John Hollander: An Appreciation

Only as I paste in his photo, do I realize: I never actually met John Hollander. That's a punch in the gut, a regret. Because he is in my DNA as a writer. When I was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, I took a course on poetic forms with Stephen Cushman, who had himself taken a course on forms with John Hollander while a graduate student at Yale. We studied Hollander's nimble articulations of iambs and sonnets; for the first time I really got the difference between a dactyl and an anapest, and scansion became a language I could speak. I loved the idea that the formal qualities of a poem, if handled with knowing intent, could offer clues to interpretation and an organic rhetoric--with the qualities of conflict, compromise, closure--apart from explicit text. My left-brain self, which had once thrived on the studies of mathematics and science, was engaged for the first time. I abandoned my fixation on a "practical" life course, e.g. law school, to the goal of becoming a writer. 

So I looked for MFA programs that heeded form and world traditions, which brought me to American University, and Washington, DC. I took a full-time job at the Phi Beta Kappa Society's national headquarters to cover tuition and living expenses, and discovered that Hollander was one of the judges for a book prize I administered. When I came on board, all of the first-round reads were already sent out--except, I realized, a book that had been misfiled under the award for poetry (creative) versus poetry (criticism). I leafed through the book, thought "This looks substantial," and pleaded with my supervisor that it should be considered. She said, OK--if I could convince a judge to take on an extra book. That judge turned out to be John Hollander ("talk poet to poet," I steeled myself before asking him) and the book, Susan Stewart's Poetry and the Fate of the Senses, went on to win the 2003 Christian Gauss Award for Literary Criticism. One of my earliest lessons that even when you're an underling, paying attention and speaking up can change the course of events. 

Of course, as any administrator will attest, some of our exchanges were less fruitful. I once had to plead with him to turn in some overdue reader reports. He responded by saying the books in question had been delivered to his mailbox at the end of his driveway, but his driveway was long and very icy, and did I want him breaking a bone in the name of Phi Beta Kappa? His voice was kind in phone calls, but reserved.  

All the while I was driving to AU three times a week for class, where my principle mentor was Henry Taylor--who I had first sought out as an overzealous UVA first year, looking to interview a poet for my underground lit mag. At the time he was on a clerihew kick. We'd talked for hours, then stayed in touch; he recommended me for a fellowship, and then on the first day of classes he told me he was retiring. Ooof. He stayed around until my thesis was complete, and we segued to "independent study," which meant sitting in his office talking (a little bit of) poetry and telling (a whole lot of) stories. Which is how I heard about the time he arrived at a literary conference and, because he could, adopted the name tag of...John Hollander. And attended the party accordingly, making conversation, answering questions. This would have been back in Henry's drinking days, and I don't think Dr. Hollander appreciated the homage. But I was delighted by the tale--a humanizing lesson that even great scholars could be pranksters, and could be pranked. In those AU office days Henry also workshopped my Chronic Medea sonnet sequence, and played matchmaker between me and the sestina. In all the important ways, Dr. Hollander, he carried on your values. 

Now, when I teach--before I consider any other craft book for the syllabus--I use John Hollander's Rhyme's Reason. No other book is so deft and concise in demonstrating principles of sound, line, and meter. It's benzedrine for form-lovers. Consider this effortless example:

"A line can be end-stopped, just like this one,
Or it can show enjambment, just like this
One, where the sense straddles two lines: you feel
As if from shore you'd stepped into a boat;"

Or this:

"Milton and Wordsworth made the sonnet sound
Again in a new way; not with the sighs
Of witty passion, where fierce reason lies
Entombed in end-stopped lines, or tightly bound
In chains of quatrain: more like something found
Than built--a smooth stone on a sandy rise,
A drop of dew secreted from the sky's
Altitude, unpartitioned, whole and round.
The octave's over; now, gently defying
Its opening tone, the sestet then recalls
Old rhythms and old thoughts, enjambed, half-heard
As verses in themselves. The final word,
Five lines way from what it rhymes with, falls
Off into silence, like an echo dying."

I'll be honest: Rhyme's Reason is rarely the students' favorite part of the semester. For most of them, his didactic exercises go down like cough syrup, his jokes seem contrived, his tastes old-fashioned. They're only too happy to scoot along to free verse and talking about what the poem means to them. But there's always one or two who perk up--who appreciate, like I did in college, that intensity of wit and those acrobatics of language, and who embrace that poetry can have both objective and subjective qualities. For those one or two students, he's a revelation. The lineage continues.

Rest in peace, John Hollander. You were a brilliant scholar. You shaped my ear, and my sensibility (and many more than me, more than a simplistic head-count of "formalists" would describe). Yet you were also a real person in the real world, and that helped me envision a future where I, too, could be a real poet. I am so grateful.