Selected Poetry: John Hollander - Essay

Selected Poetry: John Hollander

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

John Hollander’s first book of poems, A CRACKLING OF THORNS (1958), was chosen by W.H. Auden for the Yale Series of Younger Poets, an honor not wholly unanticipated, since the young poet’s work paid subtle but unmistakable homage to the master. Like Auden’s poetry, Hollander’s work has always been marked by a high degree of literary formalism—complicated verse forms, prose poems, frequent allusions to culture and mythology, puns, ironic twists, and a plentiful supply of wit. But Hollander, the street-wise New Yorker, also injects the occasional bit of street slang and sly references to pop culture. And in every poem one hears a voice that is unfailingly wise, surprisingly vulnerable, and compellingly honest. Hollander’s poems leave the reader with the sense of having shared an intimate conversation with a man of great learning—and great suffering. His artistry consists in the remarkable way he turns his pain into beauty.

SELECTED POETRY contains a generous sampling of Hollander’s best work, including selections from eleven books, beginning with A CRACKLING OF THORNS (1958) and ending with HARP LAKE (1988). One misses only the delightful concrete poems from TYPES OF SHAPE (1969) and the cleverly humorous monologues from REFLECTIONS ON ESPIONAGE (1976). But many often-anthologized poems are here, among them “Blue Wine,” “About the House,” “The Night Mirror,” “Moving-Going,” and “The Great Bear.” Hollander uses the palpable realities of the ordinary world— houses, ponds, stars, movie theaters—as springboards to the spiritual realm of dreams and memories. Every poem is an inner journey, taking the reader to “some place wholly elsewhere.”