When I skulk through used bookstores, I scan the spines for books by John Hollander, whose death on August 18 at the age of 83 was overshadowed by the passing of another fine poet whose work sits nearby on the shelves. Hollander got a nice obit in the New York Times, but he deserves a more appreciative sendoff—and many new readers. “[A]s far as endings are concerned,” he once wrote, “One does not begin feasting at dawn, but at sundown.”
Hollander published two dozen collections of his own verse, but far more books with his name on their covers attest to his calling as a sort of poetry evangelist. In addition to the Oxford Anthology of English Literature, he edited collections of poems for children, garden poems, war poems, and countless more. Spend five bucks on, and a long plane ride with with, Committed to Memory: 100 Best Poems to Memorize and you’ll have a sturdier acquaintance with well-known poems than most tuition-soaked English majors.
Last week, one of Hollander’s friends called him “the great explainer,” and that’s his exact role in Rhyme’s Reason, a short, chatty book that takes readers on a tour of common poetic forms and techniques. Hollander was no mere docent; to demonstrate most forms, he provided his own poems. Check out the first few lines from his “Ghazal on Ghazals,” which uses and explains the Persian form:
For couplets the ghazal is prime; at the end
Of each one’s a refrain like a chime: “at the end.”
But in subsequent couplets throughout the whole poem,
It’s the second line only will rhyme at the end.
On a string of such strange, unpronounceable fruits,
How fine the familiar old lime at the end!
Hollander’s ghazal, a favorite of mine, is typical not only of his unfashionable championing of form but also the great fun he has with it. His 1983 book Powers of Thirteen contains 169 poems, each one consisting of 13 unrhymed 13-syllable lines. Types of Shape collects 35 carmina figurata, poems typed out in shapes—a cat, an arrow, the state of New York—to bolster or complement the words.
Some people assume that a love of form is an inherently conservative impulse, but Hollander harumphed. “I don’t know why some people have an ideology about form—’open,’ ‘closed,’ whatever,” he told the Paris Review in 1985; in the introduction to Rhyme’s Reason, he deems everyone else skittish and unadventurous:
In former times, the region of verse was like an inviting, safe municipal park, in which one could play and wander at will. Today, only a narrow border of that park is frequently used (and vandalized), out of fear that there is safety only in that crowded strip—even as the users’ grandparents would cling to walks that went by statues—and out of ignorance of landscape. The beauties of the rest of that park are there, unexplored save by some scholars and often abandoned even by them.
I am old enough to have grown up in the park, and to map a region one loves is a way of caressing it.
Great poems are all fables about life. There are two popular and radically antagonistic views in the world today about what the best literature does. One is that literature is only about itself. The other view is that literature is all about life, and that the more directly it transcribes experience the better it is. These are two views I find equally implausible. I think one of the things about poetry (and certain great fiction would be included in this) is that the whole notion of “aboutness” is peculiar. One of the ways literature is about life is by way of being about itself. Or, to put it better, literature gets to be about life genuinely by taking very great regard of how much it is about itself.
Plenty of goofy writers declare that they “love language,” but Hollander was the real deal:
Let’s put it this way: I don’t take laudanum. I take pains. Actually, what summons up vision and voice from wherever they ordinarily hide is the dangerous charm, the potent magic of language itself. Language and its structures—the alchemy of syntax, the temples and sacred precincts of verse. Solving puzzles of construction that I’ve propounded for myself. Discovering secret doorways and hidden surprising staircases in formal rooms that had been lived in for centuries. Those are what lead to unfoldings for me.
I’ll keep expanding my Hollander collection; whether lucid or murky, each new book is a surprise. How could one poet possess such range, articulate so many voices? The first page of Powers of Thirteen suggests an answer, and a worthy epitaph:
This is neither the time nor the place for singing of
Great persons, wide places, noble things—high times, in short;
[ . . . ]
I do what I am told, and tell what is done to me,
Making but one promise safely hedged in the Poets’
Paradox: I shall say “what was never said before.”