misunderstandings” that accrue round a person. So set is Rilke on appearing absolutely autochthonous that sometimes he can appear merely fussy, a little unbelievable, and (in the words of his later admirer, the critic Randall Jarrell, not about Rilke) “professionally surprising.”

Perhaps he really did suffer from a surfeit of (partly endlessly solicited and expertly managed) attention; categorically rejected outside intervention (help); and he really did know, all by himself, what to do and how to proceed. (Though I wonder, given that the “eleven or twelve books” he boasts to poor Kappus of having published in his twenties are all of them things that no one in their right minds reads any more; and because of the extent to which he set himself to learn from others, whether elders like Auguste Rodin and Lou Andreas-Salomé [for whom he went barefoot and changed his handwriting and his given name], or works like those of Cézanne or Hölderlin or Jens Peter Jacobsen, recommendations he didn’t tire of passing on.) Doesn’t sound quite like an austere isolate, the product of his own personal test tube.

• • •

Because I think what we’re talking about is review or criticism not as praise or flattery, let alone booster-ism or blurb-stuff, but as some sort of candid reflection. Something that answers your questions: Who am I? What is this? Is it any good? Where am I going with it? Some people—a very few people, the ones who are confident but not irrational—are capable of answering these questions entirely by themselves. Others get answers from those around them. Rilke may have felt menaced by attention, but for most of us in these striated celebrity days, it’s being ignored, underappreciated, unappreciated, or unseen that’s the danger, or the occupational hazard, or just the occupation. Why am I not a Kardashian? Why am I not Princess Pippa [Popo] Middleton? Why am I not, at the very least, Jonathan Franzen? That infinite and infinitely fatuous thing, the Internet, leaves no one not preaching to the choir, to his or her negligible section of whatever audience is left. More dependent on them than they on him.

• • •

For what it’s worth, I was pretty self-reliant. Conversations I had as a teen with my father Gert Hofmann in the 1970s told me most of what I know about writing to this day. Neither of us were properly writing at that time, but we gave ourselves and each other a terrific grounding. (His first novella and my earliest poem, his in German, mine in English, appeared in 1979.) You have to be able to look over your shoulder at what you’ve written. Dispassionately. Without private information. Without special pleading. Without pride or intoxication. The mot juste. You shouldn’t look to others—friends, lovers, editors, cats—to finish your works for you. My father would send off his things, and a few months later they would come back into the house as bound books or radio broadcasts. I don’t imagine they took much work—so-called “input”—from others.

So you have to build a self you can trust. Otherwise you’re not at the races. People around you—I’m not sure. They are maybe the worst readers. They are personal readers. What you write, to them, is obstruction at worst (they’d rather see you, or talk to you), at best coded indiscretion about your secret inner life. I had a brief time of showing things to people I knew. They would say things like “This sounds just like the way you talk,” so I soon gave it up. It only lasted a few weeks. I’ve never been workshopped. I’m not house-trained. My sounding boards thirty to forty years ago were editors of magazines, who would take poems or not, as it suited them. I liked the reduced communication, like Zbigniew Herbert’s knocker: yes, yes—no, no. My work was done with a typewriter, and through the privacy of self-addressed stamped envelopes. The first time I traveled down to London to meet editors, I was shaking; I was petrified about actually going to live there, in their place, in their citadel.

Then, when I had a book ready, I had no readers lined up. I couldn’t expect any responses. I didn’t send out hand-dedicated copies tied with ribbon. Accordingly, people didn’t write me letters about my poems. Never have done. I might as well have been disagreeable or dead. (I’ve received no more than one or two letters in my lifetime, though they were worth having.) It struck me with a jolt that the people I would—might—be hearing from were reviewers. In the absence of conversation, that was the conversation, and it would take place in a rather staggered way, and in print. First my tragic soliloquy, then their hemistich chorus.

I didn’t expect much, but I was still disappointed. It dawned on me too that no one over fifty would “get” or like my stuff, and so it proved. (I was twenty-five. It’s not good to be liked by one’s elders if one is young.) Even the people who liked it seemed halfhearted about it, or they didn’t see it or write about it as well as I did. “My noun-count is high,” I wrote. And: “I like poems the size and texture and consistency of bricks.” Still, something in me couldn’t help looking to a reviewer to tell me something. Give me directions. It’s never happened. The one time in my life when I received glancing information, it was in talk, with an editor, though editor is perhaps an understatement. The editor was Karl Miller, editor of the New Statesman and The Listener, then cofounder of the London Review of Books, who published me in the first year of the magazine, and carried on. He said two words to me. One was “reportage.” The second, maybe a couple of years later, was “music.” I instantly recognized myself in both (and, still more, in the extreme separation between them), though I would never have come up with either of them in a thousand years. Rapt within your project, you have a certain helplessness, and you need that. It doesn’t do to know too much. You have a periscope, others may have a chart. (Most likely, there are no charts.)

If anything like that happens to you, you should count yourself very lucky. I know I did. One other thing: I try, in my reviewing, to give writers that reflection. I don’t know whether, and how often, I’ve succeeded, but I see it as part of my brief, and you as part of who I’m addressing.

Michael Hofmann is an acclaimed poet, translator, and critic. He has published six books of poetry and has translated more than sixty books from the German, including Gottfried Benn’s Impromptus: Selected Poems and Some Prose, as well as works by Ernst Jünger, Franz Kafka, and Joseph Roth. His criticism appears regularly in the London Review of Books, The New York Review of Books, and Poetry. He currently teaches poetry and translation at the University of Florida.

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Portrait of Rainer Maria Rilke by Paula Modersohn-Becker (1906)