- On John Hollander’s “Owl”
Suppose we start with grammar, assuming we’ve glanced at the look of “Owl” on the page, as if through the eyes of May Swenson. Here is the way she began to read a poem: “I like to see the poem first as a shut box or package to be opened, within which is an invention whose particular working I hope to discover. Something can be felt about it even before beginning to read: its profile on the page, its regular or irregular pattern of stanzas, length of lines, their symmetry, its wide or thin shape, its look of bulk or lightness.” 1 So here, we observe a one-word title: a noun, no article, and so more like Bishop’s “Sandpiper” than Frost’s “The Oven Bird.” Then quatrains, twenty-four of them, each shorter in its third and more in its fourth line; the pulse iambic and 5 5 4 3 (pentameter twice, tetrameter, trimeter), the rhyme a b a b. Each stanza, in little, looks and listens like an owl, narrowing down to its fourth line, listening to the sounds and silences both—the sounds of the full end-rhymes, assonance, midline rhyming, schematic echoes, and so on; and the silences resonating in the vacant space left by one fewer foot in the third line, then two in the fourth, an effect especially noticeable in the end-stopped lines. This stanza form is (I believe) John Hollander’s own, 2 and it teaches us how to listen better. Owls hunt with their ears as well as their eyes, and with only their ears if necessary.
In starting with grammar, I am simply choosing one partner in the dance of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic that constitutes all writing. I shall touch on lexical questions and two senses of voice, before turning to the heart of the matter, the poem’s figuration and fable, then end [End Page 167] with some remarks on “Owl” as part of all Hollander’s work and also as a poem of our moment.
The grammar, then, and first the syntactic variety of the sentences. T. S. Eliot wrote in 1918 that technique is not simply “what may be learned from a manual of prosody. This is making technique easy. . . . Technique is more volatile; it can only be learned, the more difficult part of it, by absorption. Try to put into a sequence of simple quatrains the continuous syntactic variety of Gautier or Blake . . . .” 3 Something of Hollander’s distinctive voice in both poetry and prose lies in his great command of grammatical structures, including his syntactic variety. “Owl” is strongly predicative in style (note the complex syntax, and the remarkably high use of participles, past and present). The sentences give the effect of generating themselves, especially through their parallel grammatical constructions, where the last term in a double or triple set is likely to be modified by a clause or phrase—the whole sentence ramifying and exfoliating, as if we were watching a zoological or genealogical tree grow under our eyes. [See, for example, the parallel participles in the last line of stanza 4 and stanza 5: “Taking heed . . . you more than see.” Or consider how one participle leads to another in stanzas 15 through 17, beginning with “Trembling . . . .”]
Such syntactic energy gives a quick, vital rhythm to the sentence—a fast pace, given the richness of thought, hints, implications. A pace sometimes slightly nervous, curbing and steadying its own energies, partly through the regular beat of the simple rhyme scheme and quatrain. It seems to me that the forward propulsion of both the grammar and dialectic is steadied, directed, by the rhetorical schemes—that rhetoric here offers what I want to call something like a discipline of simplicity. This is a function we may not associate with rhetorical schemes, those “surface patterns of words” that “carry no meanings per se.” 4 In Roman Jakobson’s terms—and his discussion of parallelism was really the only thing that helped with what I was hearing—what I am hearing is the pull between a regular, simple parallelism of stanza form and a much-varied, complex parallelism of...