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 as English literature allows him to manipulate a wide spectrum of genres, voices, topics, and allusions. He avoids the fashionable directness of autobiographical poetry and is more likely to imitate Andrew Marvell, Alexander Pope, or Ben Jonson. His favorite classical Roman poet is Catullus, known for hendecasyllabic lines, fresh love poems, and satirical epigrams. In “West-End Blues” from Visions from the Ramble, Hollander adapts a Catullus poem to celebrate New York City bars catering to college students.
Hollander often juxtaposes a hierarchical sense of order and decorum to wildly inventive modern argot, including shocking discussions of sexuality. A self-absorbed, tortured persona struggling with conflict sometimes emerges from beneath the superficial appearance of order. Also known for his shaped poems, Hollander displays a playfulness and wit that often transcend the form he has chosen or invented for his purposes. A formidable presence in contemporary poetry, Hollander produces work that calls attention to itself without pandering to fashionable ideas or popular topics.
A Crackling of Thorns
Hollander’s publishing career began with a splash when Auden selected A Crackling of Thorns for the Yale Series of Younger Poets. In this collection, the reader immediately notices the technical skill and attention to form. The book contains three sections, “For Actors,” “For Tellers of Tales,” and “For Certain Others.” Literature of the seventeenth century seems to inspire some poems, including “The Lady’s-Maid Song,” which uses octosyllabic lines with an interlocking rhyme scheme. Other poems, such as “For Both of You, the Divorce Being Final,” resound with modern dilemmas.
“The Great Bear” uses hendecasyllabic lines arranged in six stanzas to develop another characteristic Hollander theme: how perception creates reality. In this case, a group of children search the night sky for constellations they cannot really make out. Only their innate sense of form, the mind’s ability to find order in chaos, allows the viewers to obtain the image of the bear. Hollander puns on the title word throughout the poem, pointing at the need for some tradition to shape human understanding of the world.
Movie-going, and Other Poems
The tone of Movie-going, and Other Poems is panegyric and reflective, less prone to poetic effusion. In the title poem, Hollander remembers the glory days of New York cinema when a little money would allow one access to an ever-expanding world of fantasy. Adolescents attending double features could imagine other worlds, looking at the Moorish proscenium with its painted stars. The poem concerns itself not so much with enjoyment of films as with the theme of transformation—allowing a bit of exotica, mystery, and splendor into the everyday world.
In “Aristotle and Phyllis,” the poet draws on material from French poet Stéphane Mallarmé to retell the story of Aristotle’s amorous encounter when a girl walked past his writing desk. The Greeks’ reliance on reason and their motto of “nothing in excess” provides the background for this narrative ode. The speaker first explains away his infatuation, but his stoic eloquence fails him. The poem moves from the world of academic decorum and clarity to a spirited romp in the garden, where Aristotle’s passion gets the best of his reason.
One long poem in the book, “Upon Apthorp House,” gives Hollander a historical-descriptive forum to document passing seasons and people in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Reconstructing the past of the famous Harvard residence allows Hollander to philosophize on human learning: “What we feel/ At points of being seems more real/ Than what we can reflect upon.” Apthorp House, like Eliot’s Little Gidding, is a place where men were given free rein with books and ideas in a peaceful solitude of learning and spirit. If one is given a place such as Apthorp House, boundaries of time and place can be overcome.
Visions from the Ramble
The strongest and most thematically consistent of Hollander’s early collections is his third book, Visions from the Ramble, a sequence of poems about coming of age in New York. The Ramble refers to a densely wooded section in Central Park from which none of the city is visible. Hollander uses this as a metaphor, extricating himself from the oppressive crowding, noise, and smells of New York throughout the book. Perceptive readers will note a later poem from The Night Mirror, “New York,” in which he satirizes and celebrates his city. He beautifully balances the recurring images of three pools of water and three naked girls in “From the Ramble” as he recalls fond memories of growing up there. In this long title poem, the poet tries to lose himself in the domesticated wilderness of Central Park at the same time that he wishes to return to the glorious days of youth. A dazzling vision of rippled swirls of light and three undressing girls captivates him. Like William Wordsworth on the banks of the Wye River in “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” (1798), the poet takes in this natural scene and reflects on the nature of memory and perception. The disappointed poet later finds the three pools of water nearly vanished and realizes that he must replace the Ramble with a garden inside his mind.
A series of poems in Visions from the Ramble center on the Fourth of July and other summer rituals. “Fireworks,” “The Ninth of July,” and “Humming” all feature adolescent narrators in search of miraculous transformation. Looking at flashes of light in the sky or girls through a hole in an outhouse, the speaker searches for a secret elixir of life to hurry him along into adulthood. Often the stifling world of New York drives the speaker to find fulfillment elsewhere; several poems focus on the bimodal life of summers at the lake and schooldays spent in the city. Visions from the Ramble is a watershed in Hollander’s career, allowing him to transform biographical material and relish the affirmation of nostalgia.
