In Memoriam: John Hollander
September 3, 2013 | by Jeff Dolven and Lorin Stein
During his five-decade career as a poet, the late John Hollander was a frequent contributor to The Paris Review. He was also renowned as a scholar and critic. Here he is remembered by two former students, our contributor Jeff Dolven and editor Lorin Stein.
John Hollander once told me a story that served him as a kind of ur-scene of explanation. As a boy he was sitting with his father at the breakfast table, and he asked, apropos of nothing he could later recall, “Dad, what is a molecule?” By way of an answer, his father reached into the sugar bowl and lifted out a cube.
“So what is this?” his father asked.
“Sugar,” said John. Next his father set the cube down on the table and rapped it sharply with a teaspoon, so that it broke into coarse crystals.
“And what is it now?”
“Sugar,” said John again.
“Well then,” said his father, “a molecule is the smallest piece of sugar you can get that’s still sugar.” The grown-up John delivered the last sentence like a punchline, laughing and widening his eyes and spreading his hands.
John was a true poet-critic, in whose work poem and essay inform one another and sometimes change places. One mark of their fellow traveling is a shared commitment to the art of explanation. The basic principles of the sugar-cube story are everywhere in his prose, especially in his perpetual delight at the precision and elegance of a good definition. His virtuoso guide to poetic form, Rhyme’s Reason, begins by telling us that “The study of rhetoric distinguishes between tropes, or figures of meaning such as metaphor and metonymy, and schemes, or surface patterns of words. Poetry is a matter of trope; and verse, of scheme or design.” Could it be said in fewer words? Another Hollanderian impulse is expressed here too, his love of taxonomy, dividing a subject into molecular simples. Many of his great essays make their sense of fundamental topics—like the making of refrains, or asking questions in poetry, or answering them—by counting the possibilities. In “Poetic Answers,” an answer can be a fact, a promise, an imperative; it can bring closure, or refuse it; and on and on, with examples drawn from anywhere and everywhere in English poetry.
If you read “Blue Wine,” you’ll see the same mind at work, or at play. (John loved to consider and confuse the two.) The poem got its start on a visit to Saul Steinberg’s house, where he saw a line of curiously labeled, clear bottles arrayed on a window sill, all filled with the same blue liquid. The poem’s root question is, What is that stuff? and each of its eleven sections offers a hypothesis, indeed, several hypotheses. Some “wise old wine people” speculate that it is red in the cask, blue in the light, the opposite of blood; or that it is no particular blue, but the cosmic blue of generality itself. Then again, it may have been made by vintners after a recipe in Plutarch’s lost essay “On Blue Wine.” Or again, perhaps it turned blue in the cask at the laugh of a Zen master, who posed its surprising color to his students as a koan. Or it is German, Das Rheinblau; or French, Château la Tour d’Eau; or Romanian, “the funny old / Half-forgotten Vin Albastru.” And so on: the poem is giddy with is own answers, its self-begetting explanations.
Of course, as Wittgenstein reminds us, in one of John’s favorite aphorisms, all explanations come to an end somewhere. It was important to how he understood his own career that somewhere along the line he turned away from “essayistic speculation” and began to write “less discursively, more puzzlingly”—so he told The Paris Review in 1985. The explanations, like many in “Blue Wine,” become as likely to be questions of their own. But the desire to explain—almost compulsive, a motor for so many poems—stayed with him, even if he sometimes chose to stop somewhere short of the final, molecular (not to say atomic) simplicity, or of the blue clarity of daylight. As generations of his students know, that compulsion animated him as a teacher too, a vocation tangled up with John the poet and John the critic just as much as they were with one another. I was one of his students, as an undergraduate learning versification (the same class that Lorin took), as a graduate student writing about Spenser, and as an occasional ephebe on the telephone ever since. I learned more than I can myself explain.
Another of John’s favorite definitions was to say of a joke that it was “a short oral fiction with a punchline.” I always assumed the definition was itself a joke, since it so egregiously postponed the answer. (So what is a punchline?) But I never tried to call him on it. We worry about explaining jokes away, as we worry about explaining poems away. John courted that danger, assiduously, and anyone who doesn’t like his poetry—some find it too learned, too self-conscious—probably thinks it explains itself too much or too well. But he is the great modern poet of the problem of how much to say and when to stop, and what to do after that; of when to rest easy with what we think we know and when to keep going. An explanation for him was never merely an improvement in our state of acquaintance with the world. It was a jolt, a high, and it might leave something lasting behind (that would be knowledge, and he did love knowledge), but the prospect of lasting was not what made him laugh and widen his eyes and spread his hands. No: an explanation is a punchline. What a punchline is, however, we now have to ask someone else, or ourselves. All explanations come to an end somewhere. —Jeff Dolven
At Yale, when I was an undergraduate, John Hollander was famous for knowing pretty much everything. Even the most senior faculty seemed his junior in learning: if you asked Harold Bloom a textual question, he would refer you to “Uncle John.” Hollander’s erudition was not confined to literature. He loved music, history, politics, theater, film, painting. I was told that he served one institution as a wine consultant. I took his seminar on ekphrasis (the art of describing artworks), his seminar in verse composition, and a tutorial in American poetry. I wrote a thesis under his direction, and my first (and last) academic article. Only once did I bring an old poem to his attention. It was a juvenile sonnet by Mallarmé: I might as well have discovered a star.
