issue 27 > nonfiction > hoffman > cummings
Becoming Poetsby Darcy Cummings
During the annual end-of-semester gathering, I watched Daniel Hoffman circulating among his students, who listened intently, then smiled. Small groups clustered on the big porch of his Swarthmore home. Though too far away to hear, I thought I knew what he was saying to the students one at a time: "Say, that was a great line/image/metaphor in your poem," and he'd quote the line. Or, "Your wonderful poem—send it out." And he'd offer suggestions for where to submit it. Most of the young writers were dressed in stylish (for the time) grungy clothes. One beautiful young woman wore a pastel blue diaphanous dress. I can't remember which of those May events it was, sometime in the mid 70s, but those few moments epitomized for me Daniel Hoffman the teacher. I was chatting with Liz Hoffman, discussing roses and apple trees, astonished that she knew all the exact names of many obscure varieties. For me the flowers and apples were how they looked, smelled, tasted, but I knew very few specific names beyond the common ones (red delicious, Granny Smith). But Liz knew them all, gala, pippin, Roxbury Russet. "Why, she's a poet;" I thought—"she loves those names." I was a bit drunk with May wine, delighted with the food (ham and cheese that were beyond those I'd ever tasted before), the lush purple and smell of the wisteria, the porch railing's thick paint beneath my hand. Sensory overload. Perfect party for poets. I'm a poet, I thought. We're all poets here, I thought, and it's all because of Daniel Hoffman.
When I first met Dr. Hoffman, it was a dark miserable day. I was a first year graduate student, underprepared, overwhelmed, unhappy. I wanted to write poetry, but there was no time or place for it in my life. Someone suggested I ask to sit in on Hoffman's undergraduate poetry class, if he'd take me. So I'd gone to his office hours clutching some sonnets, narrative poems, short surreal stanzas (all forms that at the time were not being published or read much). They were very rough and awkward drafts. Dr. Hoffman read the poems and said OK, I could sit in, but of course I'd write a poem a week and participate in class. Of course. As if I weren't already crushed by my work load.
The class met in a small dark room, around a longish table. All work was presented anonymously. Someone (not the author) would read a poem and then we'd discuss it—what worked, what needed work. The discussion was civil, though at the beginning of the term a couple of students had made sneering remarks about a poem; they were promptly, but gently informed about the decorum of a poetry writing class. To tell the truth, all the student poems, including mine, handed in those first few weeks seemed awful, or dull, or pompous. What a relief. I fit right in. Over the semester, however, I could see how the drafts and revisions were getting better. Mine too. At least I didn't shudder as much when my poems were read. Since I planned to teach poetry writing someday, I wondered: how was that happening? How does a teacher help a student improve, make those leaps in skill and confidence? We students were rather stumbling critics, so I tried to figure out what the best bits were, and what could be improved in each poem. I tried to compare my notes with Hoffman's summarizing comments after the students finished their critiques. Sometimes I was right. And I was right also to have unofficially audited the class. The unbearable stress of graduate work was lightened by the joy of writing poetry again.
I read his comments on my work and began to struggle my way to saying what I meant through form and images. What is a poem about? What was I trying to say? I saw that writing poems was hard work, not simple inspiration or a few stunning images lost in clutter. I made a commitment to continuing that work, no matter what.
And how, I wondered, had Dr. Hoffman known from the pathetic work we submitted to get into his class, which applicants were promising? I don't think I ever figured that out. But I was beginning to see how encouragement and kindness could protect the overwrought psyches of young poets.
The next semester I (officially) took Dr. Hoffman's Modern Poetry survey and (unofficially) his 600 level poetry writing seminar, which was open to select upper level undergraduates and graduate students. I loved Keats, Whitman, Dickinson, Shakespeare, and corny minor Victorian poets my mother loved and read to us, but knew almost nothing about contemporary poets. One day in the Modern Poetry class, we were reading "The Thought Fox" by Ted Hughes. I felt as if a small bolt of lightning hit me between the eyes. So this is what poetry can do, I thought. And maybe I could do it. A week later I wrote the first poem I felt in my bones was an almost good poem. The first draft was solid and a little scary, but seemed to need very little revision. At the same time, afraid I was wrong, I couldn't wait to submit the draft to the poetry workshop and see what my classmates and Dr. Hoffman thought. Two days after I'd left the poem in his mailbox, I saw him in Bennett Hall.
"Say, that is a wonderful poem." He said. "It's really good. You know that, don't you?" He was grinning and twitching a bit with approval? Excitement? Appreciation? It was a bit of physical expression I'd observed in class when he discussed any poem he liked. Another lightning bolt. "Yes," I admitted, "I think it's a good poem." One of Hoffman's gifts as a teacher was to know how and when to praise, and those few words kept me going the rest of the term and probably for a few years after.
I'm not sure how many of those poetry writing classes I sat in on—five, eight? I never registered for the courses, never paid for them (couldn't afford it), and there's no record that I ever took them. There were others who also just "sat in." Not all the students were upper level undergrads or English PhD candidates; some were medical, law, and Wharton grad students: everyone who loved to read and write poetry was welcome. At this level, each week we read and discussed sample poems by contemporary poets, then discussed our own. All kinds of poems. There was no identifiable "Hoffman student poem." We were encouraged to find our own voices. We were reminded to accept each poem for what it was: formal, metrical, free verse, surreal, and to learn the conventions of each type. Once we read a very promising surreal poem by a seminar member. "Have you been reading Desnos?" Hoffman asked (approvingly, I thought). The student had. I'd never heard of Desnos, but made a note to look him (her?) up, read some of his work. I had no vocabulary to discuss the student's poem, though I liked it very much. I was beginning to trust my instincts, to figure out how the poem worked, to find words to express what I was learning. I was beginning to understand where a poem went wrong or was weak, what it needed—form, meter, metaphor, images, logic, less logic. I was beginning to feel a bit vain about my ability to diagnose other writers' work. Not my own, of course, not for a while yet.
Sometimes we wrote poems that urgently needed to be written. Sometimes there were interesting assignments: write a poem in which there is a boy and a dolphin; write a poem about a character in a book that you loved and set the poem twenty years after the end of the book. That assignment I worked on for twenty years.
Of course beyond his classes there were many ways that Daniel Hoffman taught us. I admired his poetry and saw a new way to write criticism in Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe. His productivity and hard work were things to emulate. He wrote recommendations, took us to lunch with famous poets, sponsored poetry contests and poetry readings, continued to read our poems and manuscripts years after we graduated. A community of writers developed during that time; a small group of us continued to meet for years. And still do, at least occasionally.
The second week of one my last seminars brought a batch of poems I could find little to comment on except Great! Wonderful! I love this line!! I was at a loss to suggest changes or improvements on the poems. I thought I had lost my ability to critique. As it turned out, the members of that seminar were just that good. I thought of that class as the Golden Seminar because of all the talented students in it; among them were Deb Burnham, Edward Hirsch, Susan Stewart, and Jeanne Walker. At least thirty books of poetry, prose and criticism were later published by members of that group.
Although the courses don't appear on my transcript, they were the best, most productive, of my graduate career. I received no academic credit for them, but Daniel Hoffman certainly deserves credit and praise for his role in teaching and guiding and encouraging those young poets.