Hollander, John (Vol. 8)
Hollander, John 1929–
American poet, critic, and editor, Hollander is a formalist poet of considerable merit, a neo-Scholastic who looks to the seventeenth century for his poetic models. Along with Frank Kermode, he edited the Oxford Anthology of English Literature. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)
John Hollander's poems [in his second volume, Moviegoing and Other Poems], even at their most frivolous and perverse, explore the shifting barriers between semblance and reality with a sort of chuckling irony, but never with a very high inner seriousness. His irony has no satirical thrust behind it, little melancholy, no compelling joy. These are poems whose major emotion lies in their own cleverness. It is worth taking poetry more seriously—as in their ways Creeley and Levertov do—and perhaps in his third book Hollander will find his way. (p. 87)
Peter Davison, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1962 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), November, 1962.
Vision and Resonance, John Hollander's first critical book since The Untuning of the Sky (1961), proves to have been well worth waiting for. The earlier work was a comprehensive study of ideas about music, and the interrelation between music and poetry, in English verse of the 16th and 17th centuries. The shifting dialectic of attitudes toward music and verse is still very much part of Hollander's subject in his new book, but now he moves beyond literary history to a general analysis of how sound in poetry interacts with syntax, generic convention, and the visually scanned shape of the printed poem, to produce the complexities of poetic statement.
Vision and Resonance is the most subtle, convincing account I have seen of the operation of accentual syllabic verse in English. Hollander is meticulous in the use of concepts and terms where others have variously perpetuated a centuries-old legacy of vagueness, and the key distinctions he develops—such as between meter and rhythm, or between performative and descriptive scansion—seem not only precise but demonstrably valuable as he applies them. This enormously learned, technical study is a model of lucidity and, often, even of witty liveliness. The analysis of a variety of poetic texts from Donne to Blake to William Carlos Williams not only illustrates the general observations being made about English prosody, but also demonstrates how a discriminating approach through prosody can illuminate difficult or semantically dense poems. Hollander's readings of brief passages from Donne, Milton, and Blake have an Empsonian brilliance, without Empson's abrasive quirkiness: they impress one not as exercises in ingenuity but as fuller perceptions than previous readers have enjoyed. (p. 94)
[In] his final chapter, Hollander suggests that any poem must be located along the two axes of the eye and the ear, the former locked into meter, generic identity, tradition, collective literary experience, the latter associated with rhythm, the particular objects of representation, individual talent, the intuition of the moment. "The ear responds to the dimension of natural experience, the eye to that of convention." The distinction is so sweeping and simple that at first one suspects it cannot be altogether true, but it is surprising how sturdily the generalization holds up under scrutiny, as Hollander's own abundant illustrations from a variety of poetic texts make clear.
This way of conceiving two intersecting axes of poetry has one important consequence for literary ideology: in even the most radically iconoclastic poetry, tradition and convention remain an ineluctable dimension of the poem. Modern poets may wilfully ignore the old boundary lines of poetic genre, but none can escape from the convention-bound axis of the eye. (pp. 94-5)
Hollander stresses what he calls "the modality of verse"; a poetry which avowedly elects long-established forms of expression works toward "creating discourse in an ideal community, within which the literary dialect would be as speech." Modern poets have often rejected all notions of the modality of verse, breaking down genre and decorum in the effort to forge a uniquely personal, purely expressive style. Some, however, like W. H. Auden, have actually reaffirmed modality, adopting from the tradition a variety of forms and styles through which they implicitly assert a public realm of literary discourse more durable than the transitory idiom of individual experience. (p. 95)
[The] reaching for modality explains, I think, the strength, the limitations, and the peculiarity of John Hollander's own poetry. It is heartening to discover in the scholarly analyst of prosody a poet who is himself a technical virtuoso, but Hollander's recurrent problem from the beginning of his career has been to escape the aridness of mere virtuosity. His first volume, A Crackling of Thorns (1958), is astonishing in the variety of styles so finely controlled by a young poet, but there is something ventriloquistic and frustratingly oblique in the way the poet treats his own experience. This continues to be true, I find, though in less obtrusive, more complicated ways, of Hollander's five subsequent volumes of verse. There are, to be sure, some notable exceptions, like the evocative title-poem of Movie-Going (1962), or the poems dealing with memory and childhood and adolescence in Visions from the Ramble (1965). The persistent problem, however, of Hollander's poetry is illustrated on almost every page of … The Night Mirror (1971). Poem after poem reads like a distanced, abstractly conceived "treatment" of some idea or situation, a set exercise in rendering a quality or effect. The poet who had imitated the Elizabethans, Marvell, Dryden, Wordsworth, and many others finally seems to have arrived at a kind of accomplished voicelessness, in which the poem becomes an elegant arabesque of studied (sometimes precious) images concluding in a deft cadence with a word like "dust," "dark," or, alternately, "light."
