Tales of Hoffman: Recounting verse and virtue of late poet laureate

Daniel Hoffman, once the U.S. poet laureate, has died. The Swarthmore resident would have been 90 years old on Wednesday. To mark his birthday, the online literary journal Per Contra prepared a tribute with contributions from writers and admirers.

One of them is his former student, then colleague, then friend, Gregory Djanikian.

“He loved to play music,” said Djanikian, director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Pennsylvania, which was established by Hoffman. “He used to come to our house for dinner, and the first thing he would do is go to the piano and play a ragtime piece. We’d bring him a scotch and soda, and then he would launch into another one.”

Hoffman taught poetry at Swarthmore College, where he continued to live after switching to the University of Pennsylvania. He published 25 books, and served as the nation’s poet laureate during the Nixon administration. He died in his sleep Saturday at the Quadrangle assisted living facility in Haverford.

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Long after he retired from teaching, his love of words and the people who write them never dimmed. He was often seen at Kelly Writers House on the Penn campus, at every annual Poetry Ink event at Moonstone Arts Center in Center City, Philadelphia, and nearly every poetry reading event at Swathmore College, just a few blocks from his home.

“Especially at Ivy League colleges, there’s a certain level of separation, which Dan resisted,” said Larry Robin of Moonstone. “He was in love with sonnets. He was academic in every way, but he wasn’t academic in a way that separates himself, which is what some academics do.”

Hoffman never lost touch with his students or the larger poetry community, often going out of his way to help those students enter that community. The generosity was in his manner and in his poems.

“In Dan’s work there is an awareness that words mean more than one thing, that if you say a cliche, there’s a possibility that it can be taken at face value more seriously, taking the words back to their original meaning and intent,” said Nathalie Anderson, a professor of English literature at Swarthmore. “There’s always a raised eyebrow — an invitation to the reader to share in the fun of what he’s writing.”

“You’re always surprised when someone famous and excellent is a nice guy,” said Robin.

A poetry reading in memory of Daniel Hoffman has been scheduled for April 19 at The Franklin Inn Club in Philadelphia.

Shellby Daniel Hoffman

I would have left the me that was thenClinging to a crack in the bark of the tree,

Stiffening in wind, in the light translucent,A brittle shell that had the shape of me;

And down the back a spllit through which had burstA new creature, from mean appearance free,

Swaying now where the topmost boughs of the tree swayAt the center of the sound that’s at the center of the day.

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