John Hollander Essay - Hollander, John (Vol. 5)

Hollander, John (Vol. 5)

Hollander, John 1929–

Hollander is an American poet, critic, and anthologist, best known for Visions from the Ramble, a sequence of poems about his childhood. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

The soul lies buried in the ink that writes, John Clare said in a famous fragment…, and we are all, since then, turned grave robbers and vandals, eager to disclose the smelly cave under the Doric pediment, to disinter, still smoking, the pythoness' lair beneath the neat pillars, even if we have to push them down to get to it.

Hieratically disposed, but with a characteristic invitation for that very reason to pillage, to profanation, the works of John Hollander, monuments indeed, shapely at times to the point of a glassy impenetrability, stand before us in an alluring perspective worthy of Poussin for its rhythmic passage of saliences and recessions, its fair attitudes; and though I intend to violate these marbles as relentlessly as Lord Elgin looted his, for it seems to me that Hollander is precisely the poet of an obsessive, overpoweringly confessional necessity. I think it is only justice to pause first and marvel a little at their presence among us as completions. In effect, it is because his exigencies are so painfully inward that this poet has been obliged to take a stand against his own hurt, lest he go flying off in all directions, fragmented indeed, the slivers as jagged as any connoisseur of chaos could require. Such surface complacencies—one of Hollander's critics once referred to him rather angrily as an armored tank, betraying what I think is our mistrust of a poet's express preparation to enter the engagement ironclad; we seem to want the wounds on the outside, where everyone can see them—bewilder us only if we fail to realize that surfaces are not only intimate, but are insolent with depths. (p. 201)

Believing, then, in the poem, relying in an almost unparalleled way on the art of poetry as a redeeming possibility, Hollander sacrifices nearly everything to that art, and it requires a considerable excursion into his work, on the reader's part, before the rewards of such an oblation are clearly discernible. From the poem, the thing made, Hollander seeks an escape from remembering, or an end to it, a cure for forgetting, or a tranquilizer, and though the poem—certainly from his second book onward—abides his question, permitting him to stand like an Oedipus before an endless avenue of sphinxes, only twice in his entire career, I think, is his obsession abreacted, his desperation answered by the very instruments to which he has entrusted his questions. The powers of memory and oblivion are too strong—though they are not so easily lined up with life and death as their ordinary positive or negative charge would suggest. In fact, let us consider the uses of forgetting before we decide with Proust that remembering is where salvation lies. Salvation, after all, lies, and that is Hollander's torment, his theme and, in its secular acknowledgment of a sacred severance, his release. (pp. 202-03)

Memory … is not only murderous when it is inordinate, as we see in Borges, in Beckett—it is mendacious in its normal form; and this is where Hollander suffers most from its abuses, discovering and dramatizing in his own biography the post-Freudian truth that what is remembered is not at all the same thing as what occurred. The mind creates its past, not recalls it, and the only escape, the only issue from these endless, crowding productions of memory is a kind of death—the death administered by language, the infliction of meaning upon being. (Thus it is memory that insists upon a death, forgetting that offers the gift of life.) No doubt, a poet's language kills no one. Yet when Hollander speaks, in his climactic vision of himself, of "that tall fat man," death, a real death is announced and already present in his language; his language means that this person, who is here, now, can be detached from himself, withdrawn from his existence and presence and suddenly plunged into a nothingness of existence and presence; his language signifies, essentially, the possibility of such destruction; it is, at every moment, a determined allusion to such an event. Of course Hollander's language kills no one. But if that tall fat man were not actually capable of dying, if he were not at each moment of his remembered life threatened with death, a death linked and united to himself by a bond of essence, Hollander could not achieve that ideal negation which is his poem, that postponed murder which is his language. It is therefore quite exact to say of this poet's speech: death speaks in and through him. Death, the death dealt by an adequate language, is for Hollander, in the poem, a rescue from the hypertrophy of memory, an escape from the fallacious past, from what Tolkien calls the burden of deathlessness, that kind of immortality or rather endless serial living which is (in fairy tales like Hollander's The Quest of the Gole) the deepest desire, the Great Escape.

