issue 27 > nonfiction > hoffman > ridland
Late-Blooming Correspondencesby John Ridland
Although Dan Hoffman and I have known each other for only three or four years, we have discovered several unexpected correspondences, a couple of which give me an advantage over many of the other contributors to this Festschrift. First, I will be having my 80th birthday the same year Dan turns 90; although we're not in the same age bracket, I am catching up with him in encountering the consequences of aging, which have included, for both of us, "surgery that gave a new meaning to the phrase 'open-hearted'," as Dan put it. I know what he's up against now, and I hope he does as well as is humanly possible.
Second, we both were suffered to be present at Swarthmore College in its Quakerly philistine 1950's, when he was not allowed to teach a Creative Writing course, and there had been none around for me to take. In a livelier parallel universe, Dan would have arrived to teach there eight years earlier, and I would have begun to learn from him what a poet must do, instead of thrashing about on my own. My best teacher was a booklet that had slipped into the bookstore on "British Poetry Since 1939" by Stephen Spender, studded with examples and bolstered by a large bibliography from which I checked out books from the College Library, finding quite a few of the poets, though since all of them were British (as I still was), it took me a dozen years more to learn how to write American. If Dan Hoffman had been my teacher, that, and much more of my poetic education, would have come much sooner.
Third, and more surprisingly, both Dan and I have found ourselves translating poems from the Hungarian. When I mention doing this, people say, "Oh, so you speak Hungarian?" "Nem beszélek Magyarul," I reply stolidly: "I do not speak Hungarian." I don't know if Dan would need to say the same, but I have found that lonely, isolated language so impossibly difficult to learn that I have stopped trying, and cut to the chase, i.e. to the poems, but not without assistance. My present collaborator, Peter Czipott, is perfectly bilingual, and between us, after first bringing out of the original an incomprehensible word-for-word English version, he provides a prose translation in normal English word order, I pick up the meter and rhyme scheme and run with it, Peter blocking my blunders or picking up the ball when I fumble it, while encouraging me to head for the right goal line. If Dan has actually studied and learned Hungarian, he is even more brilliant than I already know he is. In any case, it is good to know we are on this same small, battered team.
Where Dan and I part company is in his sheer productivity in producing books of poetry and of criticism of the highest quality. Again, if we had met sooner, I might have done, as well as learned, more. That our correspondence, and correspondences, should have developed in these last three or four years—thanks to our meeting at the West Chester Conference—has been for me a small miracle. To be on close terms with a poet of Daniel Hoffman's stature is a tremendous honor.