John Hollander died this past Saturday, at the age of 83. Many people, who knew him far better than I, have written and will write about John, his accomplishments and contributions to the world of arts and letters, in deeper and wiser ways than I ever could. So I'm going to skip that, offering instead a small story about shooting donkeys for rhetorical purposes. And about how John accidentally taught me what art is.
I've written here before about my first encounter with John at the Sewanee Writers' Conference in 2005. Having come from a rather argument-forward family myself (some of us were lawyers. Some of us were dedicated Black Sheep. Some of us were just Danish.) I was used to "argument" and known for being able to hold my own, but nothing could have truly prepared me for John.
John Hollander was a know-it-all. Literally. I mean, the man knew everything. About everything. He was passionate about knowing things, about truth, about connection -- and woe betide you if you weren't and ended up seated next to him at dinner. Though our acquaintence was short, I'm guessing that most people who knew him would confirm that that he was strongly disinclined to ever let drop an opportunity to enlighten someone. On any subject. At any time. He was relentless, and could be combative. Being wrong in front of John didn't feel good. I'm neither uneducated nor a shrinking violet. But running into Hollander on campus usually set off alarm bells in my vasovagal area. I knew I was about to be told how utterly wrong I was about something. I knew I was going to be found wanting for the poems I had never read, the terminology I didn't know, the languages I couldn't speak. Any encounter with him was likely to turn into a chess game in which he was Bobby Fischer and the best I could do was note that the therm "checkmate" came from the Persian "Shah mat" -- "The King Is Dead." And by the way... he knew that already.
John talked a lot. He was as witty as he was argumentative, tenacious to a degree that would cause a pit bull to hang its head in shame. He had a great gift for oratory and rhetoric and a steel-trap memory. He delighted in a good debate, especially the part where he got to mop the floor with you.
Okay, in a poetry workshop this can be.... counterproductive, as it can limit multi-voice discourse and occasionally causes someone to snap their pen in half and leave in tears. He frustrated several conferees in our group -- outraged a fair few, in fact. He did not care. There was KNOWING SOMETHING on the line and John was Knowing Something's personal Knight Templar.
When one of my own poems came up at the workshop table, I just braced for impact. Only that morning I'd made John despair for my soul because I'd been unable to recite Frost's "Design" on the spot when we'd been walking across a lawn and he'd delightedly noticed a mourning cloak butterfly on a morning glory and gone off on a rhapsody about solecism and trope. I meekly volunteered that morning glories were heliotropes, but that wasn't John's point. Anyway, the poem on the table was on the baroque side and I suspected a thrashing was iminent. And indeed, one of my fellow poets immediately set to complaining about how my clumsy syllabics caused the poem to feel hopelessly overwritten.
I tried to make myself as physically small as possible. John got halfway out of his seat and looked over his glasses at her, frowning. I waited for the "EXACTLY," followed by a long and detailed bemoaning of the ignorance my piece displayed.
Instead, he roared: "Syllabics?! Young lady, these are PERFECT alexandrines!"
Wait. They were? (Note to self: look up "alexandrine" before dinner.)
She valiantly tried to stand her ground but John wouldn't have it, and the floor of the Torian Room was duly polished. By the time we moved on I think several people were breaking out in a sweat -- I know I was.
Later that evening at a cocktail event I found myself nose to nose with him over a bowl of artichoke dip and, struggling for words, said something dumb to the effect of "Thanks for getting my back in there today."
"I mean -- I appreciated that you... defended me."
John backed up a step, drew himself up and poked an index finger vigorously at the air near his ear. "AHA! No. You see, I did not defend you. I defended your POSITION. Which I am certain you would agree is superior."
If you know me in person you'll appreciate the magnitude of the fact that I was at a complete loss for words. I couldn't even thank the man without getting corrected? Did he EVER give it a rest? I stared at him, my mouth opening and closing in an unfortunately carp-like manner, and then something about the expression in his eyes just stopped me. It was -- and I don't think I am imagining this -- a pleading look. I suddenly saw that this man wasn't trying to be tough on anyone or show off his admittedly formidable mental faculties. It was a very keen desire to be precisely heard and precisely understood, to get other people to love truth and accuracy as much as he did. Ironically it sometimes made him difficult to listen to. But he had chosen Knowing Stuff and Making Sure Other People Knew It over diplomacy, over being socially facile -- over everything. It struck me that that could probably be a rough neighborhood to live in. I mean, a person could get really stuck in there.
No wonder he wrote the way he did, with such formidable intellectual and technical precision. I mean, what if HE got something wrong? Failed to grok the reference? Missed the joke? Mistook a trope for a solecism or an argument for a tautology? What then?
We stared at each other for a minute, during which I found myself thinking, out of nowhere, "Wait. To the extent that poetry, or art generally, can really be defined, couldn't one... argue... that art is siezed opportunity arising from constraint? And if that's the case... well basically, this man is the embodiment of constraint, as everyone realizes the second they try to finish a sentence in workshop. And for this we are incredibly fortunate. He is an immense opportunity."
John Hollander refused to simply say "you're welcome" when I said "thank you," and it redefined my understanding of how and why I write, why I am doggedly attached to form and rhyme and prosidic frippery no matter how unhip it is. John was generous with me -- he gave wonderful critiques, sound advice, offered to read and vet the accuracy of historical details in a novel I was writing that was set in 1950s New York -- and left me with a horrible visual of donkeys being shot in a lengthy and vigorous rhetorical spelunking expedition into the terribly-misunderstood but critical difference between "accident" and "error."
But that moment, the one where he finally just got on my last nerve because I couldn't even thank him without being corrected -- that's the memory I have of him that will never, ever go away.
"This artichoke dip is excellent," he said to me suddenly, and grinned.
I thought the artichoke dip was really Just Okay, and was about to say so, and then I realized I was about to let John argue me into the earth's molten core over the virtues of an appetizer.
"I agree that it is superior," I answered, and grinned back.
For the record: there are two donkeys in a field, one of which is mine, and one of which is John's. If I, attempting to kill my donkey, aim, shoot and then realize upon inspection that it was John's donkey I shot, that would be mistake. If I aim and, in the time before I shoot, I don't notice that my donkey has moved out of range and John's into it, then I have killed John's donkey by accident.
John Hollander was tireless in his dedication to shooting down Accident (and Mistake) -- he would level a rhetorical firearm at anyone who didn't make an effort not to be... well, an ass. He leaves behind a large, erudite, fascinating body of work, and a cavernous silence. He raised the bar for me in ways I doubt he ever knew, but I hope he understood, as he seemed to understand just about everything, that when I said "thank you," that was precisely what I meant.
“Strictly speaking” (he then insisted) “these are not –“
(Whatever they were). But when do we ordinarily speak
Strictly: even, say, “I love you” qualifies itself
Always somehow in quotes, like a hedged cliché,
And not only a cliché when it’s intended to be
That overdone vulgar lie: otherwise – when it’s uttered
Expressively, in the deep conviction that nobody else
Had ever felt quite this way before, a report sadly shattered
By the dumb old words that everyone – liars and airheads and kids –
Eventually must resort to: “I love you,” the Leveler.
These days to be truly lofty takes a stunt of flying,
Playing slow and loose with the language we’ve been given.
Acute as we have, and get, to be, we conclude in nothing
But grave accentuations cut in the rind of the earth.
Amy Glynn Greacen's poems and prose appear in The New Criterion, Orion, Southwest Review, New England Review and elsewhere. She was a fall 2012 writer in residence at the James Merrill House in Stonington, CT. Her poems have been included in The Best American Poetry 2010 and The Best American Poetry 2012.