As strongly as contemporary poets tend to resist labels, John Hollander in book after book confirms himself as a scholastic formalist, a proponent of elevated style, learned allusions, and highly systematic language. However, he is not beyond satirizing staid literary conventions, even in his own poetry. Hollander is not a poet for beginners—most of his books include notes and require an encyclopedia and some previous knowledge of prosody.
Hollander is a poet of New York and the urban intellectual quest for reassurance and order in a chaotic world. Predominant Hollander themes are the struggle between freedom and restraint, the capacity of language to express truth, the search for one’s roots, and reality viewed through worlds of art. His books constantly challenge the reader and reinvent themselves as he experiments with wit, satire, elegy, panegyric, Pindaric odes, Renaissance sonnet cycles, spy narratives, and a host of other topics and forms. His writing carries echoes of his academic training and Jewish heritage. Hollander relies on abstract and philosophical language combined with vivid, rich imagery. He respects tradition and aims for perfect architecture and unity of purpose and design in every book, although he sometimes ventures far afield in search of new modes of expression.
Many poets write only about personal experience in purely expressive language, but Hollander’s knowledge of classical Greek and Roman literature as well...
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