“But Why Write a Poem?”: Remembering Daniel Hoffman

Daniel Hoffman served as Consultant in Poetry here at the Library of Congress for only one year. Yet, like so many of our Consultants and Laureates, he is intimately a part of the history and the culture of our office.

Daniel Hoffman
1923-2013

On March 30, 2013, Daniel Hoffman passed away at the age of 89. His first book, An Armada of Thirty Whales, was published in 1954, and chosen by W. H. Auden to be part of the Yale Series of Younger Poets. He would go on to publish 12 other books of poems, eight books of criticism, a book of translation, and a libretto. He received many honors for his work, including a National Book Award, the Arthur Rense Poetry Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

More than any of these achievements, Hoffman’s own words seem best able to describe his commitment to poetry. This past year our office asked Hoffman to write about his work and his time in the Library. In his response, which referenced his ground-breaking book Brotherly Love, Hoffman wrote:

But why write a poem? I was on this course by my life-long commitment to poetry, and by two epigrams I came on in Emerson’s Essays: ‘America is a poem in our eyes’ (from The Poet), and ‘Facts yield their secret sense of our annals, and annals are alike” (History). It became my purpose to discover the secret sense of our annals, and so reveal the poem hidden in history.

Hoffman’s dedication to this “secret sense” and to the poem “hidden in history” illustrate his belief in unity and mystery and beauty.

Letter from Daniel Hoffman to Richard Eberhart
June 20, 1961

The Poetry and Literature Center office has many of Hoffman’s letters in our files. In one such letter, with his friend Richard Eberhart (then Consultant in Poetry), Hoffman wrote about a series of poems he would go on to record for the Library. Hoffman says of his poem “The Hermit at Cape Rosier”:

Now that you’ve taken the poem for the record I’ll tell you that you and Betty and Dikkon all wandered in the maze with me—do you remember the time at Undercliff, about six years ago, when we set out to find the Hermit’s house, following a trail from the road near the Cape Rosier post office, and after an hour and half emerged at exactly the spot where we had entered the woods? As you’ll see the reality got changed somewhat in the poem, but who’d know that better than you?

‘Structural as architecture’ must, I guess, be a subliminal echo of your long-ago memorized Groundhog. You know how a phrase, or an image, or a cadence, can get into your marrow so deeply…

In the papers that follow, someone has included the transcription of that poem as it was recorded at the Library. As Hoffman insinuates in his letter, the story differs dramatically from the poem. I see in this difference the ability of a poet to take fact as inspiration for a greater fiction; I also see in his reworking of the line “Beautiful as architecture” in Eberhart’s famous poem “The Groundhog” as an example of how great lines beget others, and how poets continue to be in dialogue with other poems.

We at the Poetry and Literature Center mourn Hoffman’s loss, and honor his life-long commitment to the art as well as his contribution to the Consultancy and the Library.

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