Hollander's accommodation of this thanatomachia, his way of embodying the war to the death with oblivion and recall, is a dialectics of the seasons. It is the most conventional, yet the most radical of the available tropes, the widest yet the most familiar of poetical themes: the response to the cyclical, and the transcendence of the cyclical. His own emphasis on winter cannot surprise us, once we have realized that what is death to nature is life to the poet who would engage it on his own terms. The terms are hiemal ones—though we cannot speak of any season without implying them all and without implying something which leaves "all time, all seasons, and their change" behind. (pp. 203-04)

No other poet of his generation, I think, has found out the secret so perfectly of fitting words together in the music that created the English lyric from Campion to Marvell; from the beginning, Hollander's practice is more than practicing, more than the recreation of an epigone—it is the freedom of a man who by submitting in all good faith to the responsibilities of an achieved form (experience entrusted to an expressive convention: his true Daedalus was Dryden, etc.) relies on the poem's moment to bear him beyond its teeming surface to some high place. (pp. 207-08)

Visions from the Ramble is a major effort in American poetry to recover for the art some of the energy and inclusiveness we now tend to associate with fiction. As it seems to me, all of Hollander's previous work prepared him for this enterprise, and he has here, by a rare willingness—call it need—to risk himself in the undertaking, succeeded in fusing all that he knows with all that he knows he has forgotten, until we can merely say of him (but if we fail to say it, our reading of his oeuvre is no more than the vain coincidence of a shadow and a transparence: commentary is survival) what he has said, and we have already quoted, about his choice of poems for children: "so this book's end explores the world that is beyond Winter, and yet does so by speaking of nothing more than what we are." (p. 229)

Richard Howard, "John Hollander," in his Alone With America: Essays on the Art of Poetry in the United States Since 1950 (copyright © 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969 by Richard Howard; reprinted by permission of Atheneum Publishers, New York), Atheneum, 1969, pp. 200-231.

John Hollander's … "The Night Mirror," belongs with a vengeance to the poetry of the new nostalgia. In a sense, it is a brave book, ignoring just about all of the changes that poetic language has undergone in America since Ezra Pound first convinced everybody that they should "make it new." Hollander's motto instead is, make it old. The book is so full of selected echoes that the effect must be intentional. Hollander's use of "turbulence" for example ("Away we turn, awakening/A long memorial turbulence") to describe the experience of mystical insight, recalls Yeats's use of the word in "The Magi" ("Being by Calvary's turbulence unsatisfied"). In another poem, the lines "We took to the clear water/Writing our names in the book," recall Keats's famous epitaph: "Here lies a man whose name is writ in water." These are only some of the ghosts which haunt "The Night Mirror."

Hollander is at his best among the generalities of the high style, which he manages with a sort of brilliance. At times a genuine rhapsodic sweep lifts his language, as in … "In Fog, Tacit, Outside Cherbourg"…. The language is antiquated, but the extended swell of the lines is managed with skill and suppleness. The best poems in "The Night Mirror" have a similar quality of old-fashioned brilliance. A few of them are frankly imitations, like the elegy for Andrew Chiappe, entitled "Damoetas," which echoes Milton's "Lycidas." Reading "Damoetas" is like entering a museum. All the paraphernalia of the pastoral elegy are present: the swans, the stone bridges over brooks in green meadows, the mourning of the seasons, the pastoral pseudonym. To resuscitate these old forms verges on eccentricity, but the poem has genuinely moving moments….

I found myself admiring the performance, while I wondered why it was being given. In many of his poems, Hollander is like a virtuoso without a subject matter. The language soars in complicated trills, but in the end it becomes clear that no secrets are being told. (p. 4)

By guiding his language into … glittering generalities Hollander sets himself an insoluble problem, for the life of the emotions will not enter here. That is a shame, because there are moments of real strength in "The Night Mirror"; [in], for example,… the opening poem in the book … [the] images are crisp and strong, creating a felt connection between the inward and outward worlds. If "The Night Mirror" had answered the promise of lines like these, it would have been a different, and a far more moving book. (p. 20)

Paul Zweig, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 17, 1971.