This disembodied virtuosity continues to dominate many, though fortunately not all, of the poems in Tales Told of the Fathers. The difficulty, I would suggest, is that modality as Hollander tries to carry it out in his verse is no longer feasible because of what has happened to literary tradition and the language of poetry…. For a modern poet … to invoke or revive a whole mode of earlier poetry seems like a strenuous experiment in willed atavism.
One frequently feels the problem on the level of diction in Tales Told of the Fathers. Without a doctrine of sublime style for "lofty" subjects, phrases like "diurnal panache" and "the reservoir's onyx water" seem like mere preciosity, and the attempt, imagistically and lexically, to resuscitate a mythic mode in lines like "A Deus in the graciousness day,/Drunk with skyeyness," is inadvertently comic. And for a generation accustoming itself to no-frills flying, a poet cannot quite get away with rendering travel by plane in terms like these: "Huddled in silver/Pinions of his steel eagle,/ He drops not down, but/ Plummets forward into clouds…." Milton could do this for Lucifer falling—syntactic inversion, high-diction "pinions," obtruded enjambment, and all—but as a rendering of an airplane flight it seems an affectation.
Yet, in poetry so conspicuously assembled out of antecedent poetry, there is one subject on which poet and manner can sometimes fall into the lovely alignment of illumination, and that is when the poem deals with the perplexing nature of poetry itself. There are several striking pieces of this sort in Tales Told of the Fathers, where Hollander's play of verbal and situational wit, his love of allusion and multiple styles, seem fully integreted with what he means to say. In the scary playfulness of "Cohen on the Telephone," the poem moves in a rapid allusive sweep from Exodus and Milton through Keats and the Elizabethans to Tales of the Hasidic Masters and the talmudic Celestial Echo…. "Mount Blank" … wryly glances back at Shelley's "Mount Blanc," Wordsworth's "The Simplon Pass," at King Lear and Paradise Lost, in order to point up its own predicament after those primary masterworks, caught in a late self-conscious moment of literary history where all objects of representation prove to be "pictures of pictures,/Or views of noise: postcards of roaring."
Finally, "Kranich and Bach," the concluding poem of this volume, combines a brooding meditation on art and mortality with for once, concretely realized personal memory. (pp. 95-6)
Robert Alter, "The Critic as Poet" (reprinted from Commentary by permission; copyright © 1975 by the American Jewish Committee), in Commentary, September, 1975, pp. 94-6.
[It] remains a characteristic of New York poetry (not just Hollander's) that it may look north and south, and certainly east across the Atlantic, but very seldom west, into that continental hinterland on which it mostly turns its back. And that eloquently uninterested back turned upon Midwesterners and Westerners can make us—even an adopted and latecome Westerner like myself—not so much alarmed as daunted and irritated. Are we such hicks, so provincially incapable of keeping up with the speed and gloss of the metropolis? Near the end of Tales Told of the Fathers, for instance, there is a series of five poems called "Examples," each one concerned with a philosopher's dilemma about language; and a reader like me is divided between shamefaced awe at the thought of a society where particular passages of Descartes, Russell, J. L. Austin, G. E. Moore, and Immanuel Kant are part of the common change of party conversation and a mutinous suspicion that no such society exists, even in Manhattan, and that the whole illusion has been fabricated as a putdown for us country cousins.
