issue 27 > nonfiction > hoffman > walker
A Note in Thanks for Dan Hoffmanby Jeanne Murray Walker
It was dangerous to write poetry during the years I studied for my Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania, or at least I thought so. And with some reason. In the early 70's, after the bottom dropped out of the job market, the faculty became determined to turn out scholars who could get and keep jobs. The English Department shed students. Among graduate students, rumors abounded: who was in, who had been turned out, what a person had to do to stay. I, who had written poetry before I entered, never touched the stuff anymore. It was frowned upon. I was doing the early modern period, so I hadn't taken a class with Dan Hoffman. But I was fascinated by news from friends that there was a professor who not only had written the important book about Poe, and several other important scholarly works, but also had published recently The Center of Attention, a sixth book of poetry. The idea! That someone could do both--and brilliantly.
I thought of Dan back then, even before I knew him, as an axis of sanity and order. It made sense that reading and writing poetry could be complementary. He became a model for many of us. And the rumor afoot was that Dan gave shelter to young poets at Penn.
That's why, several years after I completed my PhD and had started teaching at the University of Delaware, I phoned to ask Dan whether I could sit in on his graduate poetry writing workshop. I had started writing and publishing poetry again. I was wary of telling anyone at my home institution, but I needed a community.
There are not enough words to say how grateful I felt when Dan answered the phone and sounded pleased at my request. I don't even know whether he knew who I was. Although my presence would mean more work for him, he assured me warmly that he would be delighted to welcome me to the group. So once a week, after a day of teaching in Newark, Delaware, I drove to Philadelphia to study poetry writing with Dan and his band of graduate poets. I did this for several years. Hectic as those years were for Dan, he meant business about our writing. His advice was smart and he was unbelievably kind to me. In a Dan Hoffman Workshop, a spirit of joy prevailed, even mischief. But we weren't dabbling. We wrote and read one another's work as if our lives depended on it. I drafted part of my first book for Dan's workshops.
When Dan retired from Penn, some of us young poets who had studied with him threw a party for him at our house. We celebrated his kindness, his canny guidance, the time he spent with us, the community he forged. After that, for several decades my husband, Daniel Larkin, and I shared dinners with Dan and Liz, and more recently, after Liz died, with Dan. We joined him at The Franklin Inn for a time. I have read Liz's poems aloud with Dan, and his books have been companions on my bedside table and at my desk for years. I celebrate here Dan's long friendship and generosity, which have made a permanent difference in my life.
I love Dan's poetry for the way it captures the world's improbable plenty, sometimes even the gaudiness of the world, its silliness. I love the irrepressible and pugnacious vigor of the language he finds to name that world. Maybe that's why Dan's first book, An Armada of Thirty Whales, which won the Yale Series of Younger Poets' prize, is among my favorite books. As Dan has continued writing, his poetry has gained in poignancy, in awareness of loss. It has deepened and taken in more territory. I prize his later books as well: The Whole Nine Yards, Makes You Stop and Think, Hang-Gliding from Helicon, Beyond Silence, Words to Create a World, Darkening Water. And finally, I salute the great Brotherly Love, which accomplishes what most contemporary poets never even try—an epic reach that names concerns beyond the personal, that tells the common story of our culture.