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John Hollander
A Draft of Light: Poems
reviewed by
Alex Lewis
Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2008, 109 pages.

This review is about 7 printed pages long. It is copyright © Alex Lewis and Jacket magazine 2009.
See our [»»] copyright notice.

A Blooming of Shadows: John Hollander’s A Draft of Light

This article contains a brief look at Hollander’s career and tradition, and a review of his latest collection, A Draft of Light.


John Hollander was born in New York to a family of Jewish immigrants in 1929. He attended Columbia and Indiana University. His first book, the biblically-titled A Crackling of Thorns, was selected by W. H. Auden for the Yale Young Poet’s series, and since then he has won almost every award that America has on offer. In 1990, he was made a fellow of the MacArthur Foundation, and is currently Sterling Professor Emeritus of English at Yale University, and poet laureate of the State of Connecticut.


He has been a prolific writer and anthologist, publishing twenty-eight books of poetry, criticism, and children’s writing over a fifty-year career, as well as innumerable anthologies of poetry and essays. Among them are the massive six-volume Oxford Anthology of English Literature, jointed edited with the British critic Frank Kermode, and the Library of America multi-volume poetry anthology.

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He has been a central figure in American literary culture for half a century now, and associates include many of the luminaries of 20th century American intellectual life, such as Robert Penn Warren, Harold Bloom, Anthony Hecht and Noam Chomsky.


He is often linked to friend and colleague Harold Bloom, and edited the only existing anthology of Bloom’s writings, The Poetics of Influence. Hollander and Bloom share many critical interests, but if Bloom is less interested in external form than in the deep structure of a poem (someone once remarked that from Bloom’s discussion of John Ashbery and James Merrill, you would not know that one poet is discursive and open, and the other a master of traditional forms), Hollander has the virtue of being highly attuned to both the kernel and shell of a poem, to use that old trope.


His prose work frequently focuses on the link between “sound and sense”, and the relation between music and poetry. Hollander’s intellectual range has seen him published in technical journals on a huge number of subjects: philosophy, music, architecture, sociology and science (in 1968 he reviewed James D. Watson’s The Double Helix in Nature).


Few critics have Hollander’s huge knowledge of classical and European literature, or his technical familiarity with music, rhetoric, and modern linguistics, and almost every field of human endeavour. In fact, I feel almost uneasy about writing any review of Hollander’s verse, should the poems contain a similar amount of intelligence and subtlety as his formidable critical writing.


In his critical writing on poetry, Hollander writes with generosity and insight on what he likes, and with sharp but discreet tact when considering bad verse, of which he says so much is “beyond being inept because in a certain mode of bad poetry it is perfectly competent”, whether it be “limp pentameters of the so called New Formalists” or the “easy flabbiness of a ubiquitous form of short lined free-verse”. Among Australian poets, he has praised A. D. Hope as “one of the greatest heterosexual love poets of all time”, and commended the “astonishing perfection of his adaptation of 17th century poetry to timeless erotic concerns”.


When Hollander discusses Donald Allan’s The New American Poets, the subject of so many squabbles and fault-lines, he takes as sensible a way of looking at things as can be imagined: “We were choosing up sides in the sandlot. And I felt that there were guys on my team who weren’t on my side, and there were guys on the other team who were on my side. So I began to realise that whoever had chosen up sides on the basis of formal style didn’t know anything about poetry.”


Hollander’s great interest is in form, but he is careful to remind us that “formal structures are a necessary condition of poetry, but not a sufficient one.” He illustrates with a clever self-describing couplet:


Devoid of fiction, fable, charm or curse
These lines, not poetry, are merely verse.


Good poetry, argues Hollander, makes a trope of form, and without this, form is mere Christmas-card jingling. Hollander explains: “The building blocks of poetry itself are elements of fiction- fable, image, metaphor- all the material of the non-literal”.


