“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.
Like Frost, who some sixty years before wrote about abandoned farms, stone walls, cellar holes, and other traces of a vanished world he encountered in the woods, Hall, too, laments the passing of the old way of life. For some poets, poetry derives from a place, he once wrote. Wordsworth has his corner of England; Whitman his New York; Stevens his Florida; and Hall his Danbury, New Hampshire. The world is a huge and terrifying place; what is comforting is our ties to what we know and love best.
The long lines with multiple caesuras in “Names of Horses” were new for Hall. He mentions the influence of Whitman and D.H. Lawrence but the music is all his own. One only has to listen to his reading of the poem on the CD that accompanies the Selected Poems to appreciate what he means when he speaks of poetry that makes each line a banquet in the mouth. For Hall, who has written extensively and perceptively about sound in poetry, we are taught to glorify meaning and ignore the sensual body of the poem. What the tongue does to consonants and vowels in a poem is for him as important as what the mind does with words. Sound comes first for him, then sense. “My heart is in my mouth,” he writes. Poetry is emotion that has found its music, rhythm, and imagery.
The next fifteen years, in which he published The Happy Man (1986), The One Day (1988), Old and New Poems (1990), and The Museum of Clear Ideas (1993), were extremely productive for Hall. He was not just prolific; he wrote the best poems of his life. The One Day, a poem made up of one hundred blank verse stanzas each ten lines long, is an astonishing tour de force. Divided into three sections, it is at the same time an autobiography, a family narrative told by several voices with frequent shifts of the point of view, a meditation on the relation between our separate and collective destinies, a work of savage political satire, and a celebration of sex. From the first orchard to the last one is one day forever, the poem says. Everything that has ever happened is still happening. With its rapid scene shifts and cast of hundreds, The One Day at times seems like a Fellini film. In one scene, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, who wanted to visit friends on the way home and tell them the good news, find themselves traveling forever, boarding steamboats, taking trains, hitching rides with teamsters, until two hundred years later they converge weary on Hollywood Boulevard in their absurd clothing, resembling movie extras. Federalists and Republicans all end up attending another convention at the La Brea Motel wearing their nametags, befuddled, unable to argue about anything sensibly.
What Hall praises in The One Day is work: both manual labor and creative work. They are connected as much as they were for Thoreau, who wrote: “I find incessant labor with the hands, which engrosses the attention also, the best method to remove palaver out of one’s style.”* Hall and Thoreau are in the minority. When it comes to work, our fellow citizens have always had other ideas:
There are ways to get rich: Find an old corporation,
self-insured, with capital reserves. Borrow
to buy: Then dehire managers; yellow-slip maintenance;
pay public relations to explain how winter is summer;
liquidate reserves and distribute cash in dividends:
Get out, sell stock for capital gains, reward the usurer,
and look for new plunder—leaving a mill town devastated,
workers idle on streetcorners, broken equipment, no cash
for repair or replacement, no inventory or credit.
Then vote for the candidate who abolishes foodstamps….
In the middle section of the poem entitled “Prophecy,” Hall sounds like Walt Whitman gone sour on the American Dream:
I reject the old house and the new car; I reject
Tory and Whig together; I reject the argument
that modesty of ambition is sensible because the bigger
they are the harder they fall; I reject Waterford;
I reject the five-and-dime; I reject Romulus and Remus;
I reject Martha’s Vineyard and the slamdunk contest;
I reject leaded panes; I reject the appointment made
at the tennis net or on the seventh green; I reject
the Professional Bowlers Tour; I reject matchboxes;
I reject purple bathrooms with purple soap in them….
I reject Japanese smoked oysters, potted chrysanthemums
allowed to die, Tupperware parties, Ronald McDonald,
Kaposi’s sarcoma, the Taj Mahal, Holsteins wearing
electronic necklaces, the Algonquin, Tunisian aqueducts,
Phi Beta Kappa keys, the Hyatt Embarcadero, carpenters
jogging on the median, and betrayal that engorges
the corrupt heart longing for criminal surrender.
I reject shadows in the corner of the atrium
where Phyllis or Phoebe speaks with Billy or Marc
who says that afternoons are best although not reliable….
Because professors of law teach ethics in dumbshow,
let the colonel become president; because chief executive
officers and commissars collect down for pillows,
let the injustice of cities burn city and suburb;
let the countryside burn; let the pineforests of Maine
explode like a kitchenmatch and the Book of Kells turn
ash in a microsecond; let oxen and athletes
flash into grease:—I return to Appalachian rocks;
I shall eat bread: I shall prophesy through millennia
of Jehovah’s day until the sky reddens over cities…
The structure of The One Day owes much to Pound’s Cantos and their way of juxtaposing historical epochs, stringing anecdotes, bits of dialogue, and quotations in concert with stretches of lyric poetry. An image like “a rain of small faces on the abandoned street” has the older poet’s terse beauty. Pound’s ear and prosody were also an influence, especially the loose lines and the mixture of slang and Latinate vocabulary of “Homage to Sextus Propertius” and the plain style of his Chinese translations, where he discovered the lyric potential of flatness. I like many of the individual poems in The Happy Man and Old and New Poems, his other two collections from that period, but The One Day stands out for me as a major achievement. When one considers how many of our poets in the last hundred years have tried to write a long poem and failed, what Hall has accomplished is remarkable.
