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Poetics Today 22.4 (2001) 866-867

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Book Review

The Work of Poetry

John Hollander, The Work of Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997. xii + 318 pp.

Hollander's book consists of twenty-three essays written in the course of twenty years, beginning in 1977. It is divided into three parts. The first part, "Poetic Substances," includes six essays on various issues ranging from general topics, such as the nature of poetry and originality, to an examination of the poetic powers "Of of: The Poetics of a Preposition." The book's second part, "Poetic Experiences," brings together five essays of a more personal nature dealing with aspects of Hollander's own poetic development, such as his growing acquaintance with the Psalms, reflections on his poetic generation, and his discovery of Wallace Stevens's poetry. The third part, "The Work of Poets," consists of twelve essays on the work of individual poets, [End Page 866] among them Walt Whitman, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, George Meredith, Marianne Moore, and Robert Penn Warren.

The book makes a heterogeneous and uneven collection of essays. However, Hollander's distinctive tone and perspective lend the collection a considerable degree of unity that does not stem from a plan worked out in advance but rather from Hollander's natural inclination to return time and again to the same problems, ideas, and even formulations. In reading him one comes to discern the point of view of a person who, apart from being a critic and a teacher of poetry, is also a poet in his own right. It is therefore hardly surprising that many of his views on the nature of the "work" of poetry derive from the fact that for him poetry indeed constitutes "work" in the fullest and most immediate sense.

In my opinion this book shows Hollander at his best, not so much in his discussion of high-level, wide-ranging generalizations as in his treatment of poetic minutiae and particularities. Especially noteworthy are his essays on the different meanings of the preposition of (96-110), mentioned earlier, and on Moore's prosody, in particular her experimentation with syllabic verse (250-70). Hollander often displays in these essays an acute sensitivity to the special ways poetic language is organized and the manner in which such organization influences perceptions of reality. This kind of sensitivity enables the reader to share something of that attitude to language that, according to Hollander, characterizes the poet, "whose relation to his or her native language is always one of wonder born both of the deepest familiarity and the most puzzling sort of estrangement" (98).


Eyal Segal, Tel Aviv



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