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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 coast to coast and in all the little towns between, subject to the quality control of the least common denominator.

And every year, Ronald McDonald takes the Pulitzer.

Born in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1928, Donald Hall belongs with Robert Bly, Galway Kinnell, James Wright, Robert Creeley, W.S. Merwin, John Ashbery, Philip Levine, Adrienne Rich, Anne Sexton, and several other poets to one of the most extraordinarily talented generation in our literary history. Son of a businessman, he was educated at Phillips Exeter and at Harvard, Oxford, and Stanford. He began writing poems and stories while in his teens and in 1945 at the age of sixteen attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference where he met Robert Frost. That same year, he started publishing his poems in little magazines. While an undergraduate at Harvard, Hall served on the editorial board of The Harvard Advocate and got to know Ashbery, Bly, Kenneth Koch, Frank O’Hara, and Rich, who were all fellow students. He recalls arguing until four in the morning with some of them about publishing a particular poem in the magazine.

After leaving Harvard, Hall went to Oxford for two years where he found the time to concurrently edit several literary journals and win the university’s prestigious Newdigate Prize for his long poem “Exile.” He also served from 1954 to 1961 as the poetry editor of the newly founded Paris Review where he promoted the work of many young British and American poets like Thom Gunn, Geoffrey Hill, Louis Simpson, and Adrienne Rich. He also interviewed Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and Marianne Moore for the magazine and later wrote of these occasions as well as of his encounters with Dylan Thomas and Robert Frost in Remembering Poets (1978), one his finest books.

Upon returning to the United States, Hall, who was by then twenty-five years old, went to Stanford to study with the poet Yvor Winters. During his long career as a teacher and a critic, Winters saw himself as the last defender of reason in what had become a modernist madhouse. He warned against the fatal flaw in our literary culture, which he identified as the dry rot of irrationalism, and insisted that a poem is only good insofar as it makes a defensible rational statement about a given human experience and does so in meter and rhyme. Here’s a poem that Hall wrote during the year he worked with Winters:

MY SON MY EXECUTIONER

My son, my executioner,I take you in my arms,
Quiet and small and just astirAnd whom my body warms.
Sweet death, small son, our instrument Of immortality,
Your cries and hunger documentOur bodily decay.
We twenty-five and twenty-two,Who seemed to live forever,
Observe enduring life in youAnd start to die together.

His cantankerous teacher had to be pleased. Paradox, irony, and abstraction were acceptable, but not wild flights of the imagination. The poem was included in Exiles and Marriages (1955), his first book of poems, from which Hall has wisely retained only several in his new book. Even with such cuts, the early poems included in Selected Poems, 1946–2006are of moderate interest. Hall’s poetry began to change at the very same time he was editing, with Robert Pack and Louis Simpson, The New Poets of England and America, an anthology which was seen by the more adventurous poets of the day as typifying the conservative, anti-modern post-tendencies of the postwar generation. It was a product of “careful ignorance,” Hall later said. His transformation as a poet was provoked by his discovery of Surrealism and previously little-known European and South American poets like Trakl, Lorca, Albertti, Neruda, and Vallejo, who were being newly translated by some of his closest friends, Robert Bly and James Wright. “I had a number of reasons for changing,” Hall wrote.

And as I changed, so did the poets with whom I talked poetry. We had written iambic stanzas; now we seemed to feel that we had come to the end of something. Independently and simultaneously we moved into free verse, following various masters, and most of us began to incorporate fantasy in our poems. In my metrical verse I had come to feel limited by my associations of subject and structure with metrical form. Now I felt free, loose, improvisational, excited, and a little frightened.

Nevertheless, Selected Poems, 1946– 2006 includes only a small number of poems that would fit that description. Surrealism is all about risk taking, the spontaneous association of two incompatible realities in a single image (“the sky is a gun aimed at me”), but there are few such daring images in Hall’s poetry at the time. As he explained years later, he was never interested in sentences without meaning, believing that every meaningless sentence says the same thing. What he wrote—when he had a go at what he calls “the poetry of fantasy”—are fables. “A woman who lived/in a tree caught/the moon in a kettle,” begins one poem. Another one called “Wells” starts this way:

I lived in a dry well
under the rank grass of a meadow.
A white ladder leaned out of it
but I was afraid of the sounds
of animals grazing….

Hall is much better when he keeps his eyes open. In one poem “fat honey bees meander among raspberries”; in another, he describes drinking cool water from the fountain in an undertaker’s parlor near the body of a ninety-two-year-old man. Surrealism could never really be of use to him because he is a poet deeply devoted to another literary tradition. He is genuinely suspicious of poems that rely too much on imagination, regarding them, surprisingly, as nothing more than fantasy, not only a flight from the reality that has always been his subject, but a betrayal of everything that he values in English and American poetry. As a poet, Hall was much closer in his early years to Yeats, Hardy, Robinson, and Frost than to Dickinson, Stevens, and Williams, about all of whom he has good things to say.

The poems he wrote before moving to the farm in New Hampshire lack a believable speaking voice. Hall spent more than thirty years figuring out what kind of poet he was going to be. His early poems are stiff as if done to death by revision and fear of deviating too far from convention. The passion, the range, and the ambition of his later work are missing. The better poems are usually on rural subjects, but they lack the immediacy of direct observation and the historical imagination of a book like Kicking the Leaves (1978).

He was fifty years old when it was published. In a bedroom that had been his when he spent the summers on the farm as a boy, he set up his study and started reinventing himself as a poet. Eagle Pond was a place with a family history that goes back to 1865 and a landscape he could study as it changed with the seasons. “Kicking the Leaves,” “Ox Cart Man,” “Stone Walls,” “The Black-Faced Sheep,” “The Henyard Round,” “New Animals,” and the following poem about horses owe everything to his new life in New Hampshire:

NAMES OF HORSES

All winter your brute shoulders strained against collars, padding
and steerhide over the ash hames, to haul
sledges of cordwood for drying through spring and summer,
for the Glenwood stove next winter, and for the simmering range.
In April you pulled cartloads of manure to spread on the fields,
dark manure of Holsteins, and knobs of your own clustered with oats.
All summer you mowed the grass in meadow and hayfield, the mowing machine
clacketing beside you, while the sun walked high in the morning;
and after noon’s heat, you pulled a clawed rake through the same acres,
gathering stacks, and dragged the wagon from stack to stack,
and the built hayrack back, up hill to the chaffy barn,
three loads of hay a day, hanging wide from the hayrack.
Sundays you trotted the two miles to church with the light load
of a leather quartertop buggy, and grazed in the sound of hymns.
Generation on generation, your neck rubbed the window sill
of the stall, smoothing the wood as the sea smooths glass.
When you were old and lame, when your shoulders hurt bending to graze,
one October the man who fed you and kept you, and harnessed you every morning,
led you through corn stubble to sandy ground above Eagle Pond,
and dug a hole beside you where you stood shuddering in your skin,
and laid the shotgun’s muzzle in the boneless hollow behind your ear,
and fired the slug into your brain, and felled you into your grave,
shoveling sand to cover you, setting goldenrod upright above you,
where by next summer a dent in the ground made your monument.
For a hundred and fifty years, in the pasture of dead horses,
roots of pine trees pushed through the pale curves of your ribs,
yellow blossoms flourished above you in autumn, and in winter
frost heaved your bones in the ground—old toilers, soil makers:
O Roger, Mackerel, Riley, Ned, Nellie, Chester, Lady Ghost.

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