Daniel Hoffman Hoffman, Daniel (Vol. 6) - Essay

Hoffman, Daniel (Vol. 6)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Hoffman, Daniel 1923–

Hoffman, an American poet, critic, and editor, is a scholar concerned with exploring myth and folklore in his poetry and criticism. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Perhaps the best thing that can be said for the American poetry of the past decade is that it is wildly catholic. The reader can choose between the most desiccated of academic verse; passionate political statement blossoming in the vernacular or in full-blown rhetoric; arcane adventures in self-expression; the undigested distress of the mournful emotions; one or two major voices; and a handful of poets whose wit and intelligence have served, instead of overridden, their poetry. Daniel Hoffman belongs in the last group. The Center of Attention is a very good collection of poems.

Hoffman brings to his poetry what he has learned from his prose books such as Barbarous Knowledge and Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe. He demonstrates not only a considerable psychological insight and sense of drama, but more important, a sense of all the nuances of pace….

Reading the entire Hoffman poetic oeuvre, one is aware of three major strands that knit into a strong texture: myth, history and the immediate experience, personal and colloquial. It's a rich fusion; one thinks immediately of other poets wedded more or less faithfully to one of the three. Hoffman's polygamy works well. He never writes without that sense of the dead which was so precious to Auden; he has as thorough a response to myth as Muir himself, and he can write of a personal shock or rage with total directness. What he once wrote of Robert Graves is true of his own work. Both combine "a Dionysian compulsion to belief with an Apollonian clarity of presentation."…

Scrupulously attentive, Hoffman continues to name: qualities, situations, legacies; he conquers resistant nameless territory foot by foot. He has decided that for his purpose, his prosody will be highly flexible, its ear versed in, but not subservient to, rules. The techniques are as varied as the poems, but there is a great deal of tough skill which at its happiest has the ease of an acrobat's control, the smooth sum of a dozen hidden efforts.

When he wishes to be grim, Hoffman commands a bland toughness, more effective than any number of head-on blasts….

Hoffman lets you—forces you—to understand his attitude toward his own work, and by implication, toward poetry, without any of the manifestoes, overt or implied, of which we have had a plethora. (p. 30)

Josephine Jacobsen, "A Rich Fusion," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), April 6, 1974, pp. 30-1.

Daniel Hoffman is a maker of structures, and he writes "the fiction of civilized discourse." But for me his rhetorical houses often seem curiously empty, inhabited—if at all—by a personal voice locked in some cellar or closet. Take the title poem [of The Center of Attention]. A man threatening suicide has climbed to the top of a bridge and a crowd gathers to watch the performance. The dramatic subject reverberates with potential meanings, one being the parallel between the man on the bridge and the artist who must isolate himself and confront the abyss in order to give the crowd definition. But the poet diminishes the immediacy of his subject by allowing it to become a means to rhetorical speculation….

The rhetorical questions that appear often in Hoffman's poems—and end several of them—are symptomatic of a more central problem; an inability to assert implies an inability to experience. If a poet chooses not to sing, he must provide personal speech. Like the suicide, he must risk himself before we can be diverted or made to realize any truth about ourselves.

My criticism is not meant to suggest that Hoffman should join the ranks of the "confessional" poets. The words "total frankness," describing one recent book of poems, are frightening to think about. Neither am I recommending that he abandon his traditional form for the more oblique, dreamlike images of a poet like W. S. Merwin. Hoffman's strengths are his firm sense of structure, his clear sense of movement. What I miss is urgency, a passionate commitment that makes a poem seem necessary. (p. 3)

Edward Kessler, in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), May 5, 1974.

Daniel Hoffman … skillfully husbands his trickle of talent. The chief limitation of his poems is that they are interchangeable with countless others. His poetry is the kind prevalent in every age: the product of a serious, humane intelligence that mostly rewords, with the old words, what has already been said. It is conceived, it exists, in a poetic terrarium, steamed around with the distancing, impersonal condensations of the genre. Even Hoffman's frequent, self-impressed boldness is derivative—last year's daring.

His poems usually seem too easy for him; he is a dilettante. Once it was his rhetoric that sounded crankaway ("If woe blast Paradise, or threat of woe,/Then, great with rage,/Turn, Imagination,/And conceive/On days like dragons' teeth"); now it is his ordinariness…. [His] pedestrian verse doesn't so much cast its message as coddle it, lead it along….

Like his five previous volumes, "The Center of Attention" lacks … a point of convergence, a bull in the ring. Though Hoffman writes poems about inspiration (almost a sure sign of an insecure vocation), his poems seem occasional, worked-up. He is not harshly blessed with the importunate preoccupation that can cripple and narrow but that is also the slit through which the oracle whispers. Apart from the finely sardonic "Rats," the new animal poems creep along a trail boldly flattened by Ted Hughes. They are not, like his, profound, obsessive work, the subject a talon in the poet's side. Then, too, where James Wright seems half squashed to the theme of the bruised and confused, Hoffman views his America—of suicides, insurrectionists, delinquents, President-killers—through news columns or the glass of an observation booth.

In sum,… Hoffman needs to find his [pain], though in the interest of an art that, like all art, is essentially indifferent to pain, requiring it only as a stream requires a bed, in order to flow over it, flow on. (p. 6)

Calvin Bedient, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 11, 1974.

