Daniel Hoffman Essay - Hoffman, Daniel (Gerard)

Hoffman, Daniel (Gerard)


Daniel (Gerard) Hoffman 1923–

American poet, critic, and editor.

Hoffman has been considered an important poetic voice in America since his first volume of poetry, An Armada of Thirty Whales, was selected for the Yale Series of Younger Poets in 1954. Certain basic themes recur throughout his work: the constancy of nature, the renewing power of myth, and a concern for the creative process itself. Hoffman is also the editor of the Harvard Guide to Contemporary American Writing.

(See also CLC, Vols. 6, 13; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 4; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 5.)

W. H. Auden

A poet today, particularly perhaps if he is an American like Mr. Hoffman, who sets out to take his themes from Nature is in a very different and much more difficult situation than a Romantic poet like, say, Wordsworth. By the end of the eighteenth century the Newtonian cosmology had destroyed the ancient beliefs in Nature as the abode of actual spirits good or bad, so that the continued use in poetry of Greek mythology had degenerated into genteel periphrasis. At the same time, life was still rural enough for men to feel instinctively that Nature was numinous. Wordsworth's achievement in poetry, parallel to that of Kant in philosophy, was to preserve the validity of this feeling by describing it, not in the traditional mythological terms, but in terms of the psychology of his time. But the poet today is faced not only with the question of contemporary expression but also with the task of recovering the feeling which he and the public have largely lost, that Nature is numinous. He has to make a much more conscious and deliberate effort. At this point I hear the Accuser adopt his "honest Iago" voice: "This is sentimental rubbish. You don't feel that Nature is holy and as a modern man you never can. Genuine art is the mirror of genuine feelings, and the only real feelings you have are of self-pity at your alienation. So be frank, be modern. Express your pity for your self in the rhythmless language really used by metropolitan man." The only way to counter...

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M. L. Rosenthal

Part of Daniel Hoffman's Striking the Stones attempts a … fusion of irony, wisdom, and poignancy, but this aspect of Hoffman's work lacks … earthy, quirky intellectuality. His real presence as a poet comes through in a very different way. Some of his pieces seem at first tangential and ever so slight, yet they have a purity of movement quite their own. "A Marriage," for instance, discovers a finely serious speaking tone to get at the sense of what good married love means. It probes several images to suggest the precise relationship—rather metaphysically, but without making that much ado over the conceits—and closes on a note that is fastidiously accurate in its gallantry.

"This Day" projects the speaker's search for his imagination-in-hiding through an extended, exquisitely precise seashore metaphor. The physical and psychological evocativeness of this metaphor fully equals that of the literal scene presented in another poem, "Testament," perhaps the most effective one in the book. "Testament" is a sort of collage of the literal. It gives us a scene visually reduced to one identifiable detail: "A bare tree holds the fog in place." But the speaker's memory and movement reconstruct far more than the fog can conceal. One has a lovely sense of the artist putting his world together with bits of twig, patches of mist and time, and extensions of imagination: delicate yet unbreakable improvisations that are inevitable in their emergence and structuring. In a poem like this Hoffman does the unlikely so simply and gracefully that one can only wonder when he permits himself to publish work that is less sensitive to its own materials and direction. (p. 72)

M. L. Rosenthal, "Critical, Lyrical, Literal, and Rapt," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1968 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. LI, No. 25, June 22, 1968, pp. 72-3.∗

Richard Howard

[The poems in An Armada of Thirty Whales] enjoy an access of individual being, whatever influences they preen themselves upon, which results from a pronounced form, uttered and therefore audible. In his brilliant little preface [see excerpt above], Auden is … beguiled by the problems of a modern nature poetry—"the preservation and renewal of natural piety toward every kind of created excellence"—which he sees to be one of Hoffman's overriding concerns…. Auden is right, of course—there is a poetry of "direct observation and description" which Hoffman over and over exemplifies, though it is important to discover that he does so, always, in connection with a ritual or cyclical image of birth, growth, death and regeneration, as here in "That the Pear Delights Me Now," tracing the tree's progress through the months, past the "roystering honeymakers, wholly unaware of the dust their bristles brought," past the fruit and the birds that "follow, thirsting," past the "maggots [that] rapaciously and noiseless fatten on fermented juices," to conclude in [the] epiphany of the ecliptic…. The same seasonal round is observed, in Hoffman's next book [A Little Geste], in "The Beech Tree," and in his newest one [The City of Satisfactions], in "The Tall Maple," but what makes the success of such tree-pieces is not their piety of observed detail, but their worship of Eternal Return: they are prayers in a divine service.

And serving them, as I noted, is a surprising range of formal devices, whose grace and savor will be preserved and enhanced in the poet's subsequent books, both in assurance of assonance … and the control of sense, the discipline of mere significance by more than its cause, by meters and repetitions…. These skills, the inflection of imagery by sound and the ordonnance of meaning by a pattern of rhythmical expectations, belong to a considerable armory: the manipulation of words in component rhythms, contrast, transition and suspense, the delay of ornament, the anticipation of the exactly situated dramatic trope, the development of image and observation to an inevitable end—the list of machines Blackmur said will make a poem cohere, move, and shine apart. (pp. 225-26)

[In A Little Geste], there are too many poems which forget or forego the second of two complementary propositions: that order is imposed on chaos and that chaos is the substance of order. Consequently Hoffman exhibits an even more eccentric delight than in An Armada of Thirty Whales … in an archaic and an arcane vocabulary, a mounting sense of the willful, the arbitrary, though I am reluctant to condemn an impulse with so many meaty links to poems behind and ahead...