In 1969, when John Hollander published Types of Shape, a collection of twenty-five emblems whose texts supply their own pictures (shapes of type, then, or as the poet polemically puts it in one of them, "no ideas but in forms"), he probably distracted his readers and viewers as much by providing (next slide, please) a respectable lineage for Swan and Shadow, say, or The Figure in the Carpet in the Alexandrian Greeks or George Herbert or Apollinaire, as by displaying the imperturbable sprezzatura of his typing. And what he distracted us from, I think, by the apparent gadgetry on the one side and the archaic governance on the other, is the entire congruence and continuity of these figured—even calculated—creations with the noble work which had preceded them, Visions from the Ramble (1965) and especially with his new book The Night Mirror, published in the fall of 1971. The very premonitory titles of so many of the iconographs—A possible fake, Playing an obsolete instrument, Crise de coeur, Vanished mansard, Work problem, Blots, Broken column, Last quarter—declare the mortality, the evanescence and the wreckage of even these splendid things, their fallings from us, then vanishings, "the eclipse of old moonlights by the darkness of origin." The emblem book constitutes a handsome muscle—hinge, holding action, decorous hurdle—between the two valves, the secreting ovals which have perfected pain into pearl: the major poetry of John Hollander.

Such poetry is the way language behaves—not only acts but acts out—when subjected or even objected to certain extreme circumstances, chief among which, "where mean and mode unite", will be the negative. Hollander's grand celebration will be of failure, obscuration, nightfall, the world darkened by his own shadow, "a long memorial turbulence."… As I have elsewhere remarked of the glorious Visions, it is by fusing all that he knows with all that he knows he has forgotten; and as I would say of the glamorous Types, it is by letting his language "pour into forms it molds itself", that this poet articulates the conflict and concert of naming and making …; so I can see that this latest book [The Night Mirror], with all its mastery of natural objects (the music volute, the Alaskan brown bear, the slice of sequoia) and its mystery of mechanical or made ones (the spinning phonograph record, the golem, the night mirror itself), reflects, as its divided title insists, a phenomenology of dark/light, repetition/accident, memory/loss, affirmation/dissolution. Thus the form of Hollander's poetry (and "forms stand for their maker," as he told us in Types of Shape), the behavior of his language, will be not this but THIS, a negative assertion clearing the ground (or digging a grave) for what may yet stand, a decreating mode which will permit reality to have transpired…. (pp. 300-01)

The Night Mirror is not merely a book, it is a glyph of self-disclosure, glosses on a text of identity-as-debilitation…. It is why sentences here are so hard—they are death sentences. Hollander will not let his lines go until they have turned and, grammatically, blessed him. The sentence must be saturated, filling all its primary sites (the subject, the verb, the object) with expansions, interpolations, subordinate clauses, determinants; of course this saturation is utopian, for structurally speaking, there is no reason to end a sentence—something more can always be added, never the truly conclusive addition. Only to the Muse will Hollander say "I gave. I recall." And those four words with their terrible pun, those two absolute sentences are the program; but the realization, but the performance, in long circumstantial accounts of a city childhood, a travelled maturity,… must be elaborated, worked out indeed, so that all the resources of making may fulfill the negative ("crackling of no flame, crunching / of no particular paper") by reflection of return, by the mirror of verse, of revision, recuperation, getting back, as may be said of all this intelligent, beautiful work…. (p. 302)

Richard Howard, in Poetry (© 1972 by the Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), August, 1972.

