issue 27 > nonfiction > hoffman > turco
The Riddle of Daniel G. Hoffmanby Lewis P. Turco
I have been an admirer of the poetry of Daniel G. Hoffman for a very long time, ever since I read in his first book, An Armada of Thirty Whales, his wonderful riddle poem "As I Was Going to St. Ives," which took as its texte the ancient nursery rhyme:
A TRIP TO ST. IVES
As I was going to St. Ives,
I met a man with seven wives,
Every wife had seven sacks,
Every sack had seven cats,
Every cat had seven kits -
Kits, cats, sacks, and wives,
How many were going to St. Ives?
But Dan Hoffman has written many other works besides An Armada of Thirty Whales including Zone of the Interior, A Memoir, 1942-1947 which tells the unusual story of a serviceman who spent the war years on the home front learning how to be a technical writer, winding up, however, as one of the premier American poets of the last century and this one. The war years come to life in those pages, as does the youth of a man who has made a difference in the literature of his country over the span of ninety years.
More recently, Dan says that his The Whole Nine Yards, Longer Poems — winner of the L. E. Phillabaum Poetry Award for 2009 — "presents tales and suites exploring violence and transcendence, and comprises my third volume of selected poems, following Beyond Silence: Shorter Poems 1948-2003 and Makes You Stop and Think: Sonnets (2005). The six narratives here were too long and disparate in subject for inclusion in my collections of shorter poems. The suites are groups of poems that cling together and are reprinted from books of mine long out of print.
"My hope in writing these longer poems," he continues, "has been to make them as different from one another as I can, and to share with readers the pleasures of exploring resources of language, theme and form not attempted elsewhere in my work."
Reading the early pages of this book the reader is likely to experience as much enjoyment as one would if he or she were to read a collection of fine short stories. I personally was strongly reminded of some of the longer poems of Robert Frost such as "The Witch of Coös" or "The Death of the Hired Man." The second poem in Hoffman's book, "The Love Child," evokes the terror and mystery of the past just as "The Witch of Coös" does. It begins,
He was my bunkmate in the barracks and, like me,
Had nowhere else to go come Christmas, neither
Folks nor home. That made a brotherhood
Between us, as though orphans shared a bond
Of blood, or something close to blood. We flew
AT-6 trainers, sleek though slow.
When fitted with machine guns, half the two-bit
Armies in South America used them for fighters.
The easy, conversational iambic pentameter blank verse is both economical and colloquial. Frost showed us how to do that for the first time in American literature. The poem moves along through its story, adding detail and atmosphere on its journey to the violence of its climax and its denouement. This is a really good tale that I won't spoil for the reader by pursuing further.
"A Barn Built in Ohio" is similar in its method but humorous rather than scary. Hoffman is master of a wide range of effects, and he has the ability to compose dialogue as it is spoken by quite a number of characters:
And nobody'd ever seen a real live Russian
In Green County, with his great tall hat
Of fur, a beard of briars, a riding coat
With five rows of buttons big as dollars
And an ebony-handled whiplash six yards long.
If you looked toward his boot-toes you would see
Twice reflected upwards from his toe-points
Your own face gaping at you, weasel-small.
The ending of this poem incorporates an ICBM missile silo into its hayseed story as easily as the earlier poem did World War II training planes.
"Shocks," which follows, does two things. First, it segues from blank verse into prose; second, it is pure dialogue or, rather, monologue. Here is an example of both:
We knew we had a bad egg there,
and it's for sure that if our Deputy
had had the balls to take him in,
Wendell would have ate Thanksgiving turkey
More than once behind the wall at Thomaston.
But then damned if he didn't straighten out, work hard, save his
money, buy this pickup, an old flat-bed truck, take a loan on a
backhoe and pay off his Maverick.
It's sometimes difficult to tell the difference between Hoffman's prose and his blank verse, but that's the way it should be if you know what you're doing as a narrative poet. Thomaston, by the way, is a town in Maine that until recent years housed a state prison. Dan knows the State well because he has spent most of his summers there on Cape Rosier.
"Jane Doe" is one of those horrifying stories one reads about often in the papers having to do with a newborn found in a trash bag in a restaurant ladies' restroom. The difference is that here Hoffman tells the tale in rhymed, metrical quatrains.
"Samaritans" too takes off from the newspapers, but this time the story has to do with whales that commit suicide by beaching themselves. In it Hoffman returns, for the most part, to his blank verse mode, though the last two lines tail off apparently into prose but, in fact, they are just another blank verse line broken in two in the middle of the third iamb. It's a pretty funny poem despite the serious topic.
