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John Hollander obituary


American poet admired for his technical virtuosity

The American poet John Hollander, who has died aged 83, was a master of verse whose technical virtuosity and intellectual underpinnings were highly regarded, even as they stood in sharp contrast to the changing fashions of the poetry world. As Sterling professor emeritus of English at Yale University, he was hugely influential as a critic and teacher of remarkable rigour.

Hollander made his mark when his first collection, A Crackling of Thorns (1958), was chosen by WH Auden for the Yale Younger Poets series. Auden may have been recognising his own influence on Hollander's work; Hollander said he admired Auden's ability to improvise with literary modes and forms, especially "the relation between seriousness and play" in poetry.

Humour played an important part in Hollander's early work. He was born in New York, where his father was a physiologist and his mother a teacher. A precocious student, he wrote a column for the newspaper at Bronx high school of science in the style of the humorist SJ Perelman. "Someone should write an essay," he said, "on the importance of Perelman not only to comic but also to very serious writers."

He enrolled at Columbia University, where professors in the English department included the poet Mark van Doren, the critic Lionel Trilling and the cultural historian Jacques Barzun. His fellow students, many of them older and veterans of the second world war, included the poets and writers Louis Simpson, Daniel Hoffman, Richard Howard and Robert Gottlieb. But his biggest influence, "my poetic mentor" as Hollander described him, was his friend Allen Ginsberg. Though the two would move in almost opposite directions in their work, they shared a belief in what Hollander described as the "mythological weight" of poetic form. One of Hollander's best-known poems, Helicon, from his autobiographical collection Visions from the Ramble (1965), tells of how he and Ginsberg sold blood to a hospital for spending money.

After earning his BA in 1950, and MA two years later, Hollander began a doctorate at the University of Indiana, but left in 1954 to join the Society of Fellows at Harvard University. He received his PhD from Indiana in 1959 and joined the faculty at Yale. His dissertation was published in 1961 as The Untuning of the Sky: Ideas of Music in English Poetry 1500-1700. In 1966, he returned to New York to teach at Hunter College, then went back to Yale in 1977, where he taught for 25 years.

Hollander later described his early work as "epigram literature". Movie Going (1962) displayed a light touch, and the concrete poems of Types of Shape (1969) echoed the 17th-century work he loved. But The Night Mirror (1971) signalled a change. "I was writing in a line of wit and of essayistic speculation when I was young, still under Auden's influence," he explained in a 1985 interview with the Paris Review. "I began to write less discursively, more puzzlingly, I suppose less wittily."

He could still be playful. Reflections on Espionage: The Question of Cupcake (1976) was presented as coded messages between spies. He also explored his Jewish roots with the mystical prose poems of Spectral Emanations (1978), praised by the critic Harold Bloom for its "emotional complexity, spiritual anguish, and intellectual and moral power". Hollander would often be identified as a "high Romantic", which was reflected by the pride of place he gave in his house to a John Martin study for his painting Paradise Lost.

Hollander's Rhyme's Reason (1981) explored various verse forms in verses written in those forms, a sonnet explaining a sonnet and so on. His most potent exploration of pure form came in Powers of Thirteen (1983), which consisted of 169 (13 squared) stanzas of 13 lines each, each line containing 13 syllables. It won Yale's Bollingen poetry prize, but his next book was again something different. In Time and Place (1986) was an elegiac volume with echoes of Tennyson's In Memoriam.

Hollander published 20 collections of poetry; critics considered his last, A Draft of Light (2008), just as challenging as any that came before. He wrote seven critical works, edited a number more, including volumes on 19th-century American literature and the literature of Renaissance England for the Oxford Anthology of English Literature, and produced three books for children. An accomplished musician, who taught himself the lute while writing his dissertation, he wrote the text for Milton Babbitt's cantata Philomel (1963).

Hollander's first marriage ended in divorce. He is survived by his second wife, Natalie, and two daughters, Martha and Elizabeth.

• John Hollander, poet, born 28 October 1929; died 17 August 2013

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