[Review] Getting into an Argument with Away with Words: Poems and Translation by Henrik Hoeg

{Written by Andrew Barker, this review is part of Issue 44 (June/July 2019) of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Henrik Hoeg, Away with Words: Poetry and Translations, CreateSpace, 2018. 122 pgs.

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Away With Words: Poems and Translations by Henrik Hoeg is the author’s second book, his first being Irreverent Poems for Pretentious People, published by Proverse in 2016, and containing the not only excellent but stimulating “To Stand Watch,” along with the genuinely funny “Why I’m Single: Reason Number 3,” and the brilliantly memorable “Molotov Cocktail.” That’s this one:

Prometheus would turn on his rock
At this reversed deliverance,
Seeing you throw fire at Man,
Just to bring more ignorance.

I’m aware that that is not the printed version. What was actually written was “turn in his grave at his reversed deliverance,” but Hoeg changed it for an Instagram post and the change is an improvement. Hoeg is of Danish origin, and his books contain translations from the Danish. He was educated in and lives in Hong Kong, and he’s the main Master of Ceremonies and promoter of Hong Kong’s weekly Peel Street Poetry gatherings currently going strong in Central’s Social Room. Away With Words is available in print-form and from Amazon and though the boundaries today may blur, it is an inroad into the self-publishing industry. Henrik has claimed it an advance on his first book and my copy reads, “You probably read the first book more intensely than anyone else and I appreciate it.” Probably? Well, for good or bad, let’s try to live up to that compliment here!

Hoeg’s poetic metier is the stage and that presents the reviewer with an immediate difficulty. I presume the reviewer’s job is to tell potential readers what they think of the book so those potential readers can make a decision on whether to look at it or not. The reviewer’s job is to answer questions like, “Do you think the poems in this book are any good?” To which the honest first response in this case must be, “Good on the stage or good on the page?” Because there is a difference! Many a wonderful poem may sound simply boring when read aloud. And transcriptions of many a spoken-word piece show not so much a poem as a script for presentation. And though there are numerous examples of works that can be equally enjoyed on both stage and page, when poems do not engage us in both places, this should not surprise us. With a few notable exceptions, Away With Words was written with the stage more in the forefront of the poet’s mind than the page. But the decision has been made to collect the poems in book form, so what I am reviewing here is Henrik Hoeg’s abilities as a poet of the written word on the unforgiving page.

And the first thing that has to be noticed is that he has doubts about those abilities himself, doubts confronted in the collection’s standout piece, “I Wrote It.” This is one of those works that I thoroughly enjoy; ones that provoke us, when we are in a receptive mood, to discussion. To paraphrase Martin Amis, “I Wrote It,” is a poem one can have an argument with. And I’m going to do just that! And at length!

The poem’s set-up is this: Hoeg’s then girlfriend, now wife, has asked him for a poem, and what she’s going to get is one of those love poems on why the poet can’t write her a love poem. You know the type. Often these poems have had more thought and effort put into them than if the poet had just written the loved one a proper love poem, and this is case here. It’s not only a more than half decent poem in its own right, it’s an intriguing dissection of Hoeg’s own concerns about his abilities as a poet. So yes, there is defensive self-accusation involved, and yes I freely admit I don’t like defensive self-accusation, but it will be worth our while examining these accusations in depth. Here Hoeg is about to explain why he won’t write that poem.

I know I can only write one kind of love poem,
Where I walk a tightrope
Between the grandiose,
Like love poems of old,
Comparing you to some seasonal scene
Or slutty summer flower,
Trying and failing to dodge cliché.

Now let’s acknowledge straight away that this is pretty accurate. Anyone who has commissioned themselves to write a “love poem” to their girlfriend or boyfriend will, or should, recognise what Hoeg is confronting here. It is a real problem well rendered. The challenge and triumph is to find a way round the problem stated. Hoeg continues. His accusations become more personal.

And the irreverently self-referential,
The self-indulgent pandering in-joke,
Making fun of myself,
To prove to no one
That I don’t take myself too seriously.