As a poet he often resembles Marvell’s “easy philosopher” who will “among the trees and birds confer.” His poetry makes use of anything: a bee-sting, pottery, espionage, an eclipse, cinema, the realms of science and philosophy. His range of subject and form can make other poets seem famished, as he explores renaissance elegies, sonnet sequences, satires, epistles, odes, ballads, book-length meditations, nonsense verse, concrete poetry (on which he has written extensively) and translation from many languages, written in both difficult classical forms, such as the sestina and villanelle, and so called “free verse”.


A criticism sometimes levelled at his work is an excess of cleverness, and at times a certain opacity or over-fondness for archaisms and philosophising vocabularies. Though it may have been the case in some of his early work, the tendency has now been cleansed, and the result a burnished, conversational style.


Critics who feel that an explicitly confessional outburst carries more emotional weight than highly wrought and figurative language have accused Hollander of being distant, but Richard Howard has observed that Hollander’s work has an “obsessive, confessional necessity”, but is not of the kind whose “wounds are on the outside, where everyone can see them”.


In a more hysterical vein, he was once attacked for his formal perfection as a poet, when Diane Wakoski declared him “Satan”, in an article in the American Book Review, along with the accusation that writing in traditional modes equated with fascism and anti-democratic sentiment. Besides the beyond-confused thinking that can link honed technique and familiarity with classical form to political conservatism, a brief survey of only 20th century poets shows that such a contention is not even historically valid.


You won’t like Hollander if you feel that an earnest solemnity is the appropriate mode for tackling a serious subject, or that poetic originality is a matter of spreading words about on a page and the breaking of “constrictive forms”. His work is a case study, proving what should be obvious, that wit and humour are in no way contrary to deep seriousness. “I’ve never felt that funny and serious were opposites: the opposition is funny/solemn and frivolous/serious,” Hollander said in an interview. “Much solemnity is a costume for what is deeply frivolous (and, for example, someone with no sense of humour had better be astonishingly brilliant not to be frivolous, as all dullness is).”


The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘draft’ as “the drawing off or a selection of a party from some larger body for some special purpose”, or “a rough sketch of a writing or document, from which the final or fair copy is made”. ‘Draft’ is also a modern, phonetic spelling of the older ‘draught’, and is “an act of drinking, the quantity drunk at one pull.” Hollander is attuned to the etymology of ‘draft’ and its usage in English, perhaps most famously in Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale”, a passage that does much to illuminate some of the central images and tropes of A Draft of Light.


O for a draught of vintage! that hath been      
  Cool’d a long age in the deep-delvèd earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country-green,  
Dance, and Provençal song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South!


As in most of his work, there is some, perhaps much, that will go over the over the reader’s head (or at least over this reader’s head). A series of notes at the back of the book goes only a small way in identifying difficulties. Some of these difficulties come from the leaning that casually underpins the poems, and others because Hollander is sometimes just too smart for the common reader, and the poems require a good deal of time and thought to unravel. Hollander’s faultless metric control and versatility is in evidence here in a wide range of forms: there are villanelles, songs (a stanza of a lost 15th century ballad becomes a Shellyan “ballad romantically restored”), free-verse, and more.


Some material can honourably be called light, or more accurately, comic verse, but the same wit and preoccupation with the gap between the literal and the figurative, powers both the light and heavy in this book. Standing out among the light is “Typing Lesson”, a rhapsody on the phrase “the quick, brown fox jumps over the lazy dog”, and “Getting It Right”, where “Allegories on the banks of the Nile” grin with figurative reptilian eyes/ Dropping phoney tears onto the unblaming literal mudbank” and make “their way invisibly among/ The native crocodiles they were so very much/ Unlike”.


The poems are full of shadows, flowers, birds, fire-flies, and though nothing explicit is put forward, as we decipher Hollander’s enclosed vocabulary the poems begin to illuminate one another, and a kind of mythology emerges. The poems are full of wanderings and journeys, and the volume gradually describes a passage through “the dry valley”, then pine forest, and finally to the ocean, where the poet sets out “on a sea that shifts as all the others row/ out into nothing”.


