John Hollander (1929–2013); Thomas McDonald/The New York Times
When John Hollander died in mid-August at the age of 83, the poet J. D. McClatchy lamented that the loss of a mind like Hollander’s is like the burning of the library at Alexandria. There are few poets and scholars for whom that is less of an exaggeration. Not only was Hollander’s mind an immeasurable storehouse of Western art and culture, but it also moved effortlessly among the works of the past, drawing connections and fine-grained distinctions with infectious enthusiasm. Hollander shared with others of his generation—such as James Merrill, Richard Howard, and Anthony Hecht—a deep appreciation of the fine arts beyond poetry. He wrote illuminatingly on painting and poetry in The Gazer’s Spirit: Poems Speaking to Silent Works of Art (1995), and music was an abiding love, frequently referred to in his poems and criticism, not least in the section of poems from A Draft of Light (2008) titled “Fiddling Around” (one of which, “Fiddle-Faddle,” first appeared in The New Criterion).
In an essay from The Work of Poetry (1997) titled “My Poetic Generation,” Hollander places himself among poets who published their first books in the Fifties. (Richard Wilbur, Howard Nemerov, Howard Moss, and Robert Duncan had made their debuts slightly earlier.) For a defining list of his generation, Hollander suggests the more than forty poets considered in Howard’s “splendidly idiosyncratic” survey of mid-twentieth-century poets, Alone with America (1980). I would be tempted to narrow the field even further to that circle of poets published by Harry Ford at Atheneum and Knopf—including Hecht, Howard, Merrill, Mark Strand, W. S. Merwin, and Mona Van Duyn. (Hollander once quipped that all of Harry’s poets had names that began with either an m or an h.) Hollander’s Selected Poems (1993) is dedicated to Ford and his wife, Kathleen.
Born in Manhattan, Hollander studied at Columbia University, where, he remebered,
Mark Van Doren was a crucial presence for those of us writing verse, a presence itself fabulous to the degree that precept and example were interwoven in it. Also Lionel Trilling, Jacques Barzun, Moses Hadas, Meyer Schapiro, the legendary Andrew Chiappe [who taught Shakespeare]—these were some of the teachers who mattered most to the minority of undergraduates in those days of a literary inclination.
The undergraduates with bookish ambitions may have been few in number, but there was a high degree of talent in that small circle. The place must have seemed awash with poets in fact. As Hollander told McClatchy in The Paris Review interview:
Most of my classmates at Columbia then were veterans several years older than myself, and they educated me as much as my teachers. Louis Simpson, Daniel Hoffman, Allen Ginsberg, all somewhat older than I was, were all writing poems of what seemed to be vast sophistication; and in 1949 I met Richard Howard, whose talent and literary energies seemed prodigious.
Anthony Hecht, a fellow New Yorker and a veteran of combat in Europe, was working on his MA at Columbia. Hollander once told me that he remembered meeting Hecht for the first time at a party, where Tony (as he was known) played a Scarlatti keyboard sonata by heart. Hollander, too, played the piano (as well as the lute, which may have been his nod to Thomas Wyatt).
Hollander’s close friendship with Allen Ginsberg at Columbia, surprising on the face of it, given their wildly divergent styles, was formative:
Ginsberg was my poetic mentor, very generous and considerate of my early work. At college he was my close poetic, rather than literary, friend. That is, we talked about the minute particulars of form as if mythological weight depended upon them; and about the realms of the imagination.
Signs of his connection with Ginsberg found its way into Hollander’s poems later on, perhaps, not so much in Beatnik cadences and hipper-than-thou diction but, rather, in an attention to Jewish tradition and mysticism. Hollander understood himself as essentially a Jewish American poet. He translated Yiddish and was a connoisseur of Jewish humor. “Spectral Emanations,” which overlays the colors of the spectrum with the seven branches of the menorah, begins with red (a battle cry) and ends with “the final violet that is next to black, for that is how our scale runs”:
At the songs beginning
Even as our voices
Rise we know the last words
And what it will sound like
To sing them at the end
Of the final burden;
Just so the cold fiddler
Hums the final chords of
Each of our capriccios
Even as he starts up.
The poem exhibits a kind of synesthesia of tropes, in which color and number and sound overlap. Hollander worked as easily and as well in tightly metered rhymed verse. This section from “The Mad Potter” is one of his best-known passages:
The half-formed cup cries out in agony,
The lump of clay suffers a silent pain.
