Tales Told of the Fathers
Vision and Resonance: Two Senses of Poetic Form
Those who are alarmed by New York, as I am, must be alarmed also by John Hollander’s poems, which I register as New York poetry through and through. In the past Hollander has been explicit and defiant about this, as in his witty and accomplished imitation of Juvenal’s third satire, where New York is substituted for Juvenal’s Rome; or in the controlled octosyllabic garrulity of “Upon Apthorp House” (from Movie-Going, 1962), where he thankfully greets the Hudson recovered after years in the New England wilderness:
The wide black river, standing still,
Tilted against my windowsill,
Is still the same phenomenon
I met in nineteen fifty-one
Before I left New York to test
My boundaries by heading west
And, four years later, met at last
The eastern Charles, the Western Past.
Others have a better right than I to protest that Cambridge and New London and New Haven are not much of a wilderness, or very far west; and of course Hollander foresees this protest, and guards against it by writing with this deliberately jokey glibness.
All the same, it remains a characteristic of New York poetry (not just Hollander’s) that it may look north and south, and certainly east across the Atlantic, but very seldom west, into that continental hinterland on which it mostly turns its back. And that eloquently uninterested back turned upon Midwesterners and Westerners can make us—even an adopted and late-come Westerner like myself—not so much alarmed as daunted and irritated. Are we such hicks, so provincially incapable of keeping up with the speed and gloss of the metropolis? Near the end of Tales Told of the Fathers, for instance, there is a series of five poems called “Examples,” each one concerned with a philosopher’s dilemma about language; and a reader like me is divided between shamefaced awe at the thought of a society where particular passages of Descartes, Russell, J. L. Austin, G. E. Moore, and Immanuel Kant are part of the common change of party conversation and a mutinous suspicion that no such society exists, even in Manhattan, and that the whole illusion has been fabricated as a put-down for us country cousins.
The odd thing is that this terrifying knowledgeability in Hollander is something that he has seen, from time to time, not just as a block between himself and his potential public, but as a block between himself and his “best self.” Thus, in “Upon Apthorp House,” when he said goodbye to Harvard and thankfully returned to New York, he regarded it as a goodbye also to one sort of knowledgeability, specifically a literary sort:
Goodbye, Old Tunes! Old modes and feet
Were fine for singing in the street
When all New York was now, and when
Imagined history was then;
When styles one had to find could be
The ultimate morality,
I worked progressions on the lute.
Now I must learn to play the mute.
But knowledgeability or (why fool about?) sheer knowledge is not …