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William Sylvester

Daniel Hoffman's poems are affective. His poems convey the sense of a mood that hovers around an experience, and becomes part of the experience. To show what I mean by this, I must use a word that is no longer popular: skill. In reading Hoffman's poetry, the awareness of skill serves many purposes, one of them is to evoke a sense of becoming, a sense of how the outer world begins to move into our feelings.

The awareness of skill is unavoidable in his poetry and is part of its pleasure…. The awareness of a poet's skill has a greater or lesser degree of relevance, and the poems particularly susceptible to a "new critical" reading are those where the awareness of skill is intended to be quite high…. In Hoffman's poetry, the awareness of skill, from a reader's point of view, should be, I suggest, that of the quasi-emerged.

The poems are skillful, but one's awareness of the skill in the act of reading should be an attenuated dimension. Lurking in one's mind is the awareness that every poem is an experiment of a technical sort. The range of rhythms, of stanzaic forms is impressive: the emulations of alliterative Old English verse, of ballads, and of invented forms too. Each exercise in skill serves the purpose of heightening our awareness of the emotions which surround the words and which effectively blurs the outlines of things to impressionism. He is in the range of feelings appropriate to Turner or to Monet, rather than to Andrew Wyeth or to Kokoschka. The impressionists provide opportunities where one is at a special level of awareness of style, an awareness that senses the presence and half defines the style. (pp. 110-11)

Hoffman's poetry invites neither firm assent "yes, that's the way I have felt," nor probing questions "What in the world does that mean?" but rather "what a strange way of feeling!" half surprise, half recognition. We are asked, so to speak to observe feelings while we partially share them. To shift metaphors, some of the "things" in his poetry—earth, sea, whales, dinosaur, horse, cities, airplanes, trains—could be orchestrated for the powerful emotions. Other "things"—the sand, clams, bumblebees, chipmunks,...

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Jan W. Dietrichson

Daniel Hoffman stands in the front rank of American scholar-critics today. He does not easily fit into any one critical category: it is possible to regard him as one of the modern myth critics, placing him in the company of the early Richard Chase, but with greater truth he can be said to continue the tradition, initiated in the nineteen thirties by Constance Rourke, of explaining the themes and characters of sophisticated fiction in terms of their relationship with folklore. (p. 319)

What Hoffman is looking for in folklore is … patterns of thought and traditional shared symbols that do not only express attitudes toward human experience characteristic of the folk groups that produced them, but also...

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Publishers Weekly

Part historical epic, part research paper, part tour de force, Daniel Hoffman's [Brotherly Love] is first and foremost a curiosity. It's not so strange that he incorporates the "found poetry" of letters, treaties, Indian pictographs and paintings into his narrative history of the founding of Pennsylvania. The real shock is Hoffman's total rejection of the modern style—the voice that has come down to us from Eliot and Auden—in favor of what might be called American classicism. It is the diction rather than the meter that continually fascinates, even more than the story—which is of the destruction of the Lenni Lenape Indians in the name of the American utopia. What is one to make of a poet who addresses...

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Paul Breslin

In his ["Brotherly Love"], Mr. Hoffman uses extensive scholarly research as the basis of a regional epic on the founding of Pennsylvania, and more particularly of Philadelphia, the city whose name provides the title. The sequence concerns the relations between the settlers and the Lenni Lenape Indians, whose treaty with William Penn was strictly observed by the Founder himself but not by his heirs. Eventually, the Lenni Lenape were dispossessed and driven westward to die.

Mr. Hoffman seems uneasily poised between two conclusions. The first is that of Voltaire, expressed in a letter that Mr. Hoffman versifies. Alone of all the settlers, Penn and "the peaceful Quakers" lived in harmony with the...

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Monroe K. Spears

[No] long poem has yet established itself as at once American, a sustained poetic success, and attractive to a wide audience.

Brotherly Love seems to me to qualify on all three grounds. Hoffman invokes Clio, muse of history, rather than Calliope; aside from modesty, I suppose his reason is that he wants to emphasize that his poem is more seriously and scrupulously historical than any preceding epic. His Clio presides over Indian history as well as white, and she inspires the poet to interpret both histories through faithful presentation of the documents as well as imaginative reconstruction. His hero, William Penn, is epic in that he is an exceptional and admirable man whose deeds are...

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James Finn Cotter

Brotherly Love has all the makings of an epic: the founding of a new land, a hero of stature, his odyssey and struggle toward self-fulfillment and identity, an invocation to the muse (in this case, Clio), and a divine purpose made manifest in changing events.

The poem celebrates the founding of Pennsylvania as an image of the origin of our country, from its first contacts with the Indians to the configurations of all its cultures in the nation as it is today. Pennsylvania could not have been a happier choice. Before William Penn landed in 1682, settlers were already there, waiting for an identity of their own….

Hoffman investigates these European roots in the war between...

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