issue 27 > nonfiction > hoffman > christensen
Hoffman Between Two Worldsby Paul Christensen
When I arrived at Penn in 1970 as a new grad student, I had one thing in mind: find Daniel Hoffman and begin pleading with him to supervise my dissertation. I didn't know what I was going to write about, I only knew he was the closest thing to Virgil for guiding me through the underworld of graduate study and depositing me, perhaps, at the starry gates of a doctoral degree.
I slipped a copy of The Southern Review with my latest poems in it into his mailbox in the faculty room and waited for any comment he might make about them. I didn't have to wait long; a note invited me to drop by and chat. He had the Review on his desk when I pushed open his office door and faced him for the first time. He stood up when I approached and vigorously shook my hand, and indicated a chair facing him. I took in the man's wiry features; the taut, strong face with a well-chiseled chin and thin nose, bushy eyebrows, and a fine, thin-lipped mouth that seemed the most suitable instrument for reciting poems or for holding forth on the mysteries of the 20th century. The light was behind him, streaming in from two long windows on either side of his desk, highlighting his hair and the edges of a face I wasn't yet prepared to stare into.
But the moment I could draw a breath, he began speaking in that vaguely New York accent, the up-town Manhattan version, about the bits of humor in my poems. I relaxed and said I had been enjoying his poetry for years. I managed to add that no one could wind a phrase as tight as he could, and that the closes were left jabs to the reader's unsuspecting curiosity. He wasn't in any one school of the moment, and if there were threads of vintage Frost and some echoes of Auden in the best of his work, it was Dan's own voice I heard the loudest. Sharp, clear, precise without being self-consciously compressed — the style illuminated the mid-century desire to break away from the artifice of borrowed English prosody and at the same time preserve something of the genius of the British way of lyricizing. He was a trans-Atlantic poet, with a foot well planted in the New York of Lowell and the van Dorens, and a lovely, often invisible mastery of how to float the odd word seamlessly into a musical riff.
You didn't read Hoffman for confessions of his private life; you read him for the power of his articulation of what we all experience one time or another. Or for the power to cut off your breath as he narrated the horror of driving on a freeway with a bee hanging in his face, able to kill the poor man with one sting. You could peer down into his lines and see the very soul of the mid-century, from soldiering in World War II and preserving that well-defended patriotism many years later; the joys and sorrows of seeing how roughly our Anglo-American alliance was being tested by younger poets coming up. He was first and last a man in love with the mother tongue as practiced by the bards of all the isles, and now of our own sprawling continent. No fan of Pound, but an apostle (a discerning and careful one) of Eliot, and a keen observer of our distinctions as a New World voice, supplied with our own body of myths and the character-building experience of the frontier to mix into his verse. A Brit would have spotted the Yank at once, but for the American student, the subtlety of his weaving was enough to make one think he might easily pass for an Audenite. I was dazzled, and found him a remarkable link to the generation before mine, with all its ligatures tying it to the old world, and the new one aborning in ever more strident acts of rebellion against the Old Empire and its croaking saints.
He was the newest flowering of consciousness Columbia could cultivate, alongside the magic and wordsmithery of John Hollander, and the equally potent and dangerous figure of Allen Ginsberg, the shaggy-haired guru of a new age, less likely to genuflect before the masters of Poets' Corner. Somehow Columbia embraced both sides of the '50s, the sedate, well-tempered sensibility of English verse, as revered by Lionel Trilling and Carl and Mark van Doren, and this seething volcano of new voices about to erupt and sprawl its lava across the poetry centers of American from San Francisco to Greenwich Village. Across the street from Columbia's dorms was the devil's disciple himself, William Burroughs, teaching the Beats how to "un-educate themselves" after life in the halls of his rival academy. As Ginsberg once told me , Burroughs introduced him to a Papal Index of American voices ignored or outright forbidden from Columbia's curriculum. Somehow, I was persuaded through Hoffman that both halves of the torn world belonged together to make for an education.
After a course or two in modern poetry with Hoffman, he polled his grad students about their plans for degrees. When it came my turn, I blurted out that I was eager to write a dissertation under him, and he hardly took a beat before saying, "And so you shall." What he wasn't counting on was my choice of subject, the barbaric yawps of Charles Olson, founder of Projectivism and guru of Black Mountain poetry. It appalled him, but he held his thunder and asked, politely, if I would mind writing the study pretty much on my own without asking for his endorsements. I said yes, and he may have held his nose turning my pages of heated prose, but when it was all done, and he had straightened out my crabbed syntax and blunders, it was clear to me that we had become friends, and he had, if not forgiven me my crass taste in the new savage tongue of Viet-Nam era America, then found some scintilla of intelligence among the debris of my wasted enthusiasm. He and I didn't blink over our differences, but came to respect them.
If I thought his poems had cleansed me of certain habits of flabby lyricism, and a tendency to reach for heady abstractions I thought luminous at the time, it wasn't until a few years later that I became a student of his prose, some of the finest modern writing to be found anywhere in America. It was taut, and lean, and so muscular at times, I couldn't grasp how he had taken his argument to such a condensation and let go some overpowering insight. He is that rare combination of the inspired critic with a wizard's agility to wring out great truths from thorny texts, and a poet who could drop his spectacles and take wing, always with that sureness of flight that makes me think of Daedalus plowing the air over the Aegean with grace, while his son flailed and tumbled on melting wings.
Bravo, good sir, and may you continue to defy gravity even now, at the ripe old age of 90.