The Elegist

Some of us spend our whole lives praising Danbury, New Hampshire.”

Donald Hall, who has just become the fourteenth poet laureate of the United States, has been called, and rightly in my view, one of our preeminent men of letters. The range of his published works is truly astonishing. There are fifteen books of poetry and twenty-two books of prose, including short stories, collections of literary essays, sports journalism, memoirs, children’s books, and plays, not counting dozens of textbooks and anthologies that he has edited over the years. In an interview, he explained his various interests by saying that he was curious to explore all sort of genres and acquire some competence in a number of them. There was an additional reason too. After he abruptly quit teaching at the University of Michigan in 1975 and moved with his second wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, to his grandmother’s house in New Hampshire, he had to support himself. Whatever the spur, the books he wrote, most of which are in print, are still very much worth reading. Hall is a lively prose writer, a master of the informal essay, a raconteur, and a charmer able to be both informative and hugely entertaining, whatever his topic happens to be.

His literary essays and interviews collected in three volumes by the University of Michigan Press are particularly noteworthy. Polemical and shrewd, they say many sensible things about the craft of poetry while defending the art from know-nothing academics and bad poets. Here, for instance, is what Hall has to say about the “Nice Doggie School” of contemporary American verse in an essay entitled “Poetry and Ambition”:

The United States invented mass quick-consumption and we are very good at it. We are not famous for making Ferraris and Rolls Royces; we are famous for the people’s car, the Model T, the Model A—“transportation,” as we call it: the particular abstracted into the utilitarian generality—and two in every garage. Quality is all very well but it is not democratic; if we insist on hand-building Rolls Royces most of us will walk to work. Democracy demands the interchangeable part and the worker on the production line; Thomas Jefferson may have had other notions but de Tocqueville was our prophet. Or take American cuisine: it has never added a sauce to the world’s palate, but our fast-food industry overruns the planet.

Thus: Our poems, in their charming and interchangeable quantity, do not presume to the status of “Lycidas”—for that would be elitist and un-American. We write and publish the McPoem—ten billion served—which becomes our contribution to the history of literature as the Model T is our contribution to a history which runs from bare feet past elephant and rickshaw to the vehicles of space. Pull in any time day or night, park by the busload, and the McPoem waits on the steam shelf for us, wrapped and protected, indistinguishable, undistinguished, and reliable—the good old McPoem identical from …

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