I heard the cup, though, full of feeling, say
“O clay be true, O clay keep constant to
Your need to take, again and once again,
This pounding from your mad creator who
Only stops hurting when he’s hurting you.”
The playfulness in the tone, the twinkle of Wit in the eye, despite the sober subject, was a signature trait.
Hollander, who moved skillfully among verse techniques, was dismissive of the battle lines drawn in contemporary poetry between “formal” and “free.” Merely to use those terms, he understood, is to fail to understand something essential about the sounds that poems make. Poems play a range of music, and it is pointless to dress them in school ties. Geoffrey Hill’s poetry, for example, refuses “to present surfaces for the convenient attachment of glib labels.” Is Hill’s great poem “September Song” formal or free? It’s a tin-eared question, directed most often at relegating a poet or a poem to a particular camp:
Take for example the question of what people who really don’t know much about poetics call “formal poetry”: all verse has form of some sort, and to treat the question of what tonalities one writes in or what instrumentation a poet employs, as a political matter is most often the result of having nothing much to say about the important poetic questions. True poets all know how private are these instrumental matters, which will have what are for them crucial public consequences. . . . [T]he issue of form has nothing to do with ideology or literary gossip—so called new formalism or naked poetry or whatever.
For Hollander, verse was a kind of music in words, whether or not that music employed traditional prosody or nonce innovation.
Hollander listened closely to poems, and spoke eloquently about their connection to the human voice. Of Frost’s idea of the “sound of sense” and “sentence sounds,” he writes in his superlative essay “The Poem in the Ear,” from Vision and Resonance: Two Senses of Poetic Form (1975):
[Frost] meant the delicate but crucial modulation of phrase-stress pattern, contrastive stress, the rhetorical suprasegmentals, that not only make oral communication what it is, but which a practitioner of classical accentual-syllabic verse must be aware of. . . . The sound of sense: the music of speech, but of speech being watched, in its transcribed form, within a diagramming and punctuating and annotating grid of metrical pattern. To this degree, we all still dwell in the Romantic world of the ear.
Despite his classical bent, which manifests itself in his exquisite metered verses, Hollander had a wild side as well, one that followed the primal stirrings of myth and the awe-inspiring rumbles of the Old Testament. “Real poetry, rather than cultivated verse,” is to be found in “the ear’s undomesticated vastness,” “in the realm of all the human and natural utterance, from cries to shouts of discovery: the sounds of language and of the wind in the trees.”
He was also puckishly funny. Hollander’s poems display a broad range of Renaissance-style wit, from Reflections on Espionage: The Question of Cupcake, which encodes clues that would have wowed George Herbert, to the saucy sonnets (and smattering of Catullan translations) in Town and Country Matters. Herbert would have admired, too, his volume of shaped poems, Types of Shape. He edited a volume of American Wits for the Library of America and co-edited with Hecht the hilarious Jiggery-Pokery: A Compendium of Double Dactyls. One of his contributions to that collection, “The Lower Criticism,” a lampooning of Dorothy Richardson’s multi-volume Pilgrimage, reads:
Wrote a huge book with her
Where (though I hate to seem
Nothing much happens and
Also delightful and of immeasurable help to students of poetry is Rhyme’s Reason: A Guide to English Verse, in which Hollander describes the various forms of verse while simultaneously exemplifying them, as in this sequence on the quatrain:
A quatrain has four lines
As one can plainly see:
One of its strict designs
Comes rhymed abab.
Another way of rhyme can come
From abba (middle two
Lines holding hands as lovers do)
In Tennyson’s In Memoriam.
Hollander goes on to include several other types of quatrain, as well as the various other stanza lengths and shapes, meter, rhyme, received forms such as the villanelle and pantoum, and much else. It is a splendid (and eminently practical!) tour de force.
In person, Hollander could be almost overwhelmingly gregarious. I sat with him at the French House at the Sewanee Writers Conference one summer and listened for an hour as he ranged uninterruptedly from Hart Crane to chamber music to detective fiction. It was a dazzling performance, and I was content not to venture an edgewise word. (Rumor had it that his co-teacher that year, himself a renowned poet, had managed to interpolate only a smattering of words into classroom discussion—the students had counted!) For me, I could have listened to him talk all night, as I had on (too few) other occasions. He spoke sense about matters of great importance. His was an original voice among a group of strong mid-century poets: his poems, so various and masterly turned, and essays, perhaps the best of his generation, will continue to define their age.