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.)
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 poetry become most intimate and profound, for Image is the agent's other self, his deeper self, the real self that lives within the "cover."… [His] mingling of the cadences of both Eliot and Stevens is a measure of the way in which Hollander has absorbed the codes of other poets and made them his own. Yet of all the echoing we hear, the most persistent is that of Stevens's Esthétique du Mal, and Hollander's achievement here is worthy of that grand comparison.
Perhaps all this sounds a little coy in brief review, but it is not so in the reading. This is not just another "poem about poetry." No good poem ever is, in any limited sense of the word poetry. Like Stevens, when Hollander speaks of, or implies, poetry, he includes within that word the whole human power of imaginative creation, imaginative living, imaginative seeking. That is why he spends a section pondering with Image the meaning of the root of the word "spy," placing in each of the twenty-one lines here "some trace of the Indo-European root," as he points out in a note. (pp. 118-20)
The basic power of Hollander's conception here lies in the way in which he has maintained the literal details of his fable: the "Terminations" of failed agents, the tortures, the deceptions, the sordid traps, the fears, the suspicions, the frustrations of a world in which "Scattered outbreaks of terror do not abate," while...
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he transmutes the details into a parable of the efforts of a creative seeker, a tragicomic saga of the human effort to explore the workings of ultimate truth, to probe the depths of one's own consciousness, and to discover the springs of human motive in others. The effort, we learn, can only hope to succeed through stout mental discipline (symbolized by the eleven-syllable grid)…. And with discipline comes the hoped-for liberation: one must admire the flexibility and ease with which Hollander moves within his chosen grid; there is no sense of straining; the language, though frequently colloquial, moves with dignity and grace toward a measured eloquence…. With such a book, if we had not known his stature before, John Hollander surely stands forth as one of the two or three best in his generation of American poets now in their forties or early fifties. Indeed, I would say one of two.
In Hollander's poem one feels an acceptance of and reconciliation with a world of pain and struggle and terror—an attitude far removed from the outrage and fierce dissidence that invaded some of the poetry of the 1960's. By acceptance I do not mean resignation or indifference, but rather an attitude irradiated by the indestructible presence of hope: "the pleasures of hope," Hollander calls them, a kind of toughened hope that knows and sees and does not bow to Them. (pp. 121-22)
Louis L. Martz, "recent Poetry: Mending Broken Connections," in The Yale Review (© 1976 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Vol. LXVI, No. 1, Autumn, 1976, pp. 114-29.∗
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 the decline of traditional meter leaves the mantle of poetic form very much on the figure a poem makes visually. (p. 634)
Any critic of Hollander's stature must provoke arguments. Some of mine are fairly trivial. I disagree with a scansion of Donne's "Elegy on his Mistresse" which stresses pronouns and gets metrical regularity at the cost of rhetorical sense. I believe a comparison Hollander makes between Ben Jonson and James Joyce should have been made with Pound. Especially after Hollander's own sensitive description of Jonson (e.g. "his 'translations' proper never aim at preserving a particular poem … but at carrying over a method, a style, a way of writing, thought, and life"), what else can spring to mind but Pound's Seafarer, Homage to Propertius, Cantos? I am distressed by a treatment of William Carlos Williams's "Spring and All" which calls this poem "a soundless picture of a soundless world." (p. 635)
A more serious flaw concerns the ghost of sphery music haunting Hollander. He seems to occupy himself excessively with efforts to lay this ghost—belaboring poets and prosodists who have made misleading poetry-music analogies, extensively demonstrating, as if it needed demonstration, the inadequacy of musical settings to Donne's unsong-like "songs," recounting at length the differences between Greek meters, which were music-based, and English, which are not. We may all suffer from a nostalgia for primal harmony which we recognize as a fiction, but Hollander's repeated digressions from poetic to musical matters practically entitle this book to be called The Elephant and the Music Problem.
Finally, and unfortunately, both Hollander's organization and his prose leave much to be desired. This is a meandering, repetitive book, in which most of the essays read like occasional pieces or even worked-up footnotes, and the writing style is as stuffy as an overheated, over-furnished, close-windowed lamplit room. The possession of vast learning should not exempt an author from the lucidity and grace required of other mortals. In this case, non-specialists should brace themselves. Nevertheless, the ideas in Vision and Resonance deserve a wide audience for their solid discoveries and for their provocative suggestions, and for reminding us again, as at the outset of his first volume, that "particularly in the case of poetry, the functional relation-ship of form to content continues to pose the most demanding critical questions." (p. 636)
Alicia Ostriker, "Shapes of Poetry," in Partisan Review (copyright © 1977 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Vol. XLIV, No. 4, 1977, pp. 632-36.
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.∗
[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 loose enough formula, but it is obviously possible for a poet not to be in touch in this way, and I think this is what happens quite frequently to Hollander: feelings are not available to him, or they flood the page, touch turns to rout…. [Certain passages from "Green" and "Departed Indigo"] seem to me merely stately: nothing is going on behind the perfect glare. It is not a question of artifice or manner … but of whether the language catches anything, or is simply idling. Compare the Popean "yowling chaos reassumes the streets," in "New York," which picks up energy and wit from its context, with Hollander's earlier "So frowning violence reassumes the crowded land," which is just vacant and grandiose.
