Donald Hall began his career writing formalistic, four-line stanzas with rhyme schemes. The poems’ topics vary, but they tend to be emotionally distant reflections. “Elegy for Wesley Wells” in Hall’s first major book, Exiles and Marriages, however, is marked by a more reflective and impassioned voice, anticipating a major theme in subsequent books: the celebration of life and the mourning of death.
Hall’s general pattern of development as a poet begins with objectivity, moves to surrealism and diversity, and culminates with the use of multiple voices. Imaginative texture, experimentation with free verse, and the use of personas increase throughout Hall’s work. He writes on a bewildering variety of topics: the changing nature of rural New England, the individual’s relationship with history, the classical world of Greek myth, youth and old age, religious artifacts and ceremonies, the fragmentation of the modern world, the world of art, airplanes and crashes, sexuality and parenthood, patterns of thought, and the cycle of birth, life, and death. Hayden Carruth believes that Hall sees the past as better than the present—the values of Hall’s grandparents were “more humane and reasonable than the values of their descendants.”
Hall’s poetry can be best appreciated through attention to five fundamental motifs that run throughout his work: grandfather, grandmother, father, Eagle Pond farm, and Mount Kearsarge. Each motif is a potent imaginative symbol for the past, present, and future. Hall’s overriding themes are grief, celebration, and making sense of the cycle of life through ordering one’s consciousness. He chooses to explore the cycle of life through this cluster of motifs associated with rural New England, but his poetry contains many other themes.
Hall’s poems sometimes defy literal translation or easy paraphrase. His use of surrealism, stream-of-consciousness sequences, and primal archetypes prevents superficial descriptions of his work. At his best, he challenges himself and his readers, discovering many voices and points of view on fundamental human concerns. Hall can be lyrical, humorous, despondent, satiric, grim, and joyous all in the same book. In a book of interviews and essays, Goatfoot Milktongue Twinbird (1978), Hall explains his philosophy of poet as both word maker and mystic; the mystical or “vatic” voice provides inspiration and insight yet sometimes creates texts beyond the poet’s own control. The poet sometimes says things he or she does not understand, because poetry approximates a preverbal response to the world.
Exiles and Marriages
Hall’s first major book, Exiles and Marriages, explores the themes of loss, isolation, and renewal. The tone is somber and detached, slightly ironic. Already Hall is absorbed in one of the predominant themes of his career, reconstructing the past and comparing modern middle-class complacency and emptiness to the values of ancient Greece. In this collection, he initiates a search for heroes; his grandfather, the Lone Ranger, and Oedipus are among those considered.
In the most philosophical of his early poems, “Exile,” Hall writes of the modern self-destructive tendency to move on endlessly, constantly rearranging the furniture of the mind without reflecting on what it means. By distancing themselves and avoiding the pain of loss, Hall says, modern people become exiles and transients.
Hall seeks communion with the past in “Elegy for Wesley Wells,” a poem written for his grandfather, who died in 1953. This poem explores the decaying world of a farm left without a farmer to watch over it; animals run amok and fields are overgrown by weeds. Hall’s mythic re-creation of his grandfather’s world presents the values he learned from watching his grandfather work the fields. Wesley Wells was a man rich not in material wealth but in the experience of life— cultivating, repairing. When young people take the place of men such as Wells, the poet believes, certain noble virtues die. Looking back at his childhood spent on his grandfather’s farm, the poet considers that he has lost something beyond replacement. Still, he suggests a path toward renewal that subsequent books would pursue.
The Dark Houses
In The Dark Houses, Hall focuses on the loss of his grandfather and father. A certain homesickness and lyrical despair inform poems with topics ranging from the uncertainty of language to experiences of isolation to religious ceremonies. In “Christmas Eve in Whitneyville,” Hall writes of his father’s death in 1955, exploring an emotional attachment that made him a prisoner but that also transcended the stultifying suburban order.
Poems in The Dark Houses explore the themes of suffering, loss, decay, and a failure to overcome limitations. An experimental series of poems that take their titles from Edvard Munch paintings shows Hall’s conversion from objective, private suffering to subjective, imaginary journeys. While most of The Dark Houses dwells on grief and loss, some poems point toward an increased spectrum of voices. Hall becomes more fascinated with artistic expression, creativity, and by implication, renewal.
A Roof of Tiger Lilies
In fact, the major difference between The Dark Houses and A Roof of Tiger Lilies is Hall’s increased reliance on surreal and fantastic images from the subconscious. In A Roof of Tiger Lilies, he begins to reach out in a variety of directions, relying on references to sculptor Henry Moore and writers Charles Tomlinson, Henry James, and Muir, and an allusion to the Bronze Age Mycenean culture in one poem. Here he abandons the traditional verse forms of his first books and experiments with free verse, at times using humor in poems such as “Self-Portrait as a Bear” and “The Moon.” Though he does not completely abandon his obsession with dead relatives and the New Hampshire farm, he takes new approaches toward them.
