Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7336
SOURCE: “Donald Hall: An Interview by Liam Rector,” in American Poetry Review, Vol. 18, No. 1, January–February, 1989, pp. 39–46.
[In the following interview, Hall discusses his body of work and the state of contemporary poetry and poetry criticism.]
[Rector:] You've written poignantly about time and generation. Jose Ortega y Gasset had a scheme for generation:
60–75 Old Age, “Outside of Life”
How have these moments moved in consort with the time of your life, your work, and the scheme of literary generations as you've experienced them?
[Hall:] Schemes irritate me. Maybe this scheme annoys me because I'm supposed to move “outside of life” in a few months and I'm damned if I'm ready to. Rigidities, separations get my back up. Maybe I left childhood at fourteen and remained adolescent until forty-three. I like the word “dominance”—and I suppose I felt it first at about fifty, though I think I was looking for it from the age of fifteen. So I respond, not by generality on the schemer's level, but autobiographically or egotistically. Chronological skeletons—like somatic or psychological types, like classes, like historical determinism: hell, like the god-damned horoscope!—provide things to talk about, frameworks for discussion. … But if you accept them, and not rebel against them, you actively desire the comfort of prison! Everything's done for you; relax: prison … or tenure.
In the essay “Rusticus,” you said you grew up in Hamden, Connecticut, a suburb of New Haven, in a “massclass” neighborhood wherein everyone more or less shared four convictions: “1) I will do better than my father and mother. 2) My children will do better than I do. 3) ‘Better’ includes ‘education,’ and education provides the things of this world. 4) The things of this world are good.” String Too Short to Be Saved speaks powerfully for the summer life in New Hampshire you experienced as a boy, but could you say more about the culture and class in which you grew up in Hamden? Have you done better?
In the suburban neighborhood where I grew up in Connecticut, the houses were like each other; the cars that belonged to the houses resembled each other; the fathers, working at their different jobs, had incomes roughly similar; the mothers weren't supposed to work, and their leisure or volunteer-work decorated the fathers. In school, there were rewards for conformity and punishments for difference. In the culture of the country, where I spent my summers, there was fantastic diversity—in education, aspiration, income, appearance; what you wore, what you ate, what you did for fun: from house to house along the roads and lanes. Eccentricity was a value; a major ethical notion was everybody's right to be different. I belonged to the Connecticut culture and longed for the other. I live in the other now—it's not greatly changed—and live by it, observe it, write about it—but of course I will never be truly of it. My whole life comes out of the conflict of these cultures—and my choice to love and inhabit the one rather than the other.
You went to the Phillips Exeter Academy and then to Harvard, Oxford, and Stanford. Did the students at these schools share the cultural and class background you outlined in “Rusticus”? You then went on to the public, sprawling world of the University of Michigan to teach. What led you to attend these schools as a student, and what went into the decision to teach at Michigan?
The class structure in England is unlike ours, and I won't try to describe...
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it. Sure, other students at Exeter were mostly from the same suburbs, where people try to resemble each other, but most came from more money than I did. My parents sent me there because they knew it was a good school, I don't think for social reasons at all. They weren't social people. At Exeter the best teachers all came from Harvard; the best students were going there—quickly I knew I wanted to go there. Some Exeter kids came from money that had been around in the family longer. At Harvard I felt less of this: There was more diversity there, at least among the people I knew. Even at that time Harvard was more high school than prep school, trying to get the best high school students from all over the country. They were a bunch of tigers locked in a small cage; I liked that. I tried for a fellowship to Oxford because it was a plum and because it sounded like fun to travel and live in another country. While I was there England was in a bad way economically. I never saw my English friends on the continent during holiday because they were only allowed to take twenty-five pounds out of the country in a year. There were already lots of scholarship boys at Oxford, but I was so separate culturally—older, from another nation. Being an outsider gave me privileges which I enjoyed, privileges to be weird.
One of the reasons I went to the University of Michigan was to get away from the Harvard which I liked so much. After I did the B.A. I spent only three years away at first—Oxford and Stanford—then returned for three more years in the Society of Fellows. There were pathetic sorts around the Square who would take any sort of rotten job in order not to leave Cambridge, or—perish the thought!—go to the Middle West. (America's geographical snobbery is repulsive.) I wanted to get away, to try another kind of institution, and Michigan made a good offer. Ironically—probably predictably!—I went to an institution which, within Michigan and nearby states, is considered rather snobbish, rather old school tie. Some students' grandparents and parents had belonged to the same fraternities and sororities—but there were children of lineworkers. I liked that variety, that looseness.
We both grew up spending our summers with our grandparents on farms, you in New Hampshire and I in Virginia. In String you wrote of how this shaped your imagination and that residence where imagination and memory commingle. Living now on that same farm where you spent summers, what is your memory, your imagination of the large cities?
I've never lived in a great city. For me, large cities are excitement, energy, vitality, almost mania. When I go to New York I never sleep. Oh, I've lived for a month or two at a time in London, Paris, Rome. Because Cambridge is virtually Boston, and I went to school there, I suppose I did live in a big city—but living in a college isn't the same. I contrast the country not to the city but to the suburbs; Ann Arbor is a suburb without an urb. (Technically it's a city.)
