On 17 August 2013, the poet and critic John Hollander died. He was at the time of his death Sterling Professor Emeritus of English Literature at Yale University. Opening remarks from guest editor Kenneth Gross are followed by five memory pieces in honor of John Hollander, by Stephen Orgel, Susanne Wofford, Kenneth Gross, Jennifer Lewin, and Tom Bishop.
Photo by Thomas McDonald, used by permission of the New York Times.
John Hollander: In Memoriam
John was the author of more than twenty books of poetry and many works of literary criticism, also the editor of a myriad of brilliant anthologies of poetry and criticism. His scholarly contributions to our understanding of Renaissance literature, and of poetics more generally, are astonishing in their range and authority, their wild learning and analytic verve, their seriousness and sense of play. The list of critical works includes his gripping first book, The Untuning of the Sky: Ideas of Music in English Poetry, 1500-1700, and many probing collections of essays on the fictions and parables that poets build out of their formal choices, including Vision and Resonance: Two Senses of Poetic Form, Melodious Guile: Fictive Pattern in Poetic Language, and The Work of Poetry. There is a dense and jewel-like book on the dynamics of literary allusion, The Figure of Echo, and also—among many writings on the relation of visual and verbal art—The Gazer’s Spirit: Poems Looking at Silent Works of Art. Rhyme’s Reason: A Guide to English Verse, with its array of self-explaining poetic exemplars, remains an unsurpassed introduction to the mysteries of poetic form. John was also was a beloved and influential teacher of both undergraduates and graduate students, leaving his mark on generations of scholars and working poets alike, as the contributions below may begin to suggest.
John’s poetry—always at the center of things—runs from the witty and comic to the meditative and visionary (aspects of the work often combined in surprising ways). There are great single lyrics, but the most powerful achievements are, I think, long poems and sequences such as Reflections on Espionage, “Spectral Emanations,” The Powers of Thirteen, “Tesserae,” and “Kinneret.” In ways that remain to be mapped, it is a poetry that invites us to re-enter, and see transformed, the whole range of English poetry from Edmund Spenser, Ben Jonson, and Andrew Marvell to the work of Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, and Elizabeth Bishop. John knew in his bones what he called, in a favorite lyric, “Adam’s Task,” the difficult work of naming the world’s creatures. He was a world and he created a world. As W. H. Auden says of Edward Lear, “he became a land.”
What follows are five memory pieces in honor of John. Each takes its own way in catching at his generosity and power as friend and teacher, poet and scholar, roles always intertwined for John. For further discussions of the work readers should turn to the collection Never Again Would Birds’ Song Be the Same: New essays on Poetry and Poetics, Renaissance to Modern, In Honor of John Hollander (New Haven: Beinecke Library, 2002), edited by Jennifer Lewin. This book includes, along with essays on Renaissance literature by many of John’s students, a gathering of essays on John’s own poetry and intellectual presence by David Bromwich, Stephen Cushman, Elise Jorgens, Steven Meyer, David Mikics, Aidan Wasley, and myself, along with a bibliography of his published writings.
University of Rochester
Stephen Orgel: Remembering John
There never was a time when John and I didn’t know each other. Our grandparents were friends, our parents were best friends; the Hollanders always lived nearby, and for several formative childhood years we lived in the same apartment house. They were an ideal alternative family for me: they were musical and literary; John’s father, my uncle Frank, a distinguished physiologist, was quiet and shy, but beneath the shyness witty and affectionate, and a good pianist—I learned Gilbert and Sullivan as we sang together while Frank played through the songbook. John’s mother Muriel, my aunt Mullie, had done graduate work in Comparative Literature at Columbia, and was enormously literate; she taught at the High School of Music and Art, one of New York’s best public high schools. She was large and I suppose ungainly, in contrast to my tiny mother; but for me as a small child she was immensely comforting. She was also opinionated and disorganized, good-humored, smart and funny, and John was very much her child.