The odd thing is that this terrifying knowledgeability in Hollander is something that he has seen, from time to time, not just as a block between himself and his potential public, but as a block between himself and his "best self." Thus, in "Upon Apthorp House," when he said goodbye to Harvard and thankfully returned to New York, he regarded it as a goodbye also to one sort of knowledgeability, specifically a literary sort…. But knowledgeability or (why fool about?) sheer knowledge is not so easily abandoned or concealed. All Hollander's later collections have betrayed this, as does Vision and Resonance, [a] collection of his critical essays….
As a critic, then, Hollander is very learned—and in a field where learning is in short supply, to just the degree that unwarrantedly confident assertion, and by serious characters like Williams, Pound, and Olson, is embarrassingly plentiful; that's to say, in the area where poetry and music overlap, or seem to. From the twelve carefully interlinked essays that make up Vision and Resonance, one thing that emerges, even for such a musically obtuse reader as me, is the arresting and indeed momentous contention that in English, far more than in French, Italian, or German, the marriage of music with poetry—of chords or notes with verbal sounds—has been, for four centuries and for readily ascertainable reasons, exceptionally difficult; so that a potent notion like "the music of poetry" has been in English for several centuries, without English-speakers recognizing it, a merely metaphorical or figurative expression, as it has not been over the same period for French-speakers, Italian-speakers, German-speakers.
The implications of this are very far-reaching. But it must be said that in his essays Hollander doesn't always wear his learning lightly. And this is lucky for him; since his writing is so much more sprightly in verse than in prose, at least he is spared the torment reserved for the doubly damned—of having his poems regarded as the spin-off from his criticism. (p. 30)
As an elegant romantic Hollander has, of course, at least one distinguished American predecessor: Stevens. And Stevens's idiom—even, sometimes, Stevens's mannerisms—lie up closer below the surface of Hollander's style than do even the idioms we might call "Audenesque." Accordingly readers who have less trouble with Stevens than I have will respond without my querulous hesitations, for instance, to fifteen formally identical poems in a sequence called "The Head of the Bed." That the inside is the outside, that dreaming is as true as waking, that daybreak and nightfall are therefore interchangeable, that imagination and reality switch places as soon as you think about it—these are propositions to which I give assent under the persuasion of nice diction and cadence, but reluctantly, because they don't give me what I most hunger for: the fact (or the illusion, if that's what I must settle for) of some fixed and stable points in the flux of living as I experience it day by day and night by night.
One may say of such a world that in it everything rhymes—inside with outside, night with day, sun with moon; and some people find a comfort in that. Strikingly, Hollander can sympathize with those of us who don't…. [Very] often, Hollander's word games are played for the highest stakes…. For Hollander's romanticism differs from Stevens's, I think, precisely in aching, in yearning (the corny word is the right one) for a region of nonnegotiable fixities which resist even the cleverest mind's attempts to turn them into their opposites. And often enough—as in the admirable "Rotation of Crops," for the moment my favorite Hollander poem—that region has an image for him, one that generations of romanticism have sanctified, as the region of the fixed stars. (pp. 30-1)
Hollander, who in the past has been a gay and insouciant writer, is here on page after page experiencing a sort of desolation, at its bleakest in a series of nine poems called "Something About It," where the central and indeed sole character is one Doctor Bergab. Bergab: gabber. The talkiness that Hollander was struggling to be rid of in 1962 is what enmeshes him still. He can see this as clearly as we can, and most of these poems are preoccupied with just that. Talkiness, mere gab; that's to say, breath, that's to say, air. And of the four archaic elements—earth, water, air, and fire—it's the third dimension, air, whose terrors these poems especially explore, though one of the wittiest of them, "The Ziz," tells us that the fourth element, fire, is comprehended also. The wit, in any case, is Prince Hamlet's; deployed to keep terror at bay, it thereby witnesses how real the terror is. And the metaphysical terror is in the possibility that the air we incessantly expel as we incessantly articulate is never bounced back to us off any surface whatever; that there is no being—human or other—that listens, let alone responds….