This place is no longer a farm but the rural culture remains amazingly intact, although thirty years ago I thought it was vanishing. I love the landscape more deeply all the time; I am content sitting on the porch and gazing at Kearsarge, or walking in the woods. Carol Bly speaks somewhere of writers who are “mindless nature describers.” Touché; I guess I'm a mindless nature lover, but I love also the independence and solitude of the country, which is by no means only a matter of population density. I don't suffer from the deference, mostly ironic, that hangs around writers in universities; I'm the “fellow over there who writes books for a living” and that's a freedom.
Your work has been haunted not only by the grandfather but the father. Did your father encourage your becoming a writer?
My father was soft and volatile, a businessman who hated being a businessman and daydreamed for himself a life in the academy—probably prep school rather than college—where everybody would be kind to everybody else. He read books; mostly he read contemporary historical fiction like Hervey Allen and Kenneth Roberts. He was finicky about good prose and suffered from polysyllabic tendencies, especially if he was depressed: “It is necessary to masticate thoroughly.” Politically he was conservative and not very thoughtful. He wept frequently and showed feelings which other men would hold back. He desperately wanted people to like him and many did. He was nervous, continually shaking; quick, alert, sensitive, unintellectual. When he was forty-two he hemorrhaged with a bad bleeding ulcer and remained sickly until he got lung cancer at fifty-one and died at fifty-two. As an adolescent I needed to feel superior to him; when I was about twenty-five, when my son was born, I felt reconciled. I don't think we talked about matters of great substance but we could love each other. He read my things and mostly praised them, but I don't think either of us wanted to talk about them. He tried to encourage me in one direction, constantly, by telling me that my poetry was just fine but my prose was really great. … Some of this at least was his desire that I might possibly be able to make a living. When he realized that I was going into teaching, it pleased him because of his imaginary academy.
Your new book, The One Day, is in many ways a departure from Kicking the Leaves and The Happy Man, both in its elliptical form, its being a book-length shoring of fragments, and its engagement with the very old and the very new, aside from your personal remembered past which sets much of the tone in the two books before. How do you account for this shift? One section of The One Day was printed in The Happy Man. What made you decide to foreshadow the long poem by printing “Shrubs Burned Away” there? Had you yet seen the shape that The One Day would assume?
If you look at everything from the beginning in 1955, there is lots of moving about and shifting. Surely you're right that the form of The One Day is modernist, with its multiple protagonist—but I guess I don't want to. … Really, I don't want to talk about the form of it. It's new; I'm still finding out what I did.
The poem began with an onslaught of language back in 1971. Over a period of weeks I kept receiving messages; I filled page after page of notebooks. If I drove to the supermarket, I had to bring the book and pull over three or four times in a few miles to transcribe what was coming. It was inchoate, sloppy, but full of material: verbal, imaginative, recollected. And it was frightening. After a while the barrage ceased, but from time to time over the years more would come—with a little label on it, telling me that it belonged to this thing. (In my head for a long time I called it Building the House of Dying.) The first part was there in inchoate form, much of the first two of “Four Classic Texts,” much of the “one day” theme in the third part. Every now and then, over the years, I would look at these notebooks, and feel excitement and fear. In 1980 I began to work on it; to try to do something with these words. First I set it out as a series of twenty-five or thirty linked free verse poems: Nothing marched. I worked on it for a year or two; I remember reading it aloud to Jane one time, and when I finished I was full of shame! Shame over what I revealed, shame over bad poetry; after that, I couldn't look at it for a year.
At some point early in the 1980s, Robert Mazzocco suggested casually in a letter that I ought sometime to write a book of linked poems, like Lowell in Notebook or Berryman in Dream Songs. Thinking of this notion I developed my ten-line stanza, making some into almost-discrete ten-line poems, using others as stanzas. I thought of Keats's Ode stanza, developed out of the sonnet and the desire to write the longer ode form. This notion helped me get to work: bricks—cement blocks?—for the house. I worked with these stanzas for a couple of years, then maybe in 1984 developed a three-part idea that somewhat resembles the present version, except that the middle part is totally different. I showed a draft to a few people. I remember Bly saying, with his usual diffidence, that the first part was the best thing I had ever done and the second part was the worst thing I had ever done. The second part was a problem until I worked out the notion that turned into “Four Classic Texts”; I stole “Eclogue” from Virgil, which always helps. I still thought the third part was my real problem, and sometimes doubted that I would ever finish the whole—because I wouldn't be able to make the third part.
When I put The Happy Man together I had “Shrubs Burned Away” more or less finished, “Four Classic Texts” just beginning, and “In the One Day” lying about in pieces. I thought it would be ten years before I would be able to finish the poem as a whole, if I ever did. I had no notion that I might finish it within a couple of years. But I think that printing “Shrubs” in The Happy Man allowed me to finished the whole poem. Response was encouraging … and some reviews helped me understand what I was doing, like David Shapiro's in Poetry, with his reference to Freud and the movement from hysterical misery to ordinary unhappiness!
What about your work in children's books?