The Night Mirror loses much of its music when Hollander speaks from his "own" self, when he takes himself as his theme. In his personal poems—the meditations on his childhood, the addresses to colleagues and friends, the meditations on places and things—he foregoes his natural grace and humor for a fiendishly knotted pattern of syntax, meter, and metaphor. Poems of this sort are puzzles, but in Hollander's case they often lack the leavening touch of playfulness that makes the puzzle a pleasure to solve. Reading The Night Mirror can be a strain, a ferocious struggle with opacity and hermetic effect. (pp. 168-69)

Hollander needs to compose poems in the first person singular: he is most at home with epigrams, invectives, apostrophes, and declarations, whatever their mood or message. But whether the speaker is called John Hollander or Adam, is, or ought to be, beside the point, because what is really at stake is an act of faith, a kind of self-effacement, a leap into language that gains a voice while leaving the everyday self behind. (p. 170)

Richard A. Rand, in Parnassus (copyright © by Parnassus: Poetry in Review), Fall Winter, 1972.

I don't know an American poet better at turning out sophisticated, hard-nosed (but good-hearted too) social verse than John Hollander, and it ends up not feeling "light," like light whiskey, at all. [Town and Country Matters] is made up of Erotica and Satirica, "translations and fresh creation" of "a world of classical urbanity"…. John Hollander's dirty mind is excellently displayed throughout…. The idea of setting out to be dirty and daring is a depressing one, but in fact these poems don't let themselves get locked into lubricious points. For me the best things in a never less than interesting collection are eighteen "Sonnets for Roseblush"…. But the gem of the volume, and I would claim the best poem Hollander has ever written, is a long one called "New York," spun off from Juvenal, the friend "Rus" leaving town for good because living in the city has grown impossible, the poet staying behind to reflect on the meaning of living there. Written in strong couplets the verse twists and moves rapidly through the junk and glories of urban life…. Hoving as seen through Dr. Johnson seeing through Juvenal ("In full-blown dignity see Wolsey stand") or Pope ("In office here fair Cloacina stands,/And ministers to Jove with purest hands")—the poem is filled with eighteenth-century lines. Other institutions are similarly seen through and dispensed with by the exile. But after he leaves, the poet has his own fling at seeing through life in the country ("Dilapidated walls in cold Vermont") and eventually comes to a moving account of why he (Hollander in no disguise) will stay put to "see the ending out from where we should"…. I have not come across any better lines than [his] recently. (pp. 590-92)

William H. Pritchard, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1973 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission). Vol. XXVI, No. 3, Autumn, 1973.

[In The Head of the Bed,] Hollander has composed an enthralling, though essentially plotless, meditation on the alien majesty of sexuality. The poem is a male dream of female otherness. It is necessarily in some degree a nightmare. Yet, in its final stanzas, one hears the note of triumph as well as resignation, and the "lids slammed down over darkened glass" of its opening line have begun to see truly at the end. "The Head of the Bed" takes over the slow, circling manner of Auden's "At the Grave of Henry James," and, quite apart from the triadic arrangement of stanzas, it owes much to the style of the later Stevens. Like the imagination of its hero, however, the poem at last wins through to an individuality that is more than the sum of its parts. (p. 6)

Taken with its commentary [in David R. Godine's chapbook edition,] "The Head of the Bed" emerges as a learned, slightly mad and absolutely delightful book. It will probably become a collector's item and it certainly has a place among the true small wonders of modern literature. (p. 7)

David Bromwich, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 16, 1974.

John Hollander writes poems that are all mostly panoplied, at their best not at their most hermetic ("The Head of the Bed"… breathes too much the exhalations of Stevens) but rather at their most graceful, in the poetry of compliment, like the poem given with a gold chain…. Something apparently momentous but too often unintelligible is presumed in these poems—portents, allegories, hints…. There is an elegy for Auden (written in fact for his 65th birthday) in which, in a courtly bow to convention, Hollander turns the dead into a constellation…. It is an elegy stylized and stylish, fulfilling Milton's command to poets, that they should "with lucky words favor [each other's] destined Urn,/And bid fair peace be to [the] sable shroud." In this elegy and the one for Mark Van Doren, Hollander shows how his gifts, too easily veering by themselves into complication for complication's sake, can be saved by a given occasion. (pp. 29-30)

Helen Vendler, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 6, 1975.