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John Hollander

By J. D. McClatchy

When they come in the mail from the Academy, those sober little death notices, we have already heard, experienced the shock and the flood of feelings. But the notice gives a certain finality to the news. It comes with the sound of a door being shut. And how inadequate it always is, that thin black-and-white oblong shell you hold up to your ear to listen for the plash and roar of an immense career. The cards always end at the beginning, or one of the beginnings. The last sentence of this one was “Mr. Hollander was elected in Nineteen Hundred Seventy-Nine.” He was fifty years old that year—he was born on October 28th, 1929, the day before the stock market crash, and he had been elected into an Academy which then counted the likes of Georgia O’Keeffe and Andrew Wyeth, Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber, Tennessee Williams and Isaac Bashevis Singer as members.

And an earlier sentence on the card had referred to him as “poet John Hollander,” as if he were like any other, when in fact he helped change the very definition of the term “poet,” and of the phenomenon called “poetry”—that way in which words themselves recreate the world.

He was born in New York City, and loved it all his life—both when he was vividly in the middle of it and, later, at a distance, in his Horatian villa in Connecticut. Before returning to Yale in 1977, he had taught for many years at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of CUNY. As a young poet he wrote about the city’s glittering palaces, its glamorous knights and maidens—that is to say, its movie houses: “the over-painted Moorish ceiling / Whose pinchbeck jazz gleams even in the darkness, calling / The straying eye to feast on it, and glut, then fall / Back to the sterling screen again.” Like Homer and his catalogue of ships, John would tick off the theaters that had introduced him to love and death:

I remember the RKO Colonial; the cheap
Arden and Alden both; Loew’s Lincoln Square’s
bright shape;
The Newsreel; the Mandarin Beacon, resplendently arrayed;
The tiny Seventy-Seventh Street, whose demise I rued
So long ago; … Then north again: the Riverside, the bright
Riviera rubbing elbows with it; and right
Smack on a hundredth street, the Midtown; and the rest
Of them: the Carlton, Edison, Loew’s Olympia.
. . . . These were once the pearls
Of two-and-a-half miles of Broadway! How many have paled
Into a supermarket’s failure of imagination?

He wrote about other knock-ups and calamities on Manhattan’s chock-a-block streets—like going with his classmate Allen Ginsberg to sell his blood for ready cash. Though Columbia and its extraordinary roster of distinguished professors was his singing school, he had long since begun his education. The son of a doctor and a teacher—and his own poetry is nothing if not diagnostic and instructive—he was from the start a prodigious reader, and as he recalled to an interviewer, even in high school he read to educate himself:

“Shaw’s plays and prefaces; then, Mann’s novels, and all of Auden I could find, and a good bit of George Orwell. These were my moral and political tutors, as it were, my teachers of irony and complexity, the authors that so many of my students in 1968 or so hadn’t read. But I think that the great Columbia College Humanities A course from Plato through (in those days) Goethe was a crucial matter for all of us. Having been shown there were truly great books, we could begin to wonder what they could continue to mean. I suppose I needed the modern texts, and teachers, to learn how to learn from the ancient ones. I mean that at the time, I couldn’t know how great poems could teach you anything about how to live. Novels, yes; in college I was learning that Dostoyevsky, James, Proust, George Eliot—as well as novelists as different as Jane Austen and Laclos were major texts for secular moral instruction. We used to think, at any rate, that if you’d read enough French novels, you had no right to whimper, in the middle of some erotic, social, and spiritual catastrophe you’d prepared for yourself, ‘How could this happen to me?'”

He went on to write nineteen books of poems. The first, which gathered poems mostly written when he was around twenty years old, was chosen by W. H. Auden for the Yale Series of Younger Poets in 1958. Even Auden was dazzled by the young poet’s technical command, and his introduction concluded: ”I suppose Mr. Hollander must be called a ‘literary’ poet in the sense that the inhabitants of his poems know more about poetry, particularly poetry of the seventeenth century, than they know about, say, gardening or cooking; and one has the impression that, on returning from a walk, they could tell one more of what they had worried about than of what they had seen. But, after all, why shouldn’t they? Parnassus is a free country. Besides, when the worrier does manage to look at something, he may see what the naturalist would miss.”

