A Poem For Saturday

by Alice Quinn

Union_soldiers_entrenched_along_the_west_bank_of_the_Rappahannock_River_at_Fredericksburg,_Virginia_(111-B-157)

John Hollander, who died in August 2013, published scores of books, including more than twenty collections of poetry and a superb book on poetic form entitled Rhyme’s Reason. He was an exemplary learned man—inexhaustibly inspiring, witty, charming, and dear. In the obituary in The New York Times, Margalit Fix quoted fellow poet J.D.McCLatchy (several of whose poems were posted on the Dish two weeks ago), “It is said of a man like John Hollander that when he dies it is like the burning of the library at Alexandria.”

Hollander was also a noted anthologist, and his volume War Poems, selected and arranged with great care for the Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets Series, is the source for the poems we’ll post to commemorate Memorial Day this year. In his introduction, he wrote, “War poetry may express sorrow, hope, despair, prophetic vision, moral and philosophical reflection; it may even trespass upon Cupid’s own domain of love.” We’ll begin with a battlefield poem written by Emily Dickinson when she was twenty nine, surrounded by families in Amherst losing sons to both armies of the Civil War.

Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne’er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.

Not one of all the purple Host
Who took the Flag today
Can tell the definition
So clear of Victory

As he defeated—dying—
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Burst agonized and clear!

(From War Poems, selected and edited by John Hollander © by John Hollander 1999. Used by permission of Everyman Library. Photo of Union soldiers entrenched along the west bank of the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg in the Battle of Chancellorsville, 1863, via Wikimedia Commons)