Two days ago, on Saturday night, the poet John Hollander passed away at 83. Hollander was my dissertation advisor at Yale and, later, an endless help to me when I was a young professor trying to make my way through the bristling, and at times slightly poisonous, groves of academe. His eye twinkling, his laugh, close to a giggle, spilling out from behind his bushy beard, Hollander would let loose with his encyclopedic knowledge, which ranged from Latin poetry and Renaissance art to spy novels and Tin Pan Alley. I remember talking to him about The Sweet Smell of Success, which we agreed was the most perfect movie ever made in America.
Harold Bloom, with whom Hollander had been friends since he was 13 and they were both students at Bronx Science, always called Hollander “Uncle John”: a big, avuncular kibitzer who couldn’t resist putting in his two cents (or more). For a few years Bloom and Hollander delivered lectures together on the road at various colleges: “our buck-and-wing act,” Bloom called it.
Hollander’s chortling, bear-hugging affection was reserved for his many students and friends, while he aimed his gruffness at the legion of nincompoops who were, he thought, slowly destroying the academy and the larger culture. Like his friend Bloom, Hollander was an ardent political liberal, but (also like Bloom) he steadfastly proclaimed that what matters is memorable writing and careful thought, rather than the glib and the trendy. Hollander was a great critic too, and there is much criticism in his poetry. He insisted that deep passion could not be disjoined from analysis: you choose one over the other at your peril.
Hollander grew up in a Jewishly observant family, and he returned often to Jewish themes in his poetry. (He also matchlessly translated the great Yiddish bard Moshe-Leib Halpern.) In a 1985 interview, Hollander wondered whether “being Jewish and being American are in a way parables for each other,” since both involve “a special burden…a burden of invention of self.” Then a new idea came to him: “Perhaps those two conditions are like two lights burning together, lights of two different colors.” I think of one of Hollander’s poems, Spectral Emanations, which evokes the menorah stolen by the Romans during the siege of Jerusalem but remembered by Jews ever since. He divided the poem into sections named for the colors of the spectrum; the last one, Violet, alludes to the Marranos of Portugal who for centuries still lit candles in pitchers on Friday evenings, without knowing why except that it was an old, treasured custom. “Like a star reflected / In a cup of water,” Hollander writes of such a late, persistent candle, “It will light up no path: / Neither will it go out.”
John Hollander’s light, and his huge spirit, burns on.
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