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 of The Waste Land which Pound persuaded him to cut, an echo not only of the ideas and heroes of former time, but also of a manner:
He ceased as, through the halted traffic’s mass,
A nodding youth of fourteen dragged his ass….
The title of this poem is “New York,” the diction is contemporary, but voice and tone, grammer and verse form come from Queen Anne’s England. Again:
Alf moved here from his house on Beacon Hill
And nightly hears, despite his sleep- ing pill,
Through his thin walls on Second Avenue
His neighbors quarrel, and his neighbors screw.
His friend Ralph lives on the West Side, meanwhile,
In a well-built, half-century old pile:
High ceilings, wide rooms out of rooms unfolding,
Where squads of roaches drill along the moulding….
I won’t insist on the careful, Augustan oppositions and parallelisms: East, West, Alf, Ralph, quarrel, screw.
For an instance of the other mode of wit, the leaning on a familiar phrase, we can’t do better than look at Hollander’s early poem about a divorced couple. “Quickly now,” he asks, “which of you will keep the Lares, / Which the Penates?”: “You have unmade your bed, now lie about it.” This is a line which goes beyond cleverness, of course, as the imitations do, and suggests a considerable amount of sorrow and distress. A more subtle but equally powerful example appears in a poem called “West End Blues,” where a specter almost returns to his old bar on upper Broadway, “having been steered there only by the heart’s mistakes / In the treasonable night; by a kind of broken habit.” That is, by a habit which is not broken, belonging to a man who is.
But of course even if cleverness is a virtue it does, quite often, keep bad company—or to change the metaphor, it belongs to a rather dubious family of qualities with names like diffusion, elusiveness, flippancy, and (my hand shakes as I tap out the word) insincerity. I don’t mean that all good poetry has to be concentrated and confessional. I do mean that good poetry appears only when the poet is in touch with a set of genuine feelings, his own or someone else’s or his culture’s. A loose enough formula, but it is obviously possible for a poet not to be in touch in this way, and I think this is what happens quite frequently to Hollander: feelings are not available to him, or they flood the page, touch turns to rout. Here, for example, are passages from Hollander which seem alive to me, the real thing:
Spears smash grayware pitchers,
Torches splash fear near tents;
Slow, greaved legs clang along
Parasangs of gray road;
Brave and fair embrace the
Bad and dark; arrows snap
Against square parapets….
—Frail Danaë, guarded only
By brazen contrivances, lies
Back, open to the god of gold
Who comes like coins thumbed into her
Slot: squish, chunk. He spends; they melt in her….
It was cold, the snow high; I was old, and the winter
Sharp, and the dead mid-century sped by
In ominous, blurred streaks as, brutish, the wind moaned
Among black branches….
On the other hand:
The swallows and the early crickets with a blurred
Squeak scratched at the clear glass of the coming evening….
In the high day, clear at the viridian noon,
Blue water, enisled in the broad grass singing hot
Choruses of summer, lies still….
Others felt that her realm lay just
Beyond sufficiency, making
Of the rainbow….
These passages seem to me merely stately: nothing is going on behind the perfect glare. It is not a question of artifice or manner—“clang along / parasangs” is fairly mannered—but of whether the language catches anything, or is simply idling. Compare the Popean “yowling chaos reassumes the streets,” in “New York,” which picks up energy and wit from its context, with Hollander’s earlier “So frowning violence reassumes the crowded land,” which is just vacant and grandiose.
Nothing there, then; when the flooding occurs, everything is there. In a witty poem about Sundays in New York, full of carefully emphasized locutions (“month of Sundays,” “full of itself,” “come to a bad end”), Hollander lets loose an unmanageable unhappiness, and tells us that on such Sundays “one” can go home, “one can have…climbed up a concrete hill to one’s own walls / And quietly opened a vein.” The wit and distance are swamped. It is a delicate notion, but it seems that the sincerity of the poem has been spoiled by the abrupt, excessive sincerity of the poet.
Hollander has diagnosed a good deal of this himself. His gift seems larger than his achievement; but his achievement, though sporadic, is substantial; and he has recently found a mode of writing in which the shady relatives of cleverness are paid off and put to work. The mode, in my view, is not the heavy myth which informs the most ambitious of the new poems in the new book, a legend about the lamp of the Second Temple, a seven-branched candelabrum, which Hollander associates with the seven colors of the spectrum, which in turn he plays through the hours from daylight to darkness. It is the mode of fragmentary, hinting narrative which Hollander used in his most recent book, Reflections on Espionage, a remarkably funny and quite haunting work. Here it appears in the central story about the Lamp, in the form of “Leaves from a Roman Journal” which tell a spectral, summary tale of love and adventure and loss and recovery.
The hero/narrator is a member of a group engaged in raising the lost, sunken, sacred Lamp from the Tiber, where it fell with the coming of Constantine. His particular task, however, is to destroy a replica of the lamp that has been found in Greece. Error, that is, is to be undone, while the truth is to be spirited away: “How we are to get it out of Rome is only part of the problem, though; it has to be carried across to its home in the unimaged region, bare of representations save those of itself.” When we hear this voice—“Krasny arrived late last night, from the far west. We met as scheduled by the dank republican temples, by a forest of tramlines…”—we may think briefly of Auden, of Borges, of Calvino. But mainly we hear John Hollander, who has found in the subdued, secretive world of such fictions a place for cleverness, indirection, insincerity, and himself. That he knows this is clearly indicated by a poem included in this new book and called “Collected Novels.” Full of fine lines and gags (“terror firmer,” “My Brother’s Reaper“—the title of a novel), it shows a novelist who confesses that all the books he published under various names are in fact his. They are now “collected”; the title of one of them is a literal quotation from Hollander’s earlier poem “The Ninth of July.” It is a portrait of the poet in a mirror: Hollander is a number of quite different people, but he signs with a single name.
A Call in the Midst of the Crowd is the second book of Alfred Corn, a much praised younger poet. There is a great deal of skill and intelligence here, an ability to make syntax imitate meaning—
mind itself turning corners
From sleep to awareness to atten- tion
—an eye for rich detail—
In fire, fed by my hand, a catalogue goes,
Enameled pictures of what I do not want,
Page after page, curling into crepe…
—and all the wit I quoted at the beginning of this piece. There is a sense of pain and bereavement, and what is for me the best poem in the book concerns a childhood memory of Leopardi’s: “Songs after the feast days. Lambs on the ceiling of my room. The sound of ships.” This is the epigraph of the poem, and it is also its conclusion, reached at the end of a series of associations and fresh starts:
The guests depart, the banquet con- tinues.
It is what remained to become you:
Songs after the feast days; lambs on
The ceiling of your room; the sound of ships.
However the bulk of this book is taken up by an ambitious sequence of poems “on New York City”: a patchwork of original pieces by Corn and quotations from Melville, Whitman, old guidebooks, an encyclopedia, a life of Billie Holiday, Henry James, Poe, Edith Wharton, Tocqueville, Brooks Atkinson, Gay Talese, Hart Crane, Jack Newfield, Scott Fitzgerald, and so on. There are moments when the poems (and the patchwork) are impressive, convey something of the rush and disturbance of the life of the city. “Suppose,” Corn supposes at one point, “suppose just an awareness of the way / Living details might be felt as vision / Is vision, full, all there ever was….” A nice try, and perhaps true. But then that means the poem on the city is not a project but simply an impossibility, and there is really too much loose commentary here (“Our births choose us; then our lives; then our deaths”), too much banality (“Occurs to me the city is / A print-out of habit”), and too much wishful thinking (“Oh, for once we might feel / All of us belonged in the same space, / Company, instead of crowding”). For the rest, there is a kind of solemn, frozen talent, an empty excellence:
The last hour
You see that snow, with colder resolve,
Blown into dense emulsion, has printed
A halftone photograph of January.
One can admire this, it seems to me, without wanting to read any more of it.
I have suggested that wit is a risk for a poet, and I have implied that it often goes with a formal brilliance which easily becomes mere glitter. The notion is familiar enough. But of course you have to be a considerable poet before you can run into these difficulties, and the ordinary problem of most poets is quite different: how to climb out of prose, how to quicken language by the right arrangement. There are all kinds of ways of doing this, high and low, decorous and otherwise, and it can actually be done in prose too. But it can also be missed, and when it is missed we have nothing, just inert words squatting on a page. Now A. R. Ammons is a remarkable figure, consistent where Hollander is diffuse, lucid and persistent in his sighting of his single theme: the struggles of a precision-loving mind to do justice to what escapes or resists it. He is undoubtedly one of the most distinguished poets writing in English, and if his language seems inert at times it is because he wants it that way. Nevertheless, in Ammons, there is a regular sense that the poem has not yet arrived, that he has printed a piece of its prehistory. “I think how enriching, though unassimilable as a whole / into art, are the differences”:
how things work: I will tell you
it is interesting….
