Daniel Hoffman Essay - Critical Essays


As a postmodern poet, Daniel Hoffman can be considered a conservative who believes in eternal human verities and the ability of literature both to discover and to preserve them. For Hoffman, modern life continues the Romantic thrust that places the poet at the center of the poem. In The Harvard Guide to Contemporary American Writing, Hoffman describes postmodern American poets asripples on the great groundswell of the Romantic movement which nearly two centuries ago established the oppositions of feeling to thought, of self to institutions, which separate modern man from his past. The chief difference between the contemporary and the Romantic and modernist generations is, we now recognize the past as lost.

Hoffman has fused his meticulous observations of nature and the human condition into a poetry that is personal yet always a form of public discourse. Like many poets of his generation, he began in the wake of Frost, T. S. Eliot, and Wallace Stevens, trying to adapt conventional meters and verse forms to contemporary themes. Indeed, his early verse exhibits real verbal flamboyance with a recondite vocabulary, difficult syntax, and dazzling sound effects. His later books reflect a modulation in style, although he has never become a true adherent of William Carlos Williams’s aesthetic of “poetry as speech.”

In the words of “The Poem” (from The Center of Attention), Hoffman casts his message “in a sort of singing.” Hoffman’s “song” is not of himself but of the epiphanies of unchanging reality that he has experienced. He avoids solipsism not through a unifying vision but through his use of gnomic verse, ballads, myths, folklore, and, later, through a historical poetic sequence. In poetry that is serious and responsible, yet personable and engaging, he has tried to meet Walt Whitman’s challenge of the open road: “Clearly, the challenge is to face this reality, this life of junk, and in it, or out of it, somehow discover or recover the transcendence that Whitman had announced as our birthright.”

Many of Hoffman’s poems concern the writer’s craft, and, not surprisingly, the difficulty of making stones sing. “A New Birth” (from The City of Satisfactions) suggests that literary tradition can no longer serve the poet: “What patrimony I come by/ Lies, an empty sack,/ Shrivelled fables at my back.” In fact, Hoffman has not discarded literary conventions in his verse. He has always been aware of the tensions between felt life and literary form. In “The Sonnet (Remembering Louise Bogan)” (from The Center of Attention), it is clear that for him poetic form does imply a civilizing grace; this is a “bad time” for poetry because modern culture cannot conceive a sonnet’s “shape or know/ its uses.”

Hoffman has been called an intellectual poet; he writes, however, under the banner of imagination rather than intellect. True poetry springs from “intuition’s blaze” (“Sources,” A Little Geste, and Other Poems), just as truth is not ensnared “by thought’s glazened glare” but by cleaving “the dark around my bower/ Wayward as joy’s arrow” (“Three Jovial Gentlemen,” The City of Satisfactions). This celebration of “intuition’s blaze” is reflected in Hoffman’s deep attachment to themes and forms from folk art. In “Another Country” (from Striking the Stones), “the great creatures on that sacred dome” represent archetypes that he incorporated in his work. The “ancestral memory” of the night heron in “Summer Solstice” (from Broken Laws) is parallel to the myths and rituals found in human culture.

In The Center of Attention, Hoffman wrote a series of poems in which he attempts to encapsulate the essence of a tree or a mackerel or a dogfish through closely rendered observation of its natural ritual. In “Eagles,” he admires the birds for their fidelity to one another, for their perfect representation of freedom, and for their true—not symbolic, like the poet’s—dominion. This poem clearly holds the natural world up to human scrutiny to the impoverishment of the human sphere. Hoffman knows that his reading of nature might be the imposition of his version of reality on natural fact; two poems from The City of Satisfactions, “Natural History” and “Fables,” make this very point. In the end, he can only ask nature’s blessing for help in living.

In “On the Industrial Highway” (from Striking the Stones), Hoffman says that urban humans have created a landscape filled with “shapes that no/ familiarity breeds . . . things/ whose archetypes/ have not yet been dreamed . . . facts/ burdened with nothing/ anticipating/ unhappened memories,/ visionary things.” It is a place where bird song, the symbol of pure poetry in “Awoke into a Dream of Singing” (from A Little Geste, and Other Poems) has been replaced by a “convivial Rock-box,” the ubiquitous radio of “O Sweet Woods” (from The City of Satisfactions). It is a world where the past is dead: “In the Graeco-Roman Room” (from Broken Laws), only the bronze mouse, not the many Aphrodites or Hercules, has relevance.

In “After God” (from The Center of Attention), Hoffman directly addresses the crisis of faith: If humanity has replaced God, “who keeps His ceaselessly attentive eye/ Upon the light and fall/ Of each Polaris through the wide feast-hall/ Of the sky,” then where does authority lie? How does humanity define itself? What is the meaning of suffering? The “vacant hour” at the end of the poem that calls for a new “sacrifice” is the space that Cotton Mather claims would prove divinity; Hoffman seems to be calling for modern humanity’s atonement as a prerequisite to lawful power.

An Armada of Thirty Whales

In Auden’s preface to Hoffman’s first volume, An Armada of Thirty Whales, he designated him as a modern-day nature poet, intent on recovering nature’s “numinous” quality. This judgment would prove to be only partly correct. The most important animal in Hoffman’s bestiary is a human, and humanity’s relation to nature is problematical: The poems in his first book show nature as an analogue or as a foil to humanity, whereby nature is always other. This theme is continued in A Little Geste, and Other Poems, in which, as Richard Howard has pointed out, humanity’s kinship with nature’s brutality and irrationality forms a terrifying undercurrent to Hoffman’s civilized verse.

Nature, in Hoffman’s poems, can provide astonishment and elevation: These glimpses, cherished but fleeting, form the substance of two early poems from An Armada of Thirty Whales: “At Provincetown” and “The Larks.” In the former, after an evocation of the “aerial carousel” of a swooping gull, the poet comments:

Over the wharves at Provincetown the gulls within our arteries soaring almost complete the great mobile that all but froze the gullsblood to steel. Other wings across the harbour flash like swords and dive for garbage.

Here man and bird become united in the perception of the beautiful, but the fusion is only “almost” complete, and the last word of the poem, “garbage,” brings the poet down to earth.

In “The Larks,” Hoffman describes the birds in flight: “An exaltation of larks arising/ With elocutionary tongue/ Embellish sound on morning air/ Already fringed with scent of dung.” From the “scent of dung” to the “matins’golden dong,” there is a perfect tracing of movement in the poem, from “arising” in the first line to “descend” in the last. The diction in the poem is fancifully elevated, but the “dung/dong” is a clear call to the mundane present.

Two other poems from this collection, “That the Pear Delights Me” and “Ephemeridae,” both display Hoffman’s keen observation and verbal art, but their message is the same: Humans are outside nature, alien to its harmonies. In the first, the poet’s delight in the pear is deemed “inconsequential” and “incidental,” “for the flower was for the fruit,/ the fruit is for the seed.” The poet’s conclusion is rendered in Latinate diction, the fruit of intellection; the activity of nature is sensuously evoked: the bees “nuzzle, gnash, & guzzle/ nectar of the pear”; “Pears plop down”; “pearpits feast and feed/ and stir, & burst, & breed.”

A Little Geste, and Other Poems

A Little Geste, and Other Poems contains two poetic sequences based on folk origins: “Taliesin” and “A Little Geste.” In “Taliesin,” a Welsh hero turned modern bard laments “Popularity’s encomium:/ ’The hiatus of singular eminence’/ Repels; th’Elect rise on the piety/ Due...

(The entire section is 3728 words.)