I had chance encounters with the twenty second Poet Laureate of the United States, Daniel Hoffman, (April 3, 1923 – March 30, 2013). Once at the Edgar Allan Poe House in Philadelphia; at a poetry festival in Media, Pa.; and at the book release of Elizabeth McFarland’s Over the Summer Water.
In reading two of his collections, Broken Laws and The City of Satisfaction I was struck by his lyrical intensity, eye for detail. Richard Howard wrote: Daniel Hoffman’s gifts exact a broken music quite his own from the broken laws of the universe in which we carry our identity papers.
I reached out to several poets who have had contact with or knew Daniel Hoffman over the years. Although all those I reached out for could not participate, those included in this post did so in honor of Daniel Hoffman and National Poetry Month. Poet Nathalie Anderson,Poet Gregory Djanikian, Poet Laureate of California Dana Gioia, Poet Diane Sahms-Guarnieri, Poet Bob Small, and Poet Frank Wilson have been gracious to participate and reveal the reach of the poet Daniel Hoffman during his lifetime and beyond. – g emil reutter
Daniel Hoffman – In Poets Words
From Gregory Djanikian
Dan Hoffman was the first poet I ever met in my life. I mean a poet with published books, with a reputation, with a way of talking about poetry that had the force of experience behind it. He may even have been the first such poet I saw in the flesh.
As a freshman new at Penn, I was trying to find my way as a writer, wondering if the poems I had written in high school were good enough to catch someone’s eye, or if I would ever have the will and resolve to continue making more poems and shape my life around that making. But did poets actually exist in the real world? Weren’t they chimeras one read about in books? Didn’t one discuss them as if they were only words on the page? And that’s when I saw Dan Hoffman walking sprightly through Bennett Hall in his sport coat and tie, maybe to a faculty meeting where things of import might be decided, or, what was even more compelling, to the poetry workshop he directed for students where moments of literary history, I was sure, were being forged and lives, changed.
Poetic careers on campus, in large part, had a chance of flourishing if you were invited into Dan’s workshop. I had tried to enter it a couple of times, submitting a sheaf of my best writing as a passe-partout but, sadly, for all my sincere efforts, I had no success. It was difficult being an exile from it, feeling that the high mysteries of art were reserved for the enviable few, those tested upperclassmen, perhaps, whose raw talent or sheer tenacity had earned them an invitation into that lucky apprenticeship. It took me three tries to finally cross the threshold of his classroom and it began for me a life-long devotion to the craft of poetry, and a life-long friendship with the man himself.
If it weren’t for Dan, I don’t think I’d be who I am. As his student, I learned how the constraints of the villanelle might produce an incantatory and beautiful music, how the sonnet was a delightful way of bringing two paradoxical arguments together in one place, how free verse had its own, indelible form, and form itself was an occult rearrangement of language, and how, on really magical days, the muse was a white goddess whose barbarous knowledge could make of the moon a song in the sky.
Over the years, I became more his friend and less his student, and we shared many memories of our time together which amounted to over 45 years. One of my favorite images of him still is how, after he walked in the door of our house, and almost before he took off his coat, he’d sit at the piano and stride into a ragtime piece, a little Joplin or Luckey Roberts, sip his scotch and water, and launch into another tune. He seemed so transported and happy when he played music. If you asked him to dinner, he provides the entertainment, and, as an added blessing, a great red wine for the meal.
It’s a wonder sometimes how one life might intermingle with another in the best of ways. As I’ve said elsewhere, had I not known Dan, I would have had to imagine him. He was a mentor, exemplar, an advocate for all his students’ work, and an abiding friend. As I think back on it, it was my utter good fortune to have crossed paths with him on that day long ago in my freshman year when I, young and unsure of my writerly prospects, resolved to begin knocking on his door. What a remarkable change in my life occurred when it was opened.