I've worked on children's books for twenty-five years, starting when Andrew was a little boy, and I've written many—but only published four. The first was Andrew the Lion Farmer, which I may rewrite and reissue. That one came out of story-telling with Andrew when he was four years old. I made up lots of stories. Then one day he said he had a great, scary idea: He was going to go to the lion store and buy a lion seed and grow a lion from a pot! … Wow! I was off! Now I don't have four-year-olds around anymore—maybe I'll make up stories for grandchildren one day—but there's a permanent four-year-old in my head, to whom I tell my stories. I've worked on three in the last year, but none is any good. If you have the proper shape, the fable, maybe they're not so hard to write—economy, limits of diction, right details. … But finding the fable is hard! For each of my juveniles, the publisher's found the illustrator, asking my approval; then the illustrator has asked me questions, maybe shown me samples. I've been fortunate: Barbara Cooney, Mary Azarian.
Does the war of the anthologies (yours and Pack's and Simpson's versus the Donald Allen anthology) stay with you to this day? (Even though you included the work of Ginsberg, Snyder, and others in a later anthology you edited for Penguin?) What young Turks have you lived to see become old Deacons?
The war of the anthologies was real enough, back at the end of the fifties. For some nostalgic and sentimental people it still goes on; ah, the barricades! They remind me of people in my parents' generation, who lived out their lives in nostalgia over Prohibition. Bathtub gin! Speakeasies! … I speak without disinterest, because I am still loathed here and there as a leader of the Eastern Establishment, Mr. Hallpack Simpson, Enemy, Archbishop of Academic Poetry! … People want to relive their youths, when good was good and bad was stanzas.
For the most part good poets want no part of it. Creeley and I, Ginsberg and I, were famous enemies … but we stopped twenty-five years ago. In 1961, Denise Levertov, who was poetry editor at The Nation, asked me to review Charles Olson's first The Maximus Poems. Ecumenism was already there. In 1962 I did my Penguin with Levertov, Creeley, and Snyder, only five years after Hallpack. (Five years is a long time when it starts in your twenties.) By 1961 I was abashed by the rigidity that defended my citadel when I was in my mid-twenties.
I don't think that particular war endures except for nostalgic die-hards—but there will always be outs and ins; and the first shall be last: sometimes. I see geographical complacency and enmity now. What is a Los Angeles poem? (I don't think there's a New Hampshire poem.) For the most part, geographical groups are diffident folk trying to build castles to feel safe in. To hell with it. I want to be a poet by myself, not a New England poet or a deep image poet or what have you. In my own generation in America, the poet I admire the most is not considered a member of my gang. Robert Creeley.
Those anthologies provided a dialectic for their time. Does such a dialectic exist now, or is it a time of synthesis, revision, mannerism, or utter impasse? Was the aesthetic distance between your and Allen's anthology a real one? Are you ever tempted to edit another anthology of younger poets, at your age?
I've been asked to edit an anthology of the young and I have refused. Let the young edit the young. I could do it—but the passion would not be there, and if I made fewer gross mistakes the whole thing would be a big mistake. I don't like recent anthologies of younger poets because they are too damned big. Out of generosity or whatever, probably whatever, they include too many aspirants and contribute to the confusion of numbers.
I don't really think there's a dialectic now though it seems so to some. Metrical poets against the world. Free-verse plain-talk poets against the world. Language Poets against the world. Narrative poets against the world. There's a comfort in being out, and people warm themselves by that cold fire. But conflict does make energy. Maybe it's a time of warring tribes, Balkanization, rather than a time of dueling superpowers. Oh, it wasn't really superpowers ever, not even back then. … Allen Ginsberg, Frank O'Hara, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, and John Ashbery did not resemble each other.
What's good about growing older?
What's bad about growing older is the knowledge that you have less time, the frustration that you will not live to write the books or the poems; or to read all the books you want to. What is good, paradoxically enough, is patience. With less time I feel or act as if I had more. When I begin a poem of any ambition, I know that I will be working on it five years from now; I sigh a little … but I get on with it. I feel more energy, need less sleep, feel more excitement about work than I did when I was thirty or forty. I've been lucky in my second marriage, in living where I want to live; these are not inevitable results of aging.
Simpson says he has scolded you for writing so much about the business of poetry—the number of books sold, number of readings, etc. What do you think about that? (Rexroth also wrote of these matters, yes?)
Louis and I fight about lots of things. He was outraged when I wrote an article about poetry readings. I write essays in poetic theory, and essays of appreciation, but from time to time I write essays of fact. I am interested, for example, in how writers make their livings: New Grub Street, biographies. Think of Emerson making his living by traveling around the country, at first by steamer and stage-coach, lecturing week after week—like Robert Bly. It annoys me that people generalize, as if facts were common knowledge, when they don't know the facts. One constantly hears how poetry sells less than it ever did—even publishers say so—and the numbers are different. The facts don't necessarily have anything to do with quality—I grant Louis that—but let's find out the facts before we generalize. If poets typically make a living as teachers, is their workday unrelated to the poetry that they write? I used to be fascinated by all the English poets who lived by their wits free-lancing. A couple of centuries ago a good many were vicars. The poetry reading must explain a great deal—good and bad—about the kind of poetry that is written today. There is also the phenomenon of the creative writing industry.