Since John was four years older than I, we weren’t playmates—John’s younger brother Michael was my best friend—but John was always a significant presence, even when I was 4 or 5 and he was 8 or 9, sometimes fascinating, generally disruptive. Not invariably congenial, of course: we were children. Here is my earliest memory of him: I cannot have been older than 6. We lived on the 16th floor and the Hollanders lived on the 8th floor. On cold or rainy days when going out to play was not an option, our cook Edith, to get me out of the house (because being in the house inevitably meant being in the kitchen) would suggest that I go downstairs and play with Mickey. These suggestions were not to be resisted, but going downstairs was not a trivial enterprise. To begin with I had to summon the elevator: these were the days before automatic elevators, and summoning the elevator meant summoning Joe the elevator man. Joe was my friend.
The first few times, Joe left me at the 8th floor and proceeded on his way. I would ring the doorbell to 8A; if either Mickey or Lee the cook answered, all was well. But the first time John answered, the following exchange took place. “What do you want?” “I want to play with Mickey.” “You can’t”; and the door was firmly closed. I dared not ring again, and there was no way of getting back upstairs without summoning Joe, and admitting to Joe and then to Edith that I had been denied access to my best friend. My memory of the incident does not extend beyond the desolation of being alone in the 8th floor hallway and wondering how long I could wait before pressing the elevator bell; but Joe was sympathetic, and thereafter would wait to see whether I was admitted, and if I was turned away would sometimes collude with me to the extent of taking me downstairs to play in the secret recesses of the lobby, so that I could return upstairs after a decent interval to claim to Edith that yes, Mickey and I had had fun together.
It’s surely not accidental that my first memory of John was of intimidation. I learned endlessly and voluminously from him over the years, and learned to love him, but I never learned not to be intimidated by him. He was the elder brother I never had, and sometimes never wanted—my own family had mixed feelings about him, despite the genuine depth of the family ties. He was acknowledged to be brilliant; but he was too obviously neurotic to satisfy my Freudian-analyst father’s standards of behavior; and my practical mother simply found him strange and unpredictable. He could be overwhelming; but from very early he was an inexhaustible intellectual and emotional resource for me, and soon enough, an indispensable friend. When it came time to apply to colleges, I thought of nowhere except Columbia. He and Anne were together by that time, and they introduced me into a circle of poets, with two of whom, Richard Howard and Allen Ginsberg, I immediately fell in love (Richard remained a lifelong friend; Allen didn’t pay much attention to me beyond reading my poems sympathetically enough, and urging me to smoke dope and drop out of college and join the Merchant Marines: the latter would make a man of me, he said, and they would both be good for my poetry). We had private names for each other—John was Ho, I was Deve. We continued using these for the rest of our lives.
In the summer of 1953 John and Anne and I drove to Cleveland, and lived in Anne’s huge family house in Cleveland Heights. Anne’s father, Arthur Loesser, a musicologist and a superb pianist, had written a history of the piano, and we spent two months preparing a copious index. We would work all day in an attic study, reading proofs and making index cards, which included entries for an increasing number of fictitious composers and parodic keyboard instruments invented by John—Arthur eventually complained that we were using too many index cards, but on the whole he was a singularly indulgent employer and host, and much of our work was conducted in a condition of high hilarity. We would descend at the end of the day, and Arthur would ask for the most arcane or absurd items we had indexed, and would then play them for us, astoundingly, from memory. I still recall his spirited rendition of Kotswara’s Battle of Prague, for which he provided a moving commentary (“Cries of the wounded and dying”; “Field Marshall Maximilian orders a retreat”). The prodigy Leopoldine Blahetka, who was pronounced an excellent pianist when she played for Beethoven at the age of 5 (by which time, John immediately pointed out, Beethoven was totally deaf) remained a figure in our personal mythology for years afterward.
A few bits from our time together at Harvard, more than half a century ago: again we were a little family. John as a Junior Fellow was absolutely in his element, and he was already a well-known poet—his first book, A Crackling of Thorns, was selected by Auden as the Yale Series of Younger Poets volume while we were at Harvard. Anne was into everything, making costumes, painting, learning Russian. I was working hard at being a graduate student. On the day before one of my worst ordeals, the graduate German exam, John gave me a poem about a cat called Enter Machiavel, Waving His Tail (it’s in A Crackling of Thorns). I don’t think he intended it to have any particular relevance, but it includes the wonderful lines “Living among men has made me / A dialectical cat,” and it somehow seemed appropriate: astonishingly, despite my genuine incompetence in the language, I passed the exam, feeling I had somehow faced down Harvard and John had had something to do with it.
