Old and New Poems

Amidst the confusion of contemporary American poetry, where no dominant figure stands out but many interesting ones appear, where no controlling voice commands allegiance but many distinctive ones cry for attention, Donald Hall’s poetry makes one of the strongest claims for its author’s inclusion among the first rank of American poets. Because Hall has earned recognition as a man of letters through his essays, criticism, short stories, anthologies, textbooks, and biographical work, his poetry has generally been regarded as but another element in an impressive array of accomplishments, yet on the occasion of the publication of what Hall himself calls his “big book,” his own selection of his finest poems, it is necessary to recognize that the poetry is at the heart of his achievement.

Hall’s poetic style has changed through four decades of composition, and his voice has evolved as he has practiced his craft through the crises and triumphs of his life, but what is striking is how incisive each poem is, how intelligently the form has been shaped to reveal the subject and how singularly expressive each poem is in terms of a language that Hall has created as a personal signature. Like other major poets, Hall has demonstrated his ability to find a continuing life in the traditional excellence of familiar poetic devices, and also to keep his poetry responsive to the energies of the speech and diction of his own times.

Readers who know Hall’s work will recognize the enduring power of some of his more famous poems, such as “My Son My Executioner” from the 1950’s, “The Alligator Bride” from the 1960’s, the overwhelming “Names of Horses” from the 1970’s, and the wonderfully whimsical “The Impossible Marriage” (about a union between Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman) from the 1980’s, but what might be most impressive about OLD AND NEW POEMS is the number of very recent and very strong poems. Like W. B. Yeats, who continued to write memorable poetry until the end of his life, Donald Hall in the seventh decade of his life is clearly in his poetic prime.