[(essay date 1987) In the following interview, conducted in September 1986, Hoffman considers poetic influences throughout his career. Reflecting on his relationship to poets from the Romantic period through his contemporaries, he describes his poems as attempts to return to the past in order to move ahead into the future.]
Daniel Hoffman is Poet in Residence and Felix E. Schelling Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. As this double nomenclature suggests, his distinguished work as poet and as literary scholar-critic has been mutually enriching, for the ethic of humane letters that Hoffman professes forms the basis of value in his poetry. He has absorbed the traditions of Anglo-American literature; his poetry displays a dazzling range of traditional verse forms and meters, as well as increasing fluency in contemporary open forms and sequences.
His place as a man of letters was acknowledged by his appointment as the 1972-73 Consultant in Poetry of the Library of Congress. In 1972 he was also elected a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Since the appearance of his first book of verse, An Armada of Thirty Whales, as Auden’s selection for the Yale Series of Younger Poets Award in 1954, he has published seven collections: A Little Geste [A Little Geste and Other Poems] (1960), The City of Satisfactions (1963), Striking the Stones (1967), Broken Laws (1970), The Center of Attention (1974), Able Was I Ere I Saw Elba (a selected poems published in England, 1977), and Brotherly Love (1981).
Hoffman has taught also at Swarthmore College and at Columbia, and as visiting professor at the Faculté des Lettres, Université de Dijon. He has been a fellow of the School of Letters, Indiana University and the School of Yeats Studies in Sligo, Ireland; he has held the George Elliston Lectureship in Poetry at the University of Cincinnati and fellowships from the A.C.L.S., N.E.H., and the Guggenheim Foundation.
The range of his poetic sensibility may be seen at its best in his most recent work, Brotherly Love, a meditative narrative in various voices on the meaning of history as exemplified in William Penn’s founding of Pennsylvania. Daniel Hoffman is currently completing a collection of his shorter poems written over the past decade. The following interview took place in Philadelphia in September, 1986.
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[Sherry]: When did you begin to write poetry?
[Hoffman]: I remember in college, writing a poem with a line, “I could never keep from writing poems.” The fit began in high school, as soon as I’d read enough to have some sense of what poetry can do. Then came the need to set down, to phrase and create what is numinous. Not that one’s juvenilia can do that.
What sort of poetry were you reading back then?
Anthology chestnuts. Songs from Shakespeare’s plays. Songs of Innocence, Songs of Experience. Odes to the West Wind, the Grecian Urn. It little profits that an idle king grew old along with me. … That sort of thing.
Sounds like a high school English curriculum.