National Poetry Month Day 13

Woken by cats in neighbor’s yard, making love if you say so Bob Weir (and John Barlow), made day 13 of #nationalpoetrymonth come early with John Hollander’s By Heart, wherein the process of rote learning by sound and sight and intellect is enumerated and examined with some vacillation. The things we remember by heart. The poem builds, until soul is revealed, but then soul gets an ambivalent or agnostic treatment as “something.” I think John meant soul, and may God, or someone, rest his.

I first read the poem in The New Yorker, and it made me gasp when it snapped closed with “or something.” I later found it published in Picture Window by Alfred A. Knopf.

“We grasp the world by heart, by ear, by head
and keep it on a soft continuingness
That we first learned to get by soul, or something.”

I had the privilege of knowing John as he and his wife Natalie hired my husband and me to help with art studio clean up, typing and office organizing when my husband was a student of Natalie’s 30 years ago. Nothing was hard or pressing even — I think they mainly wanted to help us out when we first moved to Connecticut. John did the NYTimes crossword everyday, and I would have coffee with him trying not to be completely intimidated and to contribute something to whatever topic he wanted to discuss before we went into his office where I keyed in his essay from The Work of Poetry, “What You Mean By Home,” from a typed version onto his computer, and introduced him to the wonders of the rolodex (I don’t think he ever used it). John took breaks to play with his cats, to talk about his father’s work (tried to get me to weigh in on vivisection), and rued his inability to respond to all of the hopeful young writers who had sent manuscripts now in piles threatening to cascade across the floor.

In later years, I met John and Natalie mainly at the health center, the local grocery store, and occasionally at Willoughby’s coffee shop in New Haven — their favorite (and mine). One of the last time’s I saw him, he excitedly reached into my car to pet my labrador Ziggy, saying he envied me being able to have a pup. When I asked why he couldn’t have one, he said simply (and with a bit of a smile), “I’m too old.” With his passing, the world lost not only a truly giant intellect, but a kind soul.

NYTimes Obituary: John Hollander, Poet at Ease With Intellectualism and Wit, Dies at 83 — By WILLIAM GRIMES, AUG. 18, 2013