issue 27 > nonfiction > hoffman > gioia
Dan, Dan, Dan, Dan, Dan, Dan, Danby Dana Gioia
I first encountered Daniel Hoffman as a critic. Writing my senior essay on Edgar Allan Poe at Stanford in 1973, I came across Hoffman's recently published study, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe (1972). The book had an enormous impact on me—not simply in regard to Poe—but also as an example of a critical work that was equally distinguished as a scholarly study and a literary performance. It was not only smart and insightful; it was also moving, amusing, and compelling. Hoffman's tour de force was exactly the sort of thing I hoped to write myself, though back then I had no idea how rare Hoffman's combination of talents was in literary life. Two years later at Harvard graduate school I read his Barbarous Knowledge (1967), a study of myth in the poetry of W.B. Yeats, Robert Graves, and Edwin Muir. Back then I admired Hoffman for writing so seriously on Muir, a superb and original poet not often appreciated in the U.S. Four decades later—now that even the once famous Robert Graves has mostly slipped from literary memory—I value Hoffman's intellectual independence even more keenly. He is one of the finest American poet-critics of the post-war era.
I did not discover Hoffman's poetry until a few years later when I moved to New York to start a career in business. I had a read a few poems in anthologies but not enough to appreciate the variety and accomplishment of his work. I had the pleasure of hearing him read in New York several times, and I began reading through his many collections. In 1990 I had the privilege of hosting a public conversation with Hoffman for the Academy of American Poets in their "Education of a Poet" series.
This occasion gave me the chance to ask Hoffman about the full extent of his career. More important, it gave me a chance to get to know the man. I liked him immediately, and Daniel Hoffman quickly became Dan.
Dan was smart, funny, and remarkably generous. I've never spent an hour in his company in which I didn't learn something while also enjoying myself. He became a regular visitor to the West Chester Poetry Conference on Form and Narrative, and he has attended nearly every session over the past 19 years in some capacity. His enthusiastic attendance meant a great deal to the conference, and we have often been gratefully surprised by the checks he wrote whenever he learned that the finances were strained. That was the sort of support we had never expected. No one had asked him for help. Dan just did it.
A great deal has been written over the years about Dan's poetry, but I feel that one of his finest and most ambitious works, Middens of the Tribe (1995), has been almost entirely neglected. Middens of the Tribe is a compelling book-length narrative poem. It is not merely one of the best long narrative poems I have read in the past few decades; it is also (with James Merrill's "The Book of Ephraim") probably the most adventurously and ingeniously constructed one. Hoffman's poem could best be described as a Faulknerian family drama told in verse—violent, sexual, fragmented, and mysterious. Despite (or perhaps because of) its disruptive modernist structure, the poem has enormous narrative momentum and psychological authority. I wish more readers knew this poem, which is perhaps Hoffman's masterpiece.
As Dan celebrates his 90th birthday, let me join the chorus of praise to honor this great American man of letters. What a brilliant and productive critic. What a bold and original poet. And for those lucky enough to know the man--what an exemplary human being.