Commentary Magazine


Vision and Resonance: Two Senses of Poetic Form; Tales Told of the Fathers, by John Hollander

Vision and Resonance: Two Senses of Poetic Form.
by John Hollander.
Oxford University Press. 313 pp. $12.50.

Tales Told of the Fathers.
by John Hollander.
Atheneum. 100 pp. $7.95.

Vision and Resonance, John Hollander’s first critical book since The Untuning of the Sky (1961), proves to have been well worth waiting for. The earlier work was a comprehensive study of ideas about music, and the interrelation between music and poetry, in English verse of the 16th and 17th centuries. The shifting dialectic of attitudes toward music and verse is still very much part of Hollander’s subject in his new book, but now he moves beyond literary history to a general analysis of how sound in poetry interacts with syntax, generic convention, and the visually scanned shape of the printed poem, to produce the complexities of poetic statement.

Vision and Resonance is the most subtle, convincing account I have seen of the operation of accentual syllabic verse in English. Hollander is meticulous in the use of concepts and terms where others have variously perpetuated a centuries-old legacy of vagueness, and the key distinctions he develops—such as between meter and rhythm, or between performative and descriptive scansion—seem not only precise but demonstrably valuable as he applies them. This enormously learned, technical study is a model of lucidity and, often, even of witty liveliness. The analysis of a variety of poetic texts from Donne to Blake to William Carlos Williams not only illustrates the general observations being made about English prosody, but also demonstrates how a discriminating approach through prosody can illuminate difficult or semantically dense poems. Hollander’s readings of brief passages from Donne, Milton, and Blake have an Empsonian brilliance, without Empson’s abrasive quirkiness: they impress one not as exercises in ingenuity but as fuller perceptions than previous readers have enjoyed.

The discussions of contrastive stress in English, and of the career of English enjambment (with special attention to Milton), are especcially rich in such perceptions. In his account of Milton, Hollander finds the complex meanings of Paradise Lost in the interplay between metrical line and larger rhythm, between printed word-placement and unfolding syntax, between the poem seen and the poem heard: “These two impulses—the one toward systematic, static pattern, the other toward periodic flux and articulated paragraphing—are the warp and the weft of the verse fabric of Paradise Lost.” And in his final chapter, Hollander suggests that any poem must be located along the two axes of the eye and the ear, the former locked into meter, generic identity, tradition, collective literary experience, the latter associated with rhythm, the particular objects of representation, individual talent, the intuition of the moment, “The ear responds to the dimension of natural experience, the eye to that of convention.” The distinction is so sweeping and simple that at first one suspects it cannot be altogether true, but it is surprising how sturdily the generalization holds up under scrutiny, as Hollander’s own abundant illustrations from a variety of poetic texts make clear.

This way of conceiving two intersecting axes of poetry has one important consequence for literary ideology: in even the most radically iconoclastic poetry, tradition and convention remain an ineluctable dimension of the poem. Modern poets may wilfully ignore the old boundary lines of poetic genre, but none can escape from the convention-bound axis of the eye. The seeming metrical chaos in Blake, as Hollander shows, is actually a refashioning of an older, discarded English tradition of seven-stress lines. Walt Whitman may have dreamed of a wholly organic, non-conventional prosody, “claiming to have made a metrical principle out of the unique shapes of rhythm,” but in fact what he did was to introduce a new metrical convention, based on clearly end-stopped lines, the coincidence between complete syntactical units and linearity being a strict rule for his ostensibly spontaneous, oracular verse. More recent American free-verse experiments, in analogous ways, either generate their own metrical conventions, or “engage certain prior conventions . . . to form a new tradition, discontinuous in some ways as it may be,” and the flaunted metrical freedom of the verse frequently proves, upon analysis, to relate quite directly to Milton’s innovative prosody in the burden of meaning carried by nuances of enjambment.

In elucidating Ben Jonson’s constant invocation of classical models in his poetry, Hollander stresses what he calls “the modality of verse”; a poetry which avowedly elects long-established forms of expression works toward “creating discourse in an ideal community, within which the literary dialect would be as speech.” Modern poets have often rejected all notions of the modality of verse, breaking down genre and decorum in the effort to forge a uniquely personal, purely expressive style. Some, however, like W. H. Auden, have actually reaffirmed modality, adopting from the tradition a variety of forms and styles through which they implicitly assert a public realm of literary discourse more durable than the transitory idiom of individual experience.

