issue 27 > nonfiction > hoffman > salcman
Daniel Hoffman: Friend, Mentor, Exemplarby Michael Salcman
By the time I was able to finish this tribute to Dan Hoffman, my dear friend and mentor had quietly passed away on the 30th of March, 2013. So much has been written about his remarkable career as poet, teacher and literary essayist, that this sad moment may better serve for a brief consideration of his wonderful presence as a human being. For the past six years, Dan and I met on a regular schedule several times a year; I never left a single one of these meetings without learning something about being a better person or enjoying a laugh occasioned by his puckish sense of humor. Although he liked humor in poetry his deep sense of pacifism led him to compose "A Riddle", a poem dedicated to his greatest wish for humanity:
If all but one deny me, I am not.
The Greeks had gods for everything but me.
How could I live on earth, in heaven? Yet see
If you can find me in the hearts of men.
This poem was included in an essay on riddles by Ed Hirsch, one of Dan's many students. For more than a year, while preparing for a literary festival in Baltimore featuring Ed, every conversation with either one of them included a reference to their indestructible bond: Dan never let me forget that Ed was one of his students and Ed never let me forget that Dan had been his teacher.
Like Dana Gioa, I first knew of Dan as a man of prose; with immaculately stylish sentences he had confirmed me in my obsessive Poe-worship by writing a book in a mode that embodied Poe's meaning, just like a good poem does. I did not know then, as I do now, that Dan was an expert in spinning at length a lyric into a great web of meaning, each line, each technical feint made with the tensile strength of a spider's cord. Perhaps he grew tired of my praise for Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe, Poe (1971), the very first book of literary criticism I ever read. I later accepted his gift of Brotherly Love (1981) as what it appeared to be but he may have meant it as a kind of lesson too. This kindest of gestures occurred a few months after the two of us set to work as an informal steering committee for the very first poetry section in the long history of an organization otherwise devoted to arts of all kinds. It was impossible not to attend our meetings because the most senior among us made it his business to attend all of them. He frequently led by example but his example could be challenging and, for me at least, impossible to imitate. Whereas the majority of assembled poets, anthologists, editors and lovers of verse read their own work or poems by writers they greatly admired, Dan nearly always recited poetry by memory. Like his prodigious energy this was another talent too humbling to reflect upon for long. Soon enough we were hosting special events devoted to Tennessee Williams, Thomas Hardy and his friends of long-standing, Dick Wilbur and William Jay Smith. Of course none of this would have been possible without his tenacious intercession. By far the finest and most moving of these celebrations was the most private, an evening devoted to the life and work of his late wife, poet and editor Elizabeth McFarland. Dan recited poem after poem of hers from memory, in memory, with ardent precision and evident love, a feat the couple's friends and admirers tried to match. The atmosphere was incantatory. It was difficult to refrain from weeping at the depth of his commitment. I am happy to report that Dan's many gifts and passions extended undiminished almost to the end. He was one of the last members of an extraordinary generation of American poets; his many kindnesses were returned by his friends and students who made sure he knew he was deeply loved.