From Dana Gioia
REREADING DANIEL HOFFMAN
I remember being astonished as a young man by Cyril Connolly’s assertion in Enemies of Promise that it was nearly impossible to write a book that lasted ten years. Ridiculous, I thought, good books last forever! Young and idealistic, I did not understand the ineluctable powers of oblivion. Connolly listed various reasons why books lost their force and relevance—mostly changes in political, literary, and intellectual fashion. Today we can add our own catalogue to Connolly’s tally, including a general decline in reading, even among writers, the distractions of a media-saturated environment, and a culture obsessed with novelty. As cultural memory grows ever shorter, nearly everything that doesn’t generate a profit slips into obscurity.
I mention Connolly because his brilliant and disturbing book came to mind when I thought of how quickly Daniel Hoffman seems to have disappeared from current literary discourse. When I mention his work to younger writers, I get a blank stare. It’s not that they haven’t read Hoffman; the new generation hasn’t even heard of him. The situation shows how easily a fine author’s reputation disappears in our accelerated lives. The great dumbing-down of culture includes the intellectuals. Indeed, it includes us—yes, you and me–unless we resist by reading and remembering.
A writer is remembered by his or her best works, and I would suggest that Hoffman wrote at least two volumes of enduring originality and power–one in prose, the other in verse. The prose book is Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe (1972); the verse is his book-length poem, Middens of the Tribe (1995). “Literature is the art of writing something that will be read twice,” Connolly observed. I have read these books several times over the years, and they remain fresh and arresting.
Hoffman’s Poe book had an enormous impact on me as a young man—not simply in regard to Poe—but also as an example of a critical work that went beyond scholarship and became a literary performance. His study of Poe was not only insightful; it was also moving, amusing, and compelling. Hoffman’s tour de force was exactly the sort of thing I hoped to write myself. As a student, I had no idea how rare Hoffman’s combination of scholarly and creative talent was in literary life. He was one of the finest American poet-critics of the twentieth century.
I want to mention another of Hoffman’s critical books since it seems relevant to my protest against the forces of oblivion. A few years after I had read his Poe study, I discovered his earlier volume, Barbarous Knowledge (1967), a consideration of myth in the poetry of W. B. Yeats, Robert Graves, and Edwin Muir. Forty years ago I admired Hoffman for writing seriously on Muir, a superb and original poet not much appreciated in the U.S. Seen now from the perspective of another century, this book seems more precious still because even Graves, who in my youth had been declared the most famous living poet in the world by Time, has mostly slipped from literary memory. Hoffman’s wide reading and intellectual independence is more valuable than ever. Barbarous Knowledge allows us to remember him and two forgotten modern masters.
Finally, let me mention Middens of the Tribe, which is a book almost no one seems to have read. Long gestated and revised over many years, Hoffman published this ambitious volume late in his career. It seems, at least to me, his finest poetic work. It is certainly his most challenging and least characteristic. A compelling book-length narrative poem, Middens of the Tribe is formally adventurous and ingeniously constructed. The poem could best be described as a Faulknerian family tragedy presented in discontinuous episodes. Middens of the Tribe is violent, sexual, fragmented, and enigmatic. Despite its disruptive modernist structure, the poem has enormous narrative momentum and psychological authority. I wish more readers knew Hoffman’s masterful and mysterious poem. It is one of the few major narrative poems of his generation.
I praise these books not at the expense of Hoffman’s other works, but because I feel it’s most useful to recommend specific titles rather than general praise. These volumes are good places to begin reading Daniel Hoffman. If a whole book is too much, at least try a single poem.
Read “Sonnet,” an incisive and still timely poem (which is not itself a sonnet) about the precarious power of literature. After sampling it, no serious reader will stop there.
From Nathalie F. Anderson
The Real Thing
I first met Daniel Hoffman on the page. As a grad student down south, immured in my carrel, I too often found myself walled in by literary criticism that seemed written to be musty, and literary theory that seemed written to be cryptic. But Dan’s books weren’t like that: Barbarous Knowledge and Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe told their urgent stories complicatedly, grippingly. This was literary history that investigated, literary biography that speculated, literary criticism that illuminated, and all of it — above all — engaging. Although I was reading these books for their content, of course, I appreciated too the personality of the author that was everywhere evident in their pages: his intelligence, his perceptiveness, his sympathetic humanity, his wit. I remember pausing in my headlong rush through Poe to think, “This is work worth doing. This is the real thing.”