What do you think accounts for the dearth of polemics in current writings about poetics? Compared to Pound and Lewis's Blast, Bly's The Fifties, why do we see so few picking up the cudgel these days? Is it part of an “I'm okay; you're okay” relativism and “Make Nice” culture, or just a period of exhaustion, politeness, or fear?
Compare the reviews in English magazines! Nastiness is a dumb convention over there as our nambypambyness is a dumb convention here. “Boost Don't Knock,” said the Boosters Club. How many poets have you heard say that they don't want to review anything unless they can praise it? Oh, I don't believe in taking a cannon to kill a flea. It's a waste of time to write a savage review of a book that nobody is going to read. But I believe in taking a cannon to kill a flea continually described as an eagle. I've tried to do it once or twice.
What do you think about creative writing programs being separated from English Departments and being put under the aegis, say, of a Fine Arts Department, along with dancers, musicians, theater people?
Separating creative writing from the regular English Department is a disaster. “Here are the people who can read; here are the people who can write. People who can write can't read; people who can read can't write.” Wonderful. Specialization is a curse, especially for poets. Separate departments divide old poetry from new. Some places have literature departments within creative writing departments, where writers teach reading to would-be writers. But the value of writers to English Departments lies not in teaching of creative writing; it's their teaching of literature classes for regular undergraduates or graduates. Of course most Ph.D.s are dopes; so are most poets. Undergraduate English majors—or engineers and nurses taking an elective—suffer because they never get to be taught by a writer. The faculty suffers because separations make for complacency; nobody's challenging you with an alternative; but the teacher of creative writing suffers most. When you teach literature you spend your days with great work—reading it, talking about it, reading papers about it. Great literature rubs off and you learn by teaching, by encountering what you don't know well enough, teaching it to people who know it even less. This separation makes for narcissism, complacency, and ignorance: It's the worst thing that has happened with the creative writing industry. People spend whole lives talking about line-breaks and The New Yorker!
The first readers for your poems—Bly, Kinnell, Simpson, Bidart, Orr, and others. … How have their readings changed and developed over time?
Jane Kenyon is my first reader and has been for fifteen years. Robert Bly has read virtually every poem I've written for forty years. Simpson, Snodgrass, Kinnell. … These people have helped me enormously through the years. For a while in our twenties Adrienne Rich and I worked on each other's poems. When we lived near each other, Gregory Orr helped me. I haven't known Frank Bidart so long but he has been extremely helpful; Robert Pinsky on occasion; Wendell Berry very often. Bly's reading has changed the most. He used to cut and rewrite; sometimes I took his corrections and put them in print: more often they showed me what was wrong and helped me make my own changes. More recently he has taken to speaking more about the underneath of the poem, touching the text less. Galway is a marvelous editor, a great cutter. Snodgrass is superb at a Johnsonian reading, following syntax and implication, allowing himself to be puzzled.
You're one of the few writers your age I know who still reads and comments on the work of younger writers, aside from people who formally teach or are busy writing blurbs. Most writers, once they reach fifty or so, confine themselves to reading the work of their own generation and work of the distant past. Why has this been different for you?
I keep looking. I'm curious: What's happening? What's going to happen? I've seen nothing so extraordinary as the increased numbers of poets, people with at least some ability; the numbers especially of young women, compared to earlier generations, including mine. Because I was so rigid when I was young, I try to stay open to kinds of poetry alien to my own; of course openness can become a mindless relativism or nambypambyness. You have to worry: Do I just want them to like me? One thing I learned ten or twenty years ago: If you read something that upsets you, that violates every canon you ever considered … look again, look harder: It might be poetry. This notion helped me read Frank Bidart. I read the Language Poets without great success, but some please me more than others: Perelman, Palmer, Hejinian, Silliman.
You can't keep up forever. I look into as many as six hundred new books a year. I'm not telling you that I read every poem; I get tired. Like everybody else I get tired reading the same poem over and over again, but it's not only that. When I was in my twenties Richard Eberhart, who was only fifty, told me that he could no longer tell the young apart. He was not being insulting; he was complaining, not bragging. I suppose it happens to everyone. Maybe it begins to happen to me; but I remain avid to keep up. I suppose the feeling is more acquisitive than altruistic, but from time to time I can help someone. On the other hand, I continually get booklength manuscripts by mail from strangers, usually wanting me to find them a publisher. I cannot even read them all. Too much!
Your work as an editor for The Harvard Advocate, The Paris Review, the Wesleyan poetry series, Harper and Row, the University of Michigan series, and Harvard Magazine—how has this affected your life? What advice might you have for editors, for a long life spent tending to the work of other poets?
When you edit you impose your own taste. Especially when I was younger and passionate about the work of my own generation, I wanted to impose my taste on everybody. Of course at this point I no longer agree with all my old taste; but I don't disavow the motive. Other editors worked a counter-taste. Conflict makes energy, and I'm all for it. I started the Poets on Poetry series with the University of Michigan Press because I wanted to be able to read the books. I'd read an article here and there by this poet or that, but when I wanted to lay my hands on an essay I couldn't find it. I made the series in order to preserve fugitive and miscellaneous pieces—interviews, book reviews, full dress articles, what have you.