John was meeting people he hugely admired at the Society of Fellows—Stanley Cavell, Willard Quine, Arthur Darby Nock, George Kateb (the list could go on and on)—but he had contempt for most of the Harvard English faculty (the great exception was Reuben Brower). Douglas Bush, from whom I learned a great deal and who was extremely kind to me, in particular earned nothing but scorn from John—I was never clear why, but my accounts of the week’s seminar always produced massive performances of outrage, which were a source of predictable entertainment for both of us. I think we were both eager to maintain our Columbia credentials. There was also lots of learned talk, of course, about music and poetry (The Untuning of the Sky was a work always in progress), Wallace Stevens and Frost, quantity in verse, Falstaff as Dionysus, and about court masques, my dissertation topic; but the most memorable things for me now were the lighthearted ones, the jokes we shared. We had most fun with Harry Levin, a Senior Fellow in the Society, and hence John’s weekly dinner companion, and my adviser and dissertation director—in the latter capacity he was irritatingly negligent, though he claimed to like me. I was also for two years his assistant in the big undergraduate Shakespeare course, so I had a lot of him. He was genuinely learned, brilliant, gifted, but also pretentious and easy to parody. He became the source of a running gag that John and I kept going for almost fifty years. When I started publishing articles, I would always send Harry an offprint. Without exception these were never acknowledged. Several weeks later I would send a note saying that I had sent the offprint, and that if it had gone astray I would send another. Invariably I would immediately receive back an offprint of his, always inscribed simply “Sorry, H. T. L.” For decades after, John and I would inscribe our offprints to each other “Sorry, H. T. L.”
I have a lifetime of memories of John, but as Edith Wharton says, recalling her friendship with Henry James in her memoir A Backward Glance, “Those evenings come back to me with a mocking radiance.” I despair of reconstructing the enchantment of his conversation and the warmth of his company.
Susanne Wofford: For John: great teacher, poetic guide
John Hollander was a great teacher and colleague of mine during my graduate school years at Yale and during the beginning of my assistant professor days.
One memory that sticks with me from my earliest days of acquaintance with John was a tutorial that Debra Fried (now of Cornell’s English Department) and I took from him—we met bi-weekly in John’s office in Silliman College, which happened to be also and appropriately the office that had once belonged to William Wimsatt. I have no idea what the official topic of the tutorial was, but we read widely in a huge range of Renaissance texts. This was during the time that he had just received a reprinted edition of all the Renaissance mythologies and emblem books, and he taught us how to plunge into them. I always felt terribly embarrassed because he would pick up one of these mythologies and refer in learned ways to the author and his approach to allegorizing—to Conti and Comes (were they the same person, I wondered) , and I never had any idea at all in advance of his disquisition who these authors were. It was quite an immersion, and I find that only now have I begun to realize how much I learned from him and how central these mythologies are as I return to them in my own work.
Debra and I would meet on off weeks to prepare our presentations and discussions with John during the tutorial. No matter how hard we worked, John would always ask us a question we had not thought of, sometimes flooring us (at least I was often at a loss). We were in awe of his comments and analyses, but what we loved especially were his digressions. We agreed that he was the master of the digression, finding ways into material through the back door that were unexpected and truly illuminating. Debra used to say that one John Hollander digression was worth ten prepared lectures by others, and this was what we both felt. The fact that the digressions took us away from the text at hand never mattered because it would open so many doors for us and always would return (with sometimes a bit of a bump) to the original line of poetry or stanza under discussion.
