John Hollander’s death has made a “gap in nature” like Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, and a gap in literature. The author of nineteen books of poems and of seven books of literary criticism, Hollander also wrote a popular handbook of the craft of verse and edited influential anthologies. He was, as well, a legendary teacher, teaching at Connecticut College, Yale, Hunter College and the Graduate Center at CUNY before returning to Yale as a full professor in 1977. He was loaded with honors: the Yale Younger Poets Prize (given by W. H, Auden), the Bollingen Prize, a MacArthur fellowship, the Robert Fitzgerald Prosody Award, the laureateship of Connecticut . . .
These are meager external facts. More to the point: John’s animated and animating erudition was sui generis. So were his eruptive wit, his madcap puns, his deeply instructed passion for music and visual art, his ingenuity in devising poems of intricate shapeliness. Those shapes constantly varied, from Marvellian stanzas to rhyming couplets to sonnets to innumerable playful forms of his own invention, such as the Powers of Thirteen, 169 poems of thirteen lines of thirteen syllables each, and his Types of Shape, a collection of picture poems—a cat, a swan, a cracked Etruscan cup—that meditated poignantly on the very idea of shape. His devotion to music and visual art took many forms. Vision and Resonance (1975), a book of literary criticism, tracked the interplay of musical and visual powers in lyric poetry from the songs-poems of Ancient Greece to modern texts, a work of fundamental and enduring insight into the gloriously hybrid art of poetry. In The Gazer’s Spirit: Poems Speaking to Silent Works of Art (1995), he created a gallery of poems (by others) inspired by works of art, framed by his incandescent commentary and theoretical reflections. The Figure of Echo (1981), another book of criticism that will live long past its pub date, meditated on the deep echo chamber of poetry, its acoustics and myths of allusion and chiming.
Let me give a glimpse of John’s generosity. At the age of twenty, I was painfully shy. I was working hard to become a painter, and almost secretly, I wrote poems. I was an undergraduate at Yale but by a self-imposed rule, I didn’t take English courses (I didn’t want to study with my parents’ friends). The dean of my college showed John some of my poems; he called me; I went to see him. That visit—the first of many—transformed my life. He took the poems seriously, and he gave me the courage to admit that I was possessed as much by poetry as by painting. In a scene I now construe as an emblem of profound instruction and a key to John’s spirit, he gave me two books which I still own and from which I still draw inspiration: Otto Jespersen’s The Growth and Structure of the English Language, and Bruno Snell’s The Discovery of the Mind. However outdated they are in some scholarly ways, what better gift to a young poet than the English language and the discovery of the mind? The conversation we started that day lasted until John’s death.
Some version of this story must have played out countless times, in John’s long life, with countless students. Just as in John’s work criticism and the writing of poetry flowed into one another, and the Renaissance flowed into the present, so did teaching pour forth continuously from the great reservoir of his learning.
John loved shadows, and wrote about them, in various ways, for years. In one of my favorite poems, “August Carving,” from Blue Wine (1979), he makes us see a sculpture:
The stone pair have been making love but that is as nothing:
The he and she celebrate the embrace of light and stone.
Light will fall from them, as from ourselves: they will pass among
Moments of astonishing shadow, then enter the dark,
Coldly, invisibly, forms fractured from their radiance.
The human beings in this poem, warm in their flesh and in their aging, would inevitably, yes, enter the dark. But the stone carving would remain. And John Hollander’s poems and his works of deeply imaginative criticism will certainly remain and retain their radiance as long as we have eyes to see and ears to hear, as long as we care for the treasury of rhythmical speech in English.
Read John Hollander’s “Steep Declension,” first published in the Summer 2007 issue of The Kenyon Review.