Merely to turn the pages of Tales Told of the Fathers, seeing how—except for certain interlinked sequences—each page presents a new shape to the eye, is to realize that this is a poet for whom the idea of genre is meaningful and precious. Only the idea, of course; for the old system of once canonical genres has been dismantled and will not be put together again. What is held open by Auden or Hollander is the possibility of a different system of genres one day emerging. Hollander might prefer to "genres" the more flexible "modes"—a word that he uses with a musicologist's unusual exactness. Whichever word we use, we are talking of something important; for discrimination between kinds of stylistic behavior in writing reflects and may even enforce discriminations in other kinds of behavior, and it is surely on discriminations of that kind that rests any idea of civility, of mutual consideration. There may or may not be a Being who listens to the little gouts of air, called words, that we expel toward him; but if there is, the least we can do is to address him not always in the same tone of voice, whether a manic shout or a querulous grumble or a precarious suavity.
And if this is what a New York poet like Auden, or Hollander in his more constricted way, is saying, than the rest of America—at whatever cost to its currently cherished preconceptions—needs to listen. (p. 31)
Donald Davie, "Gifts of the Gab," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1975 by NYREV, Inc.), October 2, 1975, pp. 30-1.
Hollander is unquestionably one of the most skillful verse-makers around, and the qualities of his imagination are most evident at the verbal level. Music, in his work, is just as much an agent of meaning as discourse, and the sonorous textures of his poems compel us to read with our ears as well as our eyes. Intelligent to a fault, rational even in his darkest broodings, Hollander nevertheless achieves distinctive emotional effects through his subtle use of the technical resources at his command. Rhyme and meter, wordplay and allusion, a keen sense of the line: these are not ornaments in Hollander's poetry, but essential, binding forces, and they reveal to us that language is not merely a systematic organization of signs, but a magic soil in which the pre-history of the human unconscious can be traced….
Hollander is chiefly known as a poet of wit, learning, and charm—and these are qualities that should in no way be underestimated…. Hollander's is an art of control rather than passion, but his work is never cold or severe, and he is by no means a man of few words. From poem to poem it is a sense of playfulness that dominates, an ebullient delight in the generative possibilities of language….
Hollander dazzles us with his language, but inside this sphere of human imagining he knows there is a core of void, a center that resists all utterance. (p. 109)
Hollander tries to seize the thing for which there is no word, the otherness of the inhuman. It is not a religious confrontation, but a metaphysical gesturing toward that-which-is-beyond, and more often than not his approach to the problem is ironical, even intentionally silly, as if he were saying to us: here it is again, the old question that cannot be answered, even though it is the only question that must be answered. The dilemma leads to a highly inventive kind of non-sense…. (pp. 109-10)
Hollander has never been what could be called a private poet, and in Tales Told of the Fathers we find few personal references or confessional impulses. Each piece stands so solidly by itself and is so smoothly perfected according to its own inner logic that it almost seems independent of the will of its creator. But if this prevents his work from attaining a vivid personal dimension, it is also one of Hollander's greatest strengths, for it frees him from unnecessary restrictions and enables him to roam to the full extent of his considerable talents…. Tales Told of the Fathers … [is] a collection of remarkable diversity. Hollander's range is enormous, and he writes in all modes with equal virtuosity and panache. Few poets have ever communicated such delight in the making of poetry, and few books in recent years have been able to make the act of reading so purely pleasurable. (p. 110)
Paul Auster, in Harper's (copyright 1975 by Harper's Magazine; all rights reserved; reprinted from the November, 1975 issue by special permission), November, 1975.
Hollander's Tales Told of the Fathers …, more even than his previous work, indicates the movement of another American poet into the bitterness of strength. Hollander's burden is that his verse somehow combines Ben Jonson and Shelley in a single body, an uncanny and unique blending that in Hollander has the force of a fatality…. The wonder of Tales Told of the Fathers is that Hollander now integrates all the diverse strains of his poetic nature. At his best, as in the long poem or sequence, "The Head of the Bed," Hollander can be compared to Ashbery as being in the line of Stevens without merely yielding to the precursor's power. But Hollander also is emerging into a plangent voice related to Yiddish poetry, movingly evident in the title-sequence, "Tales Told of the Fathers," as in a parable of Hillel taken from the Talmud…. This voice of erudite lament, troubled by a final knowledge, and intensely sad when it intends to be most stoical, is Hollander's true voice of feeling, and prophesies a major phase to come. (p. 25)
Harold Bloom, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), November 29, 1975.
