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John Hoffman was born in Menlo Park, California, in 1928. Little is known about Hoffman’s early life, though he expressed an interest in poetry in his youth, discovering the works of French poets Arthur Rimbaud and the Comte de Lautréamont, who wrote under the nom de plume Isidore Lucien Ducasse, in his father’s personal library.
Hoffman met Surrealist poet Philip Lamantia in 1947, after the latter had given a poetry reading. They were friends for the remaining five years of Hoffman’s life. Though Hoffman wrote poetry, he eschewed magazine publication and lived in economic insecurity, working odd jobs. Many of the poems that he had shown Lamantia in San Francisco in 1947 were, according to Lamantia, either lost or destroyed. Hoffman sailed from New York to South America sometime in the early 1950s, traveling to Rio de Janeiro and Montevideo—the birthplace of Lautréamont—before making his way to central Mexico. While in Puerto Vallarta, Hoffman suffered from a bout of paralysis and died in Guadalajara in 1952 under circumstances that remain mysterious. He was twenty-four years old.
Lamantia has described Hoffman’s poetry as “the authentic instance: by precise artistry, by pure intention, it extends out of what he knew to be essential in the self.”
After Hoffman’s death, a manuscript was discovered among his personal items. Lamantia, who attended the Six Gallery Reading in 1955, a poetry event that heralded the birth of the Beat movement, chose to read Hoffman’s poems instead of his own. Hoffman’s surviving poems were collected by City Lights Books in 2008 as Tau by Philip Lamantia and Journey to the End by John Hoffman, edited by Garrett Caples.