This is perceptive, and in an almost form-imitating-content way, weirdly identifiable. But note that “prove to no one.” If we write this sort of thing we are not trying to prove it to no one, we are trying to prove it to ourselves or the object of our affection or to the people listening to, or in this case reading, the poem. Hoeg does this sort of comedic sleight of pen thing often. He can’t resist the (what shall we call this?) self-referential-partially-comic-partial-inaccuracy-that-attempts-to-have-it-both-ways. He can’t resist it here, even in a poem that is about his own distrust of his own tendency to write self-referential, partially comic, partial inaccuracies that attempt to have it both ways, in his own poetry. If nothing else, this is fascinating to observe. He continues.

The poem would have to walk that line,
And it would drag the I love you with it,
Speaking between the lines
Muddying up everything …

Firstly, let’s start with some clinical accuracy that rarely goes amiss: the poem wouldn’t “have to” do that at all. It might do it, it might not, all would depend on the inspiration and talent of the poet during the poem’s construction. I have an instinctive aversion to absolutist statements containing “always,” “never,” “have to,” etc. and think it essential to point them out whenever they occur. These words make value-judgement statements seem more authentic by their pose of unverifiable authenticity. I hate them. That said, isn’t Hoeg’s statement a fascinating and well-observed piece of writing? He’s saying that the desire to write the love poem and the decisions made in the poem’s construction cloud the emotional purity of the poem itself. Interesting! Very interesting! But wouldn’t that same realisation apply to all writing? Why stop at love poetry? Wouldn’t a piece of journalism on a war be open to the same accusation? Possibly. Possibly not. For me the observation, while possibly true of any type of writing, is certainly more true of writing a piece of love poetry. For me!

See, this is where poetry is at its most interesting. In the attention it demands, in the making me think instead of feel. Music makes me feel. Words make me think. And Hoeg has put a lot of thought into this one. He even tells us so.

It could only be a poem like I so often write,
Where the title gets involved for the sake of it,
Where the ending is a reversal of the build up
Where I twist myself to undermine the premise,
Or get one last shot in.

Firstly, (again), it couldn’t “only” be like that. It wouldn’t be like that if he didn’t write it like that. But more importantly, what a great piece of critical analysis of his own work. It’s harsh, I know, but demystifyingly accurate of Hoeg’s own creative process. And we’ll come back to this later. Initially the counteraccusation here is surely, “What is wrong with writing like this?” If such a process helps Hoeg “get to the poem” why such abuse? He tells us.

And my message would twist too. (Surely a full-stop, not comma here).
But my love for you doesn’t walk that tight-rope, (Surely a comma here.)
My love is nothing like tightrope walking, (Maybe a full-stop here.)

I’ll stop doing this now, and just say that the poem could really have done with more attention to the punctuation. And some stanzas. Honestly! Stanzas wouldn’t have gone amiss at all.

My love for you doesn’t have some clever reversal,
Some pithy one-liner or shitty pun.

“Shitty?” Really? What an awful word choice! The image! The sound of the word! At this stage in the poem! And as he has specifically mentioned in another poem that he doesn’t actually think puns are shitty, so why say so here? I’ll let him continue to the end. This next bit is revelatory:

The medium would spoil the message;
If I wrote a poem about my love,
The medium would poison the metaphor.
And my love for you is not poetry,
It’s certainly not my poetry,
It’s in fact nothing like my poetry.
My poetry is so often all the things my love is not;
My love is not contrived,
My love is not performance,
My love is not faux intellectual one-upmanship.
My love for you is nothing like my poetry:
That’s one of my favourite things about it.

Nice that, isn’t it? And who doesn’t like nice? But I actually think there’s more going on here than that. And I find this fascinating. Let’s do the flattering thing first. I think the first five lines above are among the best in the book.

“And my love for you is not poetry / It’s certainly not my poetry.” That my could have done with some italicisation. The stress on that my is important, vital. This is self-awareness, self-accusation and apology. And I don’t think this is self-accusation as a pre-emptive defensive tactic either; I think it is genuine humility. Genuine vulnerability. It’s not just the context of its inclusion, though that is part of it. The conceit is very well put, and very well put for a lot of writers facing this same situation, not just for Hoeg. But it is especially well put for Hoeg. For here’s the rub: if we take the poem seriously, Hoeg is saying, “I can’t write you a love poem because my poetry is not just not very good, it’s dreadful.” What’s more, Hoeg hits on some very, not just accurate, but specific reasons for what he believes to be deficient in his verse. Now … if he believes what he is saying then this is a fair, if not excellent reason for not writing a love poem. If he does not believe it, then he is … let’s say not being honest and the whole poem is an excuse for not writing a love poem protracted over three pages. It has to be one or the other, it can’t be both at the same time. I can only speculate, but I suspect this poem to be well thought-out and honest; but, undeniably, for me, it also assumes that some air of modesty, of self-deprecation, will lessen the self-levelled charges. But what if I don’t think it does? What if I take Hoeg at his word? How do these accusations he makes against his own writing manifest in this book?