It’s significant, then, that when I consider Dan’s own poetry, I think most focally of a passage from the start of Brotherly Love:
Is it real, this life
That you are living, is it
Whether through history or through personal recollection, Dan’s work often offers us narratives of the “real,” but complicated by that characteristic challenge. What version of events can claim to be true? What currents flow intermingling through what we take to be a simple stream of happenstance or consciousness? What heights transcend or depths intensify the everyday unattended moment? If, as T.S. Eliot puts it, “human kind / cannot bear very much reality,” what is it that keeps us — in Wallace Stevens’ phrase — “coming back and coming back / To the real”? And what distinguishes the “real” from the “Real”? Dan’s poetry appreciates always the materiality of the world we live in, but pushes us towards the larger questions, the ethical questions, the philosophical questions.
Because I knew Dan before I knew him, so to speak, meeting him in the flesh was all the more daunting, like opening the door to a one-on-one Ph.D. oral exam — all that wit, all that erudition, all that rich experience of the world of letters, all that brilliantly incisive discernment trained on you. I’ve never left a conversation with him without feeling that my eyes have been opened to some fresh insight or to some convolution of thought or to some revealing circumstance. Dan lives the intellectual life so fully that it’s difficult not to feel humbled in his company, yet he shares that life so comprehensively and so generously that you leave him energized, grateful for all he offers.
But when I say “he” — as anyone who knows Dan will understand — I really mean “they”: Daniel Hoffman and Elizabeth McFarland went everywhere together, and shared a like intelligence, a similar aesthetic, a honed ethical awareness, that trenchant wit. After her death, which shocked us all, I was moved and complimented when Dan asked me to present her work with him in readings at Swarthmore College and at the Rosenbach Museum and Library. My favorite line of hers is still “She always wanted her kisses back,” because to want something back implies a demand not only for goods returned, but also for reciprocity: if she’s not kissed back, she’ll take back those kisses! That she and Dan found that reciprocity, that mutuality, was obvious to all who saw them together. It’s hard to imagine companions more superbly matched.
Among my favorites of Dan’s poem’s, then — despite his widely recognized allegiance to poetic tradition — is “Words,” where (he says) he’s giving up rhythm and rhyme for the “gutreaction poem / of the soul’s discovering,” “poems that are themselves the / sound of your / slip rustling and the / scent that laces / the air you wear” — poems that we know speak of and to his love. “Goodby, words,” he concludes; “They / do become you,” and that knowing wink — the words that flatter the wearer, the words that create what they describe, the words that home in on their source and reason, the words that know just what they love and live for — explain the speaker’s sudden reticence, his decision to let the said be said: “I’ve / no more to say.” Yes, this truly is the real real thing.
*Reprinted from Per Contra with permission of Nathalie Anderson
From Diane Sahms-Guarnieri
Today, March 7, 2017, I search for one of Hoffman’s books, and extracting it from my library, I revisit Darkening Waters, where once he wrote: Signed with pleasure/ for Diane Guarnieri / Daniel Hoffman//24.X.2002.
At that time, October 24, 2002, this was his ninth poetry book, which he read from at Kelly Writers House on that date; and with his consent, I filmed his reading for a graduate course: “Using Technology in the Classroom (Secondary Education). My presentation, as a Sec. Ed. English teacher, was a lesson in poetry. My fellow grad students (of mathematics, science, history, etc.) probably not the least bit interested in poetry, were won over by Hoffman’s reading of his poem, “Mean Street.”
I choose that poem’s clip for my technology-in-the-classroom lesson, because I believed it to be his most descriptive and passionate read, videotaped by me, and re-played for a group of Education majors, most of whom grew up in Philadelphia.
