issue 27 > nonfiction > hoffman > stewart
The School of Danby Susan Stewart
Going through some plover-egg-speckled cardboard boxes of old papers last summer, I discovered a half dozen or so neatly typed letters that Dan Hoffman had sent me during the year I was writing my dissertation in Boston—far from Penn and on my own. Dan had been my teacher in several seminars, but he wasn't one of my thesis advisors, and our letters were mostly about poems I was reading and writing. In those letters he struck a perfect balance between pointed criticism and unfailing encouragement. His steady contact that year kept me going and, opening those envelopes again, I suddenly was taken back to the excitement I felt to be receiving and sending letters about issues that meant, and still mean, so much to me.
If only Dan had had a more mature student. In my early twenties I wasted quite a bit of time—his and mine—quietly rebelling against his advice to translate very close to the text, to think about Pound's poetry line by line before drawing generalizations, to look to the English tradition before I jumped on the surrealist boat and sailed off on seas of free association. From this vantage I can glimpse what a disaster it would have been if I had had a teacher who had agreed with me—and the similar calamity that would have followed if I had tried to imitate Dan's eloquence and learned restraint.
What did I know about Dan then? That he had been in a jazz band and loved many kinds of music; that, like his beloved Liz, he had a wickedly ironic appreciation of the contemporary poetry world; that he was paradoxically passionate about Modernism and Quakerism; that he had a deep faith in the possibilities of American writing. He created an atmosphere where poetry was the most important subject and we all were in it, as readers and writers, together. There are so many of us who became poets, teachers, and scholars as a result of his influence that we're practically a School of Dan. It's a testament to his fundamental kindness and generosity that it's a school without dogma and replete with long friendships. With gratitude, and warmest hopes for all his future projects, I send him these birthday thoughts and good wishes.