issue 27 > nonfiction > hoffman > terranova
Daniel Hoffman, an Appreciationby Elaine Terranova
Daniel Hoffman is and has been recognized as one of our best poets. What I love most about his poetry is the way he combines technical mastery with natural speech. In his sonnets the "happy accident," I think he used that term, of rhyme informs acute observation of the world around him. As a psychologist once told him, "For a poet, you have a strong reality principle."
His selected shorter poems in Beyond Silence are sometimes studies in people and psychology, famous and not so famous. His insights in "Mark Twain, 1909," are inspired by a well-known photo of the writer. "The Princess Casamassima" compares Weatherman bomber Catherine Wilkerson, a former student of his at Swarthmore, with the character in the James novel. "Charlie Hoope" is both a portrait and a family saga.
Even in criticism, Hoffman's humanity is a shining light. His personal enthusiasm for Poe (in Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe) infuses the work. Discussing "The City in the Sea," Hoffman praises the beginning of the poem, then goes on, "but the next couplet nearly blows it." About "while from a proud tower in the town/Death looks gigantically down," Hoffman can't help commenting, "What an effect!" And at the start of a chapter called "Dull Realities," he chides Poe, "All right, Edgar, we've lingered long enough up here on Cloud Nine."
Daniel Hoffman was not my teacher except in the informal way of teaching by the example of his own work. Over the years, I met a number of students from his legendary U. of Penn workshop though, Greg Djanikian, Susan Stewart, Ed Hirsch, Jeanne Murray Walker, Deb Burnham, Marilyn Nelson, Darcy Cummings, and I was terribly sorry not to have been part of that community. I could imagine them interacting, sharing work, attempting the same assignments, learning from one another.
When I met Dan, I was a chair of the Jewish Y poetry committee. His Brotherly Love had just come out and was being lauded everywhere and even presented as an oratorio, and we wanted him to read. I knew he was a major figure in poetry and was pretty shy speaking to him on the phone, but he was his usual gracious self and soon put me at ease. That was the start of our friendship. Some years later, when I won the Walt Whitman Award, the Academy of American Poets asked him, as a Chancellor and someone I knew, to call and tell me so I wouldn't think it was a prank call. Far from it. It was probably the single most thrilling phone call of my life. Dan himself had been winner of the Yale Younger Poets Prize for his first book, so he knew what this would mean to me.