Nothing there, then; when the flooding occurs, everything is there. In a witty poem about Sundays in New York, full of carefully emphasized locutions ("month of Sundays," "full of itself," "come to a bad end"), Hollander lets loose an unmanageable unhappiness, and tells us that on such Sundays "one" can go home, "one can have … climbed up a concrete hill to one's own walls / And quietly opened a vein." The wit and distance are swamped. It is a delicate notion, but it seems that the sincerity of the poem has been spoiled by the abrupt, excessive sincerity of the poet.
Hollander has diagnosed a good deal of this himself. His gift seems larger than his achievement; but his achievement, though sporadic, is substantial; and he has recently found a mode of writing in which the shady relatives of cleverness are paid off and put to work. The mode, in my view, is not the heavy myth which informs the most ambitious of the new poems in the new book, a legend about the lamp of the Second Temple, a seven-branched candelabrum, which Hollander associates with the seven colors of the spectrum, which in turn he plays through the hours from daylight to darkness. It is the mode of fragmentary, hinting narrative which Hollander used in his most recent book, Reflections on Espionage, a remarkably funny and quite haunting work. Here it appears in the central story about the Lamp, in the form of "Leaves from a Roman Journal" which tell a spectral, summary tale of love and adventure and loss and recovery. (pp. 27-8)
[Hollander] has found in the subdued, secretive world of such fictions a place for cleverness, indirection, insincerity, and himself. That he knows this is clearly indicated by a poem included in this new book and called "Collected Novels." Full of fine lines and gags ("terror firmer," "My Brother's Reaper"—the title of a novel), it shows a novelist who confesses that all the books he published under various names are in fact his. They are now "collected"; the title of one of them is a literal quotation from Hollander's earlier poem "The Ninth of July." It is a portrait of the poet in a mirror: Hollander is a number of quite different people, but he signs with a single name. (p. 28)
Michael Wood, "Calculated Risks," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1978 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXV, No. 9, June 1, 1978, pp. 27-30.∗
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 not truly Hollander until the volume, The Night Mirror, published in 1971, when he was past meridian. [Spectral Emanations: New and Selected Poems] is strongest in his work of the 1970s, in the sequence or long poem "The Head of the Bed," in the title sequence of "Tales Told of the Fathers," and in "Spectral Emanations," the superb and difficult long poem that should make a new beginning for him.
Hollander began as an Audenesque poet of the 1950s, merging the American Auden back into the Jonsonian line of measured wisdom. But from The Night Mirror on, Hollander surprisingly blends Jonson and Shelley in a single body, with Stevens inevitably displacing Auden as central precursor. Quite explicitly, Hollander has developed into an American-Jewish High Romantic, esoteric and elegiac, and daring to write long poems in the Sublime mode…. "The Head of the Bed" concealed something of its complexities and its profound design beneath a graceful mythological pattern, baroque in its interwindings. "Spectral Emanations" brings its difficult vision directly to the reader, demanding extraordinary energy of response, and a genuine labor of reading. With this poem, Hollander adds another to the formidable group of major achievements by poets of his generation. "Spectral Emanations," in scope and splendor, is comparable to Merrill's "The Book of Ephraim," Ashbery's "Fragment," and Ammons's "Hibernaculum" and "Sphere." But it is the most recondite and elaborate of these poems, and indeed is as difficult as the Stevens of "The Auroras of Autumn." It demands rereadings, and greatly rewards them.
At once an American and a Jewish fable, the poem moves out from a suggestion in Hawthorne's The Marble Faun, for a seven-branched allegory celebrating the recovery of the golden lamp that Titus robbed from the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Hollander restitutes for the lost sacred illumination by seven color-visions, each supported by a prose-poem as commentary. The 40 pages of verse and prose constitute a brief epic marked by bitter wit, by an impressive awareness of the painful burdens of literary representation this late in tradition, and by an authentic and very surprising communal passion, which hesitates upon the verge of allowing itself expression in the accents of the Jewish religion. At least two of the sections, "Yellow" and "Violet," seem to me individually great poems, but it is the total coherence of the entire sequence, its difficult rightness, that is most admirable and that promises to make this work canonical. (pp. 42-3)
Hollander is a restless and very varied poet, and many readers prefer him as a satirist, or as a comic writer, or in poems of ironic self-reflection. This selected volume gives much of its space to those modes, as well as to shaped poems and to philosophical meditations…. The poems that I urge upon new readers, besides "Spectral Emanations" and "The Head of the Bed," would include "On the Calendar," "Tales Told of the Fathers," "Mount Blank," "The Night Mirror," "Under Cancer," the versions of the Yiddish poet Halpern, "Ad Musam," and "From the Ramble." But there are many more nearly as good, and my sensibility is narrower than Hollander's. What this volume brings us is another poet as vital and accomplished as Ammons, Merrill, Merwin, Ashbery, James Wright, an immense augmentation to what is clearly a group of major poets…. (p. 43)
Harold Bloom, "Books Considered: 'Spectral Emanations: New and Selected Poems'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1978 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 179, No. 11, September 9, 1978, pp. 42-3.