The Museum of Clear Ideas is another strange and beautiful book. It has another longish poem, “Baseball,” in which the narrator explains the rules and subtleties of the game to the Dadaist poet and collage artist Kurt Schwitters, known for making art by gluing together every conceivable kind of material from pieces of string to newspaper clippings. Hall’s poem is a paean to domesticity, everything from small daily chores to the joys of making love and watching baseball on TV. Reading it is as much fun as watching a game, sipping a beer, and commenting on the action with a friend. Hall has learned from Pound how to make his long poems work on several levels of meaning. As he muses about the madness of a baseball fan who gathers bits and pieces of ordinary things like ticket stubs, used Astroturf, and Fenway Frank wrappers, he is thinking about art and composing a defense of his own poetry:
Kurt, I begin to understand what matters
in this daily game. Listen: Baseball is types
…of continuousness, simultaneous
hours not consecutive ones, independent
temporalities that gather ongoing
moments into a perpetual present
that invalidates the inexorable
business of clocks….
This passage comes from the last poem in The Museum of Clear Ideas entitled “Extra Innings.” Before that, Hall has a group of delightful poems based on the first book of Horace’s Odes. Their subject is the vileness and stupidity of our age, which he chronicles in loving detail. Like the old Roman poets, Hall has a gift for satire. We have poets who write better than he does about nature, but when it comes to contemporary politics and sex, he has no equal. To “celebrate lust in Mortality Mansions” is his lifelong mission. Unfortunately, the mind of the beloved tends to be distracted by faddish lunacies:
The times are propitious for fake religions.
Today let’s decide which priest, beauty, athlete,
moviestar, or Jungian to celebrate
by electing him
God. Hype springs eternal in the human breast.
Let’s diversify spiritual options,
play New Age rock, and improvise jargon with
of the God-of-the-Month Club, who keeps busy
shamaning around in her medicine man
costume, afterward to go Sufi dancing
with Jerry Falwell….
The Museum of Clear Ideas is a happy book until the very last poem, which mentions his wife suffering from depression. Worse was to come. In September 1989, Hall was diagnosed with colon cancer. He was operated on successfully, but by 1992 the cancer had spread to his liver. Another operation followed and then chemotherapy, after which the cancer went into remission. He was given a small chance of surviving beyond five years. Two years later, while he was still worrying that his own cancer might return, his wife was diagnosed with leukemia. Her final illness and her death fifteen months later in 1995 at the age of forty-eight and his memories of her are the subject of his subsequent collections, The Old Life (1996) and Without (1998). For those not familiar with her, Jane Kenyon was a much-admired poet. When Hayden Carruth called her our Akhmatova, he was not exaggerating much. Like the Russian poet, Kenyon wrote short lyric poems of great emotional intensity and purity. Ironically, just before the tragedy struck she and her husband were the subject of Bill Moyers’s documentary A Life Together, which won an Emmy Award in 1993.
Hall did not include in Selected Poems many he wrote after her death about their life together. Still, with all the poems about her, overt or thinly concealed, she is the reigning presence in the book. Kenyon’s poems were dark. “Death is the mother of beauty” is her song, and so is his. Theirs is the story of two elegists who fell in love. Reading Hall’s poems about the last days of her illness is a harrowing experience. I find myself unable to judge their artistic qualities since the subject matter is so overpowering. Hall wants to tell us everything down to the grimmest details of her dying. They matter to him, and he expects that their poignancy will move the reader—and it does. Of course, with so much detailed information to convey about her failing health, the poetry often sounds prosy. A more serious defect may be the way in which his understandable preoccupation with his own feelings at times obscures our view of the dying woman. Hall is more effective in poems in which he holds back and just observes:
Jane’s last public outing
was our cousin Curtis’s
funeral, dead at three days
in his mother’s arms.
I carried a folding chair
and Jane held on tight
as we crept over ice
through the year’s coldest
wind to the baby’s hole.
Jane sat shaking, in tears,
pale and swaddled under down
and wool. Our neighbors
and cousins nodded, smiled,
and looked away. They knew
who would gather them next.
This is a stark, wonderfully simple, and touching poem. There are several others like that among the many he wrote about the death of his wife. The richness of Hall’s previous poetry, his ability to bring together his vast learning, his political passions, his love of baseball, his delight in nature, and his many other interests within a single poem are gone. The later poems tend to be mostly short narratives, small lyric poems, and elegies that focus almost entirely on Jane. Traditionally, the function of the elegy is to lament, praise, and console. Hall fulfills the first two easily, but is unable to find comfort:
I keep her weary ghost inside me.
“Oh, let me go,” I hear her crying.
“Deep in your dark you want to hide me
And so perpetuate my dying.
I can’t undo
The grief that you
Weep by the stone where I am lying.
Oh, let me go.“
And then he finally does. He falls in love again, and, I imagine, upsets a fair number of his readers by writing several explicit erotic poems about other women. A few of them, like “Villanelle” or “Conversation’s Afterplay,” and a more covert one like “Razor,” are very good. He also recovers his sense of humor, cautioning himself in one of the poems to stop chasing young women now that he is almost ready for the grave. The “sensuous dazzle” of his late poems may strike one as unseemly, given all the heart-breaking verses he had written about his wife, but who are we to judge him? “When you fall in love,” he writes, “you jockey your horse/into a flaming barn/You hire a cabin/on the shiny Titanic. You tease the black bear.” The newfound lechery certainly revived Hall’s poetry. After a long hiatus, there are again poems about his youth, politics, rural life, and, of course, old age. They give the final pages of the Selected Poems additional complexity and drama, a further testimony of a life fully lived that otherwise they may not have had.
November 30, 2006