Hoffman, Daniel (Gerard)
HOFFMAN, Daniel (Gerard)
Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 3 April 1923. Education: Columbia University, New York, A.B. 1947 (Phi Beta Kappa), M.A. 1949, Ph.D. 1956. Military Service: U.S. Army Air Force, 1943–46: Legion of Merit. Family: Married Elizabeth McFarland in 1948; two children. Career: Instructor in English, Columbia University, 1952–56; visiting professor, University of Dijon, 1956–57; assistant professor, 1957–60, associate professor, 1960–65, and professor of English, 1965–66, Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania. Since 1966 professor of English, since 1978 poet-in-residence, Felix E. Schelling Professor of English, 1983–93, and since 1993 Felix E. Schelling Professor of English Emeritus, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. Fellow of the School of Letters, Indiana University, Bloomington, 1959; Elliston Lecturer, University of Cincinnati, 1964; lecturer, International School of Yeats Studies, Sligo, Ireland, 1965. Consultant in poetry, 1973–74, and honorary consultant in American letters, 1974–77, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. Since 1988 poet in residence, Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York. Visiting professor of English, King's College London, 1991–92. Awards: YMHA Introductions award, 1951; Yale Series of Younger Poets award, 1954; Ansley prize, 1957; American Council of Learned Societies fellowship, 1961–62, 1966–67; Columbia University Medal for Excellence, 1964; American Academy grant, 1967; Ingram Merrill Foundation grant, 1971; National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship, 1975–76; Hungarian P.E.N. Medal, 1980; Guggenheim fellowship, 1983; Hazlett memorial award, 1984; Paterson Poetry prize, 1989. Since 1972 chancellor, Academy of American Poets. Address: Department of English, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 19104, U.S.A.
A Little Geste and Other Poems. New York and London, Oxford University Press, 1960.
Striking the Stones. New York and London, Oxford University Press, 1968.
Broken Laws. New York and London, Oxford University Press, 1970.
Corgi Modern Poets in Focus 4, with others, edited by Jeremy Robson. London, Corgi, 1971.
The Center of Attention. New York, Random House, 1974.
Able Was I Ere I Saw Elba: Selected Poems 1954–1974. London, Hutchinson, 1977.
Brotherly Love. New York, Random House, 1981.
Hang-Gliding from Helicon: New and Selected Poems 1948–1988. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1988.
Middens of the Tribe. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1995.
Paul Bunyan: Last of the Frontier Demigods. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press-Temple University, 1952.
The Poetry of Stephen Crane. New York, Columbia University Press, 1957.
Form and Fable in American Fiction. New York and London, Oxford University Press, 1961.
Barbarous Knowledge: Myth in the Poetry of Yeats, Graves, and Muir. New York and London, Oxford University Press, 1967.
Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe. New York, Doubleday, 1972; London, Robson, 1973. "Poetry since 1945," in Literary History of the United States, revised edition, edited by R.E. Spiller and others. New York, Macmillan, 1974.
Others: Shock Troops of Stylistic Change (lecture). Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania, 1975.
Faulkner's Country Matters: Folklore and Fable in Yoknapatawpha. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1989.
Editor, The Red Badge of Courage and Other Stories, by Stephen Crane. New York, Harper, 1957.
Editor, American Poetry and Poetics: Poems and Critical Documents from the Puritans to Robert Frost. New York, Doubleday, 1962.
Editor, with Samuel Hynes, English Literary Criticism: Romantic and Victorian. New York, Appleton Century Crofts, 1963; London, Owen, 1966.
Editor, New Poets 1970. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania, 1970.
Editor, University and College Prizes 1967–72. New York, Academy of American Poets, 1974.
Editor, Harvard Guide to Contemporary American Writing. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 1979.
Editor, Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams: The University of Pennsylvania Conference Papers. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983.*
Bibliography: Daniel Hoffman: A Comprehensive Bibliography by Michael Lowe, Norwood, Pennsylvania, Norwood Editions, 1973.
