Sunday, March 20, 2011

John Hollander's 13-line American Love Affair (Accidental Poetry Month, Part 11)

Two recent posts each referenced to (different) poetry anthologies by John Hollander, who I also knew as the author of the classic work Rhyme's Reason: a Guide to English Verse. This serendipity made me wonder about Hollander's own poetry which (grading still undone) I went and read some of. I like him -- I think I may come to like him a lot, although far from having come to any considered judgment, I'm still processing my first impression. But as part of Attemps's Accidental Poetry Month™ I thought I'd share my favorite of his poems so far.

The poem I've selected is from Hollander's 1983 collection Powers of Thirteen, which won him the Bollingen prize and which was included in its entirety (unlike his other books, which were selected from) in his 1992 Selected Poems, so it seems like at least some people (including, presumably, Hollander himself (assuming he selected the selections in Selected P)) think it's representative of his best work.

Powers of Thirteen is, by the sound of it (so far I've only read a few selections I've found online) a rather Oulipian work.* It consists of 169 (13 squared) poems, each of 13 lines, with 13 syllables in each line. I can't (yet) comment on the success (or otherwise) of the whole, but the following poem (which may or may not be titled An Old Song -- the online source I've found is ambiguous on this), which is the 29th poem in the series, is quite wonderful.
Powers of Thirteen: 29

What she and I had between us once, America
And its hope had; and just as I grieve alternately
For what I know myself to have lost of what had been,
And for all that loss I was suffering all that while
I was doing, I thought, so well, so goes the nation,
Grieving for her hope, either lost, or from the very
Start, a lost cause. All our states and I are one in this.
O my America, my long-lost land lady of
The hardening ground, the house neither ancient nor in
Good repair, the brackish stream, the half-abandoned mill,
The red plastic bucket that hung in the place we kept
By the beach where, I remember, August evenings
Rang with hilarity until we trembled with cold.

-- John Hollander

There are a limited number of poems that seem to me to say something genuinely insightful about America; but this is, I think (again, I'm still assimilating it) one of them.

I hope to get ahold of Hollander's Selected Poems in the near future; if so, I'll share further thoughts (and, probably, further poems) then.

* The Oulipo is a French literary group that studies and promotes the notion of literary constraint; any poetic form, whether old like a sonnet or new like Hollander's 13s, counts -- and the fact that the work contains 169 such poems makes it doubly (squaredly?) so.

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