Sunlight filtered through the windows of John Hollander’s fourth-floor office in Linsly-Chittenden Hall, illuminating a large, covered table stacked with books and two walls of bookshelves filled with hundreds of volumes of poetry and prose. Hollander, a poet and Yale English professor whose flowing speech mirrors the lucidity of his writing, is a natural storyteller, whether discussing a possible addition to the English faculty or explaining his interest in the written word.
In his 11 years of teaching at the City University of New York and over three decades at Yale, Hollander — who plans to retire from teaching in July — has become a prominent figure in poetry and criticism alike. In addition to his work in literary criticism, he has published 17 books of poetry, and despite his impending retirement, he plans to publish one more next year.
But Hollander did not discover his interest in literature until his second year of college at Columbia University.
“I was still thinking I wanted initially to go into journalism,” Hollander said. “As a cub reporter for [The Columbia Daily Spectator], I think I had more inches than anyone by the end of the [first] year.”
Hollander came to realize that he wanted to study literature in a more general sense after his freshman year. His specific interest in poetry would come even later, though it is hard to determine when poetry became his formal field of study.
“I think I had probably a good ear from the beginning,” Hollander said.
His mother, a high school English teacher, and his father, a physiologist, played some role in his future writing. His parents were both interested in music, and his mother exposed him to literary terms in his youth.
Even his name bears poetic influences.
“My mother had said, ‘The other alternative would have been Jonathan, and Jonathan Hollander sounded like two dactyls,’ ” Hollander said.
His father’s influence is less obvious but perhaps more pervasive. Hollander recalls that, when he was eight years old, he had a conversation with his father that stemmed from an article he was reading on the “atom smashers,” or early particle accelerators.
“What was crucial — was learning about what explanation was,” he said. “I remember [my father] asking about what an atom was, and I remember every detail of what his explanation was.”
Using a sugar cube, his father broke it down into smaller and smaller pieces, and asked Hollander to imagine breaking it apart until the sugar was no longer sugar, but something more fundamental.
“It’s interesting that the scene of that explanation is as visible to me as any in childhood,” he said.
Hollander, who was selected as the Yale Younger Poet in 1958 for his first book of poems, was influenced by his experiences at Yale, though he said his writing style was set for the most part when he began teaching.
“My first time at Yale, there were certain people here who were attentive to the fact that I was a poet, as well as an English professor with a Ph.D., that were part of my first — circle of readers,” he said. “My friendship with Harold Bloom has been important a good many times to the history of my work. — He was the most interesting reader I’ve ever had.”
Despite his upcoming retirement, Hollander said he would not be idle.
In addition to the book of poetry he is working on for next year, Hollander is revising the Clark lectures he delivered at Cambridge University, as well as developing a number of editorial pieces. After a year away from teaching, Hollander will trade his large office for fewer administrative responsibilities and a smaller workspace on campus.
Nevertheless, he will miss teaching, and he did not hesitate to offer advice to students who hope to follow in his footsteps:
“Read a lot of great poetry and think about it, and also write a lot of good prose, too, because Ezra Pound remarked that poetry should be at least as good as prose.”