Poetry Review: “The Collected Poems of Anselm Hollo” – Playful Poetry from a Contemplatively Curious Spirit
By Norman Weinstein
Finnish-American poet Anselm Hollo’s writing, once contained in 40 modest volumes, finally arrives as an eminently enjoyable book of unceasing wonders.
The Collected Poems of Anselm Hollo, edited by John Bloomberg-Rissma and Yasamin Ghiasi. Coffee House Press, 1082 pages, $55.
Are you still with me, intrepid reader? Here is a poet that may be new to you — and I’m confronting you with a doorstopper of a costly volume exceeding 1,000 pages. And what if you are among that 88.3 percent of US book buyers who have not purchased a single poetry book in the past year? How can I convince you that Anselm Hollo is worthy of your full attention? I’m proceeding with confidence because I have taught his poems for decades to students (ranging in age from eight to 80) many of whom assured me that they hated reading poetry — until they read Hollo.
Here is a portion of a Hollo poem about what makes a good poem, an ideal starting point to appreciate his magnum opus:
This is a quintessential Hollo poem. The tone of the piece is casual, breezy, offhanded, and jazzy. Key images, like the poem rising into the air, are whimsically surreal. Hollo invites the reader into the poem (note “If it helps you write the poem”) as a co-author, or more exactly, as a fellow player in this field of exploratory language and experience. The poem concludes — or perhaps it isn’t an absolute closure?? — with something for us to meditate upon. The phrase “for a thousand years” reflects Hollo’s whimsical and reflective spirit. Notice also the vocabulary he plays around with is typical American conversational English. The “avuncular vernacular,” he calls it in another poem. Hollo’s skill in artfully transcribing and reconfiguring the everyday vernacular may well be connected to the fact that English was not his first language. Hollo (1934-2013) was born in Helsinki, Finland, and half his life was spent living and working in Europe. In his late 30s he moved permanently to the US, earning his living through a variety of teaching gigs on American campuses along with income generated by professionally translating modern literature from Finnish, German, and French.
Hollo’s best poems, many only a page long, derive their magic from the odd way American English sounds to the ear of a Finn. In fact, he maintained a childlike romantic curiosity about the strangeness of all spoken languages, drawing on it as the seedbed for his lyrical poetry. For example:
Notice how the ofttimes dry word “valid” takes on an artful peculiarity in this context, particularly when it is counterpointed by the Spanish “pasaporte.” Italics make you curious about the unfamiliar meanings suggested. In less than two dozen words, Hollo transforms the Mexican border controversies into a very human story that transcends sound bites.
In addition to hearing the palette of American vernacular language differently than the way US poets usually heard it, Hollo was extraordinarily gifted at crafting poems composed of fragments culled from bits of overheard talk. The tradition of curating smatterings of everyday American chatter into poetry goes back to William Carlos Williams, a strategy that was embraced by the “Beat Poets” of the ’60s, particularly Allen Ginsberg and Philip Whalen. Also contributing to this vein of American verse were major poets centered in New York City during that decade, Paul Blackburn and Ted Berrigan. Hollo was friends with, and an appreciative reader of, these poets of the ’60s. He shared their love of significant verbal fragments, of capturing the musical and literary vitality of bits of talk. Readers are invited to connect these snatches of conversation; in that sense, we become co-creators of this poetry. Here is a charming example of Hollo’s craft:
There is a cleverly disguised portrait of Hollo in these few snippets. He was a formidable literary intellectual (his omnivorous readings included the books of philosopher Alfred North Whitehead). And, like the best poets of every age, he was a lover of beauty, particularly in his home. The love poems to his wife Jane and his children are intimately touching, as are his poems to his various pets. This poem melds animal and human affection:
Note how Hollo makes his image of the loving pooch cinematic. The poem transforms its subject line by line. Like watching a magic trick in slow motion.
If you share my delight in this kind of curiously playful poetry — fueled by Hollo’s belief that there is “No End to the Things Made Out of Human Talk ” — then this handsomely published book is for you.
Norman Weinstein is a poet, translator, and critic. His books include A Night in Tunisia: Imaginings of Africa in Jazz and No Wrong Notes, a book of prose poetry. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.