John Hollander, a virtuosic poet who breathed new life into traditional verse forms and whose later work achieved a visionary, mythic sweep, died on Saturday in Branford, Conn. He was 83.
The cause was pulmonary congestion, his daughter Elizabeth Hollander said.
As a young poet, Mr. 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 Mr. 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.
Mr. Hollander’s wit, inventiveness and intellectual range drew comparisons to Ben Jonson and 17th-century Metaphysical poets like John Donne. The poet Richard Howard, in the 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.”
Early on, Mr. Hollander was tagged a formalist or neoclassicist for his commitment to old-fashioned forms. Beginning with his 1971 collection, “The Night Mirror: Poems,” however, he adopted a 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 linked to the seven branches of the menorah, the golden lamp stolen in 70 A.D. by Titus from the Second Temple in Jerusalem.
His wit and technical mastery remained on prominent display, however, in “The Powers of Thirteen,” an extended 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 on Oct. 28, 1929, in Manhattan. His father, Franklin, was a physiologist and his mother, the former Muriel Kornfeld, a high school teacher. The home atmosphere was relentlessly high-minded.
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.
Poetry displaced journalism as his primary passion. 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. In an interview with The Paris Review in 1985, Mr. Hollander said, “We talked about the minute particulars of form as if mythological weight depended upon them; and about the realms of the imagination.”
Their joint excursion to sell blood at St. Luke’s Hospital in Manhattan 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.)
Mr. Hollander graduated from Columbia with a B.A. in 1950 and, after traveling in Europe, received a master’s degree in 1952. At the same time, he taught himself to play the lute and performed in chamber ensembles.
He enrolled at Indiana University to pursue a doctorate but left in 1954 to join the Society of Fellows at Harvard. He later taught at Connecticut College and became an instructor at Yale in 1959, the year he completed his dissertation at Indiana.