In Memoriam: John Hollander

John Hollander died yesterday. He was one of my favorite professors and a profound influence on me. The obituary in the New York Times and Jenny’s memories of him as a professor both give you a sense of the man. I wanted to add my own tribute, too.

In high school, I fell in love with the son of a poet, a professor of poetry at the University of Washington. One year, that professor exchanged places with a professor at the University of Iowa, leaving the son behind, and bringing his own teenaged son to Seattle with him. The three of us would go to the poetry section of the local bookstore and comb through the boys’ father’s books, searching for the poems about the boys. Then, one told me, if I was really serious about poetry, I needed to read Rhyme’s Reason by John Hollander.

Drunk on love, poems, and this amazing proximity to fame—sitting on the floor with boys who could point to their names in books in the bookstore—I bought the book and devoured it. I covered it in a hand-made book-cover of Hmong embroidery that the aide in the ESL program where I volunteered gave me, and it sits in my office to this day, consulted not to write poems but to teach them. Hollander’s amazingly clever and catchy poems explaining poetic forms—a sestina defining a sestina, a haiku explaining haiku, a line of dactyls exaggerating the strange meter—still guide me whenever I teach prosody:

            How many bards gild the lapses of time?

            Read this as dactyls and then it will rhyme.

Then, years later, when I was admitted to Yale for a doctorate, I got a letter from him, the mimeograph faded enough that some of the type was broken, explaining that there were certain books every educated person ought to have read and the enclosed page of suggested texts would be a good start, I felt a thrilled panic at how very few of those books—Ovid, Virgil, Homer, Dante, Sophocles, Horace—I had read then, at twenty-one. That summer, I drove customers at the bookstore where I worked crazy. “What are you reading, dear?” “Um, The Aeneid.

He would teach in the last slot of the day so he could keep talking, regularly keeping us half an hour after the class was to have ended. We would be angry and ravenous, walking home to our apartments off Orange Street, kicking rocks and trying to figure out what we had learned: it was unfair, but we had to admit, something—it would be a different remark for each of us—had been brilliant, maybe even worth it. Speaking about allegory one day, a favorite topic and an unimaginably unfashionable one in the late-1980’s, he said that, as a boy, he had been fond of comic books. Do you know, he asked us, how to change scenes in comics, sometimes there’s a rectangle at the top of a panel, “Meanwhile back at the ranch…”? We nodded, whether we knew or not, unsure what this had to do with Edmund Spenser. Well, one day, he came upon a panel showing a woman, leaning over a sink, washing dishes and crying, “Woman in Detroit…” said the panel, and Hollander told us that, never having heard of the city, he thought Detroit was a sophisticated French word for the emotion of narrow despair, overwhelming, domestic sadness, depicted in that panel.

That was what it was like taking a class from him, or teaching for him, as I did for two years in his Daily Themes creative writing class. He was full of brilliant stray remarks, as another student of his remarked in one of the many facebook posts I've been poring over. At the same time, he had no patience for cultural studies, for the students, just arriving on the scene then, who wanted to write dissertations on comic books and conduct books: “You’re talking about the kind of thing that smart people think all the time.”

I was a middling student at Yale. At my best, I might have been the top of the second tier, not a worry to anyone, but no one’s favorite, either. Still, Hollander seemed to think I was smart and he treated me like I was smart. He liked my Spenserian stanzas, written in a code based on the Victorian language of flowers, an amalgam of anachronistic allegory that amused us both. He liked my paper, too. And, although I bombed the Milton questions on my oral exams, I know that I had already saved myself with Shakespeare for, when he asked me about plays within plays, I talked about Posthumous’ dream, which takes the form of a Jacobean masque, in Cymbeline. (Frankly, I didn’t dare try to be coherent, not to mention smart, about Hamlet.)

One day, at the end of one of his Daily Themes lectures, the other T.A.’s and I gathered around him for any special instructions for the week and he said, impatiently, that he couldn’t understand people’s reluctance to admit they were intellectuals. By his reckoning, anyone who decided to pursue a doctorate in English literature at an Ivy League University ought to be an intellectual, and proud of it. And it hit me like a thunderclap in that instant, I was an intellectual and a feminist and I would never, from that day forward disavow either term, although I suspected Hollander wouldn’t have been as excited about the feminist part.

He called me once in Cambridge to encourage me to apply for a job. I was so shocked that he knew who I was, I could barely breathe. But I hadn’t spoken to him since.

In all those years of working on the edition of Mrs. Dalloway, I thought of him often, more often than any of you can guess, and some of the footnotes I think of as his footnotes, footnotes that would please no one more than John Hollander to read. I thought about how much he would be tickled to see Woolf’s erudition, my detective work. I had hoped to send him the book, still delayed, maybe coming out in the year to come. When I heard he was ailing, I had hoped to send him a footnote or two, but it seemed too small a tribute and, uncharacteristically, I got shy and remained silent. Now he is gone, and though I know that he knew as well as I, that for whatever weird reason we both love these random, formal erudite details that don’t really go anywhere, I will always miss him fiercely.