Let’s see what he thinks is wrong with his poetry? Remember, these are not my accusations, but Hoeg’s own.

According to Hoeg, his verse is irreverently self-referential, contains self-indulgent pandering in-jokes to make fun of himself to prove, or rather fail to prove, that he doesn’t take himself too seriously. The titles of his poems get involved for the sake of it, the ending is often a reversal of the build-up (that’s not really a criticism to be fair) and often he will twist himself to undermine his premise, or get one last shot in. The poems contain pithy one-liners or shitty puns, are contrived, are performance and are demonstrations of faux intellectual one-upmanship.

Wow!

Well, he’s Danish, isn’t he? What do you expect? Where’d you think all Hamlet’s, “I am myself indifferent honest, but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me,” stuff comes from? But are Hoeg’s self-accusations totally inaccurate?

Well he’s got himself banged to rights on that titles thing for a start! “Bard None”? “Fib (onacci)”? “Criminal Justice”? Criminal Justice? The title to that last one bears no direct connection to the content of the poem at all.

Aside from that, most of what Hoeg says here is true, except when it’s not, but, more importantly, less self-critical than it seems. After all, what really matters is if the things Hoeg mentions are done well or interestingly or not. Is, say, the “faux intellectual one-upmanship” funny, or not? If it’s funny, that’s fine; if it’s not, it isn’t. And let’s also recognise here that Hoeg is stating the reasons for his inability to write not any type of poem, but specifically a love poem. And as we all know, love poems are a law and challenge unto themselves.

Self-accusation, you see. I don’t always trust it. He’s counting on us not agreeing.

So let me add some accusations against Hoeg’s poetry of my own. A greater knowledge of the way metrics works on the page would not go amiss. Read from a stage and it’s all about your voice. Put the same words on the page and metrics matter. I might be extra sensitive, but when I hear deliberate rhyme I expect accompanying metre, or deviations from it that are placed there purposefully. And bad metrics genuinely damage the material here in more than a few cases. The worst offenders are probably, “The Beast in the Circuitry,” and “Wizlebeck,” where the lack of metrical consistency makes it so irritating to read that the comical/paradoxical intentions are simply eclipsed by the clumsiness of word arrangement. This clumsy metre is doubly irritating because it can be so easily rectified. It’s amateur not to know how to do this. This lack of, what for want of a better word can be called professionalism, creates another problem. With some of the poems I don’t know if they are satires or not. For instance, “My First Addiction,” could be read as a satire on the type of bad poem you write if you don’t listen to your teachers. “How the Tiger was Made,” could be a satire on how easy it is to construct origins stories. But I’m not sure it is.

And there is too much of this: statements that sound impressive when heard once from the stage, but don’t make sense when re-read from the page before us.

“The student is a question.”
Is it? In what way?
“The glass eye longs for sight/ Like the tree longs for lightning to strike.”
Does it? How would that work?

There are also too many times where Hoeg can’t resist the irrelevant joke. Take “Forgeries I’m Not,” in which an aging Sixties stoner nearly making sense but not quite says, “Peggers can’t be choosers.” Can’t they? It’s a funny play on words, I know, but why can’t they? He just can’t resist putting it in. It will work before an audience, of course, and this I think is the root of a lot of the book’s page-derived problems. These questions simply never get asked of a piece on the stage, and writers who write primarily for that medium develop a flippancy about the content of their work. If it sounds good, it is good. Take the bafflingly titled “Criminal Justice” poem again. This is a good one, too, a very good one in fact. But I have to question if the bootstraps analogy is constant throughout the poem? Bootstraps are surely a metaphor for the tools of self-reliance, but is that connection made all the way through the piece, or does it just sound good when heard once and then gets used in ways that don’t completely link?

