issue 27 > nonfiction > hoffman > djanikian
Convergencesby Gregory Djanikian
Dan Hoffman was the first poet I ever met in my life. I mean a poet with published books, with a reputation, with a way of talking about poetry that had the force of experience behind it.
He may even have been the first such poet I saw in the flesh.
As a freshman new at Penn, I was trying to find my way as a writer, wondering if the poems I had written in high school were good enough to catch someone's eye, or if I would ever have the will and resolve to continue making more poems and shape my life around that making. But did poets actually exist in the real world? Weren't they chimeras one read about in books? Didn't one discuss them as if they were only words on the page? And that's when I saw Dan Hoffman walking sprightly through Bennett Hall in his sport coat and tie, maybe to a faculty meeting where things of import might be decided, or, what was even more compelling, to the poetry workshop he directed for students where moments of literary history, I was sure, were being forged and lives, changed.
Poetic careers on campus, in large part, had a chance of flourishing if you were invited into Dan's workshop. I had tried to enter it a couple of times, submitting a sheaf of my best writing as a passe-partout but, sadly, for all my sincere efforts, I had no success. It was difficult being an exile from it, feeling that the high mysteries of art were reserved for the enviable few, those tested upperclassmen, perhaps, whose raw talent or sheer tenacity had earned them an invitation into that lucky apprenticeship. It took me three tries to finally cross the threshold of his classroom and it began for me a life-long devotion to the craft of poetry, and a life-long friendship with the man himself.
If it weren't for Dan, I don't think I'd be who I am. As his student, I learned how the constraints of the villanelle might produce an incantatory and beautiful music, how the sonnet was a delightful way of bringing two paradoxical arguments together in one place, how free verse had its own, indelible form, and form itself was an occult rearrangement of language, and how, on really magical days, the muse was a white goddess whose barbarous knowledge could make of the moon a song in the sky.
Over the years, I have become more his friend and less his student, and we've shared many memories of our time together which has amounted now to over 45 years. One of my favorite images of him still is how, after he's walked in the door of our house, and almost before he's taken off his coat, he'll sit at the piano and stride into a ragtime piece, a little Joplin or Luckey Roberts, sip his scotch and water, and launch into another tune. He seems so transported and happy when he plays music. Ask him to dinner, and he provides the entertainment, and, as an added blessing, a great red wine for the meal.
It's a wonder sometimes how one life might intermingle with another in the best of ways.
As I've said elsewhere, had I not known Dan, I would have had to imagine him. He's been a mentor, exemplar, an advocate for all his students' work, and an abiding friend. As I think back on it, it was my utter good fortune to have crossed paths with him on that day long ago in my freshman year when I, young and unsure of my writerly prospects, resolved to begin knocking on his door. What a remarkable change in my life occurred when it was opened.