John Hollander Hollander, John (Vol. 2) - Essay

Hollander, John (Vol. 2)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Hollander, John 1929–

American poet and critic. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

John Hollander's passion is cleverness, and Hollander is a very clever writer. All who read them must enjoy his Jiggery-Pokery double dactyls. And many will enjoy his new volume, Types of Shape. In twenty-five pieces Hollander has extended the genre of visual poetry familiar to us through the verse of George Herbert. We do not find the familiar shapes of altar and angel wings. Hollander's typewriter seems more versatile than Herbert's printer, and we get some very exciting type-shapes such as "Skeleton key: Opening and starting key for a 1954 Dodge junked last year" or "Eskimo Pie (Not to speak of Popsicle, Creamsicle and the rest)". The shape most visually appealing is the final one in the volume, "Swan and Shadow: The last shape". A very recognizable type-writer swan is presented along with its mirror image reflected off the surface of the lake in which it swims.

Aware of his cleverness and obvious brilliance, noting his potential talent, I have been waiting, ever since reading the poems John Hollander showed me over coffee as a graduate student at Indiana University, for the poetry I know he can write. But I have watched him now through five volumes of verse, dispersing his gifts in cleverness. And one of the things that he will have to do is to abandon the abstract and philosophical language to which he is prone and take example from the shapes on his pages to create shapes (I mean a rich imagery) in the reader's imagination, the imagery which is the very life blood of poetry.

Harry Morris, in Sewanee Review (© 1971 by The University of the South), Spring, 1971, pp. 307-08.

[Hollander] has an obsessive fondness for the negative prefix: unpromised, unbroken, uncomprehended, unminding, unlocked, unlatched, unresponsive, unshining, unfailing, uninventive, undying, unbelieving and unmapped. These Faulknerian (or Thomasian?) signatures seriously distract one from his otherwise resourceful voice and his skilled sense of intervals. They divert one from the force of a concern he shares with William Dickey and many other American poets, that same sense of wilderness, which is nowhere more acutely felt than among city habitations, swarming and ephemeral…. Neither has he the intellectual nuances of James Merrill to make the obliquity altogether fascinating. Nonetheless, he is an extraordinary poet at his best. "White Noises," "Under Capricorn," "Fireflies" and "As Sparks Fly Upward" [in The Night Mirror] steady our shaking desire to believe that he is on the verge of writing an impressive landscape poetry, pregnant with voices from the margin of the unseen.

Vernon Young, in Hudson Review, Winter, 1971–72, p. 680.

John Hollander's newest volumes of poems, The Night Mirror …, is a troubling mixed bag. Somewhat like the little girl with her curl, when Mr. Hollander is good, he is very, very real, with a knife-edge presence of vision. But when he goes astray, his images are muddled into bland (by comparison) abstractions and lines become too prosaic to support those flashes of painfully sharp images. The first and last sections of the book undoubtedly show the poet at his best, a thoroughly modern mind grasping at the glittering facets of the world and seeking the wholenesses they possibly reflect. The middle section strikes me as game playing to a large extent.

Thom Pigaga, in Prairie Schooner (© 1972 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), Summer, 1972, p. 186.

John Hollander's fifth collection, The Night Mirror, shows him still an unexcelled virtuoso of the verbal keyboard, executing black-key glissandos, sweeping along in single-handed arpeggios, striking tenths, twelfths, fourteenths as single chords. Learned allusions, which the reader must grasp for himself, and intricate wit, involving words or images or both, enhance the pyrotechnics….

All this is breathtaking, but carries with it a danger: the reader may become distracted, responding with equal fascination to the surface of the more profound and the more trivial poems, as the poet seems to have lavished his artistry equally on them. The danger looms less large in this than in Hollander's earlier books, for the reason that the poems presented here have a more vulnerable openness, a profounder humanity. The keynote of the volume, sounding again and again in final cadences, is mortality, encroaching darkness: the postmeridian of the years stretching beyond the age of forty.

Marie Borroff, in The Yale Review (© 1972 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Autumn, 1972, pp. 90-1.