It was in this tutorial that John asked us whether we thought Shakespeare was gay. We seriously meditated, wondering how he imagined we should answer such a question, and while we were thinking, he laughed and said: “Not compared to Marlowe!” Then he launched into a reading of parts of “Hero and Leander,” talking of the amazing sensuousness of the water on Leander’s body. I have thought of this moment often because of course it was the poet’s answer—witty, a comment really on the verse not the biography, but open-minded, playful. This was John as a teacher at his best—finding a wonderfully non-polemical way to address an important issue that had not, in this era, yet made it into graduate seminar discussions, at least not at Yale in 1977.
Years later, I once attended a public seminar at the house of a leading political scientist at which John was asked to speak briefly about emblems and allegory, with the intention of there being a discussion afterwards. The audience came from many fields. I noticed with amusement that many listeners were not aware of John’s capacity for digression, nor of the richness and complexity of his poetic and philosophical meanderings. An hour later, as the audience was listening with awe and consternation, it became apparent that John had only begun to dent his topic. In the end he had to be stopped—there was simply no way that he could download his knowledge on this central topic of his love and obsession in a brief 20 minutes or so.
After his death, I reread the whole of Reflections on Espionage, and was struck by his poetic sense of the danger and power of the “encrypting” process that must be a part of writing great poetry. Certainly John believed that scholarship too needed to include a de-coding and re-coding exercise—an understanding of how to move between discursive structures and between idioms and languages. I do not think he believed any one of them was dominant or the underlying, determining one—no master codes here. The poetic troping might BE the point for John, or the mythological meaning it pointed to, or the psychological richness, or comment on public languages. I think that his words from his agent persona Cupcake capture this idea most clearly—that what matters, as he writes in a poem 9/12 to “Image,” is “doing the work.” He writes in the introduction to the volume that the poems addressed to “Image” were sent to James Merrill because he was interested in receiving comments on poetic form. “Encipherment,” John writes, “generally also suggested such older poetic notions as emblematics and the doctrine of signatures, and such acutely present ones as that of the plain text of experience enciphered in trope itself figuring the central poetic matter of trope being enciphered in pattern or scheme; of Frostian ulteriority, of another aspect of the overall matter of private and public lives” (pp. xii-xiii). This is classic Hollander—an exfoliating set of ideas upon ideas in which each tropes the other but none is trump. This is what he taught us to read in Renaissance poetry and in his own:
I just heard that you had returned earlierThan expected, and I hasten to greet you.Your report, though yet incomplete, on ProjectAlphabet is marvelous. From what I hearLyrebird will try to take some of the credit,I know. But doing the work is what matters.I have missed your messages, and even theSound, as it were, of your cipher recordedSoftly in my memory. ( …)(9/12: (To Image) p. 68)
John was a great reader of parts of my first book—he liked the section on ecphrasis and gave me many helpful ideas I hadn’t thought of, and it meant a lot in that period to have someone like John admire my work. I still have some of his old mimeographed sheets on emblem books and the Renaissance Ovid that I have copied over the years and given to my students. Like many teachers who did not study with John directly, I also continue to use Rhyme’s Reason, one of the most accessible and witty tools for introducing students to poetic meter and form. His account there of iambic pentameter, and how it was used by Milton and Frost, remains among my favorites. He was an important model of a literary teacher for me, and of how to be a generous intellectual companion. I do miss his messages, and his teacher’s and poet’s cipher is recorded softly in my memory.
Kenneth Gross: Words for John Hollander
In 1974, when I was twenty, I read a long poem called “The Head of the Bed,” and fell in love with its cadences. I remember still the uncanny force of lines about passing half one’s days in the shadows of the earth:
. . . the dark cloak of substance beyond mass,
Though heavy, flung with diurnal panache
Over his heavier head, weighed it down.
Way down at the bottom of a shaft sunk
Through the grass of sleep to deep stone he lay,
Draped in the shade cast inward by the place
All outward shadows fall upon, and on
His tongue an emerald glittered, unseen,
A green stone colder in the mouth than glass.
I had no thought then that when I came to Yale three years later, to work toward my doctorate, the poet would become my teacher, though there was some stark instruction in this intensely private dream book, a kind of interior quest-romance where waking and sleeping keep exchanging places, to test and expand the revelations of both.
