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Obituaries

John Hollander, inimitable craftsman of verse; at 83

Using wit and inventiveness, Dr. Hollander wrote poetry of formidable difficulty, often in longer forms.

Thomas McDonald/New York Times/File 2008

Using wit and inventiveness, Dr. Hollander wrote poetry of formidable difficulty, often in longer forms.

NEW YORK — John Hollander, a virtuosic poet who breathed new life into traditional verse forms and whose later work achieved a visionary, mythic sweep, died Aug. 17 in Branford, Conn. He was 83.

The cause was pulmonary congestion, his daughter Elizabeth said.

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As a young poet, Dr. 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 Dr. 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.

Dr. Hollander’s wit, inventiveness, and intellectual range drew comparisons to Ben Jonson and 17th-century metaphysical poets such as John Donne. The poet Richard Howard, in the 1969 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.”

Dr. Hollander was tagged a formalist or neoclassicist for his commitment to old-fashioned forms. Beginning with his 1971 collection, “The Night Mirror: Poems,” he adopted a much 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.

His wit and technical mastery remained on prominent display in “The Powers of Thirteen,” a 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 in New York.

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.

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.

Their joint excursion to sell blood at St. Luke’s Hospital in New York 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.)

Dr. Hollander graduated from Columbia with a B.A. in 1950 and, after traveling in Europe, returned to the campus to work toward a master’s degree, which he received in 1952.

He enrolled at Indiana University to pursue a doctorate but left in 1954 to join the Society of Fellows at Harvard. He became an instructor at Yale in 1959, the year he completed his dissertation at Indiana.

Dr. Hollander, who lived in Woodbridge, Conn., returned in 1977 as a full professor to Yale, where he was named Sterling Professor of English in 1995 and retired in 2002.

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