Critical Studies: "Daniel Hoffman's Poetry of Affection" by William Sylvester, in Voyages (Washington, D.C.), Winter 1970; "Daniel Hoffman" by Jeremy Robson, in Corgi Modern Poets in Focus 4, 1971; interview with W.B. Patrick, in Daniel Hoffman: A Comprehensive Bibliography, 1973; "Another Country: The Poetry of Daniel Hoffman" by John Alexander Allen, in Hollins Critic (Hollins College, Virginia), October 1978; "An Interview with Daniel Hoffman" by Edward Hirsch, in Shenandoah 32 (Lexington, Virginia), 4, 1981; "The Philadelphia Story" by James Finn Cotter, in Hudson Review (New York), Autumn 1981; "Using the Long Form" by Paul Mariani, in Parnassus (New York), Spring/Summer 1982; "The Objective Mode in Contemporary Lyric Poetry" by Peter Stitt, in Georgia Review (Athens), Summer 1982; "Hoffman's 'As I Was Going to St. Ives"'" by Lewis Turco, in Poesis (Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania), 1985; "Hang-Gliding from Helicon" by Leon V. Driskell, in Magill's Literary Annual, 1989; review by Ben Howard, in Poetry (Chicago), May 1989; "A Conversation with Daniel Hoffman" by Vincent Sherry, in Boulevard, Fall 1989; "A Poet's Quest: Daniel Hoffman's Hang-Gliding from Helicon" by J.P. White, in Shenandoah (Lexington, Virginia), 1990.
Daniel Hoffman comments:
I would want imagination to be free to tell the truths of feeling and to discover and reveal the shapes, the patterns, and purposes of life of which we are not aware. In a poem called "Essay on Style" I explore the innumerable possibilities for poetry and the poet's search for a fit style to express them. This is an alliterative abecedary. I will pick up a few lines from the letter C, in which the poet rejects cracked reproductions of chunks of the Chaos as though imitation Comprised creation … and the poem goes on to propose for the poet that his Destiny directs that he now Discover the drift of his difference. What in these Days of disjunction endures? A Diction to say Desire, dawn, death, despair, descant … Devour, depart, dig, digress, discard and discord—Doggone, it is a domain here a man can or die in, go Daft with the delicacy and the daring, the Dazzle of dew in the darkness—let his Doodlings disclose new delights, for this dialect Defies desolation … That is what poetry ultimately gives us. It defies desolation. The world is always going to hell in a handbasket, but the poet's imagination, his vision, can find what holds "desire," "dawn," "death," "despair," and "descant" in one pattern, the articulation of which, if he is successful, will give delight.
And how to do this? You have to be open to all kinds of knowledge and experience; you have to sink an artesian well into your own consciousness to reach the depths of your being that are the heights of your being. Arriving at such a place, when I do, what I find speaks to the continuities of our experience, the recurrence of what is numinous at the center of life, as well as descriptions of the violence and sufferings we think peculiar to our time. If the resulting poems succeed in defying desolation, I hope they will give pleasure to others.* * *
Daniel Hoffman's scansion is modern insofar as he frequently resorts to a shifting visual pattern of spacing, a line of varying length for rhetorical purposes of either reinforcement or of counterpoint. He both demonstrates and denotes his practice in the conclusion of The Center of Attention:
Arriving at last,
It has stumbled across the harsh
Stones, the black marshes.
The appearance on the page is modern but actually evokes traditional rhythms. The first line has two unmistakably strong beats, and the isolation of the first line invites a pause, so that the first word of the next line cannot be slighted. The distinction between stressed and unstressed is sharp and consistent. Later on in the poem—"Carved on memory's staff /The legend is nearly decipherable"—one finds a line that echoes a trochaic and choriambic, followed by a line with three primary stresses and a secondary. His lines are like a steady shifting of traditional meters, but they never move into the cadences of unmistakable prose. His diction is consistently generic; he prefers to evoke a sense of swerving rather than the precisely classificatory hyperbole. The "stones" and "marshes" do not indicate a world out there, one to be photographed, but are emblematic of an inner struggle, the "harsh, black" struggle of writing. The legend, what is read, what is available to all, like a scroll or a saint's life, is "nearly decipherable," "casting its message /In a sort of singing." "A sort of" is used in the sense of "approximate," but the phrase also has the decipherably older meaning of "a particular kind," as when Swift writes about "a sort of jabber." Hoffman's use of rhyme, however sparing and occasional, however attenuated semantically or prosodically, brings him close to a tradition that by passes Whitman and that assumes a correlation between literary and social decorum. In "The Sonnet" he contrasts his memory of Louise Bogan's faith in the sacredness of form to the formlessness of bearded youths and rumpled girls.
