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John Hollander


John Hollander was born in New York City on October 28, 1929. He attended Columbia University and Indiana University, and was a Junior Fellow of the Society of Fellows of Harvard University.

He was the author of more than a dozen volumes of poetry, including Picture Window (Alfred A. Knopf, 2003), Figurehead: And Other Poems (Alfred A. Knopf, 1999), Tesserae (Alfred A. Knopf, 1993), Selected Poetry (Afred A. Knopf, 1993), Harp Lake (Alfred A. Knopf, 1988), Powers of Thirteen (Atheneum, 1983), Spectral Emanations (Atheneum, 1978), Types of Shape (Yale University Press, 1969), and A Crackling of Thorns (Literary Licensing, 1958), which was chosen by W. H. Auden for the Yale Series of Younger Poets.

His seven books of criticism include Rhyme's Reason: A Guide to English Verse (Yale University Press, 1981) and The Figure of Echo: A Mode of Allusion in Milton and After (University of California Press, 1981). He also edited numerous books, among them Committed to Memory: 100 Best Poems to Memorize (Turtle Point Press, 1996), which was published in partnership with the Academy of American Poets, and The Library of America's two-volume anthology Nineteenth Century American Poetry (1993). He was coeditor of The Oxford Anthology of English Literature (Oxford University Press, 1973).

In addition, Hollander wrote books for children and collaborated on operatic and lyric works with such composers as Milton Babbitt, George Perle, and Hugo Weisgall.

About his early work, the critic Harold Bloom said, "Hollander's expressive range and direct emotional power attain triumphant expression. I am moved to claim for these poems a vital place in that new Expressionistic mode that begins to sound like the poetry of the Seventies that matters, and that will survive us."

Hollander's many honors included the Bollingen Prize, the Levinson Prize, and the MLA Shaughnessy Medal, as well as fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

A former Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and former poet laureate of Connecticut, he taught at Connecticut College, Hunter College, the City University of New York Graduate Center, and Yale University, where he was the Sterling Professor emeritus of English. He died on August 17, 2013.

Selected Bibliography

Picture Window (Alfred A. Knopf, 2003)
Figurehead: And Other Poems (Alfred A. Knopf, 1999)
Tesserae (Alfred A. Knopf, 1993)
Selected Poetry (Afred A. Knopf, 1993)
Harp Lake (Alfred A. Knopf, 1988)
Powers of Thirteen (Atheneum, 1983)
Spectral Emanations (Atheneum, 1978)
Types of Shape (Yale University Press, 1969)
A Crackling of Thorns (Literary Licensing, 1958)

Rhyme's Reason: A Guide to English Verse (Yale University Press, 1981)
The Figure of Echo: A Mode of Allusion in Milton and After (University of California Press, 1981)
Vision and Resonance: Two Senses of Poetic Form (Oxford University Press, 1975)
Modern Poetry: Essays in Criticism (Oxford University Press, 1968)
The Untuning of the Sky: Ideas of Music in English Poetry, 1500–1700 (Princeton University Press, 1961)

John Hollander
Photo credit: Sara Barrett

By This Poet


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.

No more walks in the wood;
This is the aftermath
Of afternoons in the clover
Fields where we once made love
Then wandered home together
Where the trees arched above,
Where we made our own weather
When branches were the sky.
Now they are gone for good,
And you, for ill, and I
Am only a passer-by.

We and the trees and the way
Back from the fields of play
Lasted as long as we could.
No more walks in the wood.

Late August on the Lido

To lie on these beaches for another summer
Would not become them at all,
And yet the water and her sands will suffer
When, in the fall,
These golden children will be taken from her.

It is not the gold they bring: enough of that
Has shone in the water for ages
And in the bright theater of Venice at their backs;
But the final stages
Of all those afternoons when they played and sat

And waited for a beckoning wind to blow them
Back over the water again
Are scenes most necessary to this ocean.
What actors then
Will play when these disperse from the sand below them?

All this over until, perhaps, next spring;
This last afternoon must be pleasing.
Europe, Europe is over, but they lie here still,
While the wind, increasing,
Sands teeth, sands eyes, sands taste, sands everything.