John Hollander's new book, Vision and Resonance, is a selection of essays written at different times, dealing with various topics, but still pretty well integrated around one central question: how to account for the "music," or musicality, of lyric poems that have been written specifically to be read and not sung. What do we mean when we speak of the music of verse? Hollander seeks the answer mainly through historical explorations…. [All] of the book is vague; or worse—confused, difficult, and not very important. At least that's how it strikes me.
I must qualify my discontent immediately by acknowledging that I am a poor reader for this sort of book, certainly not the reader Hollander had in mind. I have neither a classical education nor a firm grounding in recent technical criticism. Hollander, on the other hand, has spent years thinking about the problems of historical and analytical prosody, which obviously are topics as valid for the activity of human intelligence as any other. Perhaps his book is important; the prosodists must decide. As for me, since I cannot evaluate the main technical drift of his argument or the thoroughness of his documentation, I shall limit myself to aspects of Hollander's book that may be, though I think not necessarily, tangential.
First, the confusion and difficulty. To some extent they spring from Hollander's writing. Without doubt it is disappointing to find a poet who is so bound-up, not to say tongue-tied, in his prose. Bad style isn't obligatory. Granted, Hollander's topic is complex; but Saintsbury wrote three volumes about the prosody of English verse and wrote them in long elaborate sentences, without ever losing his grip on lucidity. Hollander's book, though much shorter, took me three days to read, and the reading was painful. His polylingual and frequently jargonistic diction and his arch rhetoric lead him into sentences like this: "By continually manipulating word sounds in lexical contexts, their suggestive quality is forever enhanced, it being remembered that—and this is a cardinal rule for the discussion of the effects of sound in any poetic environment—words can only 'sound like' other words, and it is thereby that they sound like nature if at all." I quote the whole thing to show that no matter how patiently you trek through it you never come to a grammatical resolution. And the book is full, crammed full, of sentences just as hard to read.
Secondly, the "sense" of that sentence, namely that words can only sound like other words. Hollander is led by his emphasis on the conventional aspect of poetic language, and perhaps by his respect for linguistics, to the idea that language is functionally conventional. All right; but then he presses it to the extreme, to the point of nonsense. (pp. xcviii-xcix)
The main point I still wish to raise, my third, concerns Hollander's use of the word form…. [He] uses it to mean the abstract, conventional pattern of a poem, the scheme, the plan, the structural graph—call it what you will. But this doesn't make sense. Can the form of a poem, or of anything else, exist apart from the thing that is formed? We know it in and only in its object. Hollander is speaking continually in terms of definitions, not forms, and this is more than a terminological dispute. Definitions are good for making classifications; sometimes they may be aids to abstract understanding; but they do not show us forms, which are the functional aspects of objects. In short, Hollander's book is a modernized version of criticism by genre, and we know what to think about that. It doesn't work. It can't work. Every genre that has ever been erected in literature has broken down, and the "rules" governing it have evaporated. (pp. c-ci)
I kept hoping, as I read Hollander's book, that I would come to a discussion of recent poetry, but except for passing glances at Stevens, Williams, and one or two others, Hollander concentrates on the poetry of the past. (p. ci)
Hayden Carruth, "John Hollander's Prosody," in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor, © 1976 by The University of the South), Summer, 1976, pp. xcviii-ci.
