Calculated Adaptability, Contemporary Archaic: On Michael Hofmann’s “Valais”
Click here to read the poem.
The terrain and history of an area influences nearly every aspect of life for its residents. Everything from language to local personalities to the livelihoods of its people is somehow connected to a place’s geography and past. Sometimes, the influences are more visible than others. The subject of Michael Hofmann’s poem, the Swiss area of “Valais,” is no different. He insinuates that the roughness of the terrain influences the adaptability and hardiness of its people. He highlights that the adaptability of its populace makes the area the intersection of the old and modern, new technologies in 500 year old buildings, which can all be traced back to the area’s topography and background.
To everyone on planet Earth, whether one knows it or not, is influenced by the past of the area in which they grew up or live. The past determines the hardiness of the people, their adaptability, their willingness to try new technologies and make changes to their way of life. This ability to adapt, while respecting the past, is demonstrated well in the lines, “A washing machine delivered by helicopter / Winched down into the Renaissance casbah.” (3233) Hofmann articulates that the people of Valais are willing to do whatever it takes to achieve their goals. The area of Valais has a history of resisting new religious influences and outside rule, as it bucked the rule of Napoleon a few times. It only became part of the Swiss Confederation by its own choice, choosing not to fight the Swiss Federal troops. They are conditioned to resist change unless they have assessed the change to benefit them, and they adapt to such change well. It seems to like to have a say in these decisions, and has shown as such throughout history.
Mr. Hofmann did not ignore geography, and it certainly would be ignorant to do so. Geography influences the people of a place just as much as history. Mr. Hofmann shows that the people of Valais have learned to be problemsolvers, simply because of the terrain, finding a way to get within the mountains, even though the best and easiest ways simply would not have worked. “The river not
navigable, the boggy valley floor not walkable, / The locals came down from the mountains a little way” (89) This line demonstrates that the people of Valais have been problem solvers from the very start of their civilization, calculating the right times to adapt, resist change, and the right way to fix or work around whatever obstacles stand in their way.
This calculated adaptability has served the people of Valais well throughout history, and their easy and successful adoption of modern technology does not go unnoticed by the author. In more recent times, they have become the literal powerhouse of a nation. The countless rivers, including the Rhone, between the many mountains of the region, keeps the lights on for a quarter of Switzerland’s population through hydroelectricity. It has also created a beautiful and unique environment, with, as Michael Hofmann references, modern technology integrated within a 800 year old building. It creates a place like no other, and Hofmann references that wonderful intersection:
Electricity and water come piped through the mountains, The vineyards get a sousing under great rainbow arcs, Who wouldn’t want to die in a thirteenthcentury tower With light sensors and cold running water
Off the hills and a chill in the sunny air of the contemporary archaic. (3640)
Valais’ historical influences are both visible in its aged buildings and in its calculated liberalism. It has always honored its background, but has never allowed that to block technological and societal progress. It has simply used it to progress when it felt right and necessary. It honors its past and future, simply with things like a “thirteenth century tower / With light sensors and cold running water.”
When writing the my essay about the poem by Michael Hofmann, “Valais,” my main focus was to see into the author’s insights into how the area and its populace became the way that they are. I wanted to see into the insights that he had about people’s tendencies and the public behavior, and why the people of Valais, Switzerland have come to be that way. I wanted to convey that people are shaped by the ways that they grew up, the problems that they have to face, and the ways in which they choose to solve them. It’s what defines nearly everything about a person.
The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Valais.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia
Britannica, Inc., 09 Apr. 2013. Web.
Hofmann, Michael. “Valais.” Poetry Foundation, Sept. 2017. Web. Accessed 26 Sept. 2017 Wikipedia contributors. “Valais.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free
Encyclopedia, 3 Sep. 2017. Web. Accessed 26 Sept. 2017