John had a way of talking about “the work” with an emphasis I had never heard before. It took in writing and life together. It was about taking pleasure as much as taking pains, about tracking one’s dreams and reflecting on them, minding them. John asked you to think with him, to take more chances than you might have normally taken in thought, writing, and reading, to trust your demons but also interrogate them, to trust and test the fables that shape your thought. His advice to me, indeed, often took the form of a fable or question whose sense I would only understand after a year’s thinking. There was delight in this, of course. John knew the danger, in one’s striving to be serious, of putting away the wrong childish things, as he once put it. So play was always a serious matter for him, really at the center of things. His laughter was generous, wicked, unpredictable, and infectious. He understood clowns, their powers of survival and invention.
John’s ear for what spoke in other poets was matchless—as was his ear for everything, from Renaissance madrigals to the static on a telephone line. Merely by the way he spoke aloud lines from the poets we studied, John helped me to understand how a poet’s hearing speaks, how it acquires a voice and substance, extends one’s sense of what is possible—the only true wealth, as he once wrote. So his way of listening to you was a powerful, challenging thing, as he looked at you with his blue eyes, his body perched waiting.
John could be fierce in his criticism of other writers. He was hardest, I think, on those who let their language become too literalized, too ready to embrace an empty formula or pre-made truth, partly because it seemed to block the life of new thought, the challenges of revising and re-animating what we know. They were writers with dead ears, or who deadened the reader’s ear. Yet such impatience in him was overborne by immense generosity. One crucial thing John taught me was how to be taught by others, by poets, scholars, and artists, how to make them parts of one’s internal conversation, one’s daily encounters with the world. In this, the posing of questions was endless, always changing, the questions themselves becoming like creatures with a life of their own, resisting the ruins of other questions.
Innumerable moments from his intense and rambling seminars still stick in my mind. I remember how he improvised a self-descriptive pastiche of a song-setting by Handel, sung in gravelly tenor, in order to demonstrate how music and text might mutually sustain and gloss each other in this composer’s work (a performed version of the kinds of poetic examples which compose his Rhyme’s Reason). I remember how, when we were reading Book V of The Faerie Queene, he said of the Egalitarian Giant: that giant is John Rawls, and one of the troubling things about American intellectual life these days is that John Rawls hasn’t read Spenser, and that most Spenser scholars have not read John Rawls. I remember how he traced the journey made by the phrase “wat’ry flower” as it passed from lines describing the dying Narcissus in the Gardens of Adonis to Robert Frost’s “Spring Pools”—the account reminded you not just of Frost’s powers of echo and revision but of just how strange the original phrase itself is.
I remember his response to a comment of mine in a Milton seminar, when I said that perhaps, after all, Samson Agonistes couldn’t be staged, for how could you imagine someone coming on stage in a shaggy wig, and suddenly discovering that his hair is troped—John looked at me somewhat disapprovingly, and said: “That’s why there are actors.” I remember a wonderful excursion on the history of aspirin (the first truly synthetic drug, whose name spoke of hope), which glossed the figure of the “Canon Aspirin” in Wallace Stevens’s “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction.” I remember how, dwelling on a line from Thomas Hardy’s “During Wind and Rain”—“And the rotten rose is ript from the wall”—he conveyed a kind breathless delight in the look and substance of an actual rotted rose.
One thing I have always loved about John’s poems, densely wrought and intellectually demanding as they can be, is how full they are of much-loved ordinary phenomena: the white circle of the moon hanging in a blue morning sky; yellow and red leaves caught by a spiral of wind; sun flashing on ice; the strange arrangements of shadows in a room when you wake at 2 am; the look of a trembling circle of wine in a cup; the first chill of autumn; the blur of a bird as it darts past your eye while you look at the sea; the discordant hum of the wind in a ship’s steel rigging. In the poetry these things become gifts, profane sacraments, also forms of making and knowing, dark figures and fables of longing, sorrow, delight, and fear: “In marked but quiet waves the water kept / Time with the heartbeats of an old elation,” John wrote of the moving surface of a harp-shaped lake. These things become the spectral emanations of a self, dream landscapes, but also ties back to the world, to other minds and other poems. It is also one of the reasons why the poems always feel like love poetry—as all of The Faerie Queene is a love poem, a quest for forms of love.