The problem for me is that this kind of inconstancy discourages the close analysis that is the main joy of the interrogation of serious poetry. Should I trust that the figurative and allegorical ideas here will reveal something consistent enough to be worthy of my investigation? One hates to be fooled into investigating something one suspects the author himself has not put the time or intellectual energy into to make sure the metaphors are coherently connected. As readers, not one-time listeners, we have to absolutely trust that our writers know what they are doing. Laziness about metrical construction does not inspire this trust.

Despite Hoeg’s attack on his own work, only one of his self-accusations really bites. This is the one where he makes fun of himself to prove, or rather fail to prove, that he doesn’t take himself too seriously. There is a variation of cops’ irony at play here. That’s the bullies’ technique of, I’m not being serious if you think I am being serious, and don’t like what I say. But if you say I’m not being serious enough to be taken seriously, you are missing how serious I am being. Cops’ irony. “Buy me a drink or I’ll arrest you. Are you being serious? Well I am if …”

So I’m taking the words on the page seriously. Why? Because it is often worthwhile to do so. What’s more, it should be apparent that the argument I’ve been having with “I Wrote It” is far more indicative of the poem’s substance and worth than it is of the poem’s inconsequence. It is only poems as robust as this that engender the enjoyment that allow the argument, or make us wish to expound the energy to engage in it. “I Wrote It” is good work and it’s serious. But it is not the only one Away with Words contains. Take this from, “Suicides and Thieves”: “The zealous, the self-righteous and the judgemental / They don’t make their home where different paths meet.” That’s good! “Friends and Followers,” “Frankenstein” and “Certainty” are all fine poems with fine lines in them. What’s more they are all to Hoeg’s own style, the same one he heaps so much abuse on because it won’t help him write the love poem he wants to write.

Then there is “Inez Beverly Prosser,” on the first black woman to receive a PhD in psychology, a poem that stands out so strikingly because within it there is absolutely no attempt at self-protective humour. “Breaking isn’t Breaking” does this too, except that when we first confront its content, we have become so expectant of what must be called Hoeg’s “style” that it takes a re-evaluation in re-rereading to notice what a nicely balanced little poem this one is.

Yes, Hoeg’s “style”! He is not wrong in his attacks upon his own oeuvre, and the limitations he has created for himself by his currently favoured types of poetic communication. Not wrong, but far from exhaustive. Apart for the lack of attention to metrics, his criticism omits two further constants of his work that can be seen as positive, because they are definably His, or negative, because they are recognisably limiting. One is a peripheral addiction, and the other is a core trait. The first is his seemingly instinctive fall-back to concluding bathos and pathos. Bathos and pathos are easy. Too often they are the coward’s way out. Look at “Guffaw” and “Neutron.” Both are nearly good, but promise so much more than they deliver. In both, we find that lazy pathos used to conclude with sad comedy, which is especially irritating when poems have potential to build to something important and just don’t. But of course, it works great on a stage.

Then there is “Citrus.” “Citrus” will doubtlessly be funny on stage. When hearing “Citrus” once, it probably comes across as a metaphor for something that we can’t quite grasp because we have not yet had sufficient time to. After all, we will have only heard it once. When we revisit it on the page, we find a terrific, clever satire on conspiracy theorists, specifically, I’m assuming, on anti-vaxers. These are a great and worthwhile target. Now here’s my second point, the one on his core trait: this is where Hoeg’s genuine and I think misapplied talent lies. He is a natural satirist. All the satirical hyperbole, world creation and desire to make social points comically are there in his work. The problem is that he is a natural satirist who doesn’t seem to know he is a satirist. And what’s worse, he is inhibited by the fact that he is a natural satirist who is just too nice for his own good. He is a satirist who the political correctness and offense hunting of our age have both robbed of worthwhile acceptable everyday targets, and then blunted the efficacy of his weaponry until the only target he feels comfortable attacking is himself. This is not a small problem. His cuts need to be deeper, his weapons heavier. He needs to be nastier. A satirist should not only risk offending, a satirist should offend. The satirist should not only, as Horace told us, laugh the foolish free of their folly but should fearlessly offend those they believe are worthy of the Juvenalian lash for their offenses.

Take “The Universe and I.” This one is fine. These wishy-washy nit-wits annoy me as well. But … I mean this with all due respect, and hate to tell people what to write about … Are pretentious wannabe mystics really the best or most worthwhile target of a writer’s energy and ire in the modern world? Take “#Einstein.” This is surely satire but who or what is being satirised here? How is it being satirised? Take “Self-Indulgent.” The attack here is on those who use old-world contractions in sonnets. Honestly, that’s the target. I don’t deny that those bastards have been getting away with this for too long and it’s about time someone had the courage to stand up to them and put them in their place and someone finally has, etc. But really? (Actually, I have to point out here that if you have trouble writing in metrics, you really don’t want to try and satirise a sonnet in a sonnet. You’ve kinda got to be able to do it yourself before you try and satirise someone who does it in a way you don’t like). It’s an ill-chosen target, but aside from the anti-vaxers where are the well-chosen targets? To demonstrate, take these two small beauties from “Jargon in Haiku.”

Exisexualists
Feel a profound trembling angst
When picking safe words.
Now that’s funny! But it’s not really satire.
Westernised Buddhists
Like totally believe in
Like Zen and that stuff.

That’s even funnier. Actually, as far as comedic haikus go, that’s about as funny as they get. And it’s brilliant because in this one he’s actually got a satirical target. But once again, is that target sufficiently worthy of his attack? Over seventeen syllables everybody is worthy of attack of course, but I hope you get my point.

I feel compelled to insert a caveat here. It is among the worst types of criticism to ask why a writer doesn’t write something different from what they actually write. I believe that. But it seems to me that Hoeg himself is unsatisfied with what he writes. He states as much in “I Wrote It.” And his talent seems to be straining at the leash to go in a direction that his favoured mode of presentation for his work, that being the reading at a poetry meeting, almost disallows him from exploiting. The man needs some relevant enemies. No, not the man, the poet needs them? Enemies or a group he really doesn’t like and isn’t afraid to say why. To state it again: he is a satirist in need of a suitably unpleasant target. Yet who wants to hear an MC’s vicious satirical critique of what that MC sees as major problems with the contemporary world? Well, me for one, obviously, but we live in times of the easily offended, and part of the MC’s work at any reading is to be the one everyone likes, the one who offers support and solace and recognition and praise for readers. If it’s male, it truly helps if that person be seen as a gentleman, and gentle man. Women may have more range to develop a character for MCing, but for encouragement of new readers that gentleness goes a long way there as well. I couldn’t do it. He can! This role of MC is one very close to Hoeg’s heart, and one he undertakes with undiminished diligence and enthusiasm. He is that guy! Both gentleman and gentle man. And whether consciously or not, I think that to be that guy, in terms of satirical inclination, there is a sacrifice made not only to the chosen content of Hoeg’s poetry, but to the extent he feels comfortable attacking his targets. For me, it shows and it inhibits.

Developing writers set themselves tasks and go through stages. Hoeg is plainly aware of tropes within his own oeuvre, and is not fully confident of their efficacy. Developing writers develop. To be a better poet, on the page at least, Hoeg plainly needs to do two things. He needs to sort out his knowledge of metrical writing, and he needs to find something, someone, worthy of his satirical attacks. Up to this point, he’s been more interested in linguistic inversion and sound. “Her short story is pure gold / The gold rush ended long ago.” That’s great. It’s all those Os within the extension of the phrase, isn’t it? I see Away with Words as part of that on-going development and want to end with possibly my favourite line in the book. This is a beautiful, simple, textual demonstration of the effective use of line length. Listen to the resignation, hope and slight sense of loss in these lovely three lines:

And well meaning friends,
Well,
They mean well.

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Andrew Barker.jpg

Andrew Barker spent his youth working as bricklayer before entering academia and obtaining a degree in English Literature, an MA in Anglo/Irish Literature and a PhD in American Literature. He now works as a university literature lecturer in Hong Kong and releases poetry online through his poetry web channel mycroftlectures.com. His online Mycroft Lectures on poetry are popular with a wide range of netizens, and he is the author of Snowblind from my Protective Colouring (2010) and Joyce is Not Here: 101 Modern Shakespearean Sonnets (2017). His recent poetry can be viewed on Instagram at http://bit.ly/2CK8hT3.

 

One thought on “[Review] Getting into an Argument with Away with Words: Poems and Translation by Henrik Hoeg

  1. Pingback: [Review] “Why and How to Read Joshua Ip’s footnotes on falling” by Henrik Hoeg | Cha

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