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Rest in Peace, John Hollander

By Harriet Staff


New York Times reports that John Hollander passed away this weekend. Hollander was the author of over twenty books of poetry, tens of books about poetry as well as the editor of a number of poetry anthologies over the course of his lifetime.

“In a general sense, I was writing in a line of wit, and of essayistic speculation, when I was young,” he told The Paris Review. “Still under Auden’s influence, I wanted to be read by philosophers and scientists and political theorists, not just by literary readers.”

In a well-known early poem, “The Great Bear,” a children’s outing to gaze at the night sky provokes an inquiry into meaning and chaos. Mr. Hollander incorporated quasi-reportorial material in “Movie-Going and Other Poems” (1962) and “Visions From the Ramble,” which included autobiographical glimpses of the fireworks at the 1939 World’s Fair and tributes to the old Broadway movie palaces that the author haunted in his youth.

In “Types of Shape” (1969) Mr. Hollander harked back to the emblem poetry of the 17th century, writing in forms that, when set on the page, looked like objects: a light bulb, say, or an Eskimo Pie.

Mr. Hollander later dismissed his earlier poetry as “verse essay” or “epigram literature.” With “The Night Mirror” and “Tales Told of the Fathers” (1975) he took the grand, sweeping turn that led to his mature style as a prophetic, mythmaking poet in the High Romantic tradition.

“I began to write less discursively, more puzzlingly, I suppose less wittily,” he told The Paris Review. “My voice is still the same, but it doesn’t expound in verse nowadays — it rather murmurs or chants or sometimes mutters, meditatively and privately.”

The private meditation sometimes bordered on the hermetic. The recondite allusiveness and seeming opacity of his newer work frustrated or even annoyed some critics. The poet Paul Zweig, dismissing Mr. Hollander as “a virtuoso without a subject matter” in a review of “The Night Mirror” for The New York Times Book Review, complained, “The language soars in complicated trills, but in the end it becomes clear that no secrets are being told.”

Such critics found relief in the unusually direct “In Time and Place” (1986), a mixture of quatrains and prose poems that begins with 34 verses written in the stanza form used by Tennyson in “In Memoriam,” whose themes of loss and change it shares.

Others regarded Mr. Hollander as one of the most powerful voices and daring imaginations in postwar American poetry. Richard Poirier, writing in The Washington Post in 1978, called him “the most intellectually daring, poignant, and thrilling poet writing in the Emersonian tradition of our poetry.”

Harold Bloom, an ardent champion of the later poetry, praised “Spectral Emanations” as “somber American Jewish mythmaking,” and, in an extended essay on the poem for The Kenyon Review in 1984, called it “one of the central achievements of his generation,” equal to the long poems of James Merrill, John Ashbery and A. R. Ammons.

Mr. Hollander’s later collections included “Harp Lake” (1988), “Tesserae” (1993) and “A Draft of Light” (2008). He also edited the two-volume collection “American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century” (1993) for the Library of America.

“His mind was singularly capacious, filled with baseball statistics, detective novels, mathematical formulas, vintage wines, German hymns, you name it,” Mr. McClatchy wrote. “It is said of a man like John Hollander that when he dies it is like the burning of the library at Alexandria.”

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Posted in Poetry News on Monday, August 19th, 2013 by Harriet Staff.