issue 27 > nonfiction > hoffman > burnham
Several birds, one moose.by Deborah Burnham
I once showed Dan Hoffman an utterly impenetrable sestina. He was kind enough to read it, and kind enough to find some other word for "impenetrable." He also allowed as how he never writes sestinas. I was too shy to say anything but "well, you certainly don't need to." Much later, I thought about that unwritten poem, and wondered what the repeating words would be. First try: "poetry, space, prose, patience, freedom and silence." Fine in a sense: Hoffman's life and work is full of all of the above.
But those are far too abstract for a sestina. Second try: "bird, tennis, moose, city, clarinet and Muse." Now, one way to write a sestina is find six (or seven, if you want to include the envoi), clean pages, print one word at the top of each, and start free-associating, generate a whole lot of material, then put it all into the prescribed formula (which, thank goodness, you can look up.)
So, the Hoffman sestina begins with birds. This man has a life list that most of us could only dream of: herons, horned owls, swamp sparrows, larks, wood thrushes. Unlike most poets, he's actually seen the birds he writes about (except, perhaps, the roc and the albatross). He doesn't need Peterson's Guide to learn that waxwings say "skreak."
Tennis. I once had the temerity to ask him how his work was going. He looked mournful - he does that very well - and said "I have tennis elbow." Now, if you ever heard him typing, bang bang bang, pounding at fifty or sixty words per minute on his veteran Olivetti manual, you'll understand that when his arm hurts, he can't write. For Dan Hoffman, poetry is a thing not just of the mind and ear, but of the whole body. You can hear it in the Latinate stride of his celebratory public poems and, in a wonderfully different way in the punch and smack of poems where he looks power in the eye and does not blink. Look at hundreds of lines in Brotherly Love, and look at "Don's Garage" where he mourns and curses the shooting of a moose.
Moose. That's m-o-o-s-e, the large horned animal, not dessert. He's not afraid to make us face the fact of waste in the natural world. He tries to make us take responsibility for it, whether the victims are barn rats (and he will tell you exactly how to drown them) or the seals in a bay, invaded by the machines of war.
Clarinet. Many classically trained musicians long to play jazz: many poets, tied to the pencil and page for endless revisions, weeks or months until the poem is presentable, long to get up there and just do it, like the jazz musicians who can make it up as they go along. "High Society" is the poem of Hoffman's that I am most likely to steal because it's about a divine, inspired music-making, it's about the geeky text-bound kid's lust for making music with the big boys, without a text, without a net, off the record, all of them having fun with that "rough caress of sound."
City. The world of Hoffman's work takes us over two continents, peaks, seas and swamplands as well as swathes of the mind's geography. But for many of us who lived packed onto numbered streets, his meditations on urban life are the most resonant of his poems, not only the ever-astonishing "Center of Attention", but also in the juxtaposed centuries of Brotherly Love and the tangled family chronicle of The Middens of the Tribe.
Muse. He's honest. He acknowledges his debts. On the first page of so many of his books, there's a single name, his beloved Elizabeth, his Muse. Without her wise ministering, many of his poems would be less capable of comforting or alarming us.
So much for his poetry. We should print T-shirts that say: HOFFMAN: He writes great prose, too. Hawthorne, Poe, Faulkner, Crane, Bunyan (the big one with the axe and ox, not the Puritan) and countless newer writers have come into our purview through Hoffman's thoughtful books and essays.
We should print bumper stickers that say "He's so patient." There is no patience quite like that required to run a writing workshop. You have to say NO and make it sound like "Try again"; you have to listen quietly to some really silly poems and even sillier comments. You have to say "that's really silly", but make it sound like "let's go back to the third stanza…". It's really hard, but what's harder is to let patience and freedom rule over the course of a semester, not for just three hours. When the head of the table fails to practice this patience and restraint, the message sent is "Read as I do, then write as I do." And the result is a roomful of poems that are afraid to go beyond the shapes and subjects of the father, or mother, at the head of the table. The poems from week fourteen of Hoffman's workshops were far better than those from week two, and they are also far more various. They have taken shape and sound from the writer's imagination.
Dan Hoffman never expected his young writers to ape his craft, his sensibility, his quirks. All he expected was close attention and very hard work. "Let's run that through the typewriter one more time."
Finally, a word about silence. The city has so little silence, and so much of it is the silence of ignorance and fear. Dan Hoffman has shown us that poetry can create a healthy silence, one that allows us to breathe and listen and, finally, heal ourselves. He reminds us that reading and writing poetry can connect the lost and broken parts of our language and our days. And we thank him.