issue 27 > nonfiction > hoffman > moffett
Thanks Times Threeby Judith Moffett
I met Daniel Hoffman in 1970, when I was a graduate student at Penn. I met him personally when I took his course in Contemporary American Poetry, but I had been aware of him before that, because of his activities on behalf of poetry at the university. The high-profile poets who judged the Academy of American Poets undergraduate and graduate poetry prizes, and gave readings when they came to campus to award the prizes, were introduced by Dan. He himself had given a reading I remember to this day, some 43 years later, for a poem with the refrain: "He'll rid your barn of rats!"
I had entered the Academy contests both springs I was at Penn. Miffed at having been given only an Honorable Mention the first year, when I thought my own poems very much better than the winner's, I foolishly boycotted the awards ceremony my second year. Only when Dan called to tell me so did I learn that the judge had awarded the prize to me.
Ever since that day, Dan has been a continuing presence in my life. From among many instances of encouragement and helpfulness over the years, three occasions stand out for their life-altering significance. I mean that literally; absent his intervention at three diverging roads in my personal yellow wood, the course of my life would have been very different.
I had arrived at Penn with a number of graduate transfer credits from the University of Wisconsin and a book-length manuscript on Stephen Vincent Benét's narrative poetry, written on weekends for pleasure during a stint as a Fulbright Lektor at a Swedish university. I had never considered the Benét book in the light of a Ph.D. dissertation. The author of John Brown's Body and Western Star had been a personal passion of mine since high school, but I was well aware that in the academy his poetry commanded little respect. My plan had been to write instead on certain themes in James Merrill's work, and I was accordingly looking at a protracted period of research and composition—a year at least, more likely two—before I could complete my degree and get on with my life.
But in some fashion I can no longer reconstruct, the fact that I had already written a full-length critical study on a poet became known to Dan. He immediately offered to direct the Benét book as a dissertation, saying there was no sense in working up another critical study when I already had one in hand. I recall being blown away by this brand-new idea, and also by the generosity of Dan's offer; he was to be on leave in the spring of 1971, and reading my ms. and telling me how to turn it into a proper thesis would cut into his own writing time. Nonetheless, in due course several sheets of paper appeared in my mailbox. What I needed to do, he said, was write two new chapters, an introductory one putting Benét into literary context—he listed the poets whose work could provide that context—and a concluding one justifying my choice of Benét as a poet important enough to write a book about.
Long story short: six months later, in August 1971, I was awarded my doctoral degree from Penn, and the following month I started teaching. By taking me under his wing, Dan fast-forwarded me out of graduate-student limbo and into my first post-Ph.D. job, at Behrend College, Penn State's Commonwealth Campus branch in Erie.
I had begun to publish poems in little magazines before finishing my degree, but over the next several years the quality of the magazines improved: Georgia Review, Carolina Quarterly, even Poetry and the New Yorker. As the decent credits accumulated I tentatively began to put a book manuscript together. Having never done it before, I proceeded from no organizational principle beyond a vague sense that variety in subject and form was probably a good idea. But when I sent this hodgpodge to Dan for comment, he wrote back that he could identify several themes in my pages, and thought the book would be more effectively presented if I grouped similar subjects together into sections.
As soon as he said it I saw how right he was, how the book took on a quality of confidence and accomplishment in the new arrangement. That in itself was a great help, but Dan didn't stop there; he wrote to the editor of Louisiana State University Press, suggesting that my collection might be of interest. Anyone who has been through the experience of trying to place a first book of poetry will appreciate what an enormous leg up Dan's action represents. It guaranteed, not acceptance, but that the ms. would be singled out from the heaps of slush for serious attention. The consequence in my case was that my own first book, Keeping Time, was published by LSU in the fall of 1976.
It was directly as a result of that book's publication, and its generally positive reviews, that in 1977 I was offered one of the rotating positions in poetry at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. And it was during my year of teaching at Iowa that Dan intervened once again. A vacancy had opened up at Penn, owing to the imminent departure of the young poet who had been Dan's understudy there. He called to ask whether I would be interested in a one-year instructorship for 1978-79, with a strong probability of a tenure-track hire for the following year. I had spent that spring job-hunting, and had received two previous offers, but despite the element of uncertainty this was far and away the most attractive, and I accepted with thanks.
As expected, the instructorship did morph into an Assistant Professorship, and I would teach at Penn for fifteen years. But the immense gratitude I feel to Dan for bringing me back to Penn is for something unforeseen and unforeseeable, that changed my life more profoundly than anything else he ever did for me. The office assigned to me was just next door to that of a pleasant Medievalist named Ted Irving, who introduced himself on my first day with a friendliness I soon discovered to be rare at Penn. Reader, a few years later I married him.
For all these vital interventions I have always been, and always will be, deeply thankful for Daniel Hoffman, one of a very small handful of people to whom I owe so deep a debt.