Winter 2005-6

FEATURE - George Wallace

NEWS FROM THE VOLCANO: On the Poetry of John Hoffman

"Delicate Frank DaPavia read, from delicate onionskin yellow pages, or pink, which he kept flipping through with long white fingers, the poems of his dead chum..."
Jack Kerouac, Dharma Bums
'...who disappeared into the volcanoes of Mexico leaving behind nothing but the shadow of dungarees and the lava and ash of poetry...'
Alan Ginsberg, Howl

Poetry is news that stays news. Especially when it inspires a revolution in the arts and then remains dead and buried for fifty years. That's the case with the poetry of John Hoffman is considered by many to be one of the key landmark events signaling the birth of the Beats.

Because at the Six Gallery reading 50 years ago in San Francisco, while Ginsberg was reading Howl for the first time and Kerouac was beating on a jug of red wine and shouting Go, Go, Go!, young surrealist poet Philip Lamantia took a far different and more self-effacing tack that fateful day. He read the poetry of his friend John Hoffman.

Hoffman, it seems, had done something quite dramatic and inspiring to the early Beats. He was young, good looking literary, spiritually transcendantal, and he died dramatically - like 'disappearing' into a volcano in Mexico. After wandering spaced out, long haired and blonde through the ranks of the proto-Beats, he became victim of a probable overdose of Peyotl at the tender age of 21 around 1951.

And then that was the end of John Hoffman. Four years later, LaMantia read John Hoffman's poems and after that his work disappeared too. John Hoffman - described as 'legendary' and 'inspirational' by many Beat scholars - remained virtually unpublished and unexamined for half a century.

Until now, that is.

Thanks to Philip LaMantia, who saved the 'delicate onionskin pages' Kerouac mentions. And thanks to Kolourmeim Press, which published a tiny 29-poem collection of Hoffman's work, a very few copies of his poetry was returned to the world in 2000.

And thanks to Gerd Stern, who not only kept hold of his personally-addressed copy but provided a handwritten copy of it to a research library in San Diego and shared it with such researchers as John Raskin (author of biographies on Abbie Hoffman and Allen Ginsberg, among others).

This autumn Gerd Stern has provided a copy of "Journey To The End" to Poetrybay for commentary and review.

In the constellation of the Beat world, nearly everyone - from the central figures Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs to their influences, their primary and secondary associates, perpipheral figures to the scene, and next-generation figures - has been given their share of ink.

But the story - like the poetry - of this mysterious figure, John Hoffman is virtually unknown.

For all its remarkable qualities, the story is plain enough. Hoffman had become an underground legend by the mid-1950s in San Francisco, but had disappeared mysteriously and romantically in Mexico.

But who was John Hoffman, and what was his poetry? Little has been written about him.

Carl Solomon, in his book Emergency Messages, catalogues him thus: "John Hoffman, 1930?-1950 or 1951. Home-town: Menlo Park, California. Friend of Gerd Stern, etc, also Philip Lamantia and Chris Maclaine, both California poets. Blond, handsome, bespectacled, long hair. Spaced out quality that amused many people. Girl friend blonde girl named to Mexico in 1950. Experimented with peyote. Died of mononucleosis while in Mexico. Poems highly regarded by avant-garde connoisseurs."

William Burroughs referred to him as 'one of those junkies in Mexico.'

Gerd Stern give the fullest accounting in his book, published online, An Oral History.

"I (had) this car, and I was living in it on the streets of New York. There was a bar at that time that we all went to--the San Remo on Bleeker and MacDougal streets--and who should show up at the San Remo a few days later but John Hoffman, a poet from San Francisco whom I had met there with Philip Lamantia at a bar right across the street--12 Adler Place--from the City Lights...He was blond, tall, and very skinny, and he came from the peninsula south of San Francisco. He was really good-looking, but he had this vacant kind of look in his eyes. And he was a really good poet...We decided we were going to go to sea. Actually, I think I got inspired for that by what Carl (Solomon) had told me about his time as a merchant seaman...We heard that there was a hiring hall for Scandinavian seamen in Brooklyn. We finally found the address, and we went there, and they hired us on the spot. We left later that day on the M.S. Bowhill from Bergen [Norway]--a Norwegian ship--for South America (Ed note: around 1950).

We had taken all kinds of books of poetry, and one of the books we took was a surrealist work Les Chants de Maldoror by the Comte de Lautréamont who happened to be born in Montevideo [Uruguay], which was one of the ports that we were going to. It was a coincidence that John happened to have the book. We felt that it was very poignant. So we read the poems to each other. We would lie out on the hatch under the moonlight...John and I were writing poetry like mad on that trip. I don't know whatever happened to a lot of it..."