Dan Hoffman has always had a lovely ear and a great sense of humor. On Wednesday, August 19, 2009, the birthday of Ogden Nash, this epitaph — a send-up of a Nash epigram — appeared on my blog Poetics and Ruminations:
R.I.P. OGDEN NASH
August 19, 1902 - May 19, 1971
The poet lives 'twixt prose and verse
Than which no fix can be much worse,
But then along came Ogden Nash
Who turned the whole thing into cash.
Hoffman wrote to the me, "Dear 'Wesli,' thanks for the NASHIGRAM — can you offer a sample or two of his rhymed prose poems? DanGerMan." Dan had addressed me by my "altar ego" (I'm a P. K.) anagram pen-name "Wesli Court" who writes my traditionally formal verse for me. This was my reply:
I don't suppose that in good conscience I can
provide you with an honest-to-god sample of an
Ogden Nash poem made of prose
without violating copyright, but maybe I can give you a little bit of
an imitative example — who knows?
I can certainly give it a try,
but I'm a bit puzzled as to the reason you'd want me to, and
you'd want an example of a Nasher anyway when you've been
reading his work all your life long
and all you need to do is Google his name to find some silly song
he's written or a paragraph or two of prose gone wrong
or maybe even correctly
in some weird way or other and not only alonely but
Will this do? If so, see you,
The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines the noun "riddle" as "a question or statement phrased so as to require ingenuity in ascertaining its answer or meaning." Winston Churchill during the Second World War used the word and two of its synonyms when he said, "Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma," which perhaps might itself define the Zen "unanswerable question," or koan, the most famous of which is, "What is the sound of one hand clapping?"
As Yoel Hoffman (no relation to Dan so far as I know) noted in Japanese Death Poems (Rutland and Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle, 1986), "Zen literature eventually came to serve as a means to enlightenment in Zen monasteries. Several times a week, every monk would meet alone with the master. The latter would tell an anecdote or present a koan, a sort of problem or riddle from Zen literature. The monk's response would not necessarily be verbal, and it is often difficult to see the connection between the answer and the anecdote."
A famous ancient Western riddle is one that Oedipus is said to have solved; this contemporary version and its companion are by "Wesli Court":
THE RIDDLE OF THE SPHINX
What moves upon four legs at dawn,
Walks upon two later on;
Then, as the sun dips to the sea,
Hobbles along on only three?
The answer is "Mankind" which crawls on all fours in the (metaphorical) morning, walks on two legs at noon, and on three legs (two legs and a walking stick) in the evening. Some accounts have a second riddle as well:
THE TWO SISTERS
There is a sister of this earth
Who gives her twin the gift of birth;
The second sister, when she is born,
Bears her twin the following morn.
The "sisters" are "Night and Day."
Daniel Hoffman took the nursery rhyme riddle "A Trip to St. Ives"
and made a true poem of it by expanding it and discussing the personalities involved in the situation, as he imagined them. Hoffman's poem is a work consisting of nine quatrains, all of them typographically like the first:
AS I WAS GOING TO ST. IVES
As I was going to Saint Ives
In stormy, windy, sunny weather,
I met a man with seven wives
(The herons stand on the swift water).
One might be tempted to jump to the conclusion that this is an accentual-syllabic poem, but one would be wrong, for scansion shows that there is no recurring normative foot in the first or fourth lines, although the second and third appear to be iambic tetrameter (four iambic feet: × / | × / | × / | × / ). The fourth line starts out the same way; however, it breaks down in the second half of the line into what look like an anapest and a trochee (× × / | / ×). Likewise, a syllable count yields lines of 8-9-8-9 syllables, but this regularity breaks down in the third stanza. Inasmuch as there is an overt cadence running through the poem, one concludes that this is an accentual poem. Specifically, Hoffman's "As I Was Going to Saint Ives" is written in podic prosody.
Hoffman has invented a nonce stanza that contains double refrains — lines two and four are incrementally repeated throughout the poem; in fact, line two merely keeps the end-word "weather" as the object of a prepositional phrase containing different modifiers in each stanza. Line four is a statement describing herons in various terms each time it recurs, and it is set off by parentheses. Lines one and three are rising true-rhymes, but two and four are falling consonances (weather-water). The rhyme scheme, then, is aB1aB2, cB1cB 2, and so forth, the refrains consonating (the capital letters indicate refrains; the superscript numbers indicate that, though the refrains rhyme, they are different lines).
