issue 27 > nonfiction > hoffman > palma
The Whole Ninety Yardsby Michael Palma
In 1963 I was a college freshman who had an ever-increasing appetite for poetry but whose awareness of modern American poets had barely progressed beyond Frost and Robinson. One afternoon, while browsing the shelves of my campus's surprisingly well-supplied library, I found a small yellow book with the intriguing title An Armada of Thirty Whales. Opening it, I came across a poem whose title, "The seals in Penobscot Bay," curiously segued into the opening lines of the text: "hadn't heard of the atom bomb, / so I shouted a warning to them." Neither Richard Cory nor the hired man, as remarkable as they were, had prepared me for anything like this. Looking through the volume, I was struck by the rapid play of the mind at work in the poems, and by the constant and sudden variations in tone and register.
I took the little book and an adjoining one by the same author to the checkout desk, and I spent that night reading through them. (As I subsequently discovered, the library also owned The Poetry of Stephen Crane, his authoritative study of one of my favorite writers, as well as, amazingly enough, a copy of the original edition of The Black Riders.) I was delighted to find that the title piece of the other collection, A Little Geste, was a twenty-three-page sequence about my childhood hero, Robin Hood. It included flawless pastiches of a range of medieval verse forms, an act of poetic daring, as I would later come to realize, far more radical than any of the author's experimental pieces.
Clearly, in terms of both the freedom to think of it and the skill to carry it out, this fellow Daniel Hoffman could do anything he wanted to. One of the qualities in his work that I responded to then and that I have admired and envied ever since is his complete lack of inhibition in what he is willing to say and, especially, how he is willing to say it. Reading his first two collections was a crash course in modern poetry, and they propelled me to a much richer comprehension of what poetry was capable of, and even of what I might someday be capable of doing in poetry. Fifty years and eleven further collections later, his work is undiminished in its ability to stimulate and inspire me, in the variety of its styles and subjects, and in its overall excellence.
Nearly twenty years ago I had the pleasure of meeting Daniel Hoffman, on the occasion of the first Maundy Thursday reading of Dante's Inferno at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York. (Had it not been for his willingness to host this event and to continue it as an annual tradition, I would never have undertaken my own translation of the Inferno.) From that first meeting, there developed over the years what I am proud to call a friendship. Making the acquaintance of other writers has proved to be a sometimes complicated experience. There are some that I wish were better writers because I like them so much personally, and others that I wish were finer human beings because I admire their work, but Dan has never presented me with any such problem. He has been unfailingly benevolent, though never fatuously uncritical, in his comments about other people and their work (I have known him, however, to be quite sharp about the current state of our culture and our politics, which will come as no surprise to anyone who has carefully read his poetry). And he has been repeatedly generous to me personally in both word and deed, going so far as to read and annotate an entire manuscript collection of mine. As his contemporary George Gobel used to say, you can't hardly get that kind no more.
Of the far too few times that I have spent in his company, one in particular stands out in my memory. On Halloween of 2000, Dan appeared with two other writers—"Poe nuts all," as he described the group to me—to celebrate the life and works of Edgar Allan Poe at New Rochelle High School in New Rochelle, New York, from which he had graduated sixty years earlier. As I sat in the middle of a crowd of high-school students who had been marched in for the presentation, I spent a fair amount of time glancing at my fellow audience members, whose expressions appeared to range from polite bemusement to outright boredom. Then, I was fascinated to watch them growing increasingly fascinated as Dan read from his classic study Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe, recounting how the description of the House of Usher had put him in mind of his Gothic high school building, the very building they were sitting in as they listened to him. Just as they had done for me on that afternoon in 1963, his words had made their own reality more real to them.
Now, as Dan turns ninety, he is celebrating the occasion by giving us a gift, a new full-length collection of poems. He is not, of course, the only still active nonagenarian poet—Richard Wilbur and William Jay Smith come immediately to mind—but I know of no poet his age who has ever written so much so well. The new book is called Next-to-Last Words, with its encouraging promise of at least one more to follow. I am certain that I am far from alone in hoping (to borrow a term from one of his least favorite public figures) that he has misunderestimated himself, and that his next collection of poems will be far from his last.