Advice: Never edit by committee! Advocate, disparage, make public what you love and what you hate! When you stop loving and hating, stop editing.
The Michigan Series, Poets on Poetry—Robert McDowell said in a review of the series that “The Mum Generation Was Always Talking.” Which ones are you proudest of? How do the books sell? I have the suspicion, along with McDowell, that if this series were not done we would have precious little record of the poetics of your generation. Did growing up, coming to fruition in the shadow of the New Critics inhibit poets from writing prose about their poetry, from writing any kind of criticism at all? W. S. Merwin once said it had that effect on him. …
Yes, many of us felt the way Merwin speaks. You had a feeling that some older poets would rather write an essay than a poem! And we reacted. Now there's a further reaction, parallel to and symptomatic of the separation of the English department from creative writing, which says that if you think about poetry—or utter thoughts about it, or allude to any poet born before 1925—you're a pedant. Bah!
How long did you write textbooks before you could count on any royalties from them as a basis for your income as a freelance writer?
When I quit teaching I had no confidence that my income was great enough to support my family, with my children going to college. At that time Writing Well made more money for me than any other book, but I couldn't count on it. Really, it hasn't been textbooks that have supported us. My income derives from such a variety of sources—textbooks, juveniles, trade books—many old things bring in a pittance every year: poetry readings, magazine sales. … Writing Well doesn't sell so well as it used to; other textbooks help but I don't rely on them. The many sources do a couple of things: They provide extraordinary variety in the work I do; and they have the virtues of a multiple conglomerate: if one sort of writing dwindles—if I lose interest or the market crumbles or my ability diminishes within a genre—there's something else to pick it up. Of course these advantages are accidental; I didn't become so various on purpose. I always take pleasure in trying something new.
Bly looks at the world as a Jungian and you as a Freudian. How has Freud affected your view of things? What have the insights of psychology, and psychoanalysis in particular, meant to you and your generation of poets?
I started reading Freud in 1953. Ten years later I started psychotherapy with a Freudian analyst, the only analyst in Ann Arbor who would do therapy. Reading Freud was exciting and gave me ideas; I could have found much the same in Heraclitus: Whenever somebody shows you north, suspect south. Later, the experience of therapy was profound. It touches me every day and it goes with the poetry rather than against it. You learn to release, to allow the ants—and the butterflies—to come out from under the rock; but first you have to know the rock's there! The names of the things that run out are up to you. Psychotherapy properly is never a matter of the explanations of feelings, nor of “Eureka!” as in Hollywood. It is a transforming thing. It makes your skin alert; it builds a system of sensors. Jung, on the other hand, seems a mildly interesting literary figure, full of fascinating ideas and disgusting ones mixed together with more regard for color than for truth. Freud is as nasty as the world is, as human life is. Jung is decorative. Freud is the streets and Jung is a Fourth of July parade through the streets, a parade of minor deities escaped from the zoo of polytheism. Freud has the relentlessness of monotheism.
Will you ever write an autobiography of your adult life?
You came to Whitman in your middle age? Some came to him early and take his words as scripture (I think of Ginsberg and Kinnell, particularly, here) and others arrived at him later, such as yourself and Richard Howard. What do you think might account for this?
It was my good fortune that I delayed Whitman, but as so often the provenance of the good fortune was dumb. I grew up reading poems the new critical way, which worked for Donne, and Hart Crane, but didn't work for Whitman. When I tried reading him he looked silly. My inadequacy saved him for me. He was brand new and exciting when I found him in middle age—by which I mean thirty or thirty-two.
Who, aside from writers, have been your most important teachers?
Henry Moore. I spent a good deal of time with him, talking with him, watching him work. He had the most wonderful attitude toward work and his art. He was interested only in being better than Michelangelo, and he knew he never achieved it; so he got up the next morning and tried again. He was a gregarious man who learned to forego companionship for the sake of work. He knew what he had to do. He remained decent to others, although it is difficult; people make it difficult for you when you're that damned famous. He knew the difference between putting in time—you can work sixteen hours a day and remain lazy—and really working as an artist, trying to break through.
How would you place your poems among the poems of the past? I'm thinking here of Keats's statement, which you mentioned in “Poetry and Ambition,” that “I would sooner fail, than not be among the greatest.” You've also wisely said that we are bad at judging our own work—we either think too much of it or too little of it? But take a crack at it?
I can't place my poems among the poems of the past and I doubt the sanity or the intelligence of people who say that they can. When Keats said that he would “sooner fail than not be among the greatest,” note that he did not tell us that he was among the greatest. He wishes to be among the English poets when he is dead; he does not tell us that he already is. When I was young I had the illusion that at some point or other you would know if you were good. I no longer believe that such knowledge is possible. Some days you feel you're terrific; some days you feel you're crap. So what? Get on with it.
