Analysis of Anselm Hollo’s Poems

Anselm Hollo’s (12 April 1934 – 29 January 2013) poetry has a light and airy appearance, with short and sometimes abrupt lines of verse arranged sparingly on the page. While spare, the poems often demonstrate remarkable depth, and while often short, they are richly endowed with humor, intelligence, and imagination.

Against the tradition in which poets become best known for their longest works, Hollo first established and then maintained a reputation for short poems. This emphasis is a conscious one, reflected in the way he has presented individual poems in more than the usual number of retrospective and summary collections. The appearance of the poem “bouzouki music” in successive books, including the major early compilations Maya and Sojourner Microcosms, for example, helped give the short poem a prominence it might have lacked if Hollo had not actively kept it before his readers.

Hollo has also used the context of the different compilations to give new perspective on his poems. He offered his collection Space Baltic, for example, as a collection of his “science-fiction” works. The inclusion of many poems within this book broadened the ways in which they could be read. A poem such as “old space cadet speaking,” which earlier might have been taken as a purely metaphorical exploration of unrealistic ambitions, lent itself to a more literal, narrative reading within this new context.


As might be expected of a poet involved in translation work and whose own career carried him far beyond the borders of his native country, Hollo has demonstrated a deep concern with European literary traditions. At the same time, as a longtime U.S. resident, his poems have become deeply interwoven with the literature of his adopted country. In his frequent dedications of poems to contemporary writers and in his frequent allusions to writers of other times, however, he reveals his true allegiance, which is to a literary world whose borders transcend political lines.

While the seriousness of his poetry has never been in question, neither has Hollo’s sense of humor, much of which is based on his observations of modern life. On occasion, his poems take a turn toward black humor, as in “manifest destiny.” Others draw their humor from his observations of the literary world. Whether using situational humor or wordplay, Hollo has managed to steer clear of the coy and artificial.

Manifest Destiny

Anselm Hollo’s shorter poems often have a more distinctively assertive character than his longer poems. Some of this distinctiveness may arise from the pointed emphasis on the intersection of the personal and political worlds. The short “manifest destiny,” first published in No Complaints, ranks alongside such other poems as “t.v. (1),” “t.v. (2),” and “the terrorist smiles,” from Finite Continued. In “manifest destiny,” Hollo initially creates a vision of a comfortable middle- or upper-class life, “in pleasantly air-conditioned home with big duck pond in back,/ some nice soft drinks by elbow, some good american snacks as well.” Hollo explicitly evokes the wealth of the privileged: “at least four hundred grand in the bank, & that’s for checking.” The evocations of comfort and wealth ground the reader in a reality that becomes unreality by the end of the poem,when themeaning of the poem’s title becomes clear. The unspecified people who “arrive in front of a large video screen” in the poem’s first line spend “a copacetic evening” at the end of the poem,

watching the latest military techné
wipe out poverty everywhere in the world
in its most obvious form, the poor.

The poem is notable not only for its concision and effectiveness but also for its prescience in making a point that would remain undiminished in its accuracy during succeeding decades.

Bbouzouki Music

Originally written and published in the late 1960’s, “bouzouki music” is a poem that demonstrates the poet’s ease at handling classical or mythological subject matter. Introducing the figure of Odysseus in its first line, the poem can be read as an incantatory exploration of this particular character, or of the type of character Odysseus represents. Written in five brief sections, the poem includes some of Hollo’s finest lines:

a man’s legs grow
straight out of his soul

who knows where they take him

A light touch and glancing vision, as opposed to a possessive grip and direct stare, give the poem expansive force. Other poems, such as “on the occasion of becoming an echo,” which invokes Gaia, and even “the new style western,” which draws on a modern, media-created mythology, give similar demonstrations of Hollo’s approach.

