Tuesday, April 02, 2013

`Receding Like the Light, Like the Shadows'

“This is a bad time, / bad for poetry.” 

So speaks Daniel Hoffman channeling the voice of Louise Bogan in “The Sonnet” (Makes You Stop and Think: Sonnets, 2005). I learned of Hoffman’s death at age eighty-nine on Saturday after reading Joseph Epstein’s obituary for contemporary verse – “…the poetry game is over, kaput, fini, time, gentlemen, time.” -- and before reading David Yezzi likening it to “a spayed housecat lolling in a warm patch of sun.” In an interview he gave to Boulevard in 1989, Hoffman recalled inviting Bogan to speak at Swarthmore College in the nineteen-sixties. He admits feeling relieved Bogan had never reviewed his work in The New Yorker, describing her as “a formalist exclusively.” In the company of “disheveled youth,” he remembered her as “poised yet beleaguered.” When Hoffman learned of Bogan’s death in 1970, he wrote “The Sonnet” to honor her memory. In the interview he says: 

“And here I was responding to the endlessly and boringly reiterated gestures of rebellion, of rejection of the formal principles of art that I’ve spoken of, and the emergence of the formless poem as the style of the decade.”

Hoffman’s own work straddles both worlds. Never “a formalist exclusively,” his early poems were sometimes rhymed, often metrically regular. He was never sloppy, rarely self-indulgent, but changed with the times, loosening up over the decades without descending into propaganda, nihilism or the more egregious forms of sentimentality – the abiding sins of contemporary poetry. Here is one of Hoffman’s finest later poems, “Going,” from Darkening Water: Poems (2002): 

“Your time has come, the yellowed
light of the weary sun
wavers in the foliage.
It’s no use, no use to linger.
So, goodbye, day. See,
the shadows join each other
as the air turns shadow
and the light fails. You
are gone, gone into the ghostly
light of all my days, of all
my hungers only partially assuaged,
of all desires
which in the rush of hours
I reached and stooped to grasp.
They’re gone, receding like the light,
like the shadows, receding
into subsidence, to come
again as the day comes,
as the night
comes, bringing its own
going in its coming
again, and again.” 

I have no reason to think Hoffman read Samuel Beckett, and I’m not claiming influence, but the poem’s halting lull, its hesitant momentum, reminds me of Beckett’s mature prose rhythms, most famously in the concluding words of The Unnamable: 

“Perhaps it's done already, perhaps they have said me already, perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story, that would surprise me, if it opens, it will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don't know, I'll never know, in the silence you don't know, you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on.”

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