John Hollander , a virtuosic poet who breathed new life into traditional verse forms and whose later work achieved a visionary, mythic sweep, died on Saturday in Branford, Conn. He was 83.
The cause was pulmonary congestion, his daughter Elizabeth Hollander said.
As a young poet, Mr. Hollander fell under the influence of W. H. Auden, whose experiments in fusing contemporary subject matter with traditional metric forms he emulated. It was Auden who selected Mr. Hollander's first collection of poems, "A Crackling of Thorns," for the Yale Series of Younger Poets, which published it in 1958 with an introduction by Auden.
Mr. Hollander's wit, inventiveness and intellectual range drew comparisons to Ben Jonson and 17th-century Metaphysical poets like John Donne. The poet Richard Howard, in the book "Alone With America: Essays on the Art of Poetry in the United States Since 1950," praised "a technical prowess probably without equal in American verse today."
Early on, Mr. Hollander was tagged a formalist or neoclassicist for his commitment to old-fashioned forms. Beginning with his 1971 collection, "The Night Mirror: Poems," however, he adopted a more ambitious program, writing poetry of formidable difficulty, often in longer forms.
This evolution culminated in "Spectral Emanations" (1978), a series of poetic visions and prose-poem commentaries linked to the seven branches of the menorah, the golden lamp stolen in 70 A.D. by Titus from the Second Temple in Jerusalem.
His wit and technical mastery remained on prominent display, however, in "The Powers of Thirteen," an extended sequence of 169 (13 times 13) unrhymed 13-line stanzas with 13 syllables in each line, and in "Reflections on Espionage: The Question of Cupcake" (1976), a commentary on contemporary poetry presented as the coded dispatches of a spy to his handler and other agents.
"In an age that came to prefer loose, garrulous poems filled with confessional sensationalism and political grievance, John Hollander was a glorious throwback," the poet J. D. McClatchy wrote in an e-mail in 2010. "His materials — high intelligence, wit, philosophical depth, technical virtuosity — looked back to an older era of poetry's high ambition. His work never pandered; it astonished."
John Hollander was born on Oct. 28, 1929, in Manhattan. His father, Franklin, was a physiologist and his mother, the former Muriel Kornfeld, a high school teacher. The home atmosphere was relentlessly high-minded.
He attended the Bronx High School of Science, where he wrote a humor column for the newspaper, modeling himself on S. J. Perelman and James Thurber. Journalism was his enthusiasm, and in his freshman year at Columbia he was a prolific contributor to The Columbia Daily Spectator.
Poetry displaced journalism as his primary passion. Auden's verse, in particular, alerted him to the possibility that play and humor could find expression in poetry. He was especially struck, he told The Paris Review, by Auden's "improvisational relation to stances and forms and literary modes."
He struck up a close friendship, and a student-mentor relationship, with the somewhat older Allen Ginsberg. In an interview with The Paris Review in 1985, Mr. Hollander said, "We talked about the minute particulars of form as if mythological weight depended upon them; and about the realms of the imagination."
Their joint excursion to sell blood at St. Luke's Hospital in Manhattan provided the subject for "Helicon," one of the most engaging sequences in "Visions From the Ramble" (1965), a collection of interrelated poems filled with scenes from the author's childhood and youth in New York. (The title refers to a wooded area of Central Park.)
Mr. Hollander graduated from Columbia with a B.A. in 1950 and, after traveling in Europe, received a master's degree in 1952. At the same time, he taught himself to play the lute and performed in chamber ensembles.
He enrolled at Indiana University to pursue a doctorate but left in 1954 to join the Society of Fellows at Harvard. He later taught at Connecticut College and became an instructor at Yale in 1959, the year he completed his dissertation at Indiana.
His dissertation was the basis for "The Untuning of the Sky: Ideas of Music in English Poetry, 1500-1700" (1961), the first of many works of criticism that included "Vision and Resonance (1975), "The Gazer's Spirit" (1995) and "The Work of Poetry" (1997).
Mr. Hollander, who lived in Woodbridge, Conn., joined the English faculty at Hunter College in Manhattan in 1966. But in 1977 he returned as a full professor to Yale, where he was named Sterling Professor of English in 1995 and retired in 2002.
In 1953 he married Anne Loesser, a fashion historian who, under her married name, wrote "Seeing Through Clothes." The marriage ended in divorce. Besides his daughter Elizabeth, Mr. Hollander is survived by his wife, the sculptor Natalie Charkow Hollander; another daughter, Martha Hollander; a brother, Michael; and three grandchildren.
By the mid-1960s Mr. Hollander's reputation as a poet was growing, although his highly wrought, intellectual verse made him an oddity in a climate dominated by the hotly confessional poetry of Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton.
"In a general sense, I was writing in a line of wit, and of essayistic speculation, when I was young," he told The Paris Review. "Still under Auden's influence, I wanted to be read by philosophers and scientists and political theorists, not just by literary readers."
In a well-known early poem, "The Great Bear," a children's outing to gaze at the night sky provokes an inquiry into meaning and chaos. Mr. Hollander incorporated quasi-reportorial material in "Movie-Going and Other Poems" (1962) and "Visions From the Ramble," which included autobiographical glimpses of the fireworks at the 1939 World's Fair and tributes to the old Broadway movie palaces that the author haunted in his youth.
In "Types of Shape" (1969) Mr. Hollander harked back to the emblem poetry of the 17th century, writing in forms that, when set on the page, looked like objects: a light bulb, say, or an Eskimo Pie.
Mr. Hollander later dismissed his earlier poetry as "verse essay" or "epigram literature." With "The Night Mirror" and "Tales Told of the Fathers" (1975) he took the grand, sweeping turn that led to his mature style as a prophetic, mythmaking poet in the High Romantic tradition.
"I began to write less discursively, more puzzlingly, I suppose less wittily," he told The Paris Review. "My voice is still the same, but it doesn't expound in verse nowadays — it rather murmurs or chants or sometimes mutters, meditatively and privately."
The private meditation sometimes bordered on the hermetic. The recondite allusiveness and seeming opacity of his newer work frustrated or even annoyed some critics. The poet Paul Zweig, dismissing Mr. Hollander as "a virtuoso without a subject matter" in a review of "The Night Mirror" for The New York Times Book Review, complained, "The language soars in complicated trills, but in the end it becomes clear that no secrets are being told."
Such critics found relief in the unusually direct "In Time and Place" (1986), a mixture of quatrains and prose poems that begins with 34 verses written in the stanza form used by Tennyson in "In Memoriam," whose themes of loss and change it shares.
Others regarded Mr. Hollander as one of the most powerful voices and daring imaginations in postwar American poetry. Richard Poirier, writing in The Washington Post in 1978, called him "the most intellectually daring, poignant, and thrilling poet writing in the Emersonian tradition of our poetry."
Harold Bloom, an ardent champion of the later poetry, praised "Spectral Emanations" as "somber American Jewish mythmaking," and, in an extended essay on the poem for The Kenyon Review in 1984, called it "one of the central achievements of his generation," equal to the long poems of James Merrill, John Ashbery and A. R. Ammons.
Mr. Hollander's later collections included "Harp Lake" (1988), "Tesserae" (1993) and "A Draft of Light" (2008). He also edited the two-volume collection "American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century" (1993) for the Library of America.
"His mind was singularly capacious, filled with baseball statistics, detective novels, mathematical formulas, vintage wines, German hymns, you name it," Mr. McClatchy wrote. "It is said of a man like John Hollander that when he dies it is like the burning of the library at Alexandria."
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