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The reaching for modality explains, I think, the strength, the limitations, and the peculiarity of John Hollander’s own poetry. It is heartening to discover in the scholarly analyst of prosody a poet who is himself a technical virtuoso, but Hollander’s recurrent problem from the beginning of his career has been to escape the aridness of mere virtuosity. His first volume, A Crackling of Thorns (1958), is astonishing in the variety of styles so finely controlled by a young poet, but there is something ventriloquistic and frustratingly oblique in the way the poet treats his own experience. This continues to be true, I find, though in less obtrusive, more complicated ways, of Hollander’s five subsequent volumes of verse. There are, to be sure, some notable exceptions, like the evocative title-poem of Movie-Going (1962), or the poems dealing with memory and childhood and adolescence in Visions from the Ramble (1965). The persistent problem, however, of Hollander’s poetry is illustrated on almost every page of the last volume of verse before the present one, The Night Mirror (1971). Poem after poem reads like a distanced, abstractly conceived “treatment” of some idea or situation, a set exercise in rendering a quality or effect. The poet who had imitated the Elizabethans, Marvell, Dryden, Wordsworth, and many others finally seems to have arrived at a kind of accomplished voicelessness, in which the poem becomes an elegant arabesque of studied (sometimes precious) images concluding in a deft cadence with a word like “dust,” “dark,” or, alternately, “light.”

This disembodied virtuosity continues to dominate many, though fortunately not all, of the poems in Tales Told of the Fathers. The difficulty, I would suggest, is that modality as Hollander tries to carry it out in his verse is no longer feasible because of what has happened to literary tradition and the language of poetry. Of course, no serious critic would find fault with Ben Jonson for not having a personal “voice,” but one must remember that Jonson and his contemporaries shared, first, a hierarchical sense of literary kinds anchored in a hierarchical sense of social and cosmic schemes, and, then, the common humanistic education of a small literate elite, firmly based on a canon of Greek and Latin texts. Out of such a situation, it was possible for Jonson gracefully to assume the many voices of tradition for different poetic occasions, and, sometimes, even to use a voice of tradition to express starkly his own condition as a man (as in the unforgettable elegy, patterned after classical models, for his first son: “here doth lye/ Ben. Jonson his best piece of poetrie”). For a modern poet, on the other hand, to invoke or revive a whole mode of earlier poetry seems like a strenuous experiment in willed atavism.

One frequently feels the problem on the level of diction in Tales Told of the Fathers. Without a doctrine of sublime style for “lofty” subjects, phrases like “diurnal panache” and “the reservoir’s onyx water” seem like mere preciosity, and the attempt, imagistically and lexically, to resuscitate a mythic mode in lines like “A Deus in the graciousness day,/Drunk with skyeyness,” is inadvertently comic. And for a generation accustoming itself to no-frills flying, a poet cannot quite get away with rendering travel by plane in terms like these: “Huddled in silver/ Pinions of his steel eagle,/ He drops not down, but/ Plummets forward into clouds. . . .” Milton could do this for Lucifer falling—syntactic inversion, high-diction “pinions,” obtruded enjambment, and all—but as a rendering of an airplane flight it seems an affectation.

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Yet, in poetry so conspicuously assembled out of antecedent poetry, there is one subject on which poet and manner can sometimes fall into the lovely alignment of illumination, and that is when the poem deals with the perplexing nature of poetry itself. There are several striking pieces of this sort in Tales Told of the Fathers, where Hollander’s play of verbal and situational wit, his love of allusion and multiple styles, seem fully integrated with what he means to say. In the scary playfulness of “Cohen on the Telephone,” the poem moves in a rapid allusive sweep from Exodus and Milton through Keats and the Elizabethans to Tales of the Hasidic Masters and the talmudic Celestial Echo, the poet’s surrogate at the end attending to the ambiguous buzz of “the black sea shell” at his ear, receiving the threat, or promise: “The next voice you hear will be your own.” “Mount Blank” vividly defines the struggle to engage some possible subject—the mountain “looking like/ The intense pictures of itself”—through memory and language. The poem wryly glances back at Shelley’s “Mount Blanc,” Wordsworth’s “The Simplon Pass,” at King Lear and Paradise Lost, in order to point up its own predicament after those primary master-works, caught in a late self-conscious moment of literary history where all objects of representation prove to be “pictures of pictures,/ Or views of noise: postcards of roaring.”

Finally, “Kranich and Bach,” the concluding poem of this volume, combines a brooding meditation on art and mortality with, for once, concretely realized personal memory. The poet recalls his dead father playing Romantic Lieder, with a predominance of spooky ballad settings, on a Kranich, “a brand of piano no longer made.” The implicit self-ironic comment here on Hollander’s often archaizing verse is poignant. The father’s son, now become an instrumentalist of another sort, knows that the same silence that overtook his father will claim him too, and so his poetry is aptly figured in the image of bravely, absurdly assertive music with which this poem ends: “Dark under the closed lid, Kranich and Bach wait,/ Silence standing up one-leggedly in song.”

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