issue 27 > nonfiction > hoffman > slonimsky
Daniel Hoffman: A Teacher for All Seasonsby Lee Slonimsky
I was a member of Daniel Hoffman's graduate poetry writing workshop at the University of Pennsylvania long ago: in the spring of 1990 and again in the spring of 1993. I had known his superb work as a poet since I was a college student at CCNY, majoring in creative writing, in the early 1970s. My mother was working at Bantam Books at the time, and one day she gave me Hayden Carruth's newly published The Voice That Is Great Within Us, which she had seen at work. Dan was prominent on the list of poets I discovered within its pages at the time, who stayed with me as lifetime influences -- others included Mina Loy, Kenneth Rexroth, Robinson Jeffers, Countee Cullen, Denise Levertov, Robert Duncan, Frank O'Hara, Harvey Shapiro, and Adrienne Rich - many others I already knew. I remember in particular the impact Dan's remarkable poem "Signatures" had on me.
Adrienne Rich was to be my teacher almost immediately afterwards, in a CCNY undergraduate writing workshop in the fall of 1971, but I waited another twenty years to study with Dan. I still recall my excitement, when looking for Ph.D. programs to apply to after finishing an M. A. also at CCNY in which I was mentored by the late great poet Bill Matthews, upon finding out that Dan taught a graduate poetry writing workshop at Penn. I had some ambivalence about moving from a creative (M.A.) to a scholarly (Ph.D.) focus in my graduate work, an uncertainty that was to prove prophetic given my eventual abandonment of the degree, (though more because finance had moved from hobby to lucrative part time job than because of the conflict I just mentioned). Dan's workshop seemed a potential solution to my poet/scholar unease, especially given his stature as a scholar. And, to this day, those classes were not only the most valuable of the ones I took at Penn, they were the most permanently influential of any classes I have ever taken. And that's because Daniel Hoffman brought the same genius to teaching that he brought to writing poetry, and to literary scholarship.
My interest in writing poetry had grown slowly but steadily in the two decades since I had been an undergraduate, culminating in my taking an M.A. in the writing of poetry in 1988, and by the time I got to Penn I was publishing regularly in journals. I finished Dan's two classes feeling more than ever that I was a committed, working poet, largely thanks to his enthusiastic support tempered by astute criticism that left me always aware of the requirements of craft. I've gone on to publish four collections, and poems in numerous journals, some financial news outlets, and in the novels of my Hammett Award winning wife, Carol Goodman (also in our "Lee Carroll" urban fantasy trilogy). I credit Dan more than any other professional influence for the progress I've made, because the encouragement and appreciation of such a brilliant, learned man has affirmed what for me is the frailest and most uncertain of beliefs: belief in one's own talent. (This may be especially helpful in today's poetry world, where robust sales figures come to poets few and far between.)
In the workshops, Dan always taught and led under the authority of his enormous achievement and intellect, and with the generosity and kindness of his deeply benevolent nature. There's no better combination of qualification and motivations for a teacher. My roster of gifted poetry and fiction instructors over the years, at CCNY and Penn, is a notable one, including (chronologically) William Gaddis, Adrienne Rich, Anthony Burgess, Kurt Vonnegut, William Matthews, Bob Perelman (in Bob's case, not in a writing class) and, as recently as last year, in the extraordinary summer workshop she conducts at the Athens Centre in Greece, A. E. Stallings. All were or are tremendously talented writers, and all brought or bring something singular and inspirational to teaching the craft of writing. Yet Dan has had the deepest influence on me, perhaps in part because of a personal chemistry that has made us very good friends for the past fifteen years or so, but also, I think, because his approach to poetry is truly universal. He favored no style, and excluded no approach. Good writing was all he cared about, and he knew how to support it and improve it in a psychologically deft manner that was both encouraging and instructive.
The effectiveness of Dan's teaching was eloquently testified to a few years ago when I was visiting his home in Swarthmore with Elizabeth Coleman, a terrific poet and friend who is a member of the poetry workshop I conduct in New York City, "Walking with the Sonnet." Dan was showing us his library, a notable collection that includes a personally inscribed book of Dylan Thomas's with the poet's sketch in it, among other notable works, and then we suddenly came to a couple of shelves filled with a variety of books that at first glance looked like any other shelves. But, "these are books my students have published," Dan told us, and we stood as if stilled by the glow of his remarkable achievement. I doubt there are many, and there may not be any, teachers in American history who have played a role in the birth of more volumes than Dan has.
Dan's teaching transcends moods and fads, schools and skills. I use the present tense in concluding because, although his Penn workshop has formally ended, he continues to inspire and instruct in all his various relationships and correspondences with poets everywhere, an inspiration I personally draw from to this very moment. As a teacher, his receptivity, genuineness, and generosity cast sparks to the benefit of all who enter his classroom. This is why I will be dedicating my next book of poems to Dan (long overdue on my part), and why I call him a teacher for all seasons.