UCLA's Special Collections has in its possession a 1956 version of Hoffman's work, published and distributed by Bern Porter, with the following reference: Author/Name: Hoffman, John. Title: Journey to the end ... with an introd. by Philip Lamantia ... the whole collected, edited and assembled by Philip Lamantia and Bern Porter. Published/distributed: [San Francisco] : Bern Porter, 1956 (Record ID: 1755783 SRLF Non-Circ Request at UCLA YRL Special Collections).

Better-known, however, is the version of Hoffman's poetry from a limited edition of 24 copies published by Kolourmein Press of Oakland November 2000. "Supposedly 24 copies were printed in 2000 of which they sent me #6 - The Hermetic Edition Kolourmeim Press, Oakland," notes Stern, who has in his possession a sheaf of original Hoffman-typed poems. Originally he and LaMantia were to write a preface and an introduction, respectively, but these items were not included in the collection.

Today, a copy of that collection may be found at UC- San Diego's Mandeville Special Collections Library (reference: The Register of Tram Combs Papers 1946 - 1964 MSS 0123: Mandeville Special Collections Library, Geisel Library, University of California, San Diego, in a marked Box 9 folder 12, is this item: Hoffman, John - Journey to the End - Copied from copy owned by Gerd Stern. Ca. 1963, Typescript and carbon copy.)

A friend of mine remarked, on seeing a few of John Hoffman's poems, that it seemed like a fresh coat of paint on the old bench of Beat poetry, no doubt referring to how Hoffman's poems shed light on the work of the likes of Ginsberg, LaMantia, McClure and the rest.

Aside from the value in reading his work as a context for that of the more well-known Beat literary figures, however, one might well examine it for its own qualities.

The qualities are many. Hoffman's poetry possesses an other-world, lyrical and innocent quality. There is a hushed reverence to it, as he takes us from metaphysical and surreal vistas to quite concrete environs - from the crow-studded fields of North American grain to more exotic Mexican and Caribbean-basin settings, and from nightmarish mindscapes to his writing chamber.

Without question, Hoffman's is a modern voice, quiet modern voice, making use of devices one might have seen as experimental in the late 1940s and early 50s - spreading lines across the page, eschewing sentimentality, trying on objectivist and prose poetry techniques.

There is ecstatic spirituality to be found in his work. But this is a writer who is unafraid of devotional formality. At times, it is as if Hoffman seems to be addressing a primal or animist deity, in the incantatory voice of a somewhat subdued human in the presence of something larger than himself but also inside himself (O dark sun/Setting in my bloodsea!; Dry rains the rain on me my days/No longer me but what becomes). He swings from descriptive to metaphysical (The coiled sun/swings/Like a slow snake/Across//The sky calendar... or this, from SOCRATES OR CONFUCIUS: death is after all: nothing/those who don't fear are: equilibrists/there is only one number: One.)

At other times, his approach devolves to folk-like lyrics, as in (PIQUE/Song), where he mimics the song of crows: Love is burning burning burning/Buried gods lie under trees/Scarecrows caw at lost apostles/Clutching them by tattered sleeves.

There are quite beautiful specifics in the poetry - banana trees, birds lighting on windows with news of distant beaches, seashacks and 'sunflowers bursting at their zenith.' And he makes good use of repetition, individual images or whole lines, to engender an odelike sense of wonder, as in the marvelous THE ABANDONERS:

They had built a shack of wind
The sand ate its walls: and
Hideous summer spouted a sea at them.
Hurricanes later I returned (tho
I had never been)
How hard to grasp a former presence
Tho it was nailed where the door had been
Now the dunes have locked it open:
Better try to grasp the wind
Better try to grasp the wind

Hoffman even offers us a glimpse into his personal space, though transformed by a somewhat mythologized surrealism, he ends the poem with a line so mundane and flat that it must have been deliberately constructed to bring us back to earth, as in the untitled poem (The walls of my room will not fall out...), with its uncanny prefiguration of the movie "Barton Fink," which came forty years later:

The walls of my room will not fall out -- they have been pinioned with wire.

My desk is borne on the backs of woodenhorses. When I write late at night they groan heavily and their breathing becomes hoarse. Once one of them reared and my litter was broken.

And in the day music from the street causes the wires to tremble and the walls shake violently.

In spite of this I am very secure.

John Hoffman was unfortunately, not as successful at bringing himself down to earth in life as he did in this poem. The book concludes as his life did, with a silencing.


I am a man who knows
Of sun and moon and star
Of earth and sea and air
And do not tell of them
Because I have no words

In the end, John Hoffman wandered off into an eternity so dark and reached at so early an age that his extant poems, as demonstrated in the book "Journey To The End," can only hint at what he might have achieved.

But at least, thanks to the good sense of a few friends, a few hints remain.

So here's the news - there is news yet from the volcano which was John Hoffman's life and poetry. Fifty years after his little poems helped spark the Beat movement, we may still hear this 'blonde, bespectacled, spaced out' young Californian tell us what exactly it was that he saw...and rediscover how his telling about that, in his life and in his poetry, inspired the birth of a literary generation.




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