Old Space Cadet Speaking

One of Hollo’s “science-fiction,” or speculative, poems, “old space cadet speaking” explores notions of reality and unreality. While a poem without the political dimension of “manifest destiny,” it similarly begins by presenting an unreal world in terms to establish it as real and similarly concludes by exposing its empty underpinnings. After beginning with a storyteller’s opening phrase, “let me tell you,” Hollo introduces the character of a spaceship captain possessed by the sensual vision of union with his lover. Although his physical destination goes unmentioned, the Captain dwells on

exactly what he would do
soon as he reached the destination
he would fuse with her plumulous essence
& they would become a fine furry plant.

The adventure of space travel is reduced to the entirely personal dimensions of an erotic dream, the “ultimate consummation of long ethereal affair.” Above and beyond the erotic episode, moreover, the Captain envisions a kind of transcendence, in which “he would miss/ certain things small addictions/ acquired in the colonies.” This dream of transcendence seems his destination: “he was flying high/ he was almost there.” Hollo then dissolves the image, in the manner of someone turning away from an entertaining show or absorbing story:

& that is where
we leave him to go on hurtling through the great warp
& at our own ineffable goals.

In its final few words, the poem expands to include the reader. Like the goals of the Captain, those of the reader also may be “ineffable.” The reader longs for that “ultimate consummation of long ethereal affair” and participates in the same fantasy of “hurtling through the great warp.”

rue Wilson Monday

A major work, rue Wilson Monday presents the daybook in verse of a period of time Hollo spent in France. His ruminations on events and personalities past and present, enriched by an ironically conscious Surrealist approach, combine with sensory passages to make rue Wilson Monday among Hollo’s most rewarding efforts. “When I was invited to spend five months in France, in an old hotel long frequented by artists and writers, I decided to write something that would NOT be your typical ‘sabbatical poem,’” he writes in a prefatory note. He calls the work a “hybrid of day book, informal sonnet sequence (though more ‘simultaneist’ than chronological), and extended, ‘laminated’ essay- poem.” He credits the influence of Guillaume Apollinaire’s 1913 poem “Lundi rue Christine,” “a Cubist work composed almost entirely out of verbatim speech from various conversations in a café.”

Hollo’s work draws not on actual conversations he overhears at the Hotel Chevillon but instead on conversations “in and around my head during that stay.” For longtime readers of Hollo, many participants in the “conversations” are decidedly familiar to the territory, while some, such as Robert Louis Stevenson, appear as figures specially connected to the French hotel. The familiar figures, who help make these informal sonnets resonate with Hollo’s earlier work, include such diverse individuals as Berrigan, Gertrude Stein, Lennon, Oscar Wilde, Heraclitus of Ephesus, Robert Bly, and “Archy the Vers Libre Cockroach.” In a move some readers might regard as overly self-conscious, Hollo includes footnotes to help the reader participate in the “conversations” of the poems. While the poems themselves are lucid, these notes distinctly augment the reader’s pleasure.

Early in the sonnet sequence, in poem number 2, Hollo positions himself as poet, by issuing the warning “beware of those who write to write beautiful thoughts.” He then establishes parameters: “upper limit: poet as brain in jar/ lower limit: poet as hectoring moralistic asshole.” His preference for “gamesome pasquinade” suggests that Hollo’s playfulness will come to the fore, in the course of the sequence of poems, even against the influence of “Mister Intellectual Rigor.”

Many of the poems reflect Hollo’s own experience in the world of poetry and serve occasionally as poetic defenses. In poem number 9, he answers the charge “thou art too elliptical” with a response appropriately elliptical: “but what’s not foible anymore?” In poem number 15, he makes an even more pointed statement of his position:

give up your ampersands & lowercase i’s
they still won’t like you
the bosses of official verse culture
(U.S. branch) but kidding aside
I motored off that map a long time ago.

The imaginary conversations pervade these poems in unexpected ways. In poem number 56, Hollo quotes from a Kerouac School workshop led by Berrigan in 1978 and then notes,

yes Ted yes it is very much like it
but you are the master of intelligent conversation
and no emotional slither.

In his footnote, Hollo notes how his interior conversation with Berrigan also includes Ezra Pound, whose words he appropriates.

