Skip to main content

Charge to Daniel Hoffman

Honorary Degree Citation

Daniel Hoffman, you are a poet of rare craft and vision, a provocative literary critic, and a beloved teacher. You bring to the study of literature, a lyric voice; and to the art of poetry, a love of history. You have published over twenty books, charting the course of the American literary tradition and enriching that tradition with your own beautiful poems. To use your own words from "Hang-Gliding" from Helicon, your work is "Carved on memory's staff. Casting its message/ In a sort of singing."

You were born in New York City in 1923, served as an Air Force officer in World War II, and received a B.A. from Columbia University in 1947, and a Ph.D. in 1956. You then taught at Swarthmore for nine years, until you were lured away by the University of Pennsylvania, where you taught until 1996 as the Felix E. Shelling Professor of English. You introduced Penn's first poetry workshop and later become Director of Penn's Creative Writing Program that evolved from that workshop.

Your studies of literature include books on Paul Bunyan and Stephen Crane, and on the poetry of Yeats, Graves, and Muir; the seminal Form and Fable in American Fiction, which explores the uses of folklore and mythology in the romances of Hawthorne, Melville, and Twain; and a celebrated study of Poe, which finds his genius in his capacity to transform his own suffering into provocative paradigms of the American condition.

Your first poetic work, "An Armada of Thirty Whales," was chosen by W.H. Auden for the Yale Younger Poets Series. It was followed by nine others, including, "Striking Stones," "Broken Laws," "Darkening Water," and "Beyond Silence." "Hang-Gliding" from Helicon won the Paterson Poetry Prize in 1989. And "Brotherly Love," an epic poem that evokes William Penn's vision of America as well as the historical struggles that threatened that vision, was nominated for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics' Circle Award and was set to music. Monroe Spears referred to "Brotherly Love" as perhaps the nearest equivalent to "Paradise Lost" now possible. And critic Keith Walters extols your work "as clearly seeing, and completely reflecting [American culture's] intricacies, contradictions, tensions and values."

You have been recipient of NEH and Guggenheim fellowships; were honored with the Hazlett Memorial Award and the Aiken Taylor Award; held the position of Chancellor Emeritus of The Academy of American Poets; and, from 1973 to 1974, had the great honor to serve as Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, the appointment now called Poet Laureate.

Those whom you taught at Swarthmore vividly remember their inspiring teacher, and the campus continues to celebrate the beauty and power of your poetry and prose. Your son Tad graduated from Swarthmore in 1980, and you and your family have lived in Swarthmore for nearly fifty years, taking an active part in the life of this College and Borough.

In accepting the award for poetry from The American Academy of Arts and Letters, you wrote: "Amid private sufferings and outrage at the brutalities of public life, it is gaiety that sustains us, and love, and the imagination's power to create from both deprivation and delight." Daniel Hoffman, you are the exemplar of the scholar-teacher and poet-critic, whose work and person sustain those they touch through that very imagination, gaiety, and love.

Upon the recommendation of the faculty, and by the power vested in me by the Board of Managers of Swarthmore College and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, I have the honor to bestow upon you the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters.