issue 27 > nonfiction > hoffman > jennings
Daniel Hoffman: First Things and Last Thingsby Michael Jennings
The first poetry reading I ever attended was given by Daniel Hoffman in one of the small auditoriums on campus. My grandmother was visiting me so I took her along, and as Dan read his poems in his inimitable way (he sort of barks them rhythmically), she observed that he had the eyes of a prophet. It was my first brush with poetry other than Bob Dylan's, and it seems to have hooked me for life.
Several years later I took Dan's workshop in poetry and remember in a discussion of Richard Wilbur's "Mind" how Dan, always dapper and quite self-contained, suddenly started acting out his version of a downed bat flailing along the ground. It was pretty accurate and absolutely startled everyone in the class — like watching Dean Martin suddenly become Jerry Lewis — but it made us laugh, and that was probably his purpose.
I was young and arrogant and not very attentive to anyone over 30, especially someone who wore a tie every day (it was, after all, the 60s), but I do remember two things that Dan said that stuck with me and still seem true: "There's only so much success in poetry as there is virtue in heaven," and "Poetry is about first things and last things." For all I know he may have been echoing his teacher Mark Van Doren or someone else, but they strike me as important touchstones to pass along.
Of course, as often happens I suspect, I really only came to truly appreciate Dan many years later, after I had read his varied and usually quite witty work, and asked his advice about several of my manuscripts that he helped see into print. I realized that of all my teachers — some who thought themselves much bigger 'stars' than Dan — he was the most eclectic, generous, and just downright smart.
So here's to you Dan…..cheers!!