John went far beyond those precocious beginnings. Each book staked out new ground and explored it with an eye for nuance, contradiction, and challenge. His book-length series of encrypted poems that pose as exchanges among hapless or expert spies gave espionage a new meaning. His 1978 Spectral Emanations stands as the most significant American Jewish mythmaking in our poetic heritage. He could write poems about anything, and did. Baseball, science, the clarinet, food, washing windows, politics. He wrote shaped poems, erotic poems, double dactyls, poems for children. And though he won all manner of awards and was awarded all manner of positions—from a MacArthur Fellowship and the Bollingen Prize to being named Connecticut’s poet laureate—none of that ever stood in the way of his work. He wrote about paintings, about fear, about his old Latin teacher, about stopwatches, about hope—about the most unlikely and intimate of subjects, and always with a breathtaking virtuosity.

He once described his lifelong task:

“A poet is like someone in a quest story, for whom the end of the journey—finding the treasure, killing the dragon, exploring the cave, rescuing the distressed person from herself, unmasking the powerful deceiver—always results in the discovery of a new sort of task that has never been set before. To most people, it may not even look like a task. The unthinking, active person, the Alexander the Great in us all, cuts the Gordian knot. The natural scientist is us all studies its structure, tries to conjecture the sequence of moves incurred in tying it. The philosopher may ponder the relation between those last two formulations. The poet gazes at the Gordian knot, sees that it is gorgeous, and then wonders what it means.”

The artist Saul Steinberg once said that drawing was his way of thinking on paper. John Hollander’s poems could be described so: ways of thinking on paper. The mind his poems reflect was a broodingly complex and moral one, less given to explaining than exploring with an exuberant wit those “ideas” of selfhood and fictions of “truth” that both constitute and confuse our lives. He could pull an argument through a poem the way the magician who has put a plain handkerchief into his top hat can, after a tap of his wand, pull out an ever-longer scarf of rainbow. Yet one always feels in his poems the confiding rhythms of speech, and often the simple questions and answers of purest feeling. But, of course, it is not their technical panache, their wit or intellectual gusto or probing parables, that make his poems so memorable. It is, finally, Hollander’s mastery of metaphor. That, and his uncanny ability to contain his romantic yearnings within a classical constraint. His poems sound like the lark and the cage, the flame and the taper. And as a critic he was an astonishment, one of our true poet critics in the line from Auden to Eliot and Arnold. No critic since Auden wrote about the workings of poetry with such figural brilliance and speculative panache. His arsenal was mighty: a heady erudition, a quicksilver wit, humane sympathies, a deeply moral imagination. And he brought them all to bear on important matters: how language is brought to life as poetry, and how poems enter into our lives. All of this—the poetry, the criticism, and the mind behind both—made him a teacher of startling effect, many years ago at Connecticut College, at Hunter College, and the Graduate Center of CUNY, and since 1977 at Yale. He helped create and sustain a creative writing program at Yale, and at the same time directed generations of graduate students on their way towards noteworthy academic careers. And somehow, amidst all this, he found the time to edit dozens of books, from the Oxford Anthology of English Literature to Committed to Memory, a book of the best poems to memorize in front of the shaving mirror.

He cherished this Academy, and worked hard in its behalf. He also actually worked with his colleagues here as well. His engagement with the other arts was exemplary. He wrote extensively about the visual arts, and most particularly about the work of William Bailey and Saul Steinberg. (At the artist’s request, John served as the founding president of the Steinberg Foundation.) He wrote texts for musical settings by Milton Babbitt, George Perle, and Hugo Weisgall. He was, in short, an ideal academician. His responsibilities were to both the ancients and the young: to cherish and to teach. He looked to music and to art as a means to see his own task more clearly, and to find new ways to refresh and extend tradition. He had no patience with sham, and was vigorous in his exercise of the moral responsibility all artists have to the way their work lives in the world. I want to conclude by reading a short poem by John. It is one of the simplest he ever wrote, and is based on an old French children’s round-dance, “Nous n’irons plus au bois.” This poem is not at all like the grand, resplendent, myth-making poems that are the crowning achievement of his career, but at its heart is the most complex experience each of us has: remembering love. Love is what John Hollander felt for his calling, for his friends and students, for his daughters and their families, and above all for his devoted wife, the sculptor Natalie Charkow. I am glad they are with us this evening, so that in a small way we can rejoice together in our memories and express to them our love for this remarkable artist and adorable man.

An Old-Fashioned Song

No more walks in the wood:
The trees have all been cut
Down, and where once they stood
Not even a wagon rut
Appears along the path
Low brush is taking over.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters