THE SYBIL OF GREENWICH VILLAGE...
BIOGRAPHICAL NOTES ABOUT
BARBARA A. HOLLAND
by Marian McAllister
Photo of Barbara Holland by Peter Fillingham
Barbara Holland was born in Portland, Maine, July 12, 1925,
the oldest of three children. Her parents were both college professors,
her mother in Latin, her father in architectural history; throughout
most of her childhood her father was Chief of the Division of
Fine Arts at the Library of Congress, commuting weekly from Philadelphia.
Barbara was sickly for the first year or two and had little
contact with other children. She taught herself to read, at first
from labels on food packages and ads in trolley cars. By the time
she was five she was teaching me, two years younger, to read as
well. Living within walking distance of the University (of Pennsylvania)
Museum, where her father often took her, Barbara developed an
interest in other languages, first in hieroglyphics, then in Chinese.
All three of us went to an old-fashioned "dame school"
of some twenty-four children from the University of Pennsylvania
community. The single room held "classes" ranging from
kindergarten through sixth grade. Barbara then attended private
schools, graduating from the Baldwin School in 1943. After a freshman
year at Smith College, she transferred to the University of Pennsylvania,
where she received both a B.A. and later a M.A. in English literature,
completing the course work for a doctorate.
She was always very independent, finding such employment as
working on a new edition of the dictionary for Merriam-Webster
in Worcester, Massachusetts, at a college in West Virginia, in
researching genealogies, translating Spanish poetry, and for a
stock broker on Wall Street. By the time she moved to New York
in the 60's, she had decided that her writing came first and that
any other occupation was simply to support her very modest living
requirements. In Greenwich Village, which she described as full
of familiar faces like a college campus, she felt at home.
From Reviews of Barbara Hollands books:
Harlequin and spy, magician and wizard, seer and saboteur-these
are the roles Barbara Holland assigns to the poet. And in the
nine volumes of her poetry published since 1967 we have come
to apprehend a distinctive voice in American literature. None
of the exhibition and whining self-pity of the autobiographical
school, none of the arrogant self-righteousness of the social
reformers, none of the complacent collecting of self-centered
trivia and effete ironies of the New York school... but a strong,
vivid, often violent voice, shattering complacency with a fine,
rich sense of language and its possibilities...
Invariably, the narrator portrays herself as an outsider,
observant yet selective and active:
What I bring
out of this witch-crazed moment I shall turn
to uses of my own,
rebuild, rewire, reactivate with sound
Here a vision is presented both beautiful and ominous, hinting
at the obscure and irresistible roots of things...
Many of Barbara Holland's wittiest and most brilliant poems
are those of invective and malediction. She neatly carves up
pompous businessmen, fatuous hosts and false would-be lovers.
(The only acceptable lover must, of course, be a demon lover,
Mephisto himself, or something even darker and more primeval.)...
There is an intense yearning expressed in one of the finest
poems to be found in all the collections, "Not Now, Wanderer":
The high howl of my hunger
for you swoops, a lost bird
And yet this seek and search can be fruitful, even in its
With this suspense and the concentration
of desire, I make my instrument
of destruction and creation.
If we can speak of a philosophical world view prevailing,
in the poetry, it is a sense of the cosmos as mystery, as inexplicable,
unpredictable, beyond the laws of rationality...
Barbara Holland patron classical poet would be the Ovid of
the Metamorphoses. And her partner in magic and ambiguity
in the visual arts is the Belgian surrealist painter, Rene Magritte...Barbara
Holland's poems often achieve the same effects as Magritte's
Few poets writing today can compare with Barbara Holland in
her richness of imagination, fecund with surprising transformations
and her corresponding verbal ingenuity.
Robert Kramer in Poets (NY), April 1978
A feminist and an iconoclast, Holland arrived in New York
in 1962 [reading] at St. John's in the Village, McBurney YMCA,
Les Deux Megots and the Cafe Metro. ... Fleeing the claustrophobic
atmosphere of the 'baccalaureate mill', Holland began freelancing
and devoting herself to poetry full-time.
Barbara says, "Poetry was my personal rebellion against
the second-handedness of the scholarly criticism which comprises
doctoral work in literature and the file-clerky business that
Barbara received a CAPS (Creative Arts Public Service) grant
in 1974. She divides her time between readings in Boston, Baltimore
and New York, guest edits magazines around the Eastern seaboard,
and continues to publish widely in magazines across the country.
I asked Barbara, "Do you write at a certain time during
the day?" She replied, "Never during the day. I wait
until all the crazies have gone to bed and have stopped screaming
at each other and until all the other crazies have stopped using
the elevator, then I write."
Claudia Dobkins, in Contact II, Spring
Barbara Holland is a master before whom many, or most, if
not all more famous poets should quail.
Kirby Congdon, in a review of Autumn
A true poet of urban romanticism...a seeker of found objects,
to whom the jagged and rusty are mysterious and beautiful...A
major poetic voice from the coffeehouses, off-off Broadway theaters,
poetry jazz readings, lofts, cafes and churches in New York's
literary ferment...A wry romantic.
