Daniel Hoffman’s Hang-Gliding from Helicon: New and Selected Poems, 1948-1988 is a generous book and a personal book. It not only shows but also tells where the poet has been, what he has thought and done in his lifetime. It confronts the signs of age the poet observes, and it examines the shifts and changes he has undergone over a long career of teaching and writing. It allows the reader to trace the poet’s ideas and to observe the development of his craft. Moreover, it reveals, particularly in the section called “Hang-Gliding from Helicon,” who, among writers, have remained as influences. The book is a summing up of one man’s achievement, and the summation should leave no doubt that Hoffman belongs among the major poets of his generation.
The book itself is elegantly, rather than sumptuously, designed and produced. It is a straightforward production and lacks introductory comment, notes, and diversions. The several sections are headed with the titles of the books from which the poems are drawn, followed by the years of the book’s publication. For the most part, the poems are short. The book’s final section, containing the forty-three new poems, is long enough to justify a separate book. It contains some of Hoffman’s best work, and those poems bring to a satisfying conclusion this retrospective of the poet’s life.
From the start of his career, Hoffman, like many an American writer, has combined scholarship and criticism with imaginative writing. Perhaps to a greater extent than most writers, he has identified with his region and has expended effort to represent and serve that region in his art. Hoffman’s contribution to literary criticism, particularly the study of the relationship of myth to literature, has been impressive. Unfortunately, however, literary scholarship has tended to regard him as a better critic than poet, failing to see that the poems reflect the poet’s sensitive awareness of myth and folklore as constituting the very stuff of poetry. Hoffman’s previous collections of new poems, The Center of Attention, came out in 1974, followed by a book-length meditation on William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania (Brotherly Love, 1981). All the while, he remained busy with critical works, such as Others: Shock Troops of Stylistic Change (1975) and “Moonlight Dries No Mittens”: Carl Sandburg Reconsidered (1979). Adding those critical works to the earlier ones on Paul Bunyan, on Stephen Crane, on American fiction, on myth in the poetry of William Butler Yeats, Robert Graves, and Edwin Muir, and his much-celebrated Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe (1972), one discovers that Hoffman’s titles in criticism exactly balance his titles in poetry—that is, if one counts the selected poems published in London in 1977 under the title Able Was I Ere I Saw Elba: Selected Poems, 1954-1974.
Hoffman’s work, as represented by his published books (to say nothing of his editorial efforts and his contribution of occasional essays on poets and poetry), reveals a cohesive, almost perfectly integrated career. One suspects that Hoffman wished to call attention to that aspect of his poetry when he chose the classical example of the palindrome (“Able Was I Ere I Saw Elba”) as the title for his first volume of selected poems. Just as one may read a palindrome backward or forward, so one may begin anywhere in reading Hoffman’s poems and still observe the interplay of early, middle, and late ones. There are progressions, changes, but the central concerns remain remarkably consistent.
Nearly a quarter of the poems in Hang-Gliding from Helicon are unavailable elsewhere in book form, though all apparently have been published in magazines. In selecting poems from his earlier books, Hoffman has omitted any excerpt from Brotherly Love, doubtless recognizing that parts detached from long works do not represent the whole. He also chose to omit the title poem from his second collection, A Little Geste and Other Poems (1960), though some critics have regarded it as the most impressive poem in that book. “A Little Geste” is not only long but also a technical tour de force and, as such, would break the book’s movement and divert the reader from what is essential. Hoffman’s excision of poems and his generous offering of new poems permits a view, not of what is unusual in his work but of what is essential and enduring. Such a process necessarily takes on a valedictory quality.
Hoffman’s title, Hang-Gliding from Helicon, announces that valedictory quality, for though a glider may soar as well as swoop, the nature of gliding demands that one go powerless into the air and let the breezes and the currents take one where they will. The mature poet, with six good books behind him, may be excused the belief that he no longer need aspire toward Helicon, home of the Muses, but may settle himself for the long glide down from those heady heights. It is...
(The entire section is 2044 words.)