Hollander's long narrative [Reflections on Espionage: The Question of Cupcake] is a Kafkan tour de force, a virtuoso performance to match Merrill's that "reprints" the "regular, encoded radio transmissions" of the master spy Cupcake to the agent Image or to his director Lyrebird. The transmissions, "copies of which were eventually recovered by sources in his native country ['an altogether inconvenient little republic which ceased to exist a good time ago'], have only recently been deciphered…." The work consists of 101 dated sections beginning with 1/14 and ending with 10/1. They range from one line to nearly 100; they average about 30. Their ingenuity is astonishing, the energy behind them never lets up. They form a composite picture of a brilliant, sad, witty man whose antecedents (in addition to Kafka) are Dostoevsky's underground man, Melville's Bartleby, and all those 19th century clerks whose unimportant agonies went unnoticed except by those who saw them as archetypes. The book is devilishly well-made (the clue to Cupcake's fate is Et Glpkx Et V di Vxnt, and is also all-too-human, for its theme has to do with an anomie so acute and a distrust so pervasive that one only puts his faith in the work-derived attachments subsisting between a few individuals, no other moral structures being available. By contrast the scenes in All The President's Men between Bob Woodward and Deep Throat in the D.C. garage were moments of all but union. Here, everybody (literally) checks up on everyone else so that in the end we find that even the minimal faith one thought one had fails. The last line is (… XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX). Instructions are provided for deciphering this. You won't like what you learn. (p. 365)
Stanley Poss, in Western Humanities Review (copyright, 1976, University of Utah), Autumn, 1976.
Hollander, whose poems always suffer the burden of knowing perhaps more than poems should, is at his all-but-best in the delightful Reflections On Espionage: The Question of Cupcake…. I say "all-but-best" because his two great longer poems are The Head of the Bed (in the volume Tales Told of the Fathers) and the even more Kabbalistic Spectral Emanations, recently and now appearing under the heading of different colors in various magazines. Reflections On Espionage, like the erotic Town and County Matters, is written by Hollander's left hand, but this gives it the freedom to be an outrageous parody-poem, mocking the whole condition of contemporary poetry under the guise of a spy-thriller. Cupcake is Hollander, done with shattering wit and deep sorrow, while nearly everyone in current verse is marched before us with an almost Popean accuracy and compassion. As a parable of poetic belatedness, and a commentary upon the way poets live and write now, this is without rival. (p. 23)
Harold Bloom, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1976 by The New Republic, Inc.), November 20, 1976.
Reflections on Espionage … is, in effect, a narrative about the act of converting sensation to art. I imagine the entire work deriving from Browning's "How It Strikes a Contemporary," a narrative poem that pictures the poet as a sort of secret agent communicating with God. There is no God in John Hollander's story, and the secret messages are communications from the self to the self, but nonetheless, the resemblance is there. I suspect that the cover design of Reflections on Espionage, showing the poet reflected in a full-length mirror, is meant as a hint to help us along in this kind of interpretation, as are the many references to reflections and mirrors in the poems. (p. 89)
The writing in Reflections is graceful, smooth, easy to read. Sometimes it is arch and playful—not an unusual quality in a poet who has written books like Types of Shape and Town and Country Matters. It is also sometimes tired and flat, but it is always skillful. The danger in this sort of game—and it is a game—is that the telling has become more important than what is being said. The lyric impulse to speak about poetry and the creative act has been strung together through the benefit of a doubtful "story," the narrative details of which are sometimes quite boring, since it is not the tale we care about, but only the central point of the entire poem. I won't say that Hollander has failed to achieve his purpose in this poem, but I do feel that Reflections on Espionage teeters on the edge of vacuity, good as its writing is. (p. 90)
John R. Reed, in The Ontario Review (copyright © 1976 by The Ontario Review), Fall-Winter, 1976–77.
John Hollander's Reflections on Espionage is an extended metaphorical treatment of a special sort of conspiracy—"Us," the milieu of art, vision, understanding, the "altogether inconvenient little republic" of letters, against "Them," the philistines. Beginning with this neat analogy for the marginal state of contemporary poets, Hollander's long poem establishes several more equivalences: the verse is presented as a series of encoded messages, identified by month and day, and transmitted to other agents or to a "control" (who may be understood as a sympathetic critic). The "Work" undertaken by Hollander's group of masterspies is nothing less than the writing of the poetry of our own day; and it is all done under the direction of a topflight commander styled "Lyrebird," viz., Apollo or the Muse.
The poem's agent-narrator, code name "Cupcake," is, I assume, based on Hollander himself, and I believe "real life" prototypes for most of the other agents could be found. (p. 537)
What Cupcake and his creator have in common is that they both seem to know everything. John Hollander holds, surely, the Monsieur Teste chair in American letters. His earlier poetry and criticism frequently and usefully allude to many kinds of learning—scientific, historical, musical—when these might throw light on the issues under consideration. Vision and Resonance, his study of poetry as a sonic and visual entity, is the most informative and infectiously interesting treatise to date on that subject. And Hollander's learning serves him well in his poetry, both as stimulus and substance….
