issue 27 > nonfiction > hoffman > rogoff
Gifts from Danby Jay Rogoff
In my first encounter with Dan Hoffman, he gave me encouragement. In my second semester at Penn, my instructor in a first-year creative writing seminar suggested I show Dan a poem I had written for the class. I nervously made my way to his office in Bennett Hall, knocked, and explained myself. Dan looked the poem over (it was called "Kelp," and written in pentameter quatrains) and, to my surprise, read it aloud. It was satiric and intended to be morbidly funny. Dan chuckled, maybe politely, then suddenly said, "Why don't you send this to The Nation?"
I had never submitted—never thought of submitting—my writing anywhere but my high school litmag, so this floored me. I barely knew what The Nation was, and though it turned out that the magazine had far less enthusiasm for my poem, I felt immensely gratified by a serious poet who didn't know me at all taking my work seriously.
Dan's stint in Washington with the Library of Congress followed, so I didn't encounter him again till my senior year. When he returned, I undertook an intensive curriculum in Hoffman, enrolling in his undergrad poetry workshop one semester, and in his Pound and Eliot seminar the next. I recall his reading of Pound's "Cino"—I still have that furious oath "God's pity" ringing in my head, his voice more strident than Pound's, and almost as strange. I also remember his anonymously slipping a new sonnet before us in the workshop, one later published as "Her Gift." It ends,
Save when a chance word gouges to the quick
A hidden scar,
Or unstifleable woe
Breathes on the things no choice of hers can change,
She trembles, a windblown wick,
Her tercets shake the bars of their narrow cage.
I remember the exclamation point in my brain, the thrill at the realization that you could do that—screw around with line length and rhyme in a supposedly formal poem. Dan as teacher, poet, and critic continually introduced ways of participating in tradition without being suffocated by orthodoxy. At the end of the workshop, a valedictory session at his home culminated in his own offering for each of us, an inscribed copy of Broken Laws, the first time I had ever received such a gift from the poet's own hand. It is one of a number of gifts I have received from Dan over the years—most of all that never-flagging gift of encouragement, the idea that I might someday call myself a poet as well.
Three decades later, I had the chance to discuss Dan's new and selected poems, Beyond Silence at some length in an omnibus essay-review, an account that, I believe, still rings true as an appreciation of his six-and-a-half decades of poetic vitality. Since I wrote it in the months after the World Trade Center attack, as we schemed to invade Iraq, I began by considering those disasters and ended by discussing one of Dan's characteristically strong defenses against destruction and despair, a love poem to his lifelong muse, his wife Liz. The following edited version offers some reasons why the power of Dan's poetry persists, as well as the great pleasure of quoting again from a few poems of his I love:
In disastrous times, a poetry of outrage can sound outrageous, but the walled garden of formalism can provide an equally valuable defense, for its sense of order can counterattack the crimes perpetrated on humans and our language. . . . Reading Daniel Hoffman's Beyond Silence, his selected poems of the past fifty-five years, we stroll not through a garden but across an entire landscape. He has taken the daring approach of organizing his work thematically, so poems written in his twenties stand cheek by jowl with others written in his sixties and seventies, early crocuses with summer lilies. In Hoffman's case it works because over the decades he has maintained a remarkable consistency and maturity of voice. Listen to this excerpt from "That the Pear Delights Me Now":
Some squush remains, though,
some meat around the seed.
When Indian Summer strains
the last warmth through the orchard
pearpits feast and feed
and stir, & burst, & breed:
Earthward plunge the tendrils.
That the pear delighted me
is wholly incidental,
for the flower was for the fruit,
the fruit is for the seed.
And this one from "A Comfort":
Won't you have a dipper
of this birch beer? I've just put a chunk of ice in—
taste of homebrew still remembered,
skinny freckled hands and yellow flowers
fading on an apron, her gaunt smile
a comfort remembered still
years and years
after she squanched the burning of the day.
