issue 27 > nonfiction > hoffman > lathbury
Tribute to Daniel Hoffmanby Roger Lathbury
The words "man of letters" are not heard much anymore. Perhaps critical theory has moved us beyond them. Perhaps one term seems sexist, although "person of letters" does not seem to be used much either. The fact is that the term carries us to an age when critics wrote in honor of the works they elucidated and in the service of general understanding, with the thought that the audience for literature was humanity as a whole. Likewise much contemporary poetry, although ready enough to claim universals, seems aimed at the few who are in synch with a certain set of assumptions (or who know the author) and thus deserve to understand it.
Against these limiting and restricting assumptions stands, among a few others, the work of Daniel Hoffman.
The poems in Beyond Silence and The Whole Nine Yards and in Daniel Hoffman's many other collections respect a reader's intelligence at the same time as they seduce his ear. Every poem on first reading gives the reader some delight of understanding or sound, and on second and third readings gives more. The voice is wise and lucid. The technique is understated but finally stunning: line ends, attentively heard, sustain movement, dramatically render the immediate more suggestive and affecting. Rhymes, often slanted, delight. From An Armada of Thirty Whales to Brotherly Love, one of the great sequences of our time, to his latest poems, all is grounded in the physical and lifts one into a world of sound and voice, into understanding and illumination. And they're FUN, exuberant, dazzling, alluring, seductive. Anyone who reads can see that he is a superb poet.
He is, as is well known, a critic of the highest caliber as well. No book sees folk traditions as lucidly and centrally as Form and Fable in American Fiction (or Faulkner's Country Fictions). He extends this kind of exploration beyond our borders to Yeats, Graves, and Muir, as his volume Barbarous Knowledge. And what other book persuasively comprehends the whole of Poe?
A friend, a former student of his at Pennsylvania, told me that, walking across the campus and seeing Daniel Hoffman, he said to a companion, "That's my poetry professor." The response was, "He really is a genius, you know." If W. H. Auden found the word "genius" impossible to define, I shall not try, but I would not dissent from that appraisal. I will also argue with my whole heart that Daniel Hoffman is a man of letters, that American letters need more like him: poet, critic, and (I forgot to include) memoirist. And I must add that, having been lucky enough to know him personally, he is as well a loving, generous, loyal person.