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Reviewed by:
  • The Work of Poetry
  • Walter E. Broman
The Work of Poetry, by John Hollander; xii & 368 pp. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997, $29.95.

A recent article on political matters ends with the remark, “it is time for thinking, not poetry,” which strikes the familiar chord of the marginal status of poetry in American culture. Professor Hollander in this book attempts to counter this and other stupid clichés as “more truth than poetry” by showing that the work of poetry includes thought and truth and much more, and that it is vital to human life.

Emerson’s pragmatism is a vital thread in the various essays that constitute this book: “. . . poetry always has to struggle to shake off the mold of institutionalization that threatens to cover and poison it” (p. 4). Poetry is the one truly free inquiry; it invites “imaginative and moral inquiry; raising questions about aspects of nature that never appeared to be there until they were strangely pointed out” (p. 7). It employs all the potential powers of language: “. . . it presents emblems to be read, and it presents the general enigma of emblems—of making sense of what we know we are amidst” (p. 57). It is involved in Emerson’s endlessly unfinished quest for truth.

A reader thus begins this book with high anticipation only to founder on prose so clotted and brambly as to be almost unreadable. Even a patient and careful reader can scarcely negotiate this bewildering cascade of phrases, thorny syntax and parade of indigestible paragraphs. The reader works through dizzying shifts from Vaughan to Ashbery to W.C. Fields. This is prose where the sheer pressure of a huge amount of knowledge constantly derails the train of thought. The reader struggles to construe almost every phrase and to find some intelligible binding drift. Well, at least with such abundant knowledge Professor Hollander would not be enrolled among the English professors that Gore Vidal classifies as “silly-billies.” After rereading his poetry, one is forced to conclude that he is a much finer poet than a writer of prose.

Besides hyperventilating erudition, another cause of this discursive disaster is that Professor Hollander is anxious to show in professional detail the [End Page 246] difference between genuine poetry and mere verse or what he calls “clunk.” He deplores the institutionalization of bad poetry in workshops and elsewhere. What he sees as a widespread lack of skill in the craft of poetry disposes him to delve into the minutia of prosody. After quoting from what seems a fairly simple poem, he remarks, “This poem, then, syllabic in scheme, is accentual-syllabic in instance, prominently rhymed aabccddcc, with the strophes linked by the b rhyme—and weakly enjambed” (p. 260). This is typical of what we find in his discussions of various poets. I was chagrined to discover myself reacting much as my students did whenever I ventured on prosody: wilting limbs, slack jaws, and glassy eyes. May Swenson turns up as a delightful rediscovery, but her Scandinavian directness of diction was whipped into a complicated froth. He can’t resist putting Geoffrey Hill’s “lines under microscopic poetic scrutiny” (p. 302). We appreciate that poetry does its work by employing a vast variety of the means inherent in language; semantic and emotional juice can even be derived from the small oddities of Swenson’s indentations. However, his arcane comments on the minute aspects of poetry tend to desiccate his claims as to the “uncanny rhetorical power” (p. 289) of Swenson’s “massive panoply.” The discussions too often do not connect with what is marvelous in reading Whitman or Frost or Rossetti.

Professor Hollander sternly eliminates the didactic as the “work” of genuine poetry. “But if we do in fact need both poetry and rhetoric, we should not confuse their functions. Poems do not urge, or propound programs of deportment. . .” (p. 44). This is a proposition that I supposed was widely accepted by most literate persons—well, except for such as my elderly aunt who thinks of poetry as contributing to the perfectibility of man, and considers Polonius to be the best thing in Hamlet. In this book it is made clear...

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pp. 246-248
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