John’s 1976 book Reflections on Espionage is a strange kind of Spenserian allegorical-reflective roman a clef in which a fictive world of spies sharing secret communications, and talk about codes, agents, secret drops, rival networks, etc., becomes a parable about the world of poets, the strange, often troubling kinds of communications they have with one another and with the world. Early in the text, the the master-spy Cupcake, that anxious encoder and decoder of experience, writes to his unnamed controller about the loss of a senior agent named Steampump. It is John’s elegy for his own friend and mentor, W. H. Auden, but I’ve kept on reading the poem to myself, thinking of its words as inevitably about John:
Steampump is gone. He died quietly in his
Hotel room and his sleep. His cover people
Attended to everything. What had to
Be burned was burned. He taught me, as you surely
Know, all that I know; yet I had to pass him
By in the Square at evening—in the soft
Light of wrought-iron lamps and the rich, cheerful
Shadows which rose up from the stones to meet it—
Without even our eyes having touched, without
Acknowledgement. And thereby, of course, we were
Working together. What kind of work is this
For which if we were to touch in the darkness
It would be without feeling the other there?
It might help to know whether Steampump’s dying
Was part of the work or not; I shall not be
Told, I know. Until next time, this is Cupcake.
Jennifer Lewin: Explaining John, or, Digression is the Better Part of Valor
In the late 1990s, as one of John Hollander’s doctoral students, I was flattered when asked to become his research assistant, a job he described with both vagueness and urgency. It was as if his acknowledgement of the state of disarray in his home office in Woodbridge—a room referred to as “the Augean stables” by those in the know—didn’t necessarily extend to an admission of culpability, or a confession of a desire to reform, but rather a fascination with it. He would smile when using his term for my sorting and piling (“triage”), as if mocking himself for even suggesting a comparison between a medical situation and the legendary mess, and he was eager for me to start as soon as possible. Like the Cheshire Cat, the office itself seemed to have its own elusive intentions, tolerating John’s presence but not dependent on it.
Meanwhile, I wasn’t totally naïve about the situation, because in addition to the Homeric metaphor, an essay called “Mess” (Yale Review, 1995) had appeared a couple of years earlier and it had ended with a lovely observation about the attitude of “resignation” that he, his cat, and the office mess all share concerning one another. And John’s combined sense of bafflement and responsibility had put me in mind of the concluding lines of his poem “The Angler’s Story” whose cataloging of a dream’s figurative detritus ends thus: “It was / my bucket, and I have had to continue to listen.”
On our first day of work together, John gave me a tour of the space, moving from pile to pile, shaking his head like the Mad Hatter about the need for something to be done, and soon, about the mess, but then those (self?) admonitions magically and abruptly would come to an end the minute he focused on a particular item in a stack. He’d pull something out and what had been an explanation of an organizational principle or a new task for me quickly became explorations of the contents of the piles: here was so-and-so’s book, here was this ex-student’s first volume of poetry; there was a stack of off-prints, here was an op-ed piece John had written early in his career. Occasionally he took it upon himself to ask me if I’d read a book, usually by Thomas Mann, and if I admitted ignorance, he’d send me home with a copy. We didn’t get much of John’s ostensible projects done by the end of the day, but I’d go home feeling edified.