There is a searching for something which hovers beyond understanding: “probing what we feel we know/ for some kind of truth”. This riddle, which often takes the form of a journey or quest, is what Hollander identifies from Freud as “the troublesome riddle of death”. The only answer to this riddle is death itself:


With never a word in answer then
He knew, by the water’s side,
That the paths towards only nowhere
Could take him to her who was to die
And never be his bride


The Latin phrase Ubi Sunt, appears here again, as it did in Hollander’s previous volume, Picture Window. That famous rhetorical question has long preoccupied him, and he writes of it in his book Melodious Guile: “its effect is to remind the reader of not only of all of our deaths, but of all our usual suppressions of our consciousness of it. The question expects, even demands, a knowing silence” But Hollander’s response is not silence, though it is certainly knowing.


Ubi sunt – not just all those makers of trope
and weavers of figure who, when yet one more
Of their number dies, keep asking without hope
What was so emptily asked before;
A darker riddle with no answer looms
In the twilight of knowledge with its fading glow
For those who linger on among the tombs:
Where am I, though-
Ubi sunt adhuc qui maneo?


More than forty years ago, Hollander wrote “For half of life/ Nights came so that I might burn/ Like a Roman candle, high inside/ The blackness of summer”. Now, in “Dr  Johnson’s Fable”, at evening a fire-fly bewails “the littleness of his own light” against a candle in a window, until a second insect comforts him that the candle itself will be drowned in the day’s illumination, and “There will come a/ Sudden understanding then of/ what it means to have “outlasted/ Many of those glaring lights/ Which are only/ Brighter as they hasten to nothing”.


This could be a wise comfort to any genuine artist against despair in the face of lesser, but more briefly popular, talents, or quite the opposite: an Ozymandias-like warning that even the great, despite their radiance, will inevitably be extinguished. It isn’t wise to necessarily identify Hollander with the fire-fly –Hollander himself (or earlier self) could be the candle. As in his best poems, final meaning is slippery and ambiguous.


The Emersonian “scholar [who] is a candle” seems an apt description of Hollander, who has pursued beside his poetry a career in scholarship as successfully as Wallace Stevens did in the Hartford Insurance firm. In the fire-fly poem and others, I am reminded of Steven’s late poem, “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour”, which seems to preside over the whole book, especially the Paramour’s outcry “How high that highest candle lights the dark”.


The title poem pits this inner candle, the “fathering light”, against the harsh — and ultimately lethal – literal of “hard mothering bodies” and the light of the “unvarying sun”, “too fierce for the shadows to blossom in it”. The speaker must drink from the “draft of light”: “Long swallows of it now allowed us/ Rightly to claim to know now where we were/ Going, rightly, at last, to know where we’d been all along”.


Shadows, or ghosts, as they frequently appear, in their ethereality and intangibility, are like poems that play figuratively over the solid literal, and require the inner radiance of the mind to blossom in. Hollander interrogates the common and literal, extracting or building the figurative from it, “to make more vivid/ The traces of our deep, remembered, trackless/ Darknesses in their various vivid tones.”


As I said earlier, he can build a poem from anything: once, the muse was an adolescent girlfriend removing a bandage; here it is a bee-sting on the subway that delivers “the very (most/ Nonliteral) point”, that “the sting of the sudden/ Awareness of them and their/ Moot irrelevance/ Was as much of a/ Gift from those nine sisters as/ Is ever given”.


Hollander has been called a philosophical poet, but he does not write versified philosophy. Instead, he borrows from philosophy a language and a way of thought. Hollander’s poems are frequently meta-poems that create further meaning out of their own self-interrogations, out of their own reflexivity.


Hollander has written of this in regards to his interest in Borges (whose poem, The Golem of Prague, he translated). “Before reading Borges, I’d always felt the power and necessity for me of recursion—of reflexivity; I couldn’t put a name to it until I encountered it in mathematical logic in my mid-twenties, and only read Borges, one of whose basic tropes it was, until some years after that.”