The One Day works with the kind of “multiple protagonist” voice we find in “The Waste Land.” Why did you make this choice, rather than staying in the fairly mono-lyrical voice which has before characterized much of your work?
Picasso said that every human being is a colony. An old friend of mine said that she was not a person but ran a boarding-house. One of the many problems with the “mono-lyrical” is that it pretends that each of us is singular.
Your work is your church. Have you always been Christian? How does being a Christian enter your work? Isn't the absence of a god (or gods) or an agnosticism an important part of much contemporary poetry? How do you see your work amidst that? If it is something you shy from speaking of, why do you shy from it? Better left unsaid, bad manners, or just refusing to talk about politics and religion and politics at the dinner table?
I was brought up a Christian, suburban Protestant variety. When I was twelve I converted myself to atheism. During the years I spent in the English village of Thaxted, I used to go to church every Sunday, telling myself that I went because the carving and architecture were so beautiful, because I loved the Vicar (high church and a Communist), because the ceremony was beautiful. … Now I think I was kidding myself, in saying that my feelings were aesthetic. Yes, I am shy of speaking about it. The figure of Jesus is incredibly important, the astonishing figure from the Gospels. I used to think that people who went to church were either swallowing everything or pretending to, hypocritically. Now I know that intelligent practicing Christians often feel total spiritual drought and disbelief; still, even in such moments, ancient ritual and story can be entered, practiced, listened to, considered. …
Not too long ago you did a review of small, literary presses for Iowa Review. John Hollander has said that when he was first publishing you could count on a few of the elders to let you know what kind of noises your work was making. Very few older writers now review the work of younger writers, or emerging presses, except to write blurbs for them. Why is this? What is your “policy” about writing blurbs, and why?
Thirty years ago I was asked to write blurbs for a few books. I was flattered to be basked, and wrote the blurbs. When the books came out I looked like an ass. Then I looked at other peoples' blurbs; they looked like asses. There are honorable exceptions but almost every blurb is foolish. The formula for a blurb is an adjective, an adverb, and a verb which usually combine opposites. X is both free-swinging and utterly orderly; Y is classic and romantic; Z is high and at the same time, amazingly, low. Many book reviewers review blurbs rather than the poetry. Blurbs are the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. I think it's far worse in poetry than it is in fiction or anything else. Although doubtless many poets write blurbs out of generosity, it doesn't look that way; it gives vent to the widespread notion that poets live by taking in each other's laundry. It hurts poetry. It's done because publishers are too lazy to name what they're printing. Almost always, it would be better to print a poem or an excerpt from a poem … but, oh, these terrible blurbs. I refuse to do it.
Although I've refused 2,457 times, although I've written essays against the practice, I still receive two hundred and fifty or three hundred requests a year to write blurbs. How could I add three hundred books and three hundred mini-essays to my life every year? This is not my reason for refusing to do them but it would be reason enough. When publishers quote from reviews, excerpts from journalistic occasions, nobody can stop them. Blurbs are pseudo-reviews, and they appear to be used in lieu of dinner invitations, thank-you letters, and gold stars. They're nacreous.
Reviewing is in terrible shape. There's more poetry than ever—more readings, more books, more sales of books—and less reviewing. And worse reviewing. Literary journalists like Malcolm Cowley, Louise Bogan, and Edmund Wilson made their livings, in large part, by writing book reviews. Their descendants have tenure instead and teach Linebreaks 101. The New Yorker by appointing Helen Vendler resigned from reviewing poetry. Atlantic and Harper's and the old Saturday Review reviewed poetry regularly; no more. The New York Review of Books isn't interested in poetry and it is stupid when it pretends to. The New York Times is at its worst on poetry, especially under the current editor. What's left? The New Republic and The Nation are honorable; there are the quarterlies, each of them read by few people. APR reviews little. We suffer from a lack of intelligent talk about poetry. I don't know why. Maybe it's the same cultural separatism that splits creative writing and literature in the university, an epidemic of ignorance, willful know-nothingism. Many young poets if they criticize poetry at all adhere to the philosophy of the booster club, Boost Don't Knock. When Vendler is the leading critic of contemporary poetry we're in a bad way. She can write a sentence but she has no taste. She's a bobbysoxer for poets she croons over: some good, some bad, she can't tell the difference. I can't imagine why she chose this line of work.
You went to Harvard with Ashbery, Bly, O'Hara, Koch, Davison, Rich, and others. You said you dated Adrienne Rich. More to say on The Poet's Theatre started there?
Harvard 1947–51 was a lively place. There was a wonderful independent theater group, down at the Brattle. We started the Poet's Theater out of the coincidence of theatrical and poetic activity, and the momentary ascendency of poor old Christopher Fry; of course Eliot worked at poetic drama. Now, the Poet's Theater never produced anything memorable, but it was another center where energy gathered.
