John Hollander died last weekend. He was two months shy of his 84th birthday and had been in poor health. We join the many who mourn him. He was the eleventh guest editor in the history of the Best American Poetry series, an obvious choice to take the helm of the 1998 edition. John, who taught at Yale, did so many things, all of them well. He was a poet of exquisite wit and formal prowess; a tireless scholar and critic of rare acumen; a distinguished editor and anthologist, with an extraordinary range that included the whole of American poetry, modern fiction, light verse, satire, and the great flowering of poetry criticism that marked the first two thirds of the twentieth century. (See, for example, Modern Poetry: Essays in Criticism, which John edited for Oxford Universty Press in 1968.) He was a born teacher; Chaucer had him in mind when he wrote, "And gladly wold he lerne, and gladly teche." He is an inspiration and his influence is something we are badly in need of today,
Among his books I have a special fondness for Rhyme's Reason, an indispensable "guide to English verse," in which the poet exemplifies each form or metrical arrangement he defines. Reflections on Espionage, a book-length poem, uses the apparatus of spydom to demarcate the territory of American poetry. Everyone has a code name: Auden is Steampump, Frost is Morose (because it sounds like the Russian word for "frost"), Lake is Elizabeth Bishop ("Lakey" in Mary McCarthy's The Group), Lac is Robert Lowell ("Cal" backwards), Image is James Merrill, and Hollander himself is Cupcake. If spies are poets, each needs a cover -- just as each poet needs to make a living or figure out some other way to subsidize the true work he or she does.
Powers of Thirteen, a stellar sequence of thirteen-line poems, may be my favorite of all of John's poetry collections. When it was published I wrote this in Newsweek (January 23, 1984):
No one has ever doubted John Hollander's poetic virtuosity. As early as his first volume, "A Crackling of Thorns" (1968), his technical mastery and ingenious wordplay were in abundant evidence. There are, however, those who charge that Hollander lets his sheer talent get the better of him; they find him too allusive and elusive, too self-delighting in his poetic conceits. "Powers of Thirteen" doesn't so much vindicate Hollander as show such complaints to be largely beside the point. An audaciously original sonnet sequence that in effect reinvents the rules of the game, "Powers of Thirteen" prove that it's sometimes wise for a poet to exaggerate the very traits in his work that some critics most loudly deplore.
"Ecstasy affords the occasion and expediency determineds the form," wrote Marianne Moore of the genesis of a poem. In Hollander's case, it would be nearer the mark to say that all the occasions of poetry, be they ecstatic or ruminative, public or esoteric, follow from his choice of forms. Here Hollander has fashioned a form remarkable for its rigor -- or, rather, its supple responsiveness to his touch. There are 169 poems in the sequence: exactly 13 to the second power. Verging upon but veering from traditional sonnet structure, each poem contains 13 lines; each line, 13 syllables. These constraints liberate rather than inhibit Hoillander's imagination. The poems' formal design gives the sequence its unity, leaving this most protean of poets free to vary his delivery, his tone, his subject matter -- even his personality.
A flea bite, in a famous poem by John Donne, develops into the occasion for a sexual invitation. In "Powers of Thirteen," poetic logic similarly links apparently disparate phenomena. Among the most engaging poems in the sequence are the 13 that deplore that curious number and everything that it calls to mind, from "triskaidekaphobia" (fear of the number 13) to the "thirteen-tone scale / Of falsifications" and the 13 stripes on Old Glory. One of these poems delineates the flag; the terminal rhymes ring changes on "red" and "white," while stitched into the upper left corner of the poems are six "blue" rhymes, marking off the flag's "changing crew of constellations." In the preceding poem, the fact that there are 13 cards in a suit and as many weeks in a season gives rise to this fusion of metaphors: "Winter wields only the spades, Summer brandishes / Hot, black clubs, Spring showers hearts about and Autumn shows / A fall of diamonds in our climate of extremes." The conceit is anything but gratuitous; it widens into a meditation on paradise lost. In contrast to "our parents in Eden," who were "dealt / The perfect year's full hand of intermingled weeks," we do not enjoy "continual spring and fall." A last pun clinches the case: "Death deals, and cheats with the false promise of final trumps."
Writing in serial form enables Hollander to conceive his work as "a perpetual calendar." Along the way we pause to ponder the anomalies of "May-day," an "inglorious" Fourth of July and Labor Day ("when shirking hardly looks like working / Yet sounds far too much like it"). Investigating the sources of his inspiration, Hollander invokes an all-purpose "you," who stands for any number of "bemused" muses. The subjects treated to these I-thou dialogues range from philosophy to public stauary, from the seasons to erotic desire. Above all else, "Powers of Thirteen" celebrates linguistic possibility, "The power of 'might' that makes us write" -- and the multiplication of metaphors that ensue.
We ran the piece under the heading "Triskaidekaphhilia." -- DL