Other sonic devices used in the first stanza and throughout the poem are assonance (I-Ives), alliteration ( windy-weather, stormy-sunny, and met-man); consonantal and vocalic echo (the n in "Saint," "windy," "sunny"; the short e in "weather," "met," "seven," and "heron"). There is repetition, especially of the words "stand" (refrains of stanzas 1, 2, 5, 6, 8) and "still" (refrains of stanzas 2, 3, 4, 9); the two words occur in a tandem relationship in stanza two ("stand still").
By the time stanza one has been analyzed on the typographical and sonic levels, it is apparent that Hoffman has written an imitation Scots ballad in the stanza form called long hymnal stanza, which he has modified with refrains. On the sensory level something else is immediately apparent as well: a major trope is allusion. Both the title and the first line are an allusion to the famous nursery-rhyme riddle, the answer to which is one — only the man was going to Saint Ives; all the rest were presumably going in the opposite direction. Another trope is the herons, an ancient symbol of morning and of regeneration, whose image is doubled reflectively in the water when it is still. There is subdued metaphor (the man and his wife are herons), and many descriptions. Stanza one is a prologue or an introduction. Following stanzas discuss each of the seven wives:
One drinks her beer out of his can
In stormy, windy, and bright weather,
And who laughs more, she or her man?
(The herons stand still on the water.)
Clearly, this wife is a pal, a companion, but the next is the lover, the romantic partner:
One knows the room his candle lit,
In stormy, lightning, cloudburst weather,
That glows again at the thought of it
(Two herons still the swift water.)
The next wife is the nag, the harridan:
His jealous, wild-tongued, Wednesday's wife —
In dreepy, wintry, wind-lashed weather
What's better than that ranting strife?
(Two herons still the roaring water.)
From this stanza we know that wife number three is "Wednesday's wife"; therefore, we infer that stanza two is Monday's wife, stanza three, Tuesday's, and so on. Thursday's wife, number four in stanza five, is the soulmate:
There's one whose mind's so like his mind
In streaming wind or balmy weather,
All joy, all wisdom seem one kind.
(The herons stand in the swift water.)
Friday's wife is the woman of mystery, the feminine enigma:
And one whose secret mazes he
In moon-swept, in torrential weather
Ransacks, and cannot find the key
(Two herons stand in the white water.)
Stanza eight is a transformational stanza,
And when to Saint Ives then I came
In fairest, rainiest, windiest weather,
They called his shadow by my name,
(The herons stand in the quick water.),
in which the traveler to Saint Ives becomes the man with seven wives. Now the answer to the riddle is "one plus seven wives," so there are, assumedly, eight people who arrive in the town. However, in the climactic last stanza, Sunday's wife, the seventh woman, is "the one":
And the one whose love moves all he's done,
In windy, warm, and wintry weather,
What can he leave but speaks thereon?
(Two herons still the swift water.)
She is the one wife who is all the other wives; she is the only woman the man loves, and she is his companion, lover, nag, soul-mate, mystery woman, and lust-object all wrapped up in one person. The last line tells the reader how many arrive in Saint Ives, at the end of the journey.
On the ideational level, then, the subject of the poem is "wives," or perhaps merely "wife." The schemas used are constructional (as in the parallel structures of the first lines of each stanza, in which "one,"-"one"-"none" parallels are drawn, except in stanza four, which gives us the clue to the days-of-the-week sequence), and repetitional. The whole poem is an inclusive structure relying heavily on prolepsis.
The viewpoint of the poem is narrative; specifically, author-oriented, third-person, single-angle (following only one character, as it turns out), with subjective access (we know she thinks what he thinks). This is true until the penultimate stanza, when the narrator becomes the protagonist as well, and the viewpoint is seen to be character-oriented also. Poetic syntax is objective, and the level of diction is poetic: it is colloquial with an archaic overlay, a modern rendition of the language of balladry. The style must be seen, then, as high rather than mean, it is so literary, though it is not at all inaccessible. The theme of the poem might be rendered as, "A man's wife is all women to him."
Fusionally, the genre of the poem is that of the lyric narrative with a strong didactic element. The levels Hoffman emphasizes are the sonic and the sensory — there is nothing original in the ideational level; treatment is everything here. All levels support the theme. It is a fine poem, but perhaps because it is intended to be a riddle, some readers find it to be obscure at first, especially those who led deprived childhoods and never heard the original nursery rhyme.