At the Advocate we sat around and argued all night. Koch, Ashbery, Bly. Of course O'Hara was around, and Rich. Bly became my best friend. He and I doubledated, with Rich my date. I think Adrienne and I went out twice. At least once I was awful: I got pissed and argued with Bly, showing off. Adrienne was polite. Much later, when I was married and at Oxford and she was living there as a Guggenheim Fellow, we got to be friends, and we were close for quite a while. I feel gratitude to her, and affection. … Bly remains my best friend. O'Hara and I were friends for a while, then we quarreled over something or other. … He was wonderfully funny and alert and lively, a nifty spirit. Ashbery was intelligent and quiet and smart and talented. It was a good time. We competed, you might say.
You've championed the work of poets as different as Robert Creeley and Geoffrey Hill. What accounts for the catholicity of your taste?
Sometimes I fear that my catholicity is another name for mindlessness … but I don't really think so. I like to say things like, “If you can't admire both Hill and Creeley, you can't read poetry.” (That isn't true either.) Hell, Creeley resembles nobody so much as Henry James. Take a late Henry James sentence and break it into two-or three-word lines and see what you get. Hill makes the tensest language in the universe, with more sparks flying between adjacent words than any other poet since Andrew Marvell. Both are geniuses. Of course they can't read each other. I'm delighted to say that Helen Vendler can't read either of them.
How do you avoid the whining and the bitterness?
Well, to start with, I whine bitterly a whole lot. … They are a waste, and they hurt—reason enough to avoid them. You feel bitter about trivial things: They have left you out of the Final Anthology—the last bus to the Immortality Graveyard. Or: Everybody else gets this prize.
But … there are things I try to remember, which help: All prizes are rubber medals. All grapes are sour as soon as you taste them. I haven't won the Pulitzer; if I ever win it, within five minutes I will recollect all the dopes, idiots, time-servers, and class-presidents of poetry who have won the Pulitzer; I will know that getting the Pulitzer means that I'm no damned good. Needless to say, I still want to undergo this disillusion!
Also, it matters to remember: You're never going to know whether you're good. Nothing in the inside world stays secure. Nothing in the outside world—like three Nobels for Literature in a row, retiring the trophy; like the sale of one million copies of your collected poems in two weeks; like effigies of your person selling in K-Marts from coast to coast—will convince you that you're any damned good. So: Give up the notion; what's left? What's left is work.
Of course you'll still feel annoyance and anger when you're abused. When somebody says something nasty, you can't get the tune out of your head. Words burn themselves into your brain the way an electric needle burns a slogan onto pine; you etch-a-sketch the unforgivable words onto your skull. It would be good not to read reviews but it's impossible, because if a critic gets nasty there's someone out there who'll xerox the worst parts and mail them to you. The emperor was right to execute the messenger.
But … I know so many aging poets, who ream their brains out with range over mistreatment, neglect, slights both imagined and true. A terrible thing to watch! Because I've seen it so much, I extend energy fending rage off—whining and bitterness—within myself, explaining to myself, over and over again, how the reputation stock-market rises and falls as irrationally as Wall Street does; remembering literary history and all the famous poets no one has heard of; reminding myself: Get back to work.
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Donald Hall 1928-
(Full name Donald Andrew Hall, Jr.) American poet, essayist, memoirist, children's writer, short story writer, editor, playwright, and critic.
The following entry presents an overview of Hall's career through 1999. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 13, 37, and 59.
Hall is considered by many to be among America's greatest living poets. He achieved success early in his career, with his poetry collection Exiles and Marriages (1955), and his reputation as a poet has steadily increased over time. His later poetry is generally regarded as the best of his career, and some consider it the best of his generation. Critics have compared Hall with such poets as Robert Bly, James Wright, and James Dickey, who favor simple, direct language combined with surrealistic imagery. Hall is also a respected essayist, educator, and editor, and his thoughtful prose—like his carefully crafted poetry—is widely praised for its clarity and integrity.
Hall was born in Hamden, Connecticut, a middle-class suburb of New Haven, in 1928. He often spent summers at his grandparents' farm in New Hampshire, and his memories of this time and of the rural landscape figure prominently in his poetry and children's literature. Hall attended Phillips Exeter Academy and later attended Harvard University, where he received his bachelor of arts and socialized with fellow poets John Ashbery, Robert Bly, and Adrienne Rich. After receiving a second bachelor's degree from Oxford in 1953, Hall became a member of Harvard's Society of Fellows. It was during this period in which Hall published Exiles and Marriages. From 1953 to 1961, Hall served as the poetry editor for Paris Review. Hall turned his attention to academia in 1957 and accepted a professorship at the University of Michigan. He eventually left the position in 1975 to begin writing full-time at his family's farm in New Hampshire. He lived at the farm with his second wife, noted poet Jane Kenyon, until her death resulting from leukemia in 1995. An accomplished speaker, Hall was the host of Poets Talking, a series of television interviews with poets in 1974, and has given poetry readings at more than 1,500 colleges, universities, schools, libraries, prisons, and community centers. Hall won the Lenore Marshall/Nation Prize for his collection The Happy Man in 1986 and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry for The One Day in 1988.
