Monday, August 19, 2013

Walking one's gaze through the shades of averted signification - enjoying John Hollander

American poet John Hollander just passed away.   I was tempted to say “Yale poet” John Hollander.  He was an institution of American poetry.  Please see the ingenious Rhyme’s Reason (1981) for evidence of that, his book about poetic forms written in the forms he is describing.  E.g.,

The ballad stanza’s four short lines
    Are very often heard;
The second and the fourth lines rhyme
    But not the first and third.

A sestina about sestinas, a pantoum about pantoums.  Brilliant, educational, nuts.

For some reason his single poem that has stuck with me is “Effet de Neige” from Harp Lake (1988), which is about the meaning of a single fleck of white paint at the vanishing point of a Monet painting, “ the still dab of white that oscillates \ From point to point of meaning – open? closed?”

Of course my favorite Hollander book – anyone who know his books and reads Wuthering Expectations knew this was coming – is the 1974 Reflections on Espionage: The Question of Cupcake, a puzzle poem of the highest merit.


Cupcake here.  Hardly anything to report
Today: the weather will be suitable
Only for what can be done in the morning
And on the outlying islands.  I have paid
Thumbtack and Maisie and The Foot.

What nonsense, but no, this is a poem about spies written by a spy, each poem a message radioed to his handler Lyrebird, or occasionally to someone else.  Nothing happens, or occasionally something happens.  Cupcake muses about codes and encryptions, which I suspect are standing in for something else:


And after, say, six working nights of
Fashioning cryptograms one would want to be
Able to look upon his literal world
Half-forgetting what it enciphered; one would
Want to walk one’s gaze among the cool columns
Of letter groups, through the shades of averted

A literal puzzle, of the jigsaw type, appears near the end (“The puzzle is not worth completing, and lies \ In pieces, mostly”).  Cupcake’s mental health seems to deteriorate.  Perhaps the operation is collapsing (“Image, your reply to my last transmission \ Sounded unlike you”).  The poem ends with a encrypted message that can be deciphered by means of clues within the poems.  This is the last line: “XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX.”  Did I get all sixteen Xs?  It is crucial that there are sixteen.

What nonsense, the sober reader of poetry declares.  It is even worse, actually – be sure to read the 1999 edition, in which Hollander describes the process of composition, annotates the most obscure bits, and reveals which famous American poet belongs to each code name.  The whole thing is autobiographical.  A lot of it is probably about grading student papers.

I heard about Hollander’s death at John Crowley’s blog.  “He was the most learned man -- and the most filled with recondite knowledge of every kind in every realm -- I've ever known.”


  1. Was he the beloved person who said, when he and his wife separated: "We just couldn't help each other any more"?

    I never heard a sadder or better summation of divorce.

  2. I don't know. I haven't come across that.

  3. John Hollander's wife, Anne, illustrated his ...erotic, shall we say? verse... Town and Country Matters.
    I came here just after breading an obituary of Elmore Leonard, and your references to Reflections on Espionage: The Question of Cupcake made me think of what they had- and hadn't- in common...

  4. Sorry to hear about Hollander's passing.

    The idea and execution, as you describe it, behind Reflections on Espionage seems absolutely brilliant. I wonder what a very casual reader of poetry would have thought about that book had they just picked it up and began reading.

  5. The very casual reader - it would be baffling. A dedicated reader of spy novels would do much better.