The Mad Potter

Now at the turn of the year this coil of clay
Bites its own tail: a New Year starts to choke
On the old one's ragged end.  I bite my tongue
As the end of me—of my rope of stuff and nonsense
(The nonsense held, it was the stuff that broke),
Of bones and light, of levity and crime,
Of reddish clay and hope—still bides its time.

Each of my pots is quite unusable,
Even for contemplating as an object
Of gross unuse.  In its own mode of being
Useless, though, each of them remains unique,
Subject to nothing, and themselves unseeing,
Stronger by virtue of what makes them weak.

I pound at all my clay.  I pound the air.
This senseless lump, slapped into something like
Something, sits bound around by my despair.
For even as the great Creator's free
Hand shapes the forms of life, so—what?  This pot,
Unhollowed solid, too full of itself,
Runneth over with incapacity.
I put it with the others on the shelf.

These tiny cups will each provide one sip
Of what's inside them, aphoristic prose
Unwilling, like full arguments, to make
Its points, then join them in extended lines
Like long draughts from the bowl of a deep lake.
The honey of knowledge, like my milky slip,
Firms slowly up against what merely flows.

Some of my older pieces bore inscriptions
That told a story only when you'd learned
How not to read them: LIVE reverted to EVIL,
EROS kept running backwards into SORE.
Their words, all fired up for truth, got burned.
I'll not write on weak vessels any more.

My juvenalia?  I gave them names
In those days: Hans was all handles and no spout;
Bernie believed the whole world turned about
Himself alone; Sadie was close to James
(But Herman touched her bottom when he could);
Paul fell to pieces; Peter wore away
To nothing; Len was never any good;
Alf was a flat, random pancake, May
An opened blossom; Bud was an ash-tray.
Even their names break off, though; Whatsisface,
That death-mask of Desire, and—you know!—
The smaller version of that (Oh, what was it?—
You know . . .)  All of my pots now have to go
By number only.  Which is no disgrace.

Begin with being—in an anagram
Of unending—conclude in some dark den;
This is no matter.  What I've been, I am:
What I will be is what I make of all
This clay, this moment. Now begin again . . .
Poured out of emptiness, drop by slow drop,
I start up at the quarreling sounds of water.
Pots cry out silently at me to stop.

What are we like? A barrelfull of this
Oozy wet substance, shadow-crammed, whose smudges
Of darkness lurk within but rise to kiss
The fingers that disturb the gently edges
Of their bland world of shapelessness and bliss.

The half-formed cup cries out in agony,
The lump of clay suffers a silent pain.
I heard the cup, though, full of feeling, say
"O clay be true, O clay keep constant to
Your need to take, again and once again,
This pounding from your mad creator who
Only stops hurting when he's hurting you."

What will I then have left behind me?  Over
The years I have originated some
Glazes that wear away at what they cover
And weep for what they never can become.
My Deadware, widely imitated; blue
Skyware of an amazing lightness; tired
Hopewear that I abandoned for my own
Good reasons; Hereware; Thereware; ware that grew
Weary of everything that earth desired;
Hellware that dances while it's being fired,
Noware that vanishes while being thrown.

Appearing to be silly, wisdom survives
Like tribes of superseded gods who go
Hiding in caves of triviality
From which they laughingly control our lives.
So with my useless pots: safe from the blow
Of carelessness, or outrage at their flaws,
They brave time's lion and his smashing paws.
—All of which tempts intelligence to call
Pure uselessness one more commodity.
The Good-for-Nothing once became our Hero,
But images of him, laid-back, carelessly
Laughing, were upright statues after all.
From straight above, each cup adds up to zero.

Clay to clay: Soon I shall indeed become
Dumb as these solid cups of hardened mud
(Dull terra cruda colored like our blood);
Meanwhile the slap and thump of palm and thumb
On wet mis-shapenness begins to hum
With meaning that was silent for so long.
The words of my wheel's turning come to ring
Truer than Truth itself does, my great 
Ding Dong-an-sich that echoes everything
(Against it even lovely bells ring wrong):
Its whole voice gathers up the purest parts
Of all our speech, the vowels of the earth,
The aspirations of our hopeful hearts
Or the prophetic sibilance of song.

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