issue 27 > nonfiction > hoffman > timpane
Three Candles for Dan's Cakeby John Timpane
Just for a moment, let's think about three things often disliked by a certain kind of literary critic. Dan Hoffman's poetry is rich with them, and they make his poetry wonderful and rewarding.
Wit. This is the impression of a lively, playful, flexible intelligence, ready with words, ready with attitude. Wit moves flamelike, strikes soft but resonant, slips in the best words and phrase-turns to evoke the smile, the wince, the double take, the second thought. Wit is inseparable from the impression of a writer's personality. It's not just an aspect of language. Wit inheres in the act of statement, of saying something about something else that provokes not only a moment of recognition, and perhaps humor, but also a realization of the mind behind the wit. In the minds of some critics, personality is not a good thing. Wit comes ready-stocked, freighted, fraught with personality. It'd be hard to be both impersonal and witty.
Dan's poetry has the 20th- and 21st-century equivalent of classical wit. In his poem "Identities," he lists a series of extremely different people, some of them with ideas and plans quite divergent and incommensurate: "One conspired against statues on stilts, in his pocket/ The plot that dooms the city. The other's a good son./ One proclaims he aims to put the first aardvark in space./ The other patiently toils, making saddles for horseless headmen." Imaginative wildness beds with all those periods, full stops of bemusement, almost giving us time for a hmmm after each crazy life. In "The Center of Attention," a man threatening to jump to his death hears conflicting advice from the crowd: there "arises/ A chorus of cries--Jump!/ Jump! and No-- /Come down! Come down! / Maybe, if he can hear them,/ They seem to be saying Jump down! The truth is,/ The crowd cannot make up its mind./ This is a tough decision." Both of these poems explore deep issues, and with stately seriousness; neither of them resist the appropriate opportunity for an enlightening sardonicism.
Form. For Dan, form is a shape thinking takes. Form is tone and argument.
In "Old Age," a superb sonnet, he uses both the enjambed line and the end-stopped line for emotional impact. Sense slops over the end and drops us off someplace unexpected and jarring. An aging writer realizes that his work, "Had of a sudden ceased, without his choosing,/ To be novel." Which hurts, as one imagines the realization hurts. Yet "Old Age" also uses the end-stopped line to give weight and finality to a statement: "When it began he was already losing/ Interest in the new work by the young." I might note, too, how the extra, eleventh syllable of the first line allows the second line to be "headless," starting with the bleakly frank "Interest." Little touches? No: integral to meaning and impact. Form, meet content.
Topicality. Dan often seems happiest when musing or commenting on a contemporary news event or other trend or happening. I'm especially amused by his meditations on the Internet age and its myriad ironies. He has written some of our time's best poems on war. His skepticism can sometimes be cool but is most often simply humane. Even when he is bored, ticked off, or in disagreement with the subject, he avoids overstatement or preachiness. I'd sooner trust his poetry on current events than almost anyone else's.
These things are what good poets have done since before there was writing. Dan has shown how to do them well while creating literary artworks that are fresh and brimming with vim. It's a happy thing to reflect on how long a career, how consistent and moving an art, Dan has had, with a poetry that is still "novel," still charged with fresh "interest." This is a birthday for all poetry readers to celebrate.