Olga Cabral, in Contact II
..wanders through the bleakest wastes of terror and loneliness
without a dram of self-pity...
David Cunliffe, BB BKs
The Sybil said, "The road to Avernus is easy; the road
of return rough and extremely difficult." Barbara Holland
has taken this road again and again with no difficulty at all.
Richard Kinter, Maryland Institute of Arts
A new book of Miss Holland's poems is a celebratory event
... the best poems of the collection are characterized by the
surprises of imaginativeness but the logic of the unforced ...
the effect of each poem is cumulative rather than occasional,
their often memorable conclusions not the snappy endings of weaker
authors but inevitable culminations of their poem's energies.
Martin Mitchell, editor of Pivot
Barbara Holland, the New York City poet of our time, an eccentric
woman of vast writing ability.
Louise Simons, Off the Wall (National Public
From a newspaper interview:
Poet to read her Village verse
by Michael Redmond
In Pennyfeathers, Greenwich Village, the woman who has been
headlined "the most widely published unknown poet in America"
seems to take more pleasure from discussing aspects of Celtic
mythology than from talking about her work.
Although her poems have yet to grace the pages of The New
Yorker or, for that matter, the three or four other
established publications in which American poets can be said to
"arrive" more than a thousand literary journals
in the United States and abroad have published her work. These include The New York Poetry Quarterly, The Beloit Poetry Review,
Antioch Review and Voices International.
Eight books of her poetry have been published by literary presses
since 1965. In addition, a number of her poems have appeared in
anthologies published by Viking, Anchor Books (a division of Doubleday)
Her name is Barbara A. Holland, she has been living and writing
in the Village for some 20 years...
Holland may not have The New Yorker and a fat publishing
contract to boast of, but she does have other sources of recognition.
During the past five years, especially, she has become something
of a cult figure on the New York literary scene (Boston, too),
and she is admired by other, better known writers, such as science
fiction master Ray Bradbury.
Bradbury once wrote to her: "In a world where there are
so many Irving Wallaces and too many Harold Robbinses, are far
far too many Jacqueline Susanns, all duplicates one of the other,
how nice to know there is only one Barbara A. Holland, who speaks
with her own voice and sings her own song."
Although there is only one Holland, she is a poet who evades
categorization. Her work has been variously described as romantic,
mythic, supernatural and surreal; she is as adept at evoking a
seascape as in creating a monologue by Medusa. There are city
poems, and love poems, and poems both funny and terrifying. The
common denominator is her extraordinary imagination, the classical
precision of her language, and a wild sense of humor.
Holland is also recognized as a powerful reader that
is, her readings are dramatic performances, done from memory;
they have done as much in creating a following for the poet as
the poems themselves.
Concerning the poems: "The content is surreal at times,
but I dont go and do unusual things with syntax. I dont
tear the language apart and try to rebuild it from scratch, as
other poets have tried to do ... I dont think much of ultra-sentimental,
Hallmark Cards type of poetry ... In writing a poem, I use breaks
in the breath rather than grammatical or metrical structures."
Concerning the reciting of poems: "I read mostly by instinct,
but I do have some ideas about performing. I tend to take it very
slowly. If I talked naturally, this would be too fast for most
Holland said she never suffers from stage fright "even
the time I read for 3,000 rock fans in Boston. They looked completely
unreal to me. But what I have to do is draw back the ego consciousness
and observe myself. I become a stage director; I have this puppet
working for me. So, on Boston Common, I just looked at that enormous
audience and said to myself, Well, here you go again."
A native of Philadelphia, the poet holds a masters degree
in English literature from the University of Pennsylvania. She
has been active on the New York poetry scene since the early 1960s
in Les Deux Megots, Cafe Metro, the McBurney YMCA, and
other poetry centers of the period.
She has since been a featured reader in numerous poetry centers
in New York City and New Jersey, including New York University,
the City University of New York, Fordham University and Fairleigh
Dickinson University. Not to mention libraries, art galleries,
taverns, cafes, lofts, theaters and "a laundromat and a show
store, as well as the parks and piers of New York," Holland
The poet is currently a member of the St. Clements Poetry
Festival in New York. Her publisher, Brett Rutherford (The Poets
Press), is based, however, in Weehawken [NJ].
From The Newark Star-Ledger, November 10,
Out-Takes Out from an Interview with Barbara A. Holland
October 19, 1981
Pennyfeathers on Seventh Avenue
Greenwich Village, New York City
by Michael Redmond
The following remarks by Barbara A. Holland are taken directly
from Michael Redmonds hand-written notes, in the order she
made them. Barbara was in good spirits, focused, relaxed, having
enjoyed a good meal.
"In the late Fifties everybody was interested in Eliots The Cocktail Party. The funny thing is that they considered
"The New York School? Well, whats left over from
the Beat movement is a rather posh group, including the group
that OHara brought together at MOMA, and the Naropa crowd.
Theyre doing the circuit New York is just one of
many places where they touch down. They may have started here,
but now theyre gone Upstate, to New England, or the West
Coast. Ive never been quite sure how to get on the
"I usually mess around in my head with a poem for several
days. I play around with phrases waiting for the subway. One time
I got stuck on the subway going up to hear David Ignatow read
and I got an entire poem done."
