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Daniel Hoffman

1923–2013

Daniel Hoffman was born in New York City on April 3, 1923. He published numerous books of poetry, most recently, The Whole Nine Yards: Longer Poems (Louisiana State University Press, 2009) and Makes You Stop and Think: Sonnets (George Braziller, 2005). Other titles by Hoffman include Beyond Silence: Selected Shorter Poems 1948-2003 (2003); Darkening Water (2002); Middens of the Tribe (1995); Hang-Gliding from Helicon: New and Selected Poems, 1948-1988, winner of the 1988 Paterson Poetry Prize; Brotherly Love, (1981) a National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award nominee; The Center of Attention (1974); Broken Laws (1970); Striking the Stones (1968); The City of Satisfactions (1963); A Little Geste and Other Poems (1960); and An Armada of Thirty Whales (1954), chosen by W. H. Auden for the Yale Series of Younger Poets. Hoffman adapted Brotherly Love as the libretto for Ezra Laderman's oratorio (2000), and published his translation from the Italian of Ruth Domino's A Play of Mirrors (2002).

Hoffman also wrote Zone of the Interior: A Memoir, 1942-1947 (2000) and seven volumes of criticism, which include Words to Create a World: Interviews, Essays, and Reviews on Contemporary Poetry (1993); Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe (1971), which was nominated for a National Book Award; Barbarous Knowledge: Myth in the Poetry of Yeats, Graves, and Muir (1967); Form and Fable in American Fiction (1961); and The Poetry of Stephen Crane (1957).

In describing Hoffman's poems, Stephen Dunn said, "In them is a lifetime of careful observance, the voice rarely raised yet passionate in its precisions, the man behind it enough a lover of life to have been properly critical of the way we've lived it."

He received the Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry from The Sewanee Review, the Hazlett Memorial Award, the Memorial Medal of the Maygar P.E.N. for his translations of contemporary Hungarian poetry, grants from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and the Ingram Merrill Foundation, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. In 2005, Hoffman received the Arthur Rense Poetry Prize "for an exceptional poet" from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Hoffman served as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 1973 to 1974 (the appointment now called the Poet Laureate) and was a Chancellor Emeritus of the Academy of American Poets. From 1988 to 1999 Hoffman was Poet in Residence at St. John the Divine, where he administered the American Poets' Corner. Until 1996, he taught as the Felix E. Schelling Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. He also received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, where he also resides.

Hoffman died on March 30, 2013 in Haverford, Pennsylvania. He was 89.


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By This Poet

5

Identities

One searches roads receding, endlessly receding, receding.
The other opens all doors with the same key.  Simple.

One's quick to wrath, the wronged, the righteous, the wroth
   kettledrum.
The other loafs by the river, idles and jiggles his line.

One conspired against statues on stilts, in his pocket
The plot that dooms the city. The other's a good son.

One proclaims he aims to put the first aardvark in space.
The other patiently toils, making saddles for horseless headmen.

One exults as he flexes the glees of his body, up-down, up-down.
The other's hawk-kite would sail, would soar--who has tied
   it to carrion and bones?

One's a Tom Fool about money--those pockets are his, with the holes.
At his touch, gold reverts to the base living substance.

The other's a genius, his holdings increase by binary fission--
Ownings beget their own earnings, dividend without end.

One clasps in a bundle and keens for the broken ten laws.
The other scratches in Ogham the covenant of a moral pagan.

One with alacrity answers to '121-45-3628?'--'Yes, Sir!'  The other
bends his knee, doffs cap, to no man living or dead.  One

Does all his doings predetermined by diskette or disc.
The other draws his dreams through the eye of the moon.