"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 project—a project by which the imagination will create a poem in lieu of a lamp—to seven poets.
In effect, Hollander is these seven poets in one, and in "Spectral Emanations" he has written a poem in seven parts, one for each color, each of which is, to a different degree, political because it provokes the doubt that any one mode of consciousness or state of being or "color band" can be exclusive of any other.
This is a matter central to all of Hollander's work, and is responsible for his now being, to my mind, the most intellectually daring, poignant, and thrilling poet writing in the Emersonian tradition of our poetry. He is passionately absorbed in the transitional, what Emerson called the "vehicular" nature of substantial things….
With its sense of the transitional, of crossed boundaries, Hollander's poetry never indulges in the contemporary taste for fragmentation. As his critical writings alone would suggest, he is a master of classical and English forms; he can do a poem like "Fireworks" in strict Pindaric triads or a book length sequence like Reflections on Espionage, the unflaggingly brilliant and haunting book that preceded this one, in the hendecasyllabics favored by Catullus. He is forever playful about forms. There are included here six pieces from Types of Shape—one in the form of a car key, another of a light bulb—which are a delight to eye and ear. He is a formalist but a decidedly witty one. The changes that can be worked within form are made incumbent upon the discovery that any form is implicitly a substitute for or an interpretation of some other. Any form exists in the shadow of some other, and is on the verge sometimes of eliding into it; and the more you are aware—as Hollander asks you to be—of the form even of particular words, the more they are on the brink of those puns into which he sometimes lets them drop.
It is also crucial to any appreciation of Hollander's demonstrably major achievement that his sense of losses, deprivations, and transformations is never satiric in a distancing or disdainful way. His satiric manner is meditative, affectionate, and, above all, self-questioning. His is, in fact, a more radical self-questioning than any found in the confessional poetry, so called, of these times. Hollander escapes the limits of confessional poetry because he will not imagine the self—his or any other—in isolation, as a "substantive," to recall [William] James, deprived of the relational and blurring effects of "and" and "if," of "but" and "by."
He suffers as true poets often do, not because he centralizes himself, as a confessional poet would, but because he does not and will not. Instead he finds himself, culpably, in everything, including responsibilities for loss. Thereby we are given the extraordinarily moving conclusion to the new "Collected Novels," in which the speaker has been going over, with the woman he loves, some imaginary novels that might have been written while they were together….
Form in Hollander is inextricable from visionary experience, from seeing things within a mode that can be shared because it is in part inherited and in part the result of some common pursuit, some corporate enterprise. The price is a necessary pain of complicity in the labors of composition, whether in the making of love or the making of poetry. Things are "safe for the heart because unenvisioned," he writes in "From the Ramble," and it is his human and poetic accomplishment, one of the very highest order, not to be satisfied with that kind of safety.
Richard Poirier, "Crossing Poetic Boundaries," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1978, The Washington Post), December 17, 1978, p. E5.
[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 comes to an end it closes in on itself, hiding its meanings and their relationship to the world. It is a form of literary narcissism; not surprisingly the wine 'broods on its own sleep' just as—elsewhere—a sunset is 'absorbed in itself' and clouds 'read their own shadows'. (p. 311)
Andrew Motion, "In Retreat," in New Statesman (© 1979 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 98, No. 2527, August 31, 1979, pp. 311-12.∗
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 out more fully informed than when we went in. (pp. 443-44)
Richmond Lattimore, "Reviews: 'Blue Wine'," in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1979 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXII, No. 3, Autumn, 1979, pp. 443-44.
[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, subtlety of intelligence, control of imagery and prose rhythm, they are very fine, a grand pleasure to read. "In Place of Place" is a philosophical and poetic meditation well worth serious philosophical as well as poetic attention (whether or not its author will keep its distinctions and beliefs for five minutes or two separate poems). As it ends, it sounds theistic, earned, and composed. (p. 690)
Paul Ramsey, "Lyric—Ways We Walk Now: American Poetry in 1978," in The Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1979 by The University of the South), Vol. LXXXVII, No. 4, Fall, 1979, pp. 686-92.∗
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."
The poems that follow are seldom so full of fey humor. Melancholy plays a continuo throughout them. The themes are absence and loss. All roads lead inexorably into darkness, and this is often expressed through Hollander's obsession with dreams and journeys. "The Train," for example, is an extended stream of musings on the conventional associations between journeys and life….
I would guess from the evidence of Blue Wine that John Hollander is now at the crossroads of his own midlife journey, picking out a new direction to follow. (p. 22)
Phoebe Pettingell, "Midlife Journeys," in The New Leader (© 1979 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), Vol. LXII, No. 21, November 5, 1979, pp. 21-2.∗