issue 27 > nonfiction > hoffman > hirsch
Daniel Hoffman: "A Sort of Singing"by Edward Hirsch
I remember the nervous walk across campus to Bennett Hall, the musty academic smell of the first floor building, the rap on the door. Daniel Hoffman welcomed me into his book-lined office. He tilted and twitched behind his desk—I was the student, what was he so nervous about?—which I later learned meant that he was concentrating. He was wearing a turtle neck sweater and herring-bone sport coat. He was thin and reedy. His dark hair was a bit too long, a holdover from the Sixties. It parted in the middle and looked electrified. He had the eyebrows of an Eastern European poet. His eyes were dark and piercing. He had a full-throated raucous laugh, which erupted easily. It seemed larger than his body. There was something oddly kind about his face. I realized later that I loved him on first sight.
It was 1975. I was twenty-five-years old and starting out, Dan was fifty-two and well- established. He bounced a little when he walked. He was just back from a year-long stint as the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. He was moving back into his office, which was filled with posters of the poets—Robert Penn Warren, Robert Lowell, Louise Bogan, W. S. Merwin—who had read at the University of Pennsylvania. These were the heights. I was going to see him because I considered him a consummate poet/critic. He seemed interested in what I had to say, partially because I was coming over to him from the Folklore Department. He liked the idea of a poet/folklorist, and embodied it himself. Myths, legends, fables, tall tales—these were more than academic things to him, they were enabling sources, which he mined for his work. When I met him, he had published six books of poems and was hard at work on his beautifully understated book-length Quaker poem, Brotherly Love. He had published five critical books, including his Master's Thesis on Paul Bunyan, a book on nineteenth-century American fiction, a splendid work on myth in the poetry of Yeats, Graves, and Muir, a fantastic reading of Edgar Allan Poe, obsessively titled Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe. His learning was old-fashioned and daunting—it seemed to come from another era. I was especially moved by his knowledge of American literature. He had read everything and took it personally. I walked away from his office resolved to read more, to work harder, to live up to his example.
Dan invited me to sit in on a poetry class of his, and he became my teacher, then my thesis adviser, then my friend. He singled-handedly got me a fellowship to write my thesis on Yeats and folklore, which he scrupulously read and annotated, chapter by chapter, draft by draft. He was its presiding spirit, my conscience, who always treated me as an equal. Soon after we met, he invited me to read with him in a Philadelphia bar (I remember that someone passed around the hat and I walked away with fifteen bucks.) I sat in on a poetry workshop, and he saved my poems for the days when other poets, his distinguished visitors, came to class. I didn't usually say much, but one day he brought in an unsigned poem by someone in the class, and I began to rave about it. The poem was so skillfully managed, so cleverly rhymed, so deeply rung, that someone had made an enormous breakthrough. The poem floored me. After the workshop, Dan confessed that he had brought in one of his own poems to see how it would go over.
We've been friends for thirty-eight years now. I've been reading his work longer than that. His poems are solitary, impeccably crafted, deeply spiritual. He is, in the Quaker mode, startlingly aware of silence, and moves beyond it. He loves spells, riddles, the gift of tongues. Social injustice infuriates him, and he quietly bears witness. He is a close observer of the natural world. He reckons with private sufferings and public sorrows, and yet there is a kind of gaiety in his work, a deep joy, something that lasts, an eternal spark, "a sort of singing."