Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 607

The theme of the poem has been identified by many people as how people react to art. This conceptualization is a rather broad stroke, yet it is arguably incomplete, as it disregards Hollander’s omnipresent consciousness that the line between art and life is a chimera.

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Hollander’s development as a poet follows a predictable arc. An ardent admirer of W. H. Auden in his early days, Hollander published his first book, A Crackling of Thorns (1958), under Auden’s aegis as a volume in the Yale Younger Poets series. As Hollander developed, Auden’s influence ebbed, while Hollander’s admiration for Wallace Stevens grew, leading to the explicit “Old W. H., get off my back!” in “Upon Apthrop House” from his collection Spectral Emanations: New and Selected Poems (1978), immediately previous to Blue Wine and Other Poems. Possibly even more telling is the Auden-like poet Myndal from Hollander’s The Quest of the Gole (1966), a bard who values his powers so much that he rewrites that which needed no changes solely because he can. It is not Myndal who succeeds in the quest, but rather his younger brother who saves the kingdom through his heart, good will, and attention to the world around him. The transition from the verse of Auden to the work of Stevens is a movement from art for its own sake to art as part of the world around it.

The contemplative sections of “Blue Wine,” notably sections 2 and 5, emphasize the reactions that people filter through their senses—taste (“vinosities”), sight, and smell are considered at length, with contradictory conclusions. It is not that the senses are inadequate; rather, people use them in preconceived ways, thereby failing to realize the wine’s essence. Similarly, the personal narratives (especially 6, 7, and 9) minimize the sensory for the sake of the experience, leaving conclusions that are ultimately unsatisfying because of their uniqueness (“reality is so Californian”).

The key sections are those that show art (as exemplified by blue wine) and life as coincident, most notably sections 4 and 10. The “heavy leaves of the rhododendrons” are complemented by the “quickening leaves” of the scholar’s translation, while the father’s “abashed/ Smile” and the narrator’s having “hid [his] gaze” emphasize interactions and influences, each making the other seem more real.

The final meaning that should be considered is the explicitly and implicitly Jewish nature of the poem. Critic Harold Bloom observed that Hollander “has no way back to Judaism, but is ruggedly and constantly aware of his almost-lost tradition.” Knowing that the Zohar compares the Torah explicitly to wine, it is not a great leap to the realization that “Blue Wine” is, in many ways, an exploration of the Jewish experience in America.

Section 10 is the most explicit in this regard, evoking as it does the holiday of Passover, a celebration of the Jews’ attaining freedom from oppression. Hollander expresses his own position in lines 3-5: He honors the tradition even though he abjures some of the halachal laws (“commandments”). When the final stanza lists wine bottles with German, French, and even Romanian (“Vin Albastru”) names, the reader may think of those who have left Europe for this continent, leaving behind their laws but not their traditions.

Written during the period of Hollander’s works that most explicitly deal with the role of the Jewish poet (“Spectral Emanations” being the other most noteworthy), “Blue Wine” is a poem to make Saul Steinberg, himself a Jewish immigrant from Europe, proud of the path that he and Hollander have chosen, in making their experiences with the world into art—and making both the world and the art the better for it.

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