issue 27 > nonfiction > hoffman > peich
Daniel Hoffman: A Literary Treasureby Michael Peich
Darkening Water , Daniel Hoffman's splendid collection of poems, appeared in 2002. I reviewed the volume for the Philadelphia Inquirer and praised Hoffman as Philadelphia's "literary treasure." I was not alone in my recognition of this extraordinary talent.
I first encountered Hoffman's poetry in graduate school when I read A Little Geste and Other Poems (1960). (I still have that copy, now warmly inscribed.) I became a fan and was subsequently delighted by Brotherly Love, enlightened by his Poe (both books were nominated for the National Book Award), and impressed by the critical depth of the essays that comprise Words to Create A World (1993). Hoffman has translated Hungarian and Italian texts, and adapted Brotherly Love for an oratorio. Along the way he served as Poetry Consultant to the Librarian of Congress (we now call the position Poet Laureate), received critical recognition including the Aiken Taylor Award, and had a rewarding teaching career at Swarthmore College and the University of Pennsylvania. In sum, Dan is more than one of Philadelphia's most distinguished writers and citizens—he occupies a prominent place in American letters.
My admiration for Dan has been enriched by our nearly forty-year friendship. As I discovered shortly after meeting him, Dan and Liz, his wife and soul-mate, were the consummate hosts—when poets read at Swarthmore they opened their home to students, to colleagues, and to me, a young assistant professor who was thrilled to meet Auden, Richard Wilbur, and countless other writers at chez Hoffman. Inspired by his generosity, Dan became my mentor as I later brought poets to West Chester University, and hosted receptions in my home that, as Dan and Liz had, allowed my students, colleagues and friends to greet talented writers. It was a gesture that served me well in later years as an arts administrator.
Dana Gioia and I co-founded the West Chester University Poetry Conference in 1995 on the premise that poets were interested in traditional craft and narrative—all they needed was a place to gather. Two of the ninety people who gathered at West Chester that first year were Richard Wilbur, our keynote reader, and Dan. It was an honor to have these eminent poets support what Dana and I thought would be a one-time event. Over the ensuing years Dan continued to assist our efforts with scholarship gifts, and with his continued presence as a member of panels and critical seminars. The Conference honored Hoffman and Anthony Hecht on their eightieth birthdays in 2003, thanking them for enriching the world with their art.
There is another dimension to the man we celebrate, and that is the private Dan Hoffman, the man whose company many of us have enjoyed. There is one evening that was particularly special for me—a dinner with Dan and Liz, my wife Dianne, and Jill Rosser, one of his distinguished Penn graduate students. The dinner conversation was lively and literary—in short, perfect. At one point Dan held forth about the importance of understanding craft. If one were going to create art, no matter the medium, Dan felt that one had to fully engage with craft. His remarks were not a lecture, nor were they a pep talk. Instead, in a sensitive manner, illuminated by numerous lines from his vast memory, he elucidated the importance of learning one's craft as a central part in the process of developing one's voice. At one point he noted that the West Chester Poetry Conference was a place where aspiring poets could engage with craft, and he thanked me for my work in making the conference possible. His kind words were somewhat ironic since I had struggled for some months with continuing on as poetry conference director. The conference had grown and its increased responsibilities required more of my time, leaving me less time to make books at Aralia Press. Listening to Dan that evening erased my uncertainty, and helped renew my commitment to the conference. His unintended remarks were exactly what I needed to hear.
One of my favorite Hoffman poems is "The Cape Racer," a poem in which the narrator, a summer resident, recounts buying a Cape racer snow sled at a New England country auction. The speaker notes that he will never use his purchase, so why acquire the beautifully crafted ash and iron sleigh? The answer comes in the concluding six lines:
It's pleasure enough to see it lean
against the wall all summer,
as ready as ever it was to test
its lightness, strength, and taut design
on the crust of the bright snow or down
the white slope of the mind.
Thank you for taking us along on your Cape racer, Dan. And heartiest birthday wishes to you on this very special occasion.