At least fifty years separate these poems, the first from Hoffman's debut Yale Younger Poets book, An Armada of Thirty Whales (1954), the second from one of Beyond Silence's handful of new poems. They are not the same—the new poem is more flexible and colloquial, the early poem more self-conscious in its rewriting of Keats and the inversion of "Earthward plunge the tendrils"—but they identifiably come from the same hand, sharing a sharpness of eye, a precision of ear, a pleasure in satisfied memory, and a delight in language that extends to onomatopoeic coinages ("squush" and "squanched"). Neither embarrasses the other; rather, Hoffman's poems gain illumination from their new thematic contexts. . . .
Hoffman's encounters with the violence of twentieth century history can be profoundly moving. In a dream-poem called "A Special Train," the speaker, disoriented, asks "What am I / Doing in the Orient?" before recognizing his kinship with the innocent victims of war:
And look, in this paddy
A little boy is putting in the shoots.
He's naked in the sunlight. It's my son!
. . . See, his hands are smeared
With mud, and now his white
Back is flecked with ash, is seared
By embers dropping from the sky—
The train chuffs past. I cry
Stop! Stop! We cross another paddy.
He's there, he's fallen in the mud, he moans my name.
The poem remarkably conflates imagery from Hiroshima and the Nazi camps with a "chuffing" train, recalling Plath's "Daddy," and Vietnam, immersing the reader in suffering with an unusual immediacy. Ironically, in a recent poem, "Violence," an audience member at a poetry reading turns the tables on the poet by confronting him with just this kind of responsibility:
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 citizen 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.
This sonnet plays with the formal borders, shrinking its lines after the opening pentameter, and rhyming when it needs to, evolving from slant-rhymes ("How" / "you" / "saw"; "thought" / "what") to the only full rhyme, to end the poem with an appropriate knock on the head. Many subtleties make the poem vivid: the ordering of speech patterns, the idiosyncratic phrasing of the old man's question, the poem's shift from past tense into present for its brief description of the violent act, a cameo of epic heightening. But it wittily deals with one of a poet's demons, the ornamenting of an actual event for poetic purposes, only to have the work of art taken for truth. And further, it raises the fascinating question of whether we are morally responsible for the universes we create—whether we must lie in the beds we have lied to make.
In "Summer," from his fine 2002 volume Darkening Water, Hoffman continues to be obsessed with the simultaneous power and impotence of poetry to shape our experience.
A breeze tentatively comes from somewhere
Far at sea, searching for a lover,
For bestowal, bringing its caresses,
Bringing words etched on this page,
A white prow I launch now
To cleave the darkening water.
The breeze, recalling Wordsworth's literal inspiration in The Prelude, is here tentative yet loving, profligate yet cautious. This late version of Hoffman's muse gives and takes away. The new poem becomes a ship, its prow cleaving the water as a plow—and Hoffman's career-long sensitivity to sound calls up the rhyming association unmistakably—cleaves the earth in order to bear fruit. Yet the poem plows only water, and ominously "darkening water" at that, upon which it is launched with a hint of despair like that plaguing Keats, who feared his poems were "writ on water." The poet finally must be bold in launching the proud, full sail of his verse, but also despairing, ultimately working without hope.
This generous harvest of poems from Hoffman's lifetime of work, however, offers ample proof of his enduring power; one more ingredient in the mix is his accomplished love poetry, particularly the poetry of love enduring into middle age and beyond. These lines come from "It Cannot Come Because Desired":
It's with these
That we must
Their strangely bulged and cherished
Curvatures, their folds, their flanks,
Messages that we
The other's own
The loving acceptance, touching but unextraordinary, of each other's changing bodies works towards the glory still concealed within, set off brilliantly by the sudden formality of the little quatrain and its clinching rhyme. Literally and figuratively, the two lovers become translated, transformed into pure analogues of each other, defined by their ability to read and understand each other thoroughly. They inhabit a pre-Babel world in which everyone speaks the same language, a world before any tower has yet collapsed. Hoffman has poetically imagined us back to the formal garden, his Eden, and it is a garden of love.
Excerpts from "Formal Gardens with Real Poets in Them," reprinted from The Southern Review, vol. 39, no. 4 (Autumn 2003). Copyright © 2003 by Jay Rogoff.