issue 27 > nonfiction > hoffman > ryan
A Remembrance of Daniel Hoffmanby Margaret Ryan
for his 90th birthday
I started writing poetry in the summer of 1965. I turned 15 that June, and the culture was falling apart. People were crazed because Bob Dylan used an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival. "I got you, babe," was the number one hit single and played on the radio night and day. Psychedelic paint jobs were showing up on houses and shops in beach towns all along the Jersey Shore. I was staying in one of those towns, Seaside Park, for the summer with my mother, my slightly older brother, and my absolutely ancient and overly devout aunt.
My brother took up surfing, and made friends with kids with cars, so he was rarely in the house. My mother kept asking me what "U-Babe" was, as if that were funny. My aunt said the rosary night and day, except when she was pressing me into a game of three-handed pinochle with my mother. I managed to find my way to a bookstore and picked up a copy of the selected works of e.e. cummings. I read, "Somwhere I have never traveled" for the first time. And knew I was saved.
In those days, writing poetry was a fairly solitary affair. If there were poetry workshops for teens, I never heard of any. I scribbled in my notebooks, typed things up and kept them in red folders, tucked between the mattress and the box spring of my bed, to keep them from prying eyes. I showed my work to almost no one. I read incessantly, spending 60 or 70 cents a week on paperback collections of poetry — narrative verse, modern poetry anthologies, and a collection of John Donne. It was a slipshod education.
High school didn't really help. I went to a Catholic school, and the nuns who taught there adored Catholic poets, regardless of said poet's ability. Thus, I read a lot of Alice Meynell and Joyce Kilmer and Francis Thompson. I particularly hated "The Hound of Heaven," but was not allowed to say so.
College — the University of Pennsylvania — came as a blessing to me, a deliverance. In English classes, and in Latin classes, I learned what distinguished poetry from other writing — in other words, what made a poem a poem.
But it wasn't until my junior year that I had my first poetry workshop, taught by Daniel Hoffman. Getting into this class was not easy. It was for upperclassmen only, and one had to provide a sample, a manuscript of poems, in order to be chosen for admission. I was over the moon when I got in. At last: an opportunity to have my poems critiqued, to meet others who were writing, to get some serious consideration as a poet. I was 20.
I don't remember all of the people who were in that conference room where we met with Dan. I know there were only a few of us, ten of 15 at most. Some, of course, I remember very well, because we went on to Syracuse University together: Michael Jennings, Greg Djanikian, and Bill Patrick. I also remember that I was terrified of speaking up, and when I read a poem for criticism, I was also terrified. I would not have survived that first workshop, or made it into any other, if it weren't for the kindness of Dan Hoffman.
How to describe that kindness? It was not pushy, but rather reserved. He showed great respect for each student's work. He allowed a wide range of expression in the classroom. He seemed to have truly catholic taste, and an ability to listen to students' comments and interpret them. He did not preach a single way to write a poem, or suggest re-writing in his own varied and powerful style. He did point us toward the best models, from all ages, and directed our readings as a group and as individuals.
It's also difficult to describe what a steadying force Dan Hoffman was at that time in my life, even at a distance. My years on the Penn campus — 1968 to 1972 — were years of cultural turmoil. My difficult summer of 1965 was nothing compared to what came later: campus protests, the Vietnam War, a general overthrow of authority, a sense of "anything goes," and, of course, Kent State. Dan Hoffman remained solid, hardworking, steady, and productive. I'm sure he never knew how much it meant to me to see him in a suit or a tweed sport coat, crossing campus in the midst of the bell-bottomed, love-beaded, be-fringed student body. I myself wore the uniform, of course, but I liked it that Dan Hoffman did not.
What was thrilling about working with Dan what that he was a real working publishing poet, as well as a talented and producing scholar. His poetry appeared regularly in a variety of magazines, and his critical works appeared like clockwork in the University bookstore. He was also part of a summer colony of writers and poets in Maine which included Philip Booth, Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Hardwick, Mary Mc Carthy. He was — and is — the real thing.