Hoffman, Daniel (Vol. 13)
Mr. Hoffman's poetry [in An Armada of Thirty Whales] is extremely detailed in its observation of nature, and his clams and snails and pears and whales yield intricate parables by being so closely inspected. Perhaps not sentimentality so much as a diffidence about it, or fear of it, weakens so many of these poems just at the ending; his "Icarus, Icarus" moves with a goodly competence down to "what ecstasy of pride it was that shook/you loose from all that beeswax and those quills,/O how you soared," then drags in what I feel to be a plain irrelevance: "that instant before Breughel/showed human eyes unseeing at your fall." This or a similar fault diminished my pleasure in several other poems also, but I found one, "That the pear delights me now," whose ritual nature allows of a quiet, anticipated close, and which seems strong and fine throughout. (p. 66)
Howard Nemerov, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1954 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), September, 1954.
In [the] second paragraph [of Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe], Poe is 'complex, inspired, limited, pretentious, uncompromising, banal'; on page three his art is 'strange, haunted, tawdry, inexorable, remote yet inescapable'. And we've still got a long, long way to go. (p. 97)
Needless to say, Hoffman is a man obsessed, so much so that at times he apes his subject's manias: '… my chronicle of Poe's life and work and reputation and influence and how Edgarpoe wormed his way into my guts and gizzard and haunted my brain and laid a spell upon my soul which this long harangue is an attempt to exorcise'.
Now as Hoffman admits, a lot has been written about Poe. He is generous in his avowed indebtedness to fellow soul-critics such as Richard Wilbur, but crude in his dismissal of earlier biographers and analysts. Recounting Poe's marriage at 27 to his cousin Virginia, then 14, he condemns as 'an impertinence' the theory of two American psychoanalysts—based on Poe's poem Annabel Lee—that Virginia died a virgin because Poe was impotent. It's not our business, he declares, 'whether he could get it up or not'. What is our business? 'What he wrote'—in screaming italics. Why, then, does Hoffman himself waste so much expendable space on idle biographical gossip, not least incredulity that his hero should lapse so far as to try for a military commission at West Point?
I suspect Hoffman is...
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Probably Daniel Hoffman writes as well as any poet in America today, but The Center of Attention … won't extend his reputation and it suffers from the same problems as its predecessor, Broken Laws. Hoffman is among those poets born in the 1920s (Wilbur, Simpson, Rich, and Dickey come to mind among others) who began as formalists and have gradually loosened their stanzas and rhythms to accommodate a wider range of experience and feeling than was possible in the autotelic structures they began with. What Hoffman lacks, however, is precisely what the title of the volume professes, a focus for his perception which can transcend the poem as exercise-on-a-topic (see both parts II and III for this tendency). The poems in Part I are strong, austere, varied in form and subject, and concerned with the dichotomy of private and public life: death is at the center of their vision. A poet as good as Hoffman could have written an entire book with the conviction one finds in "After God," "The Princess Casamassima," "Power," or the title poem. As it stands, The Center of Attention is two-thirds a collection, one-third a brilliant showcase for Hoffman's talents, certain of which he could push further. (p. 279)
Peter Cooley, in Prairie Schooner (© 1976 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), Fall, 1976.
The palindromic title given [Able Was I Ere I Saw Elba] intimates Hoffman's delight in verbal play; also perhaps a lack of stylistic "development" which, given his range, virtuosity and witty inventiveness, hardly matters. In "An armada of thirty whales" we read:
The ceremonial motion
of their ponderous race is
given dandiacal graces
in the ballet of their geysers.
Hoffman has dandiacal graces enough of his own: his zestful verbal flamboyance, supple use of rhyme and other sound-effects, linguistic quirks, while never so inordinate as to exasperate or baffle the reader, make the processes of his writing vital and interesting…. There is an early thematic shift from poems preoccupied with birds, beasts and flowers to wider human concerns. Hoffman shows a talent for symbolic fictions, in poems such as "The City of Satisfactions" where the reader is drawn into a fantasy-world made compelling by the recognizable dailiness of such appurtenances as "A Danish half-devoured by flies beneath specked glass,/Dirty cups on the counter."
Generally, though, Hoffman is a verbal "maker" rather than a poet driven by obsessions. I find no unifying vision at the heart of his work making everything cohere, as in the highest order of poets, into an organic imaginative world, but there are many very fine poems….
[Crucially when something does well up from the depths, Hoffman possesses] a technique enabling its expression, as when, in "An Old Photo in an Old Life" he meditates on a picture of soldiers beside a river during the Boxer Rebellion…. Hoffman is a poet worth buying. (p. 936)
Andrew Waterman, in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1977; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), July 29, 1977.
Hoffman, like Winters, like the New Critics, like Berryman, Jarrell, Hollander, and a few others, is one of the minority of true writer/scholar/teacher hybrids whose intelligence turns as naturally to the crafting of creative scholarship as to poetry (if not perhaps with equal pleasure)….
If Hoffman is an academic professional, if he values, modifies, and uses easily the traditional forms of poetry in English, his own poetry would nevertheless be incorrectly characterized as "academic" if the term means drily bookish, bloodless, "dissociation from nature." Nor is it "intellectual," for all its intelligence; nor is it difficult of access, though the later work yields much of its potential quality and meaning after multiple readings. [Able Was I Ere I Saw Elba: Selected Poems] establishes Hoffman's as a poetry lovingly crafted, fine in its descriptions, haunting and strange in its myth-making, and increasingly memorable.
The pleasure of perusing this poet's work through the twenty years and half-dozen volumes represented in Able Was I Ere I Saw Elba is partly in seeing how the promise of the first two books—exuberant with experiments in form, sound, tone, the vocal exercising of a young singer whose voice is still changing—is fulfilled, thanks to all that practice, in a mature third book, and how it develops in range and grace through each of the three to fellow. (p. 171)
[Hoffman's first collection, An Armada of Thirty Whales, shows] him to be a person bemused and intrigued by nature, and by "natural" and "human" interactions; in them, natural things large as whales or small as mayflies often can be taken as metaphorical for human things—yet need not be. There is implicit in the closeness and care of his observations a love of clams for their courage, of snails for their concentration, the creatures rejoiced in fully as much for their own purposes as for any of ours…. That exuberance Hoffman brought to his early writing expresses itself in his sound effects…. Slant rhymes and curious rhyme games (down/ground/by/died) abound.
The selections from the second book, A Little Geste, contain similarly self-conscious effects (the sun "wimples the wakeless water"; truth rhymes daringly with sloops on the pure strength of a vowel) but works also toward an easier and more colloquial idiom, and at the same time toward Hoffman's major thematic concerns. The impulse to play games...
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John Alexander Allen
The title [of Hoffman's selected poems]—Able Was I Ere I Saw Elba—is appropriate in at least two ways. With its reference to Napoleon's enforced residence on Elba, the old palindrome suggests the principal theme of Hoffman's work—exile from "another country," one that he has known as though in a dream and to which he will one day return triumphantly. As for the fact that the title can be read both ways, Hoffman's work … not only can but should be read both in chronological and in anti-chronological order.
"Now why," asks Daniel Hoffman, "would a visitation from the Isles/Of the Blessed come to Swarthmore, Pa. 19081, a borough zoned/For single-family occupancy? No/Rocks of Renunciation...
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