John Hollander Hollander, John (Vol. 14) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Hollander, John 1929–

An 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, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Louis L. Martz

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Hollander has written his Reflections on Espionage in the form of a single long poem composed in strict eleven-syllable lines, except for twenty-one lines at the very end which contain a clever cipher carefully explicated in the author's notes. Hendecasyllabic verse, then, is the "eleven-phase transposition grid" used by the secret agent Cupcake for transmitting in cipher his messages to other agents and ultimately to his director, named Lyrebird. All this of course is derived from the recent flurry of revelations about espionage and counterespionage in the Second World War, as represented in Sir John Masterman's The Double-Cross System (1972), which reveals such code-names for agents as Biscuit, Dragonfly, Cobweb, Zigzag, Tricycle, Garbo, Lipstick, The Snark, and so on. Hollander takes off from here with a galaxy of names that would delight any counterspy: Thumbtack, Image, The Foot, Aspirin, Steampump, Artifact, Gland, Felucca…. It will already be evident from some of these names that the "transmissions" are concerned with poetry as a mode of enciphered communication, where enigmatic messages come from agents beyond the individual mind, while the mind attempts to "encode" them and transmit them to other agents—Reader, no doubt, being the ultimate receiver. Allusions to poetry, poetic inspiration, and poets become increasingly overt as the work proceeds…. It does not take much of a "grid" to decipher Kilo as Pound, or Puritan as Eliot…. I suppose the section on Moroz alludes to Robert Frost; and there is certainly a candid appraisal of Anne Sexton ("So widely thought—and who believed herself—to / Be an agent"). Other names will no doubt be decoded; but the important thing about them is that, as in Alexander Pope, these figures, while sometimes recognizable, are larger than life, types, images of the varied manifestation of poetical effort, failure, and achievement.

It is in the transmissions to Image that the discussions of...

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Alicia Ostriker

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Hollander's tastes are eclectic, which enables him to write cogently [in Vision and Resonance] on poets as disparate as Donne, Jonson and Campion, Marvell, Milton and Pope, Wordsworth and Blake, Whitman, Pound, and William Carlos Williams. Since his cultural range includes European music and graphic art, classical literature and literary theory, and contemporary linguistics, the rifts of this volume are quite filled with ore. And his ear and eye are fine, so that his readings are usually reliable, which is more than one can say for many critics who attempt to write on prosody. He has excellent chapters dealing with contrastive stress, with enjambment, with rhyme. Each, if applied historically, would yield discoveries about ideas of order in English poetry over the last four centuries. The question of line-break has particular significance for modern poetry, where it serves as the single most important formal signal for a great number of poets (go back to Pound and Cummings, move up to Creeley), opening doors in hitherto plain blank walls. Here Hollander makes some brilliant observations about how the relations between line-break and syntactic juncture in the twentieth century consistently direct attention, create drama, produce meaning. There are also good chapters on the role of meter as frame, and on formal experimentation, both theory and practice, in Romantic and modern American poetry.

Hollander's consideration of "the poem in the eye," the poem as shape-on-page rather than sound-in-ear, undertakes an essential critical task, since...

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James K. Robinson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

John Hollander began his poetical career with A Crackling of Thorns (1958) which, on Auden's recommendation, was the choice of the Yale Younger Poets series. Superficially, his early poetry resembles Auden's in its wit, its learned allusiveness, its prosodic mastery. There is a poem, "Under Aquarius / for W. H. Auden on his 65th Birthday," in Tales Told of the Fathers which reminds us that Hollander knows his Auden…. Indeed, Hollander owes a great debt to Auden. The final sentence of the Preface to his brilliant critical work Vision and Resonance: Two Senses of Poetic Form (1975) reads: "To the late W. H. Auden, whose ear for prosody was like a moral sense, my obligation is not easy to express in a sentence."

Yet, though the resonance of Hollander's poetry often reminds one of Auden, his vision is his own. He has paid his debt to the sassenach and is clearly an American poet…. [The Head of the Bed] is a remarkable long poetic sequence consisting of a prose prelude and fifteen cantos of five tercets each…. [The] poem, rich in implication, is … remarkably accessible to the fairly knowledgeable reader. (p. 356)

James K. Robinson, "Sassenachs, Palefaces, and a Redskin: Graves, Auden, MacLeish, Hollander, Wagoner, and Others," in The Southern Review (copyright, 1978, by James K. Robinson), Vol. 14, No. 2, April, 1978, pp. 348-58.∗

Michael Wood

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Cleverness] is not a vice, indeed I regard it as something of a virtue, and in John Hollander's poems it is the clearest sign of his extraordinary gift. Spectral Emanations, a book of "new and selected poems" which, read consecutively, takes us backward through Hollander's whole career, offers an abundance of examples. In a well-known early work, "Aristotle to Phyllis," Hollander translates the sounds (and some sense) of a Mallarmé poem into English, thus: "La chair est triste, hélas, et j'ai lu tous les livres" / "This chair I trusted, lass, and I looted the leaves"; "le vide papier que la blancheur défend" / "A wide papyrus … blanched and deafened"; "Steamer balancant ta mâture" / "Stammering, balanced, the master"; and "Lève l'ancre pour une exotique nature" / "dipped pale ink of an exotic nature"—this last item actually managing to pick up a pun (ancre/encre) which is lurking in the French….