The Center of Attention

As grit swirls in the wind the word spreads.
On pavements approaching the bridge a crowd
Springs up like mushrooms.
They are hushed at first, intently

Looking.  At the top of the pylon
The target of their gaze leans toward them.
The sky sobs
With the sirens of disaster crews

Careening toward the crowd with nets,
Ladders, resuscitation gear, their First
Aid attendants antiseptic in white duck.
The police, strapped into their holsters,

Exert themselves in crowd-control.  They can't 
Control the situation.
Atop the pylon there's a man who threatens
Violence.  He shouts, I'm gonna jump--

And from the river of upturned faces
--Construction workers pausing in their construction work,
Shoppers diverted from their shopping,
The idlers relishing this diversion

In the vacuity of their day--arises
A chorus of cries--Jump!
Jump! and No--
Come down! Come down!  Maybe, if he can hear them,

They seem to be saying  Jump down!  The truth is,
The crowd cannot make up its mind.
This is a tough decision. The man beside me
Reaches into his lunchbox and lets him have it.

Jump! before he bites his sandwich,
While next to him a young blonde clutches
Her handbag to her breasts and moans
Don't   Don't   Don't   so very softly

You'd think she was afraid of being heard.
The will of the people is divided.
Up there he hasn't made his mind up either.
He has climbed and climbed on spikes imbedded in the pylon

To get where he has arrived at.
Is he sure now that this is where he was going?
He looks down one way into the river.
He looks down the other way into the people.

He seems to be looking for something 
Or for somebody in particular.
Is there anyone here who is that person
Or can give him what it is that he needs?

From the back of a firetruck a ladder teeters.
Inching along, up up up up up, a policeman
Holds on with one hand, sliding it on ahead of him.
In the other, outstretched, a pack of cigarettes.

Soon the man will decide between
The creature comfort of one more smoke
And surcease from being a creature.
Meanwhile the crowd calls Jump! and calls Come down!

Now, his cassock billowing in the bulges of Death's black flag,
A priest creeps up the ladder too
What will the priest and the policeman together
Persuade the man to do?

He has turned his back to them.
He has turned away from everyone.
His solitariness is nearly complete.
He is alone with his decision.

No one on the ground or halfway into the sky can know
The hugeness of the emptiness that surrounds him.
All of his senses are orphans.
His ribs are cold andirons.

Does he regret his rejection of furtive pills,
Of closet noose or engine idling in closed garage?
A body will plummet through shrieking air,
The audience dumb with horror, the spattered street . . .

The world he has left is as small as toys at his feet.
Where he stands, though nearer the sun, the wind is chill.
He clutches his arms--a caress, or is he trying
Merely to warm himself with his arms?

The people below, their necks are beginning to ache.
They are getting impatient for this diversion
To come to some conclusion.  The priest
Inches further narrowly up the ladder.

The center of everybody's attention
For some reason has lit up a butt.  He sits down.
He looks down on the people gathered, and sprinkles
Some of his ashes upon them.

Before he is halfway down
The crowd is half-dispersed.
It was his aloneness that clutched them together.
They were spellbound by his despair

And now each rung brings him nearer,
Nearer to their condition
Which is not sufficiently interesting
To detain them from business or idleness either,

Or is too close to a despair
They do not dare
Exhibit before a crowd
Or admit to themselves they share.

Now the police are taking notes
On clipboards, filling the forms.
He looks round as though searching for what he came down for.
Traffic flows over the bridge.

At the Lookout

They always start with quick and eager strides
--Even the one on crutches--up the hill.
The long-legged and the young soon reach the bend,
Then reappear above the heads of slower
Earnest pilgrims puffing up the slope.
Those at the parapet stand, statuesque,
Their tiny silhouettes nicking the sky.
See, some now descend the winding trail--
The young, the tall step out, no longer black
And dwarfed against the vast and cloudless light,
Their blouses khaki, red, and white. In single
File, like beads on a string we cannot see,
They reach the stairway to the parking lot,
Then break apart toward different destinations.
Scattered now, does each still hoard some sense
Of borrowed grace from a purpose briefly snatched
And shared beneath the sky, whatever it was?