issue 27 > nonfiction > hoffman > ehrhart
With All My Heart, Danby W.D. Ehrhart
I first encountered Dan Hoffman in the early fall of 1970 at the outset of my sophomore year at Swarthmore College. By then, Dan was teaching at Penn, but he lived in the town of Swarthmore, near the campus, and he was offering a poetry workshop that semester to Swarthmore students. I'd never heard of Daniel Hoffman, but fancying myself a poet (at least in the deepest recesses of my secret heart), I signed up, and every week an earnest group of us young writers would meet in Dan's livingroom to discuss our poems. (We didn't call him "Dan," of course; he was Professor Hoffman.)
About midway through the semester, I was browsing in the college bookstore one day when I came upon a book of poems called Broken Laws by none other than Daniel Hoffman. I was startled. Moreover, as I read through the poems, I discovered that they were good! The man who was leading my workshop was not just another college professor, but a real live, genuine published poet. Talk about ignorant. But I was young. And it really fired my ambitions to know that a real poet—the first I'd ever known—was actually taking my poetry seriously.
Well after the semester ended, I found a notice clipped from the New York Times Book Review soliciting poems by Vietnam War veterans for a possible anthology along with a note from Dan suggesting that I submit something. I did. A year later, Winning Hearts and Minds: War Poems by Vietnam Veterans was published to more critical acclaim than most poetry books ever get.
I had eight poems in the book, some of them so bad that I've never included them in any of my own books, but holding that book in my hands, seeing my name in print, knowing that people were reading what I had written—man, that was it. The hook was set. I knew what I wanted to do with my life, and that is what I have done. A lot of people have helped me along the way, but it was Dan Hoffman who first gave me the courage and self-confidence to believe I could really be a poet.
Over the years since, Dan has been a recurring presence in my life. He was one of only a very few people to review Jan Barry's and my anthology Demilitarized Zones: Veterans After Vietnam in a mainstream publication (the old Philadelphia Evening Bulletin). He recommended me for the creative writing program at the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle a few years later. He allowed me to reprint his poem "A Special Train" in Carrying the Darkness: The Poetry of the Vietnam War. And every year in my U.S. History classes, when we study the European conquest of North America, my students read sections of Dan's marvelous poem Brotherly Love.
My fondest memory of Dan is the night he and his daughter gave a reading together of his wife's posthumously published poetry. How painful it must have been for him to let Liz go after all their long and loving years together. How hard that evening must have been for him. But the evening was so full of grace and dignity, so powerful a testament to the uncrushable durability of love, so imbued with poetry, that I came away both awestruck and exhilarated.
Dan, for the poet you are, for the man you are, for the friend and mentor and example you have been to me over all these years, I thank you with all my heart.