"I do base some poems on dreams."
"I admire Marge Piercy, T.S. Eliot, and Dylan Thomas.
I had a lot of trouble eradicating Eliotisms from my work. I dont
understand about three-quarters of Dylan Thomas, but then, they
say he couldnt either."
"Im not sure about feminism, Im not sure about
the ERA. I worry that the ERA will make women the same sort of
group that blacks became after they got their special legislation.
Then they were driven right back down to the ghetto."
"Poets are the poor relations of literature. They talk
about playwrights and novelists and short-story writers, but never
"I get rejection slips. They bother me as much as a little
static on the radio. At least I dont have to deal with people
of the mentality that actors have to."
"Weve gotten to the point that when poets become
prominent, they become public figures. They may as well be politicians.
"Im not a joiner. I dont run with the pack."
"Im not a political poet. But inasmuch
as any writing can be considered a political statement, thats
the sense in which I can be considered political."
Remembering "The New York
Ronald Hobbs, now a San Francisco poet, was active in the New
York poetry scene when Barbara Holland first arrived in New York.
Mr. Hobbs writes:
[Barbara] and I, my roommate William J. Matthews and my ex,
P.K. Volmuth, first conceived the idea of the original "New
York Poets Cooperative" in my apartment on Elizabeth Street.
Barbara brought in Donald Lev and Emilie Glen, I think, and Sabina
Jaycna Roseman. There may have been others, it has been so long
ago that I forget, but essentially all of those names belong
together at the same time. Barbara and I performed together frequently
in New York. I think that the cooperative might have lasted five-ten
years maybe before it ran out of steam, Roseman worked at St.
Johns in the Village, so we read there. Matthews and I published
a small mag called SANSKARAS for a few years.".
POEMS FROM SANSKARAS MAGAZINE 1968-69
IN THE EYE OF NOON
seated on a lotus
with the moon in your hand!
Coward I must have been
before my body got me
and made it palpable
in cling of flesh
to life brink of Samhadi,
its swift drop downward
into timeless all and nothing
which I dare not know
and yet desire.
A heft of longing
leans to it, yet tenses
to neural probe.
I would be brave
under the splendid swing of arc,
beneath the keystone,
under the curve of arm and lifted thigh
frozen to stance of mudra
in the eye of noon,
yet could not,
with the wrinkling of this fear
beneath my skin
maintain it and be safe
as long as gnat bite.
Safety locks me up,
casts me in bronze, immures me.
I would be done with it and send
the remnants of its sheath
in droplets, shedding
globules of grief in token of my being
down aching curves of wanting
into God who waits,
but never reaches me quite nearly;
away from God who calls
from shelter of my flesh for contact
with that against which flesh is barrier:
the all consuming Self.
I must not be uprooted, yet must fall.
I fear the plunge and petrify,
run through with veins of screaming gold.
in immobility, refrain
from reaching out to help me,
for my fear of God
who leaps to sunburst from your touch
will be that one decisive
and most wanted shock
that must unlock my terror
and release me, the one
decisive and most wanted shock
that must unlock my terror
and release me, the one decisive
and most puissant fear of all:
its outcome in desired disaster.
seated at fulcrum,
can you understand the ways
of God who slits the iris
of the eye of noon
through which I see you
and defend me?
SHOULDER-HANGING HAIR AND BOOTS
Here he comes tinkling
with a bell snarled in a chain
from which a crippled Crucifix
competes with a medallion
of Yin and Yang, the Mogen David
and the thick set sledge.
He thinks a jingle of loose change
and keeps his eyes obliterated
by the snake on stilts. Nimble
his finger on the long loop
of his beads, slack abacus
that tallies up his prayers.
Quaint storm wit flecked with rain,
a windy will, now here, now there
among the curious, among
those whose bruised hope dangles
from their crooked crosses, hangs
from the sly grin soaring
through the tufts of trees:
a moon quirk of a mouth that moulds
the mantra mount of dollars,
multiplies, dots decimals on gainful nights
when squalor sold for hundreds
and the weekday mind
squirmed in the wooly cubicle
and sloughed its meagre pay.
CRISIS IN STORAGE
Barbara A. Holland
In crossworlds caught at crisis, timelessness
of two dimensions deepening to time drives words beyond
the flatness of a photograph between
the start and full stop of a sentence caught
in an onwardness continued through eternity.
We meet the crux of crisis on a warehouse shelf
kept in an endless speaking and persistent motion graded
throughout successive grays beyond
prohibitives of surface for no ear, no eye,
no motive lifting stillness from the distances.
How shall we share with others in the voice that calls
from cubic growth of breathing, peeling plane from plane?
Lens, light and sound have caverned up a firmament
and no one is allowed to know how vast it is.
Foghorns bring the loneliness of seas
up the empty street and leave it there
hung out to catch you.
These poems first appeared in 1968 and 1969 in the little
published by William J. Matthews and Ronald Hobbs. Thanks to Ronald
Hobbs for providing the copies.
READ POEMS FOR AND ABOUT BARBARA A. HOLLAND