A poem from A Roof of Tiger Lilies representative of Hall’s new style is “The Days,” in which the poet imagines himself as an old man contemplating the past from his easy chair in Connecticut. A portentous concluding stanza of this poem says that the days of this man’s past lie buried underground; a huge chorus of voices and paintings from different points of view wait to be unearthed. The old man wishes that he could travel to this buried world like a tourist with a camera and then return to the earth’s surface with scrupulous snapshots of lost experiences. This is precisely what Hall sets out to do in subsequent books of poetry; in fact, “The Days” is almost a prophecy of his later book The One Day.
The Alligator Bride
In some ways Hall’s next book, The Alligator Bride, is his most uncharacteristic. Reading The Alligator Bride gives one the impression that Hall has exhausted his own experience; he now looks outward into the realms of aircraft and art and inward into the language of dreams. The book shows an influence of the mystical poetry of Yeats. Hall creates an irrational world of associations, colors, and emotion without explicit meaning. The reader must “float” on the images of these poems, not attempting to force a literal or abstract translation of meaning. Each reader of The Alligator Bride constructs an individual, idiosyncratic interpretation from its bizarre collage of images. The book does, however, include “Mount Kearsarge,” a potent recollection of the lost childhood hours of rocking on his grandfather’s porch, looking at the top of the blue, hazy mountain. The Alligator Bride also includes tender memories of Hall’s grandfather in “The Table,” where the poet recalls a voice that “talked forever” and wrapped him “with love that asked for nothing.” Despite its foray into the surreal, this collection continues the great themes of his career.
The Yellow Room
In The Yellow Room, Hall shifts his focus to love poetry, describing the progression of a relationship from beginning to end. The surrealistic tone of The Alligator Bride seems momentarily overshadowed by an incipient psychological drama. Hall works with honesty in narrative free-verse forms in The Yellow Room, developing the theme of adjustment from the yellow room— internal world of the lovers—to a remote island where the poet exiles himself after the affair ends. In the beginning stages, the poet’s interest in celebrating the flesh and making love all day long give a certain sentimentality and egocentric narrowness to some poems.
The Town of Hill
The Town of Hill finds Hall returning to some of the dreamlike images and topics of The Alligator Bride; the reader is constantly aware of a blurred line between fantasy and reality in these poems. The topics range from a humorous prose poem about a convocation of dead presidents to the sale of frozen rats in Detroit as pet food to the false praise and piety of poetry readings.
The title poem, “The Town of Hill,” explores a New Hampshire town that was evacuated in a 1940’s water-control project; the short lines and bald images emphasize abandonment and the remoteness of the past. This town, covered by water as if it had been a dream, resembles all forgotten memories that become unreal once one calls them to the surface again. This is a place to which Hall will return, but for now, a door shuts underwater, rendering the memories remote. Other poems such as “White Apples” raise the icon of Hall’s father, calling him again from the past, causing the poet to sit up in bed and stare at another closed door.
Many of the poems in The Town of Hill border on the subconscious or mythic, being utterly nonrational or ineffable in content. At its best, Hall’s impressionist verse can create a powerful visceral response in a reader, a feeling of kinship with a poet who has journeyed through the forbidding territory of the mind. Some poems in the book approach tongue-in-cheek satire of suburban middle-class values. In “To a Waterfowl,” Hall pictures polite society women, wearing hats like pink ducks, who applaud timidly, avoiding the strangeness that lies within their own hearts. “Poem with One Fact” prowls around posh Detroit suburbs, cataloging the emptiness and cold-blooded consumerism running through the lives of common folk. “The Green Shelf” shows the speaker driving past a man who has suffered a heart attack while mowing his lawn; the speaker returns to his neatly ordered house to arrange his soup cans on the shelf. The overall tone of The Town of Hill is that of a tour guide who is introducing travelers to another dimension of reality, finding the horrors both within and outside normalcy.
Kicking the Leaves
Hall’s next three major books in many ways transcend everything he wrote before them: Kicking the Leaves, The Happy Man, and The One Day each announce an important new phase in Hall’s career. Each of these three was awarded more critical recognition than any of Hall’s previous books.
Kicking the Leaves is the most accessible and emotionally profound of Hall’s books, combining the weirdness and imaginative color of his surrealistic poems with the homeliness and honesty of his memory poems about his grandparents. Kicking the Leaves was occasioned by Hall’s retirement from academic life and return to his grandparent’s farm in New Hampshire; this phase of his life was therefore both a brave new venture into a full-time writing career and a nostalgic retreat into happy memories of childhood. This risk taking and sense of renewal allow Hall to respond fully to a barrage of emotions, ideas, memories, and themes. Kicking the Leaves contains only thirteen poems, but they are long, discursive reflections that attain a remarkable grace and intelligence.
Every poem in Kicking the Leaves in one way or another reflects on the theme of death and reconstructing the past. Many of the poems explore a process of loss, reflection, subconscious journeys, memories,...
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