Types of Shape
Types of Shape presents twenty-five shaped poems in the tradition of seventeenth century English poet George Herbert. Hollander’s range of topics evident in titles such as “Eskimo Pie,” “Skeleton Key,” and “Swan and Shadow,” the latter being a much-anthologized poem that shows a clearly outlined bird gliding on a lake above its mirror image. Hollander’s shaped poems are intriguing experiments, but their inflexible forms undermine the power of his writing.
A more successful experiment is Jiggery-Pokery, a book of light verse in which all the poems begin with a double-dactyl nonsense line such as “higgledy-piggledy” or “jiggery-pokery,” followed by a famous name and more double dactyls. Hollander’s sense of mock-form playfulness makes each poem function as a rhythmical story complete with punch line conclusion.
The Night Mirror
The Night Mirror employs surrealism, dream-sequence poetry, and impressionistic rendering of experience. Here he returns to his strengths, using various four- to six-line stanza patterns and experimenting with end rhyme. However, the book lacks the sound focus of Visions from the Ramble and Powers of Thirteen. Two of the best poems in the book are “Letter to Jorge Luis Borges,” an Argentinian writer known for founding the Magical Realism literary movement, and “Damoetas,” a pastoral elegy dedicated to Hollander’s former teacher Andrew Chiappe. “Damoetas” recalls John Milton’s “Lycidas” with its pastoral conventions of green meadows, swans, and shepherds, but Hollander uses the style to memorialize the classroom style and impressive mind of his teacher.
In “Letter to Jorge Luis Borges,” the poet explains he translated a poem of Jorge Luis Borges on the golden age of Prague using the same abba rhyme scheme. Borges’s poem about Prague opens a Pandora’s box of memories and associations for Hollander, whose ancestors came to the United States from that city. The poet conjures up a dream about his grandfather Rabbi Loew, who made a golem in a mysterious, smoky room. Golem is a Hebrew word originally meaning “embryo” but later becoming “monster” or “robot,” a sort of Frankenstein creation myth. The golem goes after the rabbi’s daughter and tries to steal away innocent children, but other stories about how he helped save the Jews of Prague echo in the poet’s mind. Hollander thanks the Argentinian writer for animating his memory and giving him occasion to reflect on his ancestors.
Town and Country Matters
Hollander uses another set of literary conventions to brilliant effect in Town and Country Matters, composed of “erotica and satirica.” “Sonnets for Rosebush,” a marvelous neo-Renaissance sequence, anticipates Powers of Thirteen. “Sonnets for Rosebush” combines the poet’s penchant for literary allusion with modern ribaldry and urbane bawdiness. Probably one of the best poems of Hollander’s entire career is “New York” from Town and Country Matters. Inspired by the classical Roman poet Juvenal and the eighteenth century poet Samuel Johnson, “New York” uses heroic couplets throughout. After his friend leaves New York, the speaker stays behind to ruminate over the pleasures and pains of the city, moving among the Broadway theaters, city parks, coffee shops, cinemas, operas, museums, and apartment buildings. Following the example of his friend, the poet leaves to reflect on the city from behind “dilapidated walls in cold Vermont,” a noxious world of fireman’s balls, vagrant handymen, and long drives to find a conversation. The poem’s turning point comes midway, when the speaker stages his homecoming, realizing that the world always seems worse than one remembers it as a youth. Hollander moves to celebrate New York with all its crowds and cultural diversity, a world in which dreams are easily made and broken. Most important is the sense of identity and heritage the city provides. Hollander concludes by saying that New York provides a tragic beauty well worth enduring for all of its discomforts.
Reflections on Espionage
Reflections on Espionage takes the form of a long narrative of 101 radio transmissions from a master spy code-named “Cupcake.” Hollander relishes in the intricate game of editing and deciphering “intercepted” messages sent in complex code. The dated entries begin in January and end in October, varying in length from one to almost one hundred lines, all written in precise hendecasyllabic form. Hollander creates for himself a supreme fiction of this spy writing in cipher to his friend, the agent “Image,” his director “Lyrebird,” and a host of various double agents involved in secret missions. Although few of the plot details become clear to the reader, the poet clearly thrives in the context of an encoder of messages (poetry) sent out to other agents (readers and fellow poets).
One critic, Louis Martz writing in Yale Review, went as far as saying that Hollander’s community of spies in Reflections on Espionage represent various contemporary poets. If Hollander uses Cupcake as his persona, then “it does not take much of a ’grid’ to decipher Kilo as Pound, or Puritan as Eliot. . . . there is certainly a candid appraisal of Anne Sexton.” The secondary level of meaning certainly does concern the nature of poetry as a secret language and the challenges of relating to other poets and readers. The primary narrative vehicle of Cupcake and his network of informants, however, remains in the foreground. The reader watches a somewhat reflective though happily employed agent slowly descend to the status of victim. Cupcake becomes more removed from the inner workings of his missions until a definitive message comes down from Lyrebird, “Terminate Cupcake.” Hollander writes this final entry in cipher, but he also gives instructions on...
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