The recipe for a poem—for that high art of poetry which of all verbal communications most moves us—calls for two things: mystery and mastery, strength of inspiration and integrity of form, muse and poet. It is that recipe which John Hollander prepares for us in his new volume, TESSERAE.
Tesserae are those shards of brightly colored ceramic or glass that, pieced together, form a mosaic. In Hollander’s latest volume, the tesserae are 144 four-line verses, rhyming in Rubaiyat style. Yet these verses are not called rubaiyat, they are tesserae. And they are indeed small, diverse, and beautiful stones: gems in Hollander’s larger mosaic.
The influence of FitzGerald’s Omar Khayyam’s RUBAIYAT is everywhere apparent in TESSERAE, from the opening line (“Night beside me, I turned from her toward day...”) to the use of Khayyam’s name in stanza 139—and the footnote to it, which offers itself “by way of acknowledgment” to Khayyam.
Hollander is a scholar and a lover of tradition, his UNTUNING OF THE SKY: IDEAS OF MUSIC IN ENGLISH POETRY 1500-1700 (1961) being a classic in both poetry and music criticism. Individual shards of his mosaic may seem more formal than passionate, more clever than wise. Yet at his best, Hollander is moved by a passionate intensity focused in language that compares with that of Eliot in FOUR QUARTETS or the Yeats of the high, short lyrics: “The auspex now looked downward—while, above,/ The deadly hawk and the infected dove/ Fluttered and soared—and then exhorted us,/ For love of safety, to make war, not love.”
The deadly hawk and the infected dove—like Eliot’s dove descending, like Yeats’ swan—are iconic in their powerfully embodied abstraction. This is the high, the hieratic language of the poets, and when it breaks in upon us through the babble of common speech, we are moved at once in intellect and emotion.