Hoffman's province is conservative, a poetry that indirectly evokes, without imitating them, the worlds of Yeats and Edwin Muir, a "sort of singing" to make older ways of feeling accessible today. He is less interested in discovering new perceptions than in finding new ways of expressing feelings common to people now and in the past. He is chary of assuming a common knowledge and is sparing in specific literary references. When he quotes Mallarmé, "donner un sens plus pur aux mots de la tribu," the allusion to his own interest in Poe is decipherable, but the central meaning of the quotation expresses his own aim. (Actually his poetry should be seen as one aspect of his total literary production).
With Hoffman's concern for bon sens, his development has been a shift of emphasis rather than an experimentation with new assumptions. He has put successively rigorous restraints upon his lines. The title "City of Satisfactions" has ironic overtones, whereas the multiple meanings of "Broken Laws"—legal or natural identity papers or
The broken laws
Almost deciphered on
This air we breathe
—occurred in a collection that was considerably less ironic than its predecessors. Irony implies a commonly held set of social assumptions and has, perhaps, inevitably hierarchical implications of shared values. In the increasing pluralism of assumptions, Hoffman has brought the center of his attention to what can be shared. Each line has a sharply delimited focus, so that overtones emerge from the sequence of lines and from the sequence of poems.
Hoffman is capable of a wide range of tones: the "hang-gliding" of young people out in the sun and air and the classical "Helicon" of the study. The meditative mood of the poem "Himself" in Hudson Review ("The one most like himself is not this mirror's /Dishonest representation …") is sustained to the end:
The blessing given him at last
Across the alien years
Is that he now may judge his actions
By what that one most like himself would do
Whose ease with the world shames his unease,
Whose delight exceeds the joys he's known,
Whose gifts are greater than his own.
He is also capable of a certain playfulness, as the title of his 1977 book, Able Was I Ere I Saw Elba, suggests. The last, intense words of this book deserve particular attention because in one way or another Hoffman's poems move toward a coping with order/disorder, unease/delight, dishonesty/blessing, barbarousness/knowledge:
It's our life that's burning.
Is it ever too late to thrust
Ourselves into the ruins,
Into the tempering flame?
An awareness of living among ruins pervades Hoffman's 1995 Middens of the Tribe, a book-length poem evoking a range of people, rich, poor, old, young, men, women, a doctor, a stockbroker, the "magician" who "saws a woman in half," and the woman in the box who nearly gets nicked by the saw.
The poem has a "decorum" in the sense that the diction and lingo of an imagined speaker should be appropriate to the speaker's "place"—social, linguistic, geographical. Through allusiveness, irony, paradox—tendencies with a faint and remote family resemblance to the New Criticism—the poem searches for place and through a fictive world attempts to probe our own. One needs the whole tribe but winds up alone on a private midden, a "pit of manure" or "dunghill."
A "kitchen midden" is the name for a pile of ancient refuse, shells, and bones produced by humans living in a literal kitchen—"Fact is, except for you calling on me here in the kitchen. /there's nobody in this house …"—or it may be a metaphorical kitchen midden of beautiful, expensive refuse:
… marble columns, urns brought back from
Italy, curtains and tapestries from France
The past seems to have more order:
Characteristic of the Cromlech People
is the evident arrangement of their tombs,
the sons beside their fathers and grandfathers,
each with tools in flint or bone of the same trade.
We find no evidence of adolescent
rebellion against the ascription of fixed
But passions are stronger than the pressures of the tribe:
Their sexual pleasure releases them to
the rejoicings spawned tadpoles stir in still ponds
The tension has no resolution, as the
study of a culture at a distance
must, so little known of its inner life, be
We cannot help writing our own fiction, Hoffman implies, and will take the poem to our own purposes, as the last line indicates:
look into my notes and write.
As the saying goes, "any cock can crow on his own midden," so crow we must, as best we can, with whatever voice we have. Daniel Hoffman has many voices.