I mention my work as John’s research assistant because in those sessions in Woodbridge he was modeling for me the life of someone so animated by his projects that even tackling seemingly small tasks took on mythopoetic proportions and fit into an overall scheme of fascination and delight. And this is what allegory is. It’s as if his entire office were a landscape like The Faerie Queene’s, though it was fraught with considerably less danger for us than for the characters. Although John’s scholarship on Spenser isn’t quantitatively extensive—he published a handful of articles, reviews, and entries for reference books—his orientation as a Spenserian thinker is unquestionable; reasons for this have been discussed elsewhere in this issue by Bishop and Gross and some are apparent from the topics chosen by contributors to the festschrift I edited, Never Again Would Birds’ Song Be the Same: New Essays on Early Modern and Modern Poetry and Poetics in Honor of John Hollander (Beinecke Library, 2002). When John Watkins wrote to me about his essay on female vocality from Homer to Milton, for example, he exclaimed: “It’s SO John!” If Spenser was a serious thinker, that seriousness was inseparable from his sense of humor, and John never missed a chance to highlight the interplay between the sagacity and the silliness. In containing multitudes, Spenser also generated them, inspiring an admiration that took several shapes, from enthusiastic allusions to Spenser’s descendants as an ecphrastic writer (in his introduction to The Gazer’s Spirit: Poems Speaking to Silent Works of Art) to multiply joyful references to Spenser in Rhyme’s Reason: A Guide to English Verse—not only does John write his own Spenserian stanza, exemplifying what it explains, but he engages Spenser as a sonneteer several times. In addition, many early modernists were drawn to work with him because of his clear enthusiasm for the poet; his Spenser course at Yale was widely popular; tributes on the Spenser list-serv right after John’s death in mid-August of last year came in from many of those ex-students. And many of us who love Spenser associate that love with John’s passion for all of his poetry—not only its prosody and its local narrative and thematic shapes and turns, but above all its capacity to inspire the inseparability of all kinds of work and play, no matter how seemingly unrelated.
The image of John getting distracted by the names of the authors whose work was always to be discovered and re-discovered in those office piles reminds me of one final anecdote. On the first day of his undergraduate course on seventeenth-century lyrical modes, which I audited, John initially grumbled that so many students had shown up to try to register for what was probably a full class. He even tried to scare them off by warning them that no amount of obsequious behavior would get them into the class and that they should instead offer an account of what the class would miss out on were they not to be admitted. This had the unintended effect of scaring most of them even more; one student even paid me quite well to proofread her final paper, as if I held the key to his grading habits. I noticed, though, that his sizable digression on the topic of registration, enrollment, and the dreaded shopping period would stop, though, the minute he glanced the names on the roster and started to call them. It was as if the students only then had become real to him: his eyes sparkled, he gladly started to teach, and all of the grumpiness vanished.
John’s feeling that he was a latecomer to Spenser’s world didn’t preclude his dedication to it. Characteristically, he said of his warming to Spenser, in an interview with JD McClatchy, that it was a lot like coming to understand himself better personally and as a poet. So I would like to end with John’s own words about that process:
… was not making much contact with many earlier traditions—that is, I think I still believed, in my early twenties, Donne to be a greater poet than Milton. This was nonsense, but it’s what I’d been taught to believe. I hadn’t shaken that off yet. I hadn’t read Spenser at all, just a few bits, the obligatory bits, and hadn’t understood what Spenser being “the poet’s poet” meant—that is, the poet that other poets could comprehend when other people couldn’t. This relation to poetry was really a little bit like my relation to my own peculiar anomalous condition.
Tom Bishop: Bold Sir John
John was more fun and more exciting to be around than almost anyone I have ever known. This astonished me the first few times I met him, since, as a graduate student at Yale, fresh off the plane from Australia, I expected only the highest of high seriousness from everything associated with Yale English in the early 1980s. Of course, John would have vehemently refused any antithesis between fun and seriousness (their opposites, he said, were solemnity and frivolity). Even when he was grumpy, gusts of hilarious sunshine could suddenly break through the clouds if a comic thought struck him. Conversation with him—if what we had was conversation rather than a kind of soliloquy punctuated by opportunities—might always dart off in the most unexpected of directions, whose deeper pull often took me weeks, or longer, to figure out.
A habit of spirit I deeply loved in him was his fierce delight and championing of popular culture and the resources of repose and revival it offered for more decorously arty enterprises. I’ve never known anyone so happily messing about and building castles in the sandpit of “the lowbrow,” a term he disliked except as a joke. We had hilarious exchanges on such matters as Warner Bros. cartoons, with their sophisticated snook-cockery, the music of Gershwin and Carl Stalling, and on routines of slapstick stoogery like the variable uses of the hat in early film comedy—he pointed out that W.C. Fields always held onto his like a man who knows he may need to make a run for it at any minute, whereas Keaton’s was specially cut down and stiffened so that it could roll, and hence be chased, down the street faster. His great grins and guffaws would leap out at lines from cheap movies, or at the comic trajectories of actors’ careers—such as Leslie Nielsen’s migration from Commander J. Adams in Forbidden Planet (shadowing Ferdinand from The Tempest) to Dr. Rumack in Airplane!—the courtliness of the former transmogrified into corniness in the latter. He loved the double-take, both in theory and in practice: Cary Grant’s, for instance, in Arsenic and Old Lace when he finds the body in the window-seat.
