Poets must often write to cheer themselves up, and in so doing the good ones can cheer up their readers as well. Thomas Hardy’s passionate love lyrics to his dead wife, the wife to whom when she was alive he had paid very little attention for thirty years and more, are also an acknowledgment of himself as he was, an acceptance of what he had done, or failed to do. So moving are these poems, and in a sense so self-delighting, that the reader too feels calmed and blessed at second-hand, endowed while he reads them with the same sort of self-acceptance.
This is the art that moves Donald Hall’s poems to and for his dead wife, the poet Jane Kenyon. These, too, are poems addressed to the dead which in reality can only have been written for the poet and for his reader. Unlike Hardy’s they celebrate a marriage of deep intimacy and great happiness, but all things come to the same in the end. Hardy mourned that his wife had abruptly left him, just as she sometimes did when callers came to the house. She had departed finally “in the same swift style,” as if to say “Goodbye is not worthwhile.” Like all who have been bereaved, Hall in his poems lives among the same sort of memories.
I want to sleep like the birds,
then wake to write you again
without hope that you read me.
If a car pulls into the drive
I want to hide in our bedroom
the way you hid sometimes
when people came calling.
So many poets—Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, Tennyson, the one following the other—have pointed out that nothing is worse in a bad time than the memory of good ones. Hall adds his own variant:
Remembered happiness is agony;
So is remembered agony.
I live in a present compelled
by anniversaries and objects.
But the paradox holds: the poets were incorrect, at least where their poetry is concerned. For the reader, and surely for the poet too, Hall’s extraordinarily clear awareness of what is over and gone is more present and more appealing in words now than it could have found room to be in life. The house, the hospital, the course of his wife’s leukemia, the dog Gus, the cemetery, the mountain and lake nearby, “Perkins,” Jane Kenyon’s nickname for her husband, the gothic horror of her complex and meticulous treatments—all these, together with the sense of an unbroken human intimacy, make the poems almost mesmerically readable. It is as if they were not poems at all but experiences undergone with and by another human being. And yet art remains of course; for
Art was dependable, something
to live for.
And we can only be together in the saving dishonesty of art, the hypocrite lecteur and the poet who makes poetry out of what he has suffered, even out of the grotesque medical rituals which can be inflicted on us today …