issue 27 > nonfiction > hoffman > foley
Daniel G. Hoffman and My Youthby Jack Foley
(written in celebration of Dan's imminent 90th)
As Yeats lay dying in the Hôtel Idéal Séjour
he worked upon his last heroic play, The
Death of Cuchulain. Bending the legends to
his own imaginative needs, he made the hero
who, in At the Hawk's Well had chosen a
brief glorious life rather than a timorous
longevity, persist into old age, an undaunted
and reckless warrior still.
—Daniel G. Hoffman, "Cuchulain
and the Epic Theme," Barbarous Knowledge
Youth is sometimes wasted on the middle aged—or even, as in my own case, on the old.
Some time around 1960, I was attending Cornell University. I was—depending on when in 1960 it was—19 or 20 years old. Someone from the campus literary magazine (or was it the campus newspaper?) knew I was a poet and gave me a book of poetry for review. I believe it was the first book of poetry I was ever given by anybody! The book was A Little Geste by Daniel G. Hoffman; it had appeared recently, in 1959.
I was impressed by the book and said so—but I didn't keep the article I wrote and so I have no idea of any of the specifics. When I was asked to contribute to this birthday celebration, I thought it might be interesting to re-do the piece fifty-three years later.
I believe I may have begun by quoting W.H. Auden, whose introduction to Dan's first book of poetry, An Armada of Thirty Whales, praised Dan's work for "providing a new direction for nature poetry in the post-Wordsworthian world." A Little Geste in fact opens with a quotation from Wordsworth: "I, at this time, / Saw blessings spread around me like a sea," and the first section is titled "Poems and Blessings." It is followed by two more sections: "Taliesin" and the title poem, "A Little Geste."
At twenty I knew what a geste was: "an historical fiction in which the hero faces every adversity with honorable geste (action, deportment)." A chanson de geste (song of exploits) was in medieval France "one of a genre of Old French epic poems celebrating heroic deeds, the most famous of which is the Chanson de Roland. (Both definitions from the internet, which didn't exist in 1960.)
The opening poem, titled with Biblical resonance "In the Beginning," places us smack dab in the middle of the twentieth century:
On the jetty, our fingers shading
incandescent sky and sea,
My daughter stands with me.
'Boat! Boat!' she cries, her voice
in the current of speech cascading
with recognition's joys...
To name the nameless pulls her
From the syllabic sea
Of incommunicate loneliness,
From the isles of infancy.
Wow, that abstruse Latinate adjective "incommunicate" joined with the common, almost commonplace "loneliness." Words pull at each other in Dan's own urging of "the syllabic sea." "The world without description," the poem goes on,
is vast and wild as death;
the word the tongue has spoken creates the world and truth.
"In the Beginning."
The second section brings us into the deep, mythic past: "Taliesin," the name of the "renowned bard who is believed to have sung at the courts of at least three Celtic British kings" (Wikipedia). Here is Dan as Taliesin (the name means "Radiant Brow"). Note the delight in the sound of the words, with the Welsh names ringing, and note that, as Gwion becomes Taliesin, so Dan becomes Taliesin:
All Nature's secrets Became my ken Not through cunning. Caridwen Set hands of Gwion's To stir her soup Of inspiration, Science, And Grace. One drop Of each splashed my thumb, Pain made me taste; Gwion's become Taliesin, 'Radiant brow,' Who till now Was unlearned and chaste.
Auden and Yeats are in that passage and perhaps Ezra Pound as well, but there is also something new—something magical and transformative ("Gwion's become / Taliesin").
But the pièce de résistance of the book is the marvelous concluding section, "A Little Geste." The hero of this "geste" is Robin Hood, imaged here as a fertility god. (Dan had read his Golden Bough.)
We hunted the wren for Robin the Bobbin,
We hunted the wren for him alone,
We hunted the wren for the Hooded Robin,
We hunted the wren for every one.
Whose arrow was it burst
The wren's thighbone and heart?
It was the Robin's dart,
The blood is on his breast.
The blood is on the brown dry grass,
It glistens in the sun,
Its sprouts leap from the thawing earth.
We hunted the wren for every one.
This section contains what is for me the great poem of the book. Written in utterly convincing faux Anglo-Saxon, "The Coming of Robin Hood" begins:
Given: that glebe and gorse and grounded
be seared by scorch of the merciless sun;
that hillock and ridge rust, though rainwater
is none: that North, nimbus the wood needs
grind like a grate high over the ground;
that ash of dead fires from dark heavens falling
make scape of land sea, while snowtide reveals
nor furrows deepfilled nor furze nor flower.
Here in the sameness of space is horizon
in an age of dying. But deep in the heavens
sinuous surges of sun prick the crystal
and sink to earth's center; sap stirs
in blood as in root with burgeon and budding.
The ground heaves, and green is the girth of the meadow
the sun-faced groundsel beams;
in seedfields, row on row
of greenlanced barley teems.
Gorse drinks the melting snow.
Tongues pierce inward, redly touching:
in glade where gladness gushed in a ground
faggots' crackle fades, hissing;
alone the woodlouse reels on the log.
Clouds of stars crinkle in heaven;
a nightjar burbles belated rills;
murmuring leaves, murmuring grasses;
the dark moves in; a muffled sigh,
a breath in sleep's instinctual stirring:
—this scene's the ember's eye regards.
Sounds of silence stroke the forest—
ratchet of claws, birdwings' rustle,
a wind of waking wafts the halflight.
Under the briery bush the bride
slumbers still beyond all sorrows.
Horned groom, god or halfgod, softly
sunders from her, in own self shapen.
What does he see in the ember staring?
Passes green fingers through yesternight's flames:
of ash tall cock thrice crows:
Sun leaps from East to West.
All's well. Each homeward goes
singing, renewed, and blessed. *
"The Coming of Robin Hood" isn't but ought to be in every anthology of twentieth-century English/American verse. It is alive with communicate energy. Like the book as a whole, it is an extraordinary achievement that joins form ("cunning") to a wild, constantly moving imagination rooted in the Romantics, in Modernism, and, most deeply, in the syllabic sea of Dan's consciousness. Heady stuff for a twenty something who wished to make his own mark in the area of what Pound called "verbal manifestations."
One might describe Daniel G. Hoffman as a formalist of experimental cast. He was 35 when A Little Geste appeared; he is now approaching 90. He remains—like Cuchulain, like Yeats—"an undaunted and reckless warrior still."
* Lewis Turco reminds me that "The Coming of Robin Hood" is not only Anglo-Saxon prosody but an imitation of the form the Gawain poet used, which ended each canto with a "bob-and-wheel." "The Coming of Robin Hood" can be read in its entirety in the current issue of Mary Ann Sullivan's Tower Journal (Winter 2013): www.towerjournal.com.