issue 27 > nonfiction > hoffman > patrick
Memory of Dan Hoffmanby William Patrick
I interviewed Dan Hoffman for Pennsylvania Review my last year at the University of Pennsylvania, and that obscure conversation mysteriously found its way into Dan's book, Words to Create a World, which was published in 1993 as part of Michigan's Poets on Poetry series. In that interview, I asked Dan if Philadelphia was a special place for him. His answer to that question includes the following sentence: "The past hangs on here as I sense it, in salutary ways, in matters of style."
As a young poet used to the mountains and rivers of upstate New York, I didn't think crime-ridden Philadelphia seemed healthy or wholesome, or even particularly stylish, at least not in 1971. But I believe Dan looked deeper than I could back then. He meant that the city's rich history felt sustaining to him, and he forgave its modern ills with a perspective and compassion I didn't possess at that point. "A city has to have a past in order to have a sense of it," he went on to say in his answer, "and it has to be a past that the city hasn't obliterated, as is true of New York."
Dan's hard-won sense of our common past was also apparent in his critical studies of Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, Poe, Stephen Crane, and even Paul Bunyan, among many others, and his books, Form and Fable in American Fiction and Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe were the works that opened some of those writers up for me. But Dan wasn't just a critic who mined the American canon: he was a working poet in touch with his contemporaries, and a generous teacher willing to share his insights with often clueless students.
For instance, Dan brought a young, local poet named C. K. Williams into our poetry workshop one afternoon and we heard him read "I Am the Bitter Name" from a collection that had just been published. And in his seminar on modern American poetry, Dan spent one whole class explaining how and why W.S. Merwin, John Berryman, and Robert Lowell had radically altered their subjects and styles midway through their poetic careers. Dan's eclectic tastes and wide-ranging knowledge were gifts that he offered his students, and I thank my lucky stars that I had enough sense to understand that when I studied with him.
What I remember most consistently about Dan, though, is how gracious he was — old-school gracious, with a quick smile and unpretentious charm. One day, after our workshop, he and I were walking out of the building where our class met (the hall's name escapes me now), and a student ran up to him and asked him to autograph his latest book of poems — I think it was Broken Laws — and I made some inane, judgmental comment about celebrity which was designed, probably, to demonstrate that I inhabited Dan's inner circle. Dan didn't respond to my comment. He smiled at the student, thanked her for asking, signed her copy, and handed it back to her. Then, without looking at me, he patted me on the back and changed the subject as we crossed the street.
Funny thing about that interview: after I had transcribed it, Dan asked if he could look at it and then submit it to the editors at Pennsylvania Review for us. I obliged, of course. However, when the interview appeared, it was immediately clear that Dan had edited the interview with an eye toward, let's say, optimizing his answers, sometimes to the detriment of the questions. That, of course, was another kind of lesson. As he said at the very end of the interview, when asked about his next book of poems, "There may be many versions required, many subsequent reshapings, but at least you've got something to work with."