Daniel G. Hoffman, 89, longtime Swarthmore resident, professor at Swarthmore College and the University of Pennsylvania, and onetime U.S. poet laureate, died Saturday at the Quadrangle independent living facility in Haverford. He was remembered fondly by students and fellow poets around the world as his latest book of poems was just being published.
Mr. Hoffman was a mainstay in the local poetry world, much in evidence at prominent events such as the West Chester Poetry Conference and major venues such as Kelly Writers House at Penn. His witty, piquant, often trenchant poetry took on universal themes and the issues of the day with panache and personality.
"Dan Hoffman touched many lives," poet and Drexel professor Miriam Kotzin said, "directly, of course, his students and the poets to whom he was a great friend. But he also reached many others through his scholarship and his poetry, which was deft, profound, and moving."
Eminent poet Dana Gioia called him "brilliant, kind, and very funny. I never spent an hour in his company without both learning something and laughing out loud." Gioia said, "Dan looked a bit like a mad scientist with Albert Einstein hair." Others said Mr. Hoffman resembled fellow poet Edgar Allan Poe.
Born in New York City in 1923, Mr. Hoffman served as a technical writer and editor for the U.S. Army Air Corps. He entered Columbia University in 1947, earning a bachelor's degree, master's, and Ph.D. in the next nine years. He had his first big poetic success in 1954, when his book of poems An Armada of Thirty Whales was chosen by W.H. Auden for the Yale Series of Younger Poets. Mr. Hoffman became known for his original poems about humanity's relation to nature. But he also gained admirers for his satirical poems, sense of humor, wide range of topics, and unobtrusive formal control.
A lovely example of the Hoffman touch is "Eve Reclined," a description of a bas relief of Eve in the garden of Eden. With characteristic wit, Hoffman turns around the picture of a tragic Eve:
What infinite possibilities of joy
Does her tranced gaze command?
Inscrutable, her face; her plaited hair
Coils upon a pliant arm. She brushes
Succulent fruit hung from the yielding branch.
And then, a pregnant space, and this:
There is no serpent anywhere.
In 1971, this student of Poe published Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe Poe, still regarded as among the best treatments of Poe's work. In 1973, he was appointed consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress, a position now called poet laureate. In the early 1970s, in the midst of what he called "the imperial presidency and the arrogance of Watergate," he began a huge project: an epic poem on the life of William Penn. The resulting work, Brotherly Love, 61 poems on Penn and his achievements, appeared in 1981. Essentially a poet of humane optimism, Mr. Hoffman found in Penn a man whose "ideas conditioned the best features of American life."
A Philadelphian beginning in 1948, Mr. Hoffman became one of the drivers of the local poetry scene, teaching or befriending dozens of the country's best poets. "We were lucky to have a poet of his stature, of his genuine humanity, in our midst for so long," said poet Elaine Terranova of Philadelphia. "He inspired us and helped form us as poets."
Also in 1948, Mr. Hoffman married Elizabeth McFarland, who became the longtime poetry editor of the Ladies' Home Journal. She died in 2005, and Mr. Hoffman saw a collection of her verse, Over the Summer Water, through publication in 2008. They had two children.
Among many other functions, Mr. Hoffman was a contributing editor to the Drexel journal Per Contra, which in mid-March published a 33-essay celebration of him for his 90th birthday, which would have been Wednesday. Poets from across his long career marveled at his constantly fresh, vigorous work, including the poems in his final volume, just released, Next to Last Thoughts.
He is survived by a daughter, Kate; and a son, McFarland. No date has been set for memorial services, but he will be buried next to his wife at a plot in Cape Rosier, Maine.
Contact John Timpane at 215-854-4406, firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @jtimpane.