More than once, John lamented that an earlier age of fruitful conversation and borrowing between popular and art music seemed to him to have come to an end some time, I think, in the 1970s. He was easily able to see in songs of The Beatles the latest in a long succession of poet-lyricists: “Isn’t it good?” he would sing, “Nor-WE-gian Wood,” showing how the jump in pitch made fun of the speaker’s fashionable pretensions. But he felt this was an increasingly isolated case, and that popular and art practices of song should talk, or sing, to one another more. He, of course, could sing both high and low, and often literally did, and he loved contamination between them. He wrote texts for Milton Babbitt, but he played the piano and sang more or less the entire American popular songbook. I believe he was very keen on a recording of lieder made by Barbra Streisand. And he once told me his favorite opera was The Magic Flute, particularly in Bergman’s film of it, at once so sophisticated—constructing for itself a genealogy stretching between The Tempest and Parsifal—and so clunky, with its collapsing pantomime dragon. A swooping exposition on the moral force of high and low in Mozart’s music for it followed, with comment on Bergman’s decision to make Sarastro into Pamina’s estranged father and hence the maker of the Magic Flute itself. That Auden also loved and translated a libretto for it must have particularly endeared it to John, whose own imaginative genealogy seemed half Sarastro, half Papageno. I don’t think John had much time for Tamino. And I don’t know how well he knew Leonard Bernstein, but he knew all the lyrics to the Old Lady’s Tango from Candide.
To read Spenser with John was to be constantly reminded of the presence of the demotic and popular in the poem. He couldn’t abide the “sage and serious” version for too long and felt it mis-stated the sort of imagination Spenser had and where it got its energy from. Yes, those were allegoretic arguments in the form of hymns at the start of each canto, but they were also snatches from some imaginary old ballad scattered in diaspora across the epic. Yes, Orgoglio, pronounced à l’italien, was Pride and Lust and Sin, but then OrGOGlio, pronounced English, was also a giant, a puppet, a parade float collapsing in a ridiculous hissing heap as all the air went out of him (sidenote to a scene in Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose when a ridiculous gunfight breaks out in a warehouse full of Macy’s Parade balloons, causing everyone to shout in squeaks). Yes, those tapestries in Busirane’s house were Ovidian and Petrarchan forms of high art, but they were also like Big-Screen TV or Bugs Bunny, old-style before the main feature at the Saturday movies, in the way they set up relations and distortions of identification, size and scope between viewer and viewed.
Romance now seems to me the centre of my experience of John—their both shuttling back and forth between high and low, their promiscuous playfulness, the ulteriority (a word he strongly and gleefully appropriated from Frost) and obliquity craftily or casually (or both) concealed in their errant, even vagrant procedures. Sometimes his sentences were themselves small romances of discovery, in which the topic was quested for across a whole ramshackle country of associations and misrecognitions that turned out to be sidequests of the same or a different topic. A favourite magic word, sure to elicit a laugh, was “Meanwhile,” which also began one of his favourite contemporary poems, Kennech Koch’s “Ko; or A Season on Earth.” John was always questing in one way or another—a sublime Pellinore in sly cahoots with the Questing Beast, poised over traces, spoor and fumets (including words like “fumets”). His Quest for the Gole, which pretends to be, and is (the relation between being and pretending being a main subject for it), a children’s book, is one of his loveliest, most joyous and endearing works. Grizzle-bearded, eyes twinkling, the Knight of Strange Meaning galumphing towards the horizon, carrying his codebook (kabbalah, word-hoard, pop-up) into a far country.