Hollander imitates Marvell and Pope with uncanny precision, and actually makes his imitations work: those old masters are momentarily revived and contemplate the present with the ironic glances of their respective ages….

For an instance of [another] mode of wit, the leaning on a familiar phrase, we can't do better than look at Hollander's early poem about a divorced couple. "Quickly now," he asks, "which of you will keep the Lares, / Which the Penates?": "You have unmade your bed, now lie about it." This is a line which goes beyond cleverness, of course, as the imitations do, and suggests a considerable amount of sorrow and distress. (p. 27)

But of course even if cleverness is a virtue it does, quite often, keep bad company—or to change the metaphor, it belongs to a rather dubious family of qualities with names like diffusion, elusiveness, flippancy, and (my hand shakes as I tap out the word) insincerity. I don't mean that all good poetry has to be concentrated and confessional. I do mean that good poetry appears only when the poet is in touch with a set of genuine feelings, his own or someone else's or his culture's. A...

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Harold Bloom

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It is exactly 20 years since the appearance of John Hollander's first book of poems. I read the book then, soon after I first met the poet, and was rather more impressed by the man than by the book. It has taken 20 years for the emotional complexity, spiritual anguish, and intellectual and moral power of the man to become the book. The enormous mastery of verse was there from the start, and is there still, so augmented that only James Merrill in his own generation seems to me Hollander's peer as an artist, as a stylist equal to Auden and to Wilbur. But there seemed almost always to be more knowledge and insight within Hollander than the verse could accommodate. (p. 42)

As a poet, Hollander was...

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Richard Poirier

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Spectral Emanations," the extraordinarily brilliant and ambitious work in poetry and prose which leads off [the collection by the same title], is prompted in part by a passage, quoted in the volume's epigraph, in which Hilda of Hawthorne's The Marble Faun talks about the menorah, the golden lamp of seven branches…. Hilda proposes a parable in which the lamp will be recovered and its seven branches kindled, each with a different color, until the world is illumined by "the white light of truth."

"It will," she says, "be a seven-branched allegory, full of poetry, art, philosophy, and religion," and she goes on, in a passage not quoted by Hollander, to say that she will propose such a...

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Andrew Motion

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Blue Wine] describes a wide range of experience in confidently rhetorical terms, and seldom seems more than swaggering or pompous. To [Hollander's] credit, he is conscious of this tendency, but he is never sufficiently self-ironising to get away with it. Poem after poem slips into posturing, and object by object is buried in a plethora of detail. Even a turd becomes 'The half-dried, grey serpent-stump an unleashed dog left / To affront the carelessness of our steps'. Such wordiness is as reductive as the other poets' discretion—mainly because it does not allow him to build a firm enough foundation for his more abstract thoughts. This is particularly evident in the title poem, 'Blue Wine'. As each section...

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Richmond Lattimore

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

John Hollander does not become easier as he goes, nor does the somewhat frustrated pleasure of reading him grow less. He is always on the point of being fully comprehensible and never quite arrives at that point. The poems [in Blue Wine] are poems with beginnings middles and ends; not parts of a continuum you could hack into pieces, without its mattering where you hacked, here would do as well as there, and call the pieces poems. Hollander's poems have not only structure but subject and substance…. Put it briefly, Hollander is a master poet with an eye for image, a sense of line (and a sense of humor), and a rightness of composition; all of which qualities makes him a delight to read, whether or not we come...

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Paul Ramsey

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The prose poems of Hollander's In Place] are not so much lyric, though light and shadow pass and interplay, as about what constitutes or fails to constitute lyric; that is, what constitutes (or fails) poetry; that is, what constitutes (or fails) knowledge; that is, what constitutes uncertainty. A major theme is the unknowability of reality, hence the impossibility of validating poetics, ethics, or ontology. Explorings, nostalgias, beseechings and unbeseechings inconclusively conclude, sometimes with tentative hope, sometimes not. While one can hardly claim that the poems are affirmative, they are less consistently self-parodying and skeptical than Hollander's book Reflections on Espionage. In tone,...

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Phoebe Pettingell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

One of the most urbane poets writing, [Hollander's] mercurial mind sparkles with the iridescence of an opal. In the notes to [Blue Wine], he engagingly explains the genesis of his title poem thus: "I visited Saul Steinberg one afternoon and found that he had pasted some mock (or rather visionary) wine labels on bottles, which were then filled with a substance I could not identify. This poem is an attempt to make sense of what was apparently in them." The 11 meditations on the subject attack the puzzle from a bewildering variety of angles…. In the end, Hollander decides that his "Blue wine in bold bottles" is for the poet to "take home with him / in the clear cup of his own eye, to see what he will see."...

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