Ammons wants the naïveté here, of course, and he wants the truly unassimilable, mimed in the poem by that very word. But here is the beginning of one of Ammon’s best poems:
Taking root in windy sand is not an easy
to go about finding a place to stay.
The placing of the lines is important, and the lesson learned from William Carlos Williams. Nevertheless, I’m left with the feeling that it doesn’t come off, that this is an outline of a stanza rather than the thing itself, and I have no such feelings about the rest of the poem, which seems to me impeccable, and very strong:
A ditchbank or wood’s-edge has firmer ground.
In a loose world though something can be started—
a root touch water, a tip break sand—
Mounds from that can rise on held mounds
a gesture of building, keeping, a trapping
Firm ground is not available ground.
What happens, I think, is that Ammons often does give us the program instead of the poem, and this is the case even with some of his most famous pieces, “Corsons Inlet,” for example, or “Expressions of Sea Level,” or “Saliences.” There is to be “no humbling of reality to precept,” Ammons says, and insists, “I have reached no conclusions, have erected no boundaries….” Actually, his work is peppered with conclusions and boundaries, indeed is defined by them, but that doesn’t mean he is wrong. It means he is describing a wish, which other, less discursive, less quotable poems fulfill. It is clear that Ammons progresses, that he learns how to relinquish some of his dreams of order, and that the poems relax as he goes along. If we wished to measure this movement, we could look, in The Selected Poems, at some of Ammons’s conversations with landscapes, starting with a jumpy chat with the wind in “The Wide Land” (“I don’t hold it against you / I said / It’s all right I understand”) and ending with “Staking Claim,” where the nervousness has been transferred to nature (“Look, look where the mind can go / I said to the sanctified / willows / wreathing jittery slow slopes of wind”).
But what makes Ammons such a powerful and distinctive poet, I think, is not his program or his success with it but the sense, fully displayed in the poems, that the program is a symptom of what’s wrong rather than a solution. At one point Ammons speaks of material which “says itself,” and a little more of that sort of material would put the poet out of business. The poet, after all, is an interpreter speaking for silent things. He looks at a plane turning invisible in the sun and thinks “how much / revelation concealment necessitates”; he looks at the blinding ocean and realizes that “only total expression / expresses hiding.” Of course there is a difference between drawing out a message and reaching a conclusion, but it’s not always clear in Ammons. Or rather, it is clear that the program, the saving of reality from precept, betrays a double, worried fidelity: to the shifting shapes of the seen world, and to the mind that cannot give up organizing it.
What the recent poems suggest, without denying the earlier notions, is that the humbling of precepts by reality is no laughing matter either. The word order recurs with obsessive frequency. Grim, possessive verbs litter Ammons’s work: clutch, bag, trap. Consider the poem I quoted earlier, with its anxious placing of “trapping / into shape,” an emphasis which is almost enough to stand the relaxed recommendation of the poem on its head, to communicate a sort of whine to the last line: “Firm ground [the poet groans] is not available ground.” A poem called “Jungle Knot” depicts an owl and an anaconda enlaced, both dead. The owl attacked the snake, the snake coiled around the owl, driving its talons further in: mutual murder. “Errors of vision, errors of self-defense!” Ammons cries, “errors of wisdom, errors of desire! / the vulture dives, unlocks four eyes.” It is a memorable image, and the release from constriction, the vulture’s unlocking of the eyes, is not half so liberating as such gestures are supposed to be in Ammons’s theory.
Multiple as sand, events of sense
alter old dunes
Ammons memorably says. But the mind also hangs on. Ammons works the knuckles of his mind, in his own phrase, and what I find most enduring in these poems is not the liberation they envisage, but the asceticism they embody, sparse, careful thoughts attentive to a material world and a “self not mine but ours.” A man issues an invitation, for example:
It is not far to my place:
you can come smallboat,
pausing under shade in the eddies…
It will take three days by boat, or an unspecified time on foot. The visitor will receive only wine, and a poem, and a modest report on the state of things. But he is invited:
there is little news:
I found last month a root with shape and
have heard a new sound among the insects: come.
June 1, 1978