Hollander sent me home, the summer after my freshman year, with a simple reading list: The Oxford Anthology of British Literature, volumes one and two. This wasn’t exactly a personal recommendation, but it became personal to me, because Hollander had helped edit the anthology, and—over its four thousand pages—I learned to recognize his voice in the annotations, or thought I did. There’s no way I understood, or really enjoyed, much of what I read, but I remember that as one of the happiest summers of my life, because I had found an adult who believed, not in me particularly, but in my education. “In September,” Hollander told me, “come to my office and I’ll try to keep you from wasting your time.”
To study with Hollander could be punishing, not because he bothered to punish his students (beyond shouting “NO! NO! NO!” if, for example, you misidentified a passage of Eliot as Pound—he couldn’t help that). The punishment was one’s feeling that he lived more because he knew more, and was always learning more, so you would never catch up. Once, as a sophomore, I stumbled into a private lesson he was taking in Swahili. To get over the fact that one would never become like Professor Hollander was a lesson in itself.
He was pained—incredulous—at the things we hadn’t read or seen (“You haven’t seen DUCK SOUP?” “You don’t know KRAPP’S LAST TAPE?”). Real confusion, though, brought out his gentle side. Once as a freshman I asked him whether unstressed line endings were inherently sad (he had just given us part of “Little Gidding” to read in class, the lines beginning “In the uncertain hour before the morning”), and he answered the question very carefully and respectfully. Later, when I read Saussure, I realized that he had prepared me to understand the arbitrariness of the sign.
That feeling—of having been prepared—still comes to me when I read a difficult text or stand before an artwork. Jeff has mentioned Hollander’s affinity for Wittgenstein; Hollander taught us to think of poems in terms of “games,” “jokes,” “moves”—then said everything he’d taught us about poems applied to fiction too. (And paintings, I later realized. And songs. And so on.)
When I first went to Venice, with my friend Jasmit, Hollander wrote down everything we should see and everywhere we should eat, and what we should order.
He loved to question false dichotomies—between formal and free verse, for example, or close reading and deconstruction, or sincerity and wit. He said there was no necessary distinction between “serious” and “funny.” (Their opposites were “frivolous” and “solemn.”) He taught us that the inscription on the base of the Statue of Liberty was a great poem. He included folksongs and Indian chants in his two-volume Anthology of Nineteenth-Century American Poetry.
He taught the importance of reading out loud as a tool of interpretation. I spent a semester memorizing long poems and reciting them, one per week, in his office—then presenting him with a short paper on what in the poem was difficult to remember, and why.
Speaking to students, he had trouble making eye contact and often looked at the floor or his hands, but when he passed a dog on the street he would bend down to say hello. He loved cats too, and collected a book of poems and stories about them. (He was a mentor to the animal trainer-philosopher Vicki Hearne.) His poems, many of them, are concerned with the philosophy of language—but if you were young what you noticed were the elements of fantasy. He wrote a satiric volume in the form of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and a book of erotic sonnets; he escaped into his poems as if they were the Arabian Nights. He loved to revive, in his own verse, the settings of old poems: gardens or woodlands. Many of his poems were about the locus amoenus, the mythical “good place.”
(About was a word he taught us to mistrust.)
In public he could be bumptious. Sometimes I wished, after I left college, that he wouldn’t pick so many fights over matters of taste. To his students, though, he preached a virtue he called “intellectual tact.” It meant knowing what sort of question to ask of a difficult text. It meant playing along, imagining your way into sympathy with the invisible speaker. (Hollander on Empson: “But what would it mean for someone to say, ‘Poise of my hands reminded me of yours’?”)
Once Hollander overheard a weak student confess, with embarrassment, that he had been known as “the poet” in high school. Hollander: “But there was respect in it.” It was serious and funny, and none of us laughed. —Lorin Stein
What can a teacher actually do to help one learn to be a poet?
What a teacher can do is point out to you that things you’re doing when you read or listen or think about language, even though they may seem very weird to you and you may suppress them, are not mistakes, are the right thing to be doing. I discover now that a lot of things I did with language and even visual things in childhood, and that I was ashamed of because grown-ups didn’t do them, were a sort of primitive art.
The delight I took, for example, in Central Park’s Shakespeare Garden, that was planted with all the herbs mentioned in the plays. I used to wander through that, and it was the first sense I’d ever had of a complicated garden design, and I used to love to walk through it, along twisting paths, and come out on a little bridge across a tiny stream, then walk back into foliage and cross the stream again by another bridge and look at the first bridge I’d crossed. The scale of this was very small, but I loved its connections. I knew I could never talk about this to a grown-up, who would think it ridiculous. It was only much later, when I was bowed under the weight of learning, that I realized the European nobility from the fifteenth through the late eighteenth centuries had spent vast amounts of money in order to build for their delight those structures of variegated, differentiated internal and external space—something in my enlightened education I’d been taught to neglect. My parents used the word “modern,” when referring to art and architecture, as a caressing term. In those days one had to admire clean, modern lines, no Victorian gingerbread.
A good teacher would have been able to relax those strictures.
Precisely. Good teachers in fact did that, by reminding one that the mistakes one made in childhood—the idea, say, that one thought things were alike because the words that named them rhymed—are part of doing something right, not something wrong.