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John Hollander, a Reminiscence
April 19, 2014
The recent obituary for John Hollander in the New York Times took me back to my second semester freshman English class at Connecticut College for Women (as it then was) in 1958. John Hollander was under 30, already one of Yale’s “younger poets.” I was impressed by this though, I’m ashamed to say, it was years before I read his work. I was 17.
Tall and pale with soft features, Professor Hollander was not sexy. What got my attention was the poem he wrote with spatulate fingers on the blackboard:
Buffalo Bill ‘s
who used to
ride a watersmooth-silver
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeons-
just like that
he was a handsome man
and what i want to know is
how do you like your blueeyed boy
I had never heard of e.e. cummimgs, scarcely read an American poet beyond the ubiquitous Longfellow in my grade school readers. My teachers at Shipley were Anglophiles who fed us Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, and Keats. Hardy passed for a modern. Short as it was, I quickly memorized this new idea of what a poem could be: brutal, confrontational in its questioning tone, with idiosyncratic line breaks, runtogether words, its mix of upper and lower case. It’s surprising how often I think of it, how mysterious this poem remains after all these years. I believe Professor Hollander meant to shock us, but he did not “teach” the poem or, as I remember, solicit discussion. Wisely, he made it a gift, something to internalize, to ponder.
Professor Hollander also bequeathed me an indelible comment: Your paper is somewhat hampered by the fact that you fail to understand the poem. B-. Funny, succinct, brilliant. This was the nail on the head, but left me with my dignity intact, I, who had graduated from high school with honors in English and expected to do well. I was under the wire with a B-, and again he made no attempt to enlighten me, but left it to me to go back to the poem if I cared to.
It was all very impersonal. Professor Hollander cared more about poetry than he did about us, and I doubt that he connected my paper with my face. I was shy, so this suited me. This sort of indirect, almost silent, teaching is out of favor today. Teachers are expected to come on like Big Bird in the classroom, to make clear suggestions for improvement, to find out what students are thinking, to be aware of what’s going on at home, to consider seriously the most inane responses so as not to damage self esteem, to inflate grades, to be unintimidating and available, office doors always open.
I wish a lot of things. I wish I had prepared for the French bachot while growing up in Haiti. I wish hymn singing were a required school subject. I wish I had had the courage to become a teacher more like John Hollander. But as a younger person at least, I did not have his certain destiny, his sense of self. I was influenced by structural criticism, all the rage in graduate school in the 60s. I bowed to the AP exam and to department chairs who stressed analysis over appreciation.
I wish I could remember more about the tone, mood, and atmosphere, so important to poetry, in that long ago classroom. What else did we read? What did we do for the rest of the hour? Did we now faceless young women talk about the poem, or about our professor later among ourselves? Did we come back to e e cummings? I know I did. A couple of years later, I rushed to hear him read, a white-haired elfin figure on stage at the University of Michigan. And Buffalo Bill remains, lodged who knows where, always at the ready.