Amusement will probably be most readers' first reaction to Hollander's parodic spy-thriller, but I doubt it will be the last. The humor and wit so apparent in these pages suggest that the poet is dealing with matters too important to be presented with unrelieved earnestness, too urgent to risk leaving the reader in the detachment of pity or polite toleration. (p. 538)
Some of Cupcake's most interesting reflections turn around the relationship between espionage (poetry) and the agent's "cover" (his ostensible profession), since in our day most poets must make their living by doing something besides writing poetry…. During the nine-month period recorded, something seems to be gestating; this proves to be Cupcake's death or rather his "Termination," the order for it coming down from Lyrebird. No definite reason for the "termination" is given—but it is implicit. When Hollander's Muse stops being stimulated by the persona of "Cupcake," it's time to drop him and for the book to end. Of course, there may be more to it than that, for Reflections on Espionage is a richly textured work, multilayered, and evocative of meanings leading in several directions. (pp. 538-39)
Anyone who knows modern poetry will almost reflexively decode Cupcake's aspirations toward a Final Cipher as the Supreme Fiction Stevens made notes toward, or, again, as the final book Mallarmé asserted the world was destined to become. Mallarmé appears to be Hollander's most telling precursor in French….
Cupcake …, among recent American voices, seems to have the clearest sense of the Mallarméan imagination. And Mallarmé's notion of the azur he seems very much at home with. The most characteristic Hollander moment has always seemed to be one captured in an environment at high altitudes and low temperatures, with cloudless, ultramarine skies. (pp. 539-40)
Among English poets probably the most important for Hollander is Ben Jonson. Certainly Jonson has had few critics as sympathetic as Hollander. The two are alike in their complete possession of poetic tradition; and Hollander also seems to share Jonson's healthy attitude toward the classics, which the English poet termed "Guides, not Commanders." (p. 540)
In the twentieth century the poet most resembling Jonson is Auden; and some of the typical concerns of both—reasonableness, loyalty, and an interest in writing in many different poetic genres—have been inherited by Hollander. The association between Hollander and Auden was personal as well as literary, of course; and here I will quote the first but one of Cupcake's transmissions, which details the death of "Steampump," an agent unquestionably based on Auden:
Steampump is gone. He died quietly in his
Hotel room and his sleep. His cover people
Attended to everything. What had to
Be burned was burned. He taught me, as you surely
Know, all that I know….
I hazard that one of the germinating impulses for Reflections was a desire to present, in code, a portrait of what remains of Auden's influence in American poetry. The "covers" that I can identify all seem to have at least a tenuous relationship to Auden, either as poets he chose for the Yale Series, or as his friends, his disciples, or disciples of his disciples. This group, mutatis mutandis, is a fair equivalent for the celebrated Tribe of Ben that accounts for most of the important early seventeenth-century poetry in England after Jonson's death. Perhaps this parallel struck Hollander. Certainly it seems to be the case that, with the passing of Auden, we lack any figure of international stature in poetry. Greatness in the poetry of this moment is probably best judged as a joint achievement, the sum of a group effort.
The assertion of a real—though not pious—sense of community in Hollander's rendering of the present milieu of poetry is one of the book's most attractive features. He allows us to see how poets, at least some of them, must view each other's work and careers—not as a mad, competitive scramble, but as a kind of teamwork…. The world limned out in this book has broader implications than its immediate reference, of course. It could serve as a model for an imaginative community on any scale, one whose members were all respectfully conscious of the others' lives, work, and "signifying" capacity. In such a utopia, citizens specifically designated as poets might vanish. Cupcake seems to be aware of the possibility: "as if the whole world perhaps were/ At the work? What then? Why then there would be no/ Need of it." But we are far away from that, I think. A book like Reflections on Espionage is still very necessary, nor could anyone but a poet have written it. (pp. 540-41)
Alfred Corn, in The Georgia Review (copyright, 1977, by the University of Georgia), Summer, 1977.