While the inspirational Apollinaire poem is directly quoted within the numbered sonnets, perhaps its most striking echo appears in poem number 21, which is literally cobbled together out of the words of other poets, as if overheard in Apollinaire’s café. In his footnote, Hollo states that he composed the poem out of lines drawn from Sir Philip Sidney; Alfred, Lord Tennyson;Michael Drayton; and Sir Thomas Wyatt, among others.

Notes on the Possibilities and Attractions of Existence

The major collection Notes on the Possibilities and Attractions of Existence includes poems from collections up through AHOE 2. With its 317 selections heavily favoring Hollo’s two AHOE volumes, the collection offers a revisionary presentation of the poet’s career and shows him at the height of his powers as a writer in his sixth decade. The selections, according to Hollo, are works “that have retained a modicum of resonance for me through all that time and up to the year 2000.” The book’s title is a borrowing from Louis Zukofsky’s 1950 “A Statement for Poetry,” which argued that verse is not “free,” “if its rhythms inevitably carry the words in contexts that do not falsify the function of words as speech probing the possibilities and attractions of existence.” The choice of title gives a focal point for Hollo’s selections from across four decades of writing.

In his selections for this volume, Hollo emphasizes poems that best exhibit his wry, witty sensibility. The chronological arrangement helps clarify the direction he has been taking in his practice of poetry, as he increasingly finds the means to seize the present moment not of the senses but of the mind, which moves in ways that are sometimes coherent and rational and at other times unpredictable. The effort seems to be, as in “Script Mist,” to “hang on to moment, naked, fair/ frail as a butterfly—.” In his poem written as a memorial to Ginsberg, “A Hundred Mule Deer in the Back Yard,” Hollo poses the question that may prompt his continuing Zukofskian effort to probe “the possibilities and attractions”: “why did we say what we just seem to have said/ not a thought in our heads/ is the thought in my head.”

Some spirit of retrospection animates these poems, as Hollo makes clear by constant reference to writers, musicians, and painters of past times, and by several poems written as memorials to other poets. The reflective spirit even moves through entire poems, as is made clear by the title of one that spins dizzily back to the time of Hollo’s first publications in English: “Hey, Dr. Who, Let’s Dial 1965.” In “Hi, Haunting,” Hollo even steps back to the youth of a writer, who may or may not be Hollo himself. Its lines “back then it seemed he had more to say/ than could be said in a lifetime” are followed by another that expresses the satisfaction of one who has lived a rewarding life: “but there was time enough.” Hollo makes reference to Raymond Chandler and Stein and adds, “the grand narratives are dead,” a statement he then reverses in such a way as to present Chandler and Stein as being among “the dead,” as “. . . our grand narratives/ the dreadful great.” In contrast to this seriousness, Hollo often adopts a tone of irreverence for the past, combining it with a playful embrace of the mind’s present moment. The attitude is cleverly expressed in the title “Tempus? Fuggit!” for one such poem that follows the “idle swoop and dazzle” of immediacy.

Guests of Space

The directness and candor of rue Wilson Monday comes to the fore again in Hollo’s collection Guests of Space. Containing many poems that may ultimately rank among Hollo’s most successful works, Guests of Space is divided into the subsections “Guests of Space I,” “Guests of Space II,” “So the Ants Made It to the Cat Food,” “The Guy in the Little Room,” and “Such an Expensive Dream.” The book’s title derives from the answer given to a question once posed by Pippin, son of Charlemagne: “‘What is man?’ asked the King/ Alcuin’s reply: ‘A guest of space.’” The section title “The Guy in the Little Room” refers to an image conceived by Berrigan in describing the unconscious mental processes of the poet.

These poems continue Hollo’s exploration of the meaning of writing, speech, and poetry, with a new sense of summation and self-evaluation intermixing with his continuing questioning of self and world: An untitled poem begins: “here have I summed my sighs, playing cards with the dead/ in a broke-down shack on the old memory banks/ e’en though my thoughts like hounds/ pursue me through swift speedy time.” Another untitled poem begins with lines that seem to simultaneously deny and embrace the sense of regret.Hollo writes, “Once you’ve said something, you can’t unsay it/ Once you haven’t said anything, it remains unsaid/ and anything you can’t say, well, it’s unsayable.”

