Wednesday, 2 June 2010
Deludedness and Control: Hofmann's Acrimony
My memory jogged by a post on the invariably-interesting blog Deconstructive Wasteland, I recently revisited Michael Hofmann's volume Acrimony (1986). As I think Ben Wilkinson suggests, the reconnection seems timely in the current climate of economic downturn and now (partial) Tory re-election. Acrimony seems to me to contain the defining poetry of the Thatcherite era, where (as now) the veneer of affluence brought about by rapid-gain, 'boom-and-bust' policies and enjoyed in reality by very few belied a radically-divided, morally-bankrupt society with a cultural vacuum at its centre.
Without ever venturing into actual political invective, Hofman captures this corrosive sense of disaffection and disempowerment through a narrative-voice so jaundiced and appalled that it has more in common with Baudelaire or Catullus than with other contemporary poets, although the spleen and phlegm of the early Martin Amis might provide a point of comparison. The first section's brilliantly-sketched scenarios of shabby bedsits in unfashionable boroughs, failed flings with incompatible partners and the thwarted inactivity resulting from soft drugs and too many cigarettes will be familiar to any young would-be writer at odds with his or her environment.
What's different about Hofmann's acidic vignettes is their eschewal of diaristic self-immersion and their observational acumen in translating the ill-fitting, alienating features of 80's London into (another old Eliot vagary!) 'objective correlatives' for states of exasperation and disillusion. Where the poems really excel and excite, furthermore, is in the careful assemblages of startling, often disconcerting imagery this observational instinct comes parcelled in. "The thunderflies that came in and died on my books/Like bits of misplaced newsprint"; "Halfway down the street,/A sign struggles to its feet and says Brent"; "The window is opaque, a white mirror affirming/life goes on in this damp lung of a room".
Another formal aspect which characterises both their originality and their subsequent influence is the poems' rejection of neat conclusive endings - certainly a feature of the Larkinesque, post-Movement model which decrees that a poetic text should always move towards a simplistic couplet or line which summarises or rounds-off the meaning or "moral" of the poem. The poems in Acrimony invariably just peter out or trail off without any attempt at drawing threads together or providing a heart-warming resolution: the effect is to leave the reader hovering, none the wiser, perhaps as baffled or disappointed as the narrative-voice.
But amid so much anomie,by the final poem in Part One we are left in little doubt about the depth of Hofmann's resentment against the baleful political climate he finds himself adrift in, with what I take to be the best image for Margaret Thatcher ever committed to poetry:
"The fiction of an all-white Albion, deludedness
and control, like my landlady's white-haired old bitch,
who confuses home with the world, pees just inside the door,
and shits trivially in a bend in the corridor"