“Rooting on for the Yankees”, which is dedicated to Harold Bloom (who, once asked if any great poems had been written on baseball, answered that a great one had yet to be written), is a kind of moral essay in verse, and describes how, as a child, “An older boy demanded/ “who are you for: the Yankees or the Giants?”, and because “the calm defiance of simple candor was beyond me there”, “I couldn’t simply say/ “who are they?”. “So there it was: I blurted out/ “Yankees” and so it came to be… Thereafter would present/ A moral equivalent ,/ I now suppose/ Of patriotism/ of Religion, (those/ Last refuges… ”


Hollander has no faith that there is anything after this life, and his philosophy seems to be an epicurean pragmatism, though with strong links to his Jewish heritage, of which he writes here as “An Old Testament/ (Which for him was quite/ As good as New)”.


If there is a lot of grace and humour here, there is also a deal of pain and suffering, both in the death of friends and the wreck of body. The saving grace of poetry is not so saving:


But outside the playground of comparison and disguises,
The song of the world seems more and more
To have forgotten the words
And all we have are what we might once have called
The stationary horses (with the thin, smooth poles) of the unvarying refrain,
Again and
Again and
Until what we have all been sentenced to, the full stop.


One poem refers itself as “Worry beads of words”; and in his mirrored reflection the poet sees


A faded map of
What realm or territory
The ancient domain

Of his earlier
Failed, aspirations, a world
Quite unrealised.


The final two stanzas from Emeritus Faculties, an unusually grim and bitter poem, but one of the best, are devastating:


He touched his own head from within, to prowl
The precincts of thought; then thought, congealing,
Left him not dumb, but only rather foul
Of feeling,

His begging cup each year remaining full
Of less and less from unforgiving
Nature, though he not quite yet terminal
Of living.


In “A Confession”, a humorous piece that has more intellectual power than most poets can manage in a whole book, he muses:


I think that I shall never see
A proof of theorem due to me.
Hollander functions? only when
Function is a verb, and even then
Only part of the time.

Nor will I share with such ecstatics
The joys of metamathematics:
In fact I cannot do much more
Than walk through the unopened door
Of truth, or what’s a “meta-” for?


For so many poets of the last two hundred years, a theory of poetry has been a theory of life, to paraphrase Wallace Stevens. The Canadian poet Daryl Hine, whom Hollander admires, concludes his poem “Copper Maple”: “Sufficient the momentary recognition/ Of the world as anomalous and perfect/ As this emblematic copper maple/ Alien yet rooted here as we are/ Whose shade is not the green of contemplation/ But the imagination’s fierce metallic colour,/ Bronze, an aegis under which we flourish.” Nietzsche said that we have art so that we don’t die of the truth, to which I can imagine Hollander ruefully replying that what’s true will kill us whether we know it or not.


When “A Confession” suddenly turns dark in the final three lines, the joking question “or what’s a “meta-“ for?” becomes the confession of what might be Hollander’s poetic credo or theory of poetry, that the “meta”, the poetic, is our shield, our shade the “imagination’s fierce metallic colour”. Or rather, it is our draft of light, and though it cannot save us, it can make our journey more bearable.


I could go on, because the book deepens every time that I read it, but I’ll finish by saying that there is always grandeur in a poet of late years that remains at the height of his powers, like a Stevens or a Hardy, rather than going cold. It would be presumptuous for a review to claim that the pain and occasions of bitterness evident here have in this book given back abundant recompense, but this is a triumphant work.


Hollander has gathered the “sad knowledge of our store of loss”, and this volume, “waiting at the rim/ Of darkening”, makes many deeply moving pieces from a grappling with the thought of that final “alien darkness”. The best concluding lines for this late gathering are from one of Steven’s own late poems.


Each person completely touches us
With what he is and as he is,
In the stale grandeur of annihilation.

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