From “Mean Street:”
In sneaks, in shorts, in tie-dyed tee-shirts
one burly blonde, the other swarthy,
leaner,younger, snatch at each other
cirlcling, till one gets an armlock
on the other’s head…
… — the lean one
shoves his knee between the other’s
legs and down they fall, hard
on the cracked pavement…
…but the lean one
prevents and pinions him, then grasps
a fistful of his long hair and beats
the back of his head on the pavement, a thud
and a thud, a thud –If y’ever call
me that again –a thud –I’ll KILL ya,
a couple or three more thuds—so easy!—
and the guy’d be dead…
At 79, wearing his small and thin framed body, balding head with thick- wild- wavy hair still on the sides, Hoffman (who was probably never in a street fight) had witnessed a brutal brawl between two younger men viciously fighting almost to the death of one of them. He was so moved by the aggression, violence – he penned it. He wrote what he had witnessed and read it as if he were still there, “grimly within the ring of onlookers.” He, too, an onlooker – present once again!
After giving this powerful strong-arm read, which I filmed for my colleagues, the calm and very often composed Professor Hoffman appeared a bit disheveled and strainfully exhausted. Looking up from the page and joking rather candidly with Penn’s erudite audience said, “Someone asked why I didn’t try to break it up?” All laughed, even my colleagues when the film clip was shown to them.
This unapologetic poet knew it was all about the poem, which by the way led Hoffman to another poem, as one poem sometimes can bridge into another one. Here’s the other poem from Darkening Water. What do you think?
After I’d read my poem about a brawl
between two sidewalk hustlers—one,
insulted, throws the other down and nearly
kills him—over coffee and cookies a grave
senior citizens reproved me: How
could you see such violence and you
didn’t try to stop them?—Oh, I explained,
it wasn’t like that, really –I saw
two guys in a shoving match and thought
I’d write about aggression, what
Anger really feels like…Yes
and if the one got killed
it would be on your head.
You should’ve stopped them, he said.
From Frank Wilson
I can’t claim to be among Dan Hoffman’s close acquaintances. We’ve only met a handful of times and never for any unusual length of time. On my end, however, this hardly figures at all, because I regard getting to know Dan at all as one of the boons of my life.
I think we first met at one of the poetry conferences at West Chester University. What I remember about our first conversation is that it was precisely that: a conversation. Literature figured, of course, but didn’t predominate. Poetry came up, sure, but in a perfectly natural way. It was actually easy to forget that Dan is one of our best poets and a former poet laureate. In retrospect, I realize that one of the things that makes Dan a great poet is that, for him, life comes first and the poetry grows out of that.
But the time with Dan I remember best is when my wife and I visited him one summer afternoon at his home in Swarthmore. We sat on the porch for a bit and, as usual, the conversation covered a wide range of topics. Eventually, though, Dan talked for a while about his wife, the poet Elizabeth McFarland, who had recently passed away. His love for her was palpable. She had been for 13 years the poetry editor of the Ladies Home Journal, and had brought to its readers every week poetry by the best practitioners of the art around. She also paid those practitioners better than anybody else did. At the time of our visit, Dan was putting together a collection of her work.
I reviewed that book. I said that Elizabeth was “someone for whom a poem is not primarily a literary artifact, but rather a necessary utterance, without which a given experience would not be quite complete.” Precisely the same can be said of Dan and his work.
And that is what makes even a casual acquaintance with him so enriching. There is, in fact, nothing ever casual about meeting Dan. It is always what the existentialists call an encounter, an engagement with a person, not a persona. Had I never met him, my life would be the poorer.
From Bob Small
Though Daniel Hoffman had attended a number of our readings, (Poets and Prophets), both here and in Swarthmore, we had never thought to invite him, due to his status. However in 2010, we had decided to ask him, being aware that we were a little grassroots organization with limited funding. To our pleasure and surprise, he agreed and the result was his reading that took place on Tuesday, May 18th, 2010 at Moonstone Arts Center in Philadelphia.
He gave a great reading and he was a great poet, but did not wear the mantle of an “internationally-known poet”. After that I remembered running into him a few times in our local market, the Swarthmore Co-op, and he would ask me, “How the series was going”. In sum, he was very down to earth considering all he had achieved.
Learn more about Daniel Hoffman: