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Anachronism(of akindhe meant) andutopiawereat the heartof hispoetics. IfirstmetMichael’sworkinaCambridge lecture roomin 1975. Leonard Forster, Michael’s head of department at UCL in the 1950s, whomMichael later consideredtohavebeenquitejustifiedinweedinghimoutas lackinginscholarlymettle(refusingtogranthimtenurewhen his probationaryperiodhadcome toanend), hadlongsince made it up with Michael and was now, twenty years on, handingout Michael’s Höölderlintranslations to nonplussed first-yearstudentsof German. Thiswasoneof thosemoments when onefeelsan alter ego – theworld of before, whenonehad lived in ignorance of a prospect nowdawning – palpably peeling away. It wasn’t so much the translations that astonished me, it was the very fact and mystery of their existence, the notionthat a personwitha gift for it could become that kindof mediumfor the subtlest modulationof voices across the languages, cultures and centuries: an anachronist. Ittookmeyearstorealisethatthiswasnomorea qualityof translationthanof poetry. The poet-translator’s ‘negative capability’, a loss of self whichhesawattheoppositeendofthe scale fromappropriation of a foreign poet’s work, was a key to the mimetic that governed Michael’s translations. But was Höölderlin’s ‘long breath’, his encapsulating syntax – overflowing structures permittingthecumulative weavingof anidea or image over several linesorstanzas–theexplanation, asMichael hadcome to thinkof it, for the syntactic sinuosityof his ownlonger poems likeTravelling, InSuffolkandLate ?Or hadHöölderlin’s archinghypotaxis becomeabridgetosomethingmorefragile and‘lost tomeineveryother regard’, adimension‘between Day and Night’ (Höölderlin) – the missing link with a wholenessMichael hadlostsincehisnativelanguagehadbeen ‘overlaid’ byEnglish? It tookfour years after LeonardForster’s introductionto Michael the translator for me tofindMichael the poet. The phenomenonof Michael’ssyntax, atonceintenselystrangeand Memorials
strangelyfamiliar, struckmeassoonasIreadhiswork. Atthe timeI hadcometoliveinLondon, andGermanwas freshin myearas, forthefirsttime, countryboythatIwas, Ibeganto explore the bigcity. It was the year whenthe house-high sycamore, ‘longagowrenched’ fromthegardenof thebombdamaged, dilapidated and finally demolished house in St John’s Wood Park where Michael grewup, had been rediscovered – alive thanks to a dimension that defies the ‘mind’smastery’ –in anelegiacpassageofMichael’slongpoem InSuffolk: ‘Sycamore: here andthere still / Inits owntime, straight, / Withwidebranches, it rises / Andtheshedleaves feed/Richorpoorsoil, unpoisoned. . .’ Thereisjustahintof the German-Greekdistichinthe last three of these lines, at leastif youmakeahexameterof linesthreeandfour, possibly suggestedtoo by the dactylic ‘sycamore’, althoughit is the unexpectedword‘and’, following‘rises’, that reminds me of Höölderlin. This sentence –inwhichthe sycamore’s growth andrenewal incorporates tenure in‘natural time’, outside the ‘money-time’ man supposedly masters – arises, spreads its branches andfoliates throughsixteenlines, its ramifications reclaiming its own space line by line, clause by clause, in poetry’sbetween-time. I remember Michael takingatinyfrogfrommyeight-year olddaughter’s handandreturningit tothemarsh–for left whereitwasitwouldsoonhavedriedupanddied. Andinhis lastletter, whicharrivedseveral daysafter his death, heagain warnedmenot tooverwork. Hewhohadworkedtoohardin hisyoungerdaysandknewitcoulddesiccatethesoul –andso easilyspoil morethanoneperson’shappinessandhealth. The ramificationsof that, too, lieunutteredbetweenthelines.