Daniel Hoffman's first volume of poems, An Armada of Thirty Whales (1954), was … largely formal in manner and characterized by an excitement of language. This skillfulness carried over to poems like the playfully formal "In Cytherea," of A Little Geste (1960), though other poems in that volume had a dry and even old-fashioned flavor, especially in their syntactical patterns. And, although "Lay of Maid Marian" and "Will Scarlet" were good poems, the use of the Robin Hood legend to organize a group of poems was an early sign of a tendency to depend upon an external structure to support poetic experiment. In The City of Satisfactions (1963), Hoffman began to employ a fabular device which could be self-conscious in "A New Birth," artificial and absurdist in "The Line," and almost allegorical in the title poem of the collection. In poems of this kind, Hoffman seemed to be reaching for some structure beyond personal experience—as broad as myth but not so clearly defined—which would transcend private impressions while retaining the intensity of private emotion. Ironically, some of the most effective poems in this collection were poems of direct observation, such as "Climbing Katahdin," "Gestures," and "Sometown."

Striking the Stones (1968) was a change in direction. Now most of the poems were looser in structure, sparser and more economical in language. They became grittier, with more images and settings drawn from urban industrialism…. In general, Hoffman's diction had become less pointed, less forceful and original than in earlier poems, but it was evident that he was looking for a new manner, and Broken Laws (1970), his next book of poems, showed that he was gaining command of that manner. There was a smoother movement in loosely structured poems such as "A Trip," "A Special Train," and "A Victor." "Measures for G.C." conveyed believable personal emotion, while "Filling the Forms" was a skillful piece of significant fun. "Aubade" was a brief, visually keen success, and "I am the Sun" had the complete quality often found in accomplished minor Victorian poets. But the tendency to use an abstract scheme to support individual poems remained evident…. (pp. 81-2)

It is abstract, objective poetry … that is dangerously prominent in … The Center of Attention (1974)…. [In] general, these abstract subjects suggest a flagging poetic energy. (pp. 82-3)

It is my impression that The Center of Attention will eventually be seen as a transitional collection, suffering the consequences of a poetic search that began with Striking the Stones. It is a collection of poems that reveals a need for some larger organizing purpose in which individual poems can become vital parts. But that larger purpose remains slightly beyond the poet's grasp. Artificial schemes of elements, animals, objects, directions do not meet the need. What seems to be required is a crucial human event from which will follow a series of emotionally associated expressions. Perhaps … he should turn and face his own living dead. It is as though Hoffman has himself not resolved the ambivalence of "The Center of Attention" and has focussed upon objects and ideas peripheral to the true center of his poetic ambitions. His poetic abilities are not in doubt, but there is some question, I feel, about Hoffman's method of marshalling those powers. (p. 84)

John R. Reed, in The Ontario Review (copyright © 1974 by The Ontario Review), Number 1, Fall, 1974.

One may write a poem by following a mood or a thought through the forms which they cause and help one to construct. One may also simply select a subject: a scene, say, a painting or photograph, an animal, rock, or any other piece of nature, and exploit it for what comes out of it. In [The Center of Attention], Daniel Hoffman has used both methods, but conspicuously, and most successfully, the second. The title poem describes at some length a man, watched by a crowd, threatening to jump from a high bridge. The scene may be real or imagined; you may read a meaning into it or take it straight. The language is factual, uncolored, and right. Among more than fifty titles, some of the others are "Stone," "Fire," "Tree," "Raven," "Door," "Window," "North," "South," "East," "West," "Mackerel," "Path." "Egg" gives us a wildly witty Robin Redbreast, with an irreverent nod to Blake. "Rats" details a fiendish method of getting rid of them through a sequence of possessions and murders reminiscent of the tree kings in the grove of Nemi. [There is] much strong poetry …. (p. 461)

Richmond Lattimore, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1974 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVII, No. 3, Autumn, 1974.

[About] one third of [the] hard, harsh poems [in The Center of Attention] most scarcely a page long, are circumstantial evidence—topical glimpses, John Hollander calls them, of the physical and mental violence with which we have become overgrown. They are prevalently composed in drastically neat clutches, rhyme is distributed among the lines with a kind of systematic unpredictability, reminding us that it is one of the greatest impoverishments to live in a world where nothing happens twice…. And the other two thirds are gnomic, glyptic, emblematic pieces, spare but unsparing, and in them, as Robert Penn Warren says, Hoffman has found his moment, the kind of subject that brings his forces to focus. Readers of Hoffman's recent study of Poe will know what to expect: a responsible accounting, a remorseless ingenuity, a twingeing awareness, too, that one's privacies, however berated and chastized, are the source even so of one's publicity, even of one's publications. (p. 356)

The gnomics seem to me better than the occasionals here—they participate better in Hoffman's great gift, a gritty intimacy with origins and elements, as in the characteristic Shell. (p. 357)

This is a poetry which punishes itself into shape—into shapeliness; when Hoffman speaks of the wholeness of form and the presence of the intellect, is he not talking about the instruments which enable him to get deeper in—into life, into trouble, into dissolution? He writes "the sentence of our sufferings" in what he calls sponsored images; he writes poems which will enable him to oppose mere bulwarks by corrosion, to counter decorum by perversity. (pp. 357-58)

Richard Howard, in Poetry (© 1975 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), March, 1975.