Friday, 20 July 2012

Hoffman and the Greater Walt

The appearance of Penn poet Daniel Hoffman’s magisterial Hang Gliding From Helicon: New and Selected Poems, 1948-1988 (Louisiana State Press, Baton Rouge) is the good news. Especially since he will read from the collection at the YMHA on January 22nd.

The bad news is that I’m using the occasion to ruminate over the lifelong process by which the poetry lover chooses his muses. The polysyllabic jargon for this process in the Age of Deconstructivism is “Canon Formation.”

Oddly, for me, the first time this verbiage hit me like a ton of rain-sodden cardboard was about 1973, when I asked Hoffman why he wasn’t publishing his marvelous lyric, “Crossing Walt Whitman Bridge.”

“It isn’t canonical, Patrick,” Dan excused, not explained.

A poet picks and chooses—there are almost 200 poems which make the cut in his “new and selected,” sort of the beatification stage in a mature poet’s artistic life. When Dan parried that my favorite poem of his was not canonical, I considered it something of a chide of my judgment. “Geez, Hazard,” he seemed to imply, “don’t you know a real poem from a mere attempt?”

So vanity prodded me to turn first to the table of contents to see whether Hoffman had relented under the remorseless pressure of my high opinion. (He had already given me the grace of a splendid holograph of the poem, a private treasure.)

There is was, in the final section V, between “Essay on Style” and “Mark Twain, 1900.” But wait. Turning to it with joy, I found a poem many times longer and richer than the “original.” Gadzooks, it’s a veritable short and jazzy history of American poetry, centering on other poems written to Walt.

In my increasingly sadder model of American culture, Americans are divided into sheep who cherish Walt Whitman and the exponentially increasing mob who dig Walt Disney. I call it the losing battle between the Greater and Lesser Walts. Tell me what a man knows about Watershed Walt, and I’ll tell you where he stands on every critical moral and intellectual issue facing our beleaguered republic.

I pause to formulate Hazard’s Literary Law: A country that doesn’t read its great writers eventually loses its mind. Ergo, because American literature is the greatest under-read literature in the history of mankind, Americans are going and staying nuts in droves.

Ronald Reagan is a prime example. Bush is on the brink. Quayle remains unborn—in utero so to speak—intellectually. They and their idiot peers account for the terrible phenomenon of America having become a loose cannon on spaceship Earth. No Canon? Cannons unleashed.

To be specific, the gung-ho patriotics of Oliver North and his State Department de-mentor Elliot Abrams would lift as a passing fog were those gentlemen to intellectually metabolize Hoffman poems like “Power” (about the loner King-killer phenomenon in 20th Century America) or “The Center of Attention” (about the terrible ambivalence of an American noontime downtown crowd over a man threatening to jump to his death).

Ezra Pound once expostulated, in his apodictic way, that “Literature is news that stays news.” Dan goes Ezra one better: He turns the quotidian news story into lit that clarifies with clarity and eloquence the cruel and crude miasmas that pass for a moral landscape in post-imperial America.

Let me try to explain what I mean. I was excited by Dan’s Whitman poem, which explored wittily that paradox of paradoxes: South Jersey is full of business establishments named after our premier pioneering poet of Demos, but it’s utterly devoid of people who have read a single line of the man’s still luminous work.

His “uncanonical” first-version lyric hit me where I was livid at the time. I had just returned from Cape May, celebrating a dear girl friend’s 23rd birthday. As we whizzed through Camden (perfect emblem of what happens to a city whose owners don’t read Whitman), she asked me: If I loved Whitman so much, why had I never visited his mausoleum? A telling shot.

So as soon as I could conquer my fear of Camden and find directions to Harleigh Cemetery, there we were, two slightly hung-over Americans eager to pay homage to the old codger.

Horrors! The 1892 structure was a mess, slowly disintegrating from neglect. This was in 1973, the unremarked centennial of Walt’s having moved from D.C. to his brother’s house in Camden.

But wait. By what we Americanists call a remarkable providence, the National Council of Teachers of English was holding its annual convention in Philly that Thanksgiving. I asked permission to parade with sandwich boards garnished with appeals like “A Buck For The Bard’s Bones” or “Save Walt’s Vault.” In the Teachers’ imperial wisdom, they ruled that I could raise the money if I abandoned the meretricious rhetoric.

I did—in front of my luminous chenille bedspread emblazoned (by Beaver artist Ellen Maser) “Poetry to the People.” Ellen’s spread worked—to the tune of $738, fattened by Bucky Fuller’s gracious $100 check.

The 1984 Graveyard Party, celebrating the rededication, was a wonder. Carmen Gasperro and his quartet composed a jazz suite for the occasion. We passed out nine (for the muses) bottles of Great Western champagne to add Euro-Am elegance to the occasion. And National Public Radio carried our joy to the winds. It was a great day for poets.

Now comes the ugly part. That was also the year that Rutgers creative writing honcho Frank McQuilkin prevailed upon me to open Walt Whitman Day at the Camden Center with a $50 diatribe (for which I was stiffed! No thanks, Frank) as foreplay to Allen Ginsburg’s $1,500 apotheosis in the late afternoon.

So there were we two—Allen and me after the morning coffee. I offered to take him over to the Walt Whitman House. His reply? “Are you gay, Hazard?”

“No, Ginsberg,” I answered. “God hasn’t blessed me yet. Bad break. I guess.”

His next query really startled me. “So how come you’re interested in Whitman?” with the astonishing heterophobic assumption that being gay was sine qua non for affection for Walt.

“Oh, I guess it grows on you when you’ve taught him for 20 years,” I sneered.

The Great Howler was not making a good impression on this canon formulator. Frankly, over the years I have come to believe that AG is not a poet at all but a media hypester whom a corrupt press uses to disabuse itself of responsibility for real poetry, by using his titillation at the same time that it implies that he’s a phony.

At the Modern Languages Association convention in New Orleans, I was saddened to see that even Helen Vendler puts Ginsberg in her Harvard University Press interim pantheon, but excludes AG’s Columbia classmate, Daniel Hoffman. To detox MLA, I wandered form booth to booth reading Hoffman to whoever would listen. To a person, they were outraged that they had never even heard of Hoffman, whose work levitated them on the spot.

One final score. Ginsberg alleged at the height of his influence that the college poetry seminar was destroying American verse. (A classic case of projection: It was his bargain-basement howlers who were—and still are—diminishing the American muse.) he might have been thinking of his Columbia classmate, Hoffman, except that no one has ever accused Allen Ginsberg of thinking.

Hoffman’s career has been an exemplum for our time, alternating a book of criticism (his dissertation on the poetry of Stephen Crane) with a book of verse (his Yale Younger Poets prize-winning An Armada of Whales, 1954), over a teaching career spent at Swarthmore and Penn. Never in my experience has the dialectic between learning and love been so deep and fructifying.

Let me predict: By 1998, when we may expect DH’s culminating “collected” if fate smiles on us both, Ginsberg will already have been dispatched to the dustbin of footnotes, and Hoffman will give many more the pleasure of his muse, joining Harvard’s Cut List of the Apothesizers of the Quotidien—poets like Phillip Booth (whose “Wilding” started me on the road to poetic pleasure), Linda Pastan, William Stafford and (greatest love of all) Seamus Heaney.

They have retrieved the Muse from the labyrinth of modernism. No more multilingual bull. Just luminous images and graceful cadence. Catch up, you Lesser Walt-ers.

From Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, January 18, 1989

No comments: