Sunday, August 18, 2013

Caran d'ache

Sorry to read in the Times just now that John Hollander has died. He was one of my grad school professors; I still often think of various bits of his book The Figure of Echo, particularly the funny and striking observation (I am paraphrasing from memory), about the poem Marvell wrote in preface to Paradise Lost, that it is Marvell's "On First Looking Into Milton's Bible."

He could be a rambling and digressive teacher, but with a great underlying warmth and a capacious intelligence and almost perversely varied curiosity. He was one of my orals examiners, and I remember him asking the dreadful question, during the exam, "Are there any sonnets in Donne's Songs and Sonnets?" After some panicked mental examination, I answered no; "Of course not!" he exclaimed triumphantly. "Sonnet is simply the Italian word for little song!"

Also, a moment in his class on ecphrasis: JH, discussing the link between character-the-mark-on-a-page and character-the-thing-a-person-has: "What is the Russian word for pencil?" JMD (legacy of two years of college Russian taken for no particular reason): "Karandach." JH, associatively: "Thus the clever name Caran d'Ache, for the Swiss drawing company inspired by a Russian emigre." I had boxes and boxes of those pencils as a child, and I had never put the two things together....

Also, a moment when I had to tell him I was missing an upcoming class due to a doctor's appointment, and feared being greeted by an irascible tirade, but instead was given a huge beaming grin of approval: "Oh, yes. We are living in the era of managed care, these doctors' appointments cannot be rescheduled!" It fit in with one of his favored topics for tirades, and therefore triggered pleasure rather than anger.

It is the end of an era - I think of John Hollander and Kenneth Koch as two poets, critics and teachers quite unlike anything we will ever see again. There will be other wonderful kinds of combination, quite different from what were found in that generation; but nothing quite like those two.


  1. You are making me remember my memories of him. Someone had read a poem of mine in a way that I hadn't intended, and he told me that sometimes we writing things that have meanings we don't intend. Probably one of the most important things anyone ever taught me.

  2. Yes this is sad. I remember him best as the inventor of the double dactyl, and of course for Rhyme's Reason. I envy you for having known him. (I was struck by Caran d'Ache / Karandash when I was learning Russian, thanks for reminding me!)

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