Frank Wilson at Books, Inq. said something audacious last week: “I think Dan [Hoffman] is the greatest living American poet.” Usually one dismisses such claims as provocations, mere argument-starters, but years ago I had read Daniel Hoffman’s book with the annoying title, Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe, and liked it very much, in part because it had interesting things to say about Nabokov. I think it remains the only book about Poe I have ever read. I was dimly aware Hoffman was a poet but never got around to reading him. On Frank’s recommendation, I found Beyond Silence: Selected Shorter Poems, 1948-2003 at the library, and now I have much catching up to do.
After reading 25 or 30 of his poems, picked at random, Hoffman impresses me as an enthusiast of life. He knows how to enjoy himself and how to share his enjoyment with us. He knows things about the world beyond poetry. He’s neither cheerleader nor scold. He actually seems to like poetry, his own and other’, and doesn’t merely endure it. Needless to say, he’s a craftsman. Here’s a poem, “Breathing Purely,” that reminds me of a Marx Brothers movie in the sense that each line is so good you’re at risk for missing the next one:
“Now, at last,
I carry nothing
In my briefcase
And an empty mind.
In the meadow
“Under the chestnut tree
I am part of what I see.
Swallows above the alder thicket
Skim mosquitoes from the haze,
And I’ve seceded
“From all committees, left
My Letters to the Editor unsent
No solutions, no opinions.
Without ambitions, purged, awaiting
“Annunciations of the true.
The wind is up now and the swallows gone.
I’ll listen to the chestnut tree
Empty-headed in the wind.”
I like “awaiting/Annunciations of the true.” I also like Hoffman’s way with nature imagery – chestnuts, swallows, mosquitos – that never descends into self-congratulatory nature mysticism, such as we find in, say, Mary Oliver. I also like the way it contrasts with the human workaday world – briefcase, committees, letters – yet the speaker with his “empty mind” echoes with the “empty-headed” chestnut trees. The poem is as well built and free of pretension as a Shaker chair. And here’s a poem of enormous momentum and humility alloyed with pride. I think it’s about the power of poetry to conjure the past and help keep us human. It’s called “Stop the Deathwish! Stop it! Stop!”:
“ – at least until the 21st century
because the present is too good to lose
a moment of – I would begrudge the time
for sleep, but dreams are better than they used
to be, since they enact the mystery
that action hides and history derides.
The past drains from the present like the juice
Of succulent clams left in the noonday sun.
I spent the better part of my youth
prenticed to arts for which there’ll be small use
in whatever work the future needs have done:
I can file a needle to a point
so fine it plays three sides before it burrs,
or split a hundredweight of ice to fit
the cold chest with a week’s worth in two blows;
is there a man around who knows
by rote the dismantled stations of the El,
or that the Precinct House in Central Park
was once a cote from which the lambing ewes
and spindly lambs and crookhorned rams set out
to crop the green? In one-flag semaphore
I can transmit, or signal in Morse code
by heliograph such urgent messages
as scouts and sappers a boyhood ago
squinted through binoculars to read.
I can still cobble rime royale by hand
and may, through now, about as few use rhyme
as wigwag or sun’s mirrored beam to spell
their definitions of the ways that Time
endows the present it consumes, or tell
how only in this moment’s flare we dwell
save when Memory, with her hands outspread,
brings back the past, like Lazarus, from the dead.”
The final seven lines, of course, are Hoffman’s jaunty nod to rime royale: seven lines of iambic pentameter with the rhyme scheme ababbcc. Thanks, Frank, for the introduction.