During April, National Poetry Month in the United States, each state selects a poet laureate. Education Update interviewed two poet laureates. We hope you will discover a host of emotions and inspiration to write your own couplets, sonnets or iambic pentameter, as the spirit moves you.
John Hollander, Connecticut
At what age did you start writing?
At about 14, I started to write for my high-school newspaper, and became one of its editors at 16, when I also wrote the humor column. I had been writing bad lyrical verse for a couple of years, but turned to comic and satiric light verse, which I occasionally put in my column. I was also—along with a few intensely literary friends (all of whom ended up as physicians and medical researchers)—reading modern literature totally outside of school work: Harry Levin’s brilliant and recently published James Joyce provided us with a introductory guide-book and a couple of us even went down to a meeting or so of the James Joyce Society at Gotham Book Mart. I still wanted to be a journalist when I started college, at Columbia (the huge preponderance of my classmates were returning WWII veterans—I’ve always likened my undergraduate days as being at college surrounded by many older brothers) and wrote nothing but news copy for the daily paper my first semester; subsequent to that, I became interested in the study of literature and published a few very bad poems in the Columbia Review, the literary magazine. My first writing in verse that I have since been able to acknowledge as serious were some translations from Les Fleurs du Mal that I did as a freshman in college; they were certainly better written than any of my own “poems”.
Can you share some of the inspirations for your writing?
I’ve never thought of “inspiration” as applying to anything I have experienced, so I’ll have to be silent in this case. I would never have written a poem without having read and heard many others from many times (and, indeed, songs in other languages), so if you’d like you could say that my Inspiration has come from poetry itself.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced?
Always, trying to get better and trying to avoid turning out products or ever making a cheap shot; continuing to write in a world which, owing to the decline in American education over the past sixty years, has become increasingly unconscious of history and deaf to the articulated sound of both verse and prose unless it is the transcription of vernacular spoken dialogue.
Describe turning points in your career as a writer.
Deciding, early in college that I wanted to write poetry; my decision to be a teacher, which meant doing scholarly criticism, getting a Ph.D. and teaching literature, and thereafter having to cope with the complex relations among teaching, writing criticism, my poetry.
Who were/are some of your mentors?
If you mean “teachers”, in school (at the Bronx H.S. of Science) a teacher both of English and German named Harry Rothman; at Columbia, Mark Van Doren, Lionel Trilling, Moses Hadas, Andrew Chiappe, Meyer Schapiro; at Harvard, Reuben A. Brower, I.A. Richards and Roman Jakobson; but also my friends and fellow-students at Columbia Allen Ginsberg and Richard Howard, from whom I learned vast amounts; Harvard--Stanley Cavell, Richard Poirier, George Kateb; and then there were the people who I felt were teaching me when I was young from the pages of their writing—George Bernard Shaw in from sixth grade on; W.H. Auden (long before I ever got to know him) from my senior year in high-school, and George Orwell, starting in college. And after that all the great poetry and fiction and philosophical writing in which I immersed myself. In the case of the poets, it was often that I needed to be taught by one how to deal with another—quite often, an earlier—one: Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane took me back to Whitman, for instance, and Milton showed me just why Spenser was so great and remarkable, but so did Joyce.
List some of your favorite books/poems.
There are too many to list, and “favorite” is too problematic if you care as much about a great many poems, novels, works of history and philosophy as I do. If you’d narrow the field for me, I might perhaps be able to talk about which books or authors’ oeuvres were most important for me at what moment, or, say, my favorite 19th-century American poets (I’d then say Emerson, Whitman, Dickinson, Melville, but also the minor fin-de-siècle poet Trumbull Stickney.)#