Calculated Risks

Spectral Emanations: New and Selected Poems

by John Hollander
Atheneum, 238 pp., $7.95 (paper)

A Call in the Midst of the Crowd

by Alfred Corn
Viking, 107 pp., $3.95 (paper)

Wit has an odd place in poetry. Even in Shakespeare and Donne it arouses suspicions before it diverts them into pleasure. In Marvell it is a complicated line of defense; in Pope it is a form of mastery; in Byron a form of recklessness. In none of these cases is there any question of what A. R. Ammons calls “the uninterfering means” of poetry. The means here are all interference, the mind cuts capers between the poem and the world.

By wit I mean not only jokes, puns, allusions, inversions, parallels, and comic rhymes—“Civilization and its discounts,” “We are not a Muse,” “Didn’t know sun could undress / So many,” “It seemed a certain stiffness / Was de rigueur among the dead”—but also a concentrated attention given to familiar phrases like “the long run,” “down and out,” “a far cry.” I take all these examples from Alfred Corn’s new book, but there are more, and more brilliant ones, in John Hollander. When famous phrases and familiar idioms are leaned on in this way (“but now / Down comes to out,” “As a far cry, by pure possibility”) the old, literal meanings of the words return, while the public, hallowed meanings hang around too. The wit plays between two (or more) levels of assimilation of language. My point concerns the curious half-absence of the poet in these games. All he needs is his cleverness, a finger pointing to a verbal pile-up.

Now cleverness is not a vice, indeed I regard it as something of a virtue, and in John Hollander’s poems it is the clearest sign of his extraordinary gift. Spectral Emanations, a book of “new and selected poems” which, read consecutively, takes us backward through Hollander’s whole career, offers an abundance of examples. In a wellknown early work, “Aristotle to Phyllis,” Hollander translates the sounds (and some sense) of a Mallarmé poem into English, thus: “La chair est triste, hélas, et j’ai lu tous les livres” / “This chair I trusted, lass, and I looted the leaves”; “le vide papier que la blancheur défend” / “A wide papyrus… blanched and deafened”; “Steamer balançant ta mâture” / “Stammering, balanced, the master;” and “Lève l’ancre pour une exotique nature” / “dipped pale ink of an exotic nature”—this last item actually managing to pick up a pun (ancre/ encre) which is lurking in the French. On another occasion, Hollander inverts his Keats, and has a group of drinking companions “half in / Death with easeful love”; and on yet another he turns a famous line from As You Like It into a grand bad joke. The scene is the Lido as the season ends, and “the wind, increasing, / Sands teeth, sands eyes, sands taste, sands everything.”

Hollander imitates Marvell and Pope with uncanny precision, and actually makes his imitations work: those old masters are momentarily revived and contemplate the present with the ironic glances of their respective ages. Hollander, that is, gets the effect Eliot was after in one of the sections …

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