John Hollander

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 907

John Hollander is a poet, critic, and editor as well as a university professor (now retired), whose extensive knowledge and use of past literary forms, as well as the extreme difficulty of much of his poetry, distinguishes him from most American poets of his time. He was born to Franklin Hollander, a physiologist, and Muriel (Kornfeld) Hollander in New York, a city that figures prominently in his poetry.

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Hollander earned an A.B. in 1950 and a M.A. in 1952 from Columbia University and a Ph.D. from Indiana University in 1959. He married Anne Loesser in 1953, with whom he had two daughters, Martha and Elizabeth. He joined Harvard University as a junior fellow in 1954, remaining until 1957, when he moved to Connecticut College as a lecturer in English. It was during this period that his first book of poems was published. The famous poet W. H. Auden selected A Crackling of Thorns for publication in the Yale Series of Younger Poets and contributed an introductory essay to the volume. The book immediately established Hollander as an important figure in American poetry.

In 1959, Hollander joined the English department of Yale University, where he would stay until 1966, and to which he would return in 1977 after more than a decade teaching at Hunter College of the City University of New York. During the 1960’s, he published five volumes of poetry, including two—A Book of Various Owls and The Quest of the Gole—for juvenile readers. Also during that decade, he established himself as an important literary critic with The Untuning of the Sky, about the relationship between music and poetry. In addition, he began his career as a prolific editor, teaming with Harold Bloom to edit The Wind and the Rain, a collection of poetry for young readers; with Anthony Hecht, inventing a comic poetic form called the double dactyl and presenting a compendium of the form in Jiggery-Pokery; editing Selected Poems of Ben Jonson, one of the earlier poets most influential in Hollander’s own poetry; and gathering a collection of essays by twentieth century poets and critics for Modern Poetry. His accomplishments earned him a National Institute of Arts and Letters grant in 1963.

The most controversial of his volumes from the 1960’s was Types of Shape, twenty-five shaped poems, a genre popular in the seventeenth century in which the typographical shape of the poem represents its subject. Some critics viewed the poems as antiquated and pretentious, while others understood them to reflect Hollander’s concern with genre and desire to use old forms to confront contemporary issues.

Hollander’s many volumes of poetry from the 1970’s on increasingly established him as a respected, although controversial, poet. Eschewing the confessional approach with its highly personal tone, favored by many of his contemporaries, he typically buried his personality within the poems themselves, using his technical mastery of prosody and form to establish emotional control and raise questions, to which the poems usually do not posit definitive answers. His poetry is rich in philosophical and literary allusions and demonstrates his versatility in meter, rhythm, rhyme, genre (or “mode,” a term that he seems to prefer because of its musical association), and allegory.

Many of Hollander’s poems from later decades are both highly unique and difficult to comprehend. They include the collections Reflections on Espionage, a parody of the spy thriller that is also an allegory on contemporary poetry; Spectral Emanations, the title poem of which includes seven color visions taking their cue from a call in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun (1860) for a seven-part allegory on the recovery of a sacred lamp stolen from the Second Temple in Jerusalem; In Time and Place, a combination of prose and poetry; and Tesserae, and Other Poems, still demonstrating the technical brilliance and versatility for which Hollander by then had long been known.

Hollander also added to his reputation as critic and editor. In Vision and Resonance, for example, he explored relationships in poetry between sound and syntactic, generic, and visual components. His editorial efforts ranged from collections of essays, such as I. A. Richards: Essays in His Honor to anthologies for college courses (The Oxford Anthology of English Literature and American Poetry) to editions of poems centered on author, theme, or genre (The Essential Rossetti, Animal Poems, Christmas Poems, and Sonnets).

Awards also accumulated. He was named a senior fellow by the National Endowment for the Humanities (1973-1974), received the Levinson Prize given by Poetry magazine (1974), and earned a Guggenheim Fellowship (1979-1980), a Bollingen Prize (1983), the Mina P. Shaughnessy Award (1983), the Melville Cane Award (1990), the Ambassador Book Award (1994), and the Robert Penn Warren-Cleanth Brooks Award (1998). He was appointed a MacArthur Foundation fellow in 1990. Academic recognition at Yale included his appointment as A. Bartlett Giamatti Professor in 1987 and later Sterling Professor of English. Hollander divorced his first wife in 1977 and married Natalie Charkow in 1981. He continued his association with Yale into the twenty-first century, holding the title of Sterling Professor Emeritus of English after retirement.

Although respected as a teacher, critic, and editor, Hollander is most prominent in American letters as a poet. Highly respected and occasionally criticized for his technical brilliance and the heavy demand that his poetry places on readers, he enjoys great respect from other poets. Nonetheless, he is seldom anthologized. The level of difficulty that his poetry poses is surely a major reason for this neglect, a neglect that may seriously undermine his future status as a canonical poet.

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Critical Essays