Wednesday, 3 April 2013

To Him, Whitman was More than a Bridge

Today in Weimar, Germany, I heard the sad news (over my Internet WHYY) that my favorite Philadelphia poet, Dan Hoffman, had died just short of his 90th birthday. Dan was the kind of poet that Walt Whitman asked Americans to cherish.

In 1973, when I was chairman of the Beaver College English Department, my girl and I were driving back from celebrating her birthday in Cape May when she suddenly asked, as we approached the Walt Whitman Bridge, if I had ever visited his mausoleum. I hadn’t, and I was so ashamed to admit it that I nearly crashed getting us off the bridge in the direction of Harleigh Cemetery.

To our surprise, we found the Whitman memorial falling apart. Luckily, the annual National Council of Teachers of English convention was scheduled to meet in Philadelphia that Thanksgiving. So I asked the brass if I could prowl the aisles with an appeal, “A BUCK FOR THE BARD’S BONES” on my front and “SAVE WALT’S VAULT” from behind.

If I dropped the shabby rhetoric, I was allowed to raise the cash. Those tightfisted English teachers chipped in $838. (Buckminster Fuller later gave me a check for $100.)

So we repaired the 1892 structure and celebrated Whitman’s muse together on his birthday in 1974. I still remember with pride that National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” covered our rite, the high point of which was Dan Hoffman reading my favorite Hoffman poem, On Crossing Walt Whitman Bridge, which mocked lazy Philadelphians who stay at the Walt Whitman Hotel in Camden and buy their booze at a Whitman store, all the while ignorant of the great poet’s work.

Dan appreciated what Walt Whitman was all about. Had Whitman been here, I think he would have returned the compliment.

This memory first appeared in Broad Street Review

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