Hollo gives his most sustained consideration of the writing of poetry in “It Was All Right,” which has the subtitle, “What I Learned from Kenneth Koch.” The poem begins “It was all right to be funny . . .” and continues with a litany of “all right” approaches to the art that Koch and Hollo share. Using bald statements and apparent contradictions and balancing the “all right” approaches with “But never all right to be pompous,” the poem is a free expression of the limits that have been pushed by both poets. Perhaps, too, it offers a description of the “larger logic to defy/ The dumbly trembling unities” which is mentioned in the poem that begins “Against meaning, lunatic, real.”

Although that latter poem suggests that it is when “you work a line” that the poet works “Against meaning, lunatic, real,/ Possible in appearance . . . ,” in Guests of Space, Hollo offers poems laden with what he considers meaningful politics, in which he is clearly seeking to communicate his puzzlement and outrage about “one of the stupidest cultures/ ever constructed on this planet” (from “this is not the bear this is a picture of the bear” In the poems of the section “Such an Expensive Dream,” Hollo confronts many of the uncomfortable realities of the world in the twenty-first century, railing against a government he sees as being ruled by thieves, and struggling to understand the “expensive dream” itself, which is America.

Major Works
Nonfiction: Caws and Causeries: Around Poetry and Poets, 1999.
Translations: Kaddisch, 1962 (of Allen Ginsberg’s poem); Red Cats: Selections from the Russian Poets, 1962; Some Poems, 1962 (of Paul Klee); In der flüchtigen Hand der Zeit, 1963 (of Gregory Corso’s poetry); Selected Poems, 1964 (of Andrei Voznesensky’s poetry); Querelle, 1966 (of Jean Genet’s novel); Helsinki: Selected Poems of Pentti Saarikoski, 1967; Selected Poems, 1968 (of Paavo Haavikko’s poetry); Paterson, 1970 (with Josephine Clare; of William Carlos Williams’s poem); The Twelve, and Other Poems, 1971 (of Aleksandr Blok’s poetry); Beautiful Days, 1976 (of Franz Innerhofer’s novel); Modern Swedish Poetry in Translation, 1979 (with Gunnar Harding); Strindberg, 1984 (of Olof Lagercrantz’s biography); Au revoir les enfants, 1989 (of Louis Malle’s play); The Czar’s Madman, 1992 (of Jaan Kross’s novel); And Still Drink More! A Kayankaya Mystery, 1994 (of Jakob Arjouni’s novel); Jungle of Cities, and Other Plays, 1994 (of Bertolt Brecht’s plays); Starfall: A Triptych, 1998 (of Lars Kleberg’s philosophic dialogues); Serious Poems, 2000 (of Kai Nieminen’s poetry); Small Change: A Film Novel by François Truffaut, 2000; Trilogy, 2003 (of Saarikoski’s verse trilogy).
Edited texts: Jazz Poems, 1963; Negro Verse, 1964.
Miscellaneous: The Minicab War, 1961 (parodies; with Gregory Corso and Tom Raworth).

Cline, Lynn. “Anselm Hollo’s Poetry Speaks Volumes.” Santa Fe New Mexican, May 13, 2001.
Hegnauer, Lilah. Review of Guests of Space. Virginia Quarterly Review 83, no. 3 (Summer, 2007): 266.
Hollo, Anselm. “Anselm Hollo.” Interview by Edward Halsey Foster. In Postmodern Poetry: The Talisman Interviews, edited by Foster. Hoboken, N.J.: Talisman House, 1994.
Waldman, Anne. Nice to See You: Homage to Ted Berrigan. Minneapolis, Minn.: Coffee House Press, 1991.
Weatherhead, A. Kingsley. The British Dissonance: Essays on Ten Contemporary Poets. Columbia: University ofMissouri Press, 1983.

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