Hall garnered critical acclaim with Exiles and Marriages, a landmark in his early career, in which he wrote in a tightly structured style with an extremely formal application of rhyme and meter. The poetry in both Kicking the Leaves (1978) and The Happy Man reflect on Hall's return to his family's farm in New Hampshire, a place rich with memories and links to his past. Many of the poems explore and celebrate the continuity between generations, as the narrative voice in his poetry often reminisces about the past and anticipates the future. Hall's award-winning The One Day is one long poem consisting of 110 stanzas divided into three sections. The poem presents several narrative voices which comment on the meaning of life from the perspective of an individual experiencing the onset of old age. In the first and final segments of the poem, Hall alternates between a male and female narrator, speaking in blank-verse stanzas that expose personal details about their lives. Old and New Poems (1990) is divided into nine time periods, collecting revised poems from earlier collections and poems that had not previously been published. The earlier poems are more classical in form, while the later poems mix traditional and modern styles. In The Museum of Clear Ideas (1993), Hall examines how individuals cope with change and death. The collection also includes one of Hall's more famous works, “Baseball,” which serves as his ode to the American past-time. The poem is structured around the sequence of a baseball game, but instead of innings, it contains nine stanzas with nine lines each. The poems in Without (1998) confront Hall's grief over the death of his wife, Jane, and examine the details of his life after her passing. Without gives an objective appraisal of Kenyon's illness and relates many of Hall's emotions about being left alone after sharing his life with another. In addition to poetry, Hall has written many prose works. In Remembering Poets: Reminiscences and Opinions (1978)—which was revised and expanded as Their Ancient Glittering Eyes: Remembering Poets and More Poets (1992)—Hall recounts his conversations with and impressions of poets such as T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Dylan Thomas, and Robert Frost. He has also authored several books on the craft of writing, including Writing Well (1974) and The Weather for Poetry (1982). In 1993, Hall published Life Work, a memoir recounting his life at Eagle Pond Farm and his years working in literature. The book highlights Hall's rigorous daily writing schedule and his bout with liver cancer, which threatened to upset the balance between his life and his work.
While Exiles and Marriages received a favorable response from reviewers, it is the work from the latter part of Hall's career that has received the most critical acclaim. Lawrence Joseph stated in his review of Old and New Poems that Hall's writing “reflects the gifts of a poet whose powers have expanded during his fifties, into his sixties—a rare accomplishment.” Reviewers have praised Hall for continuing to be ambitious and challenging in his poetry, while keeping his subject matter firmly rooted in the everyday. They have also complimented the simplicity of his style and the naturalness of his imagery. Many critics were particularly fond of The One Day, with Frederick Pollack stating that it “may be the last masterpiece of American Modernism. Any poet who seeks to surpass this genre should study it; any reader who has lost interest in contemporary poetry should read it.” In addition to his accomplishments as a poet, Hall is respected by critics as an academic who has made significant contributions to the study and craft of writing. Hall is considered by several of his peers, as Peter Thorpe asserted, to be “one of the few living American examples of an authentic Man of Letters, after the grand old manner of Edmund Wilson and T. S. Eliot.”
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SOURCE: A review of The Ideal Bakery, in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 27, No. 1, Winter, 1990, pp. 121–22.
[In the following review, Christopherson offers a positive assessment of The Ideal Bakery, calling Hall “one of contemporary literature's gourmet chefs.”]
The characters in Donald Hall's first collection of short stories, The Ideal Bakery, are mainstream, and their plights are all too recognizable: a divorced father trying to get back in touch with his bookish nine-year-old during a weekend fishing trip; a middle-aged professor trying to rekindle a relationship with an embittered former lover; a graduate student of literature whose stationery-store-proprietor husband will never be the romantic she dreams of. But that is not to say the stories are common. On the contrary, Hall shows uncommon sensitivity in treating themes like loneliness, loss, and the erosion—or demolition—of innocence by experience.
In the title story, the narrator reminisces about the breakfasts he and his father used to share at a local bakery, where they would chat about the Brooklyn Dodgers' prospects and banter with the shop's proprietors, Gus and Mrs. Gus. This plotless reminiscence (“no story at all,” apologizes the narrator: “a boy and his father eat crullers”) is followed by a coda cataloguing the deaths, illnesses, tragedies and indignities that have overtaken the narrator's parents, the bakery's owners, and the narrator himself in the decades since he and his father drank coffee at Gus's. So demeaning are their fates that, by comparison, the remembered breakfasts seem like idylls, while adulthood assumes the character of a hell in which childhood must, as it were, be atoned for.
Hall sets up repeatedly for such reversals. “I was happy in my own world of snow, as if I were living inside one of those glass paperweights that snow when you shake them,” says the narrator of “Christmas Snow,” thinking back to his tenth Christmas Eve, spent at Grandma's house in the New Hampshire woods. The scene couldn't be cozier: a wood-burning stove, piles of presents, Grandma's fresh-baked donuts, aunts reminiscing about the oranges and popcorn balls of Christmastimes past—even a timely snowstorm. Then an uncle, under the sway of a painful association, tells the story of a punishment his father administered to him during a snowstorm forty-nine years earlier—a tale of such refined cruelty that we feel as if Hall had, figuratively speaking, dashed the glass paperweight of his story against a wall.
Nor are these endings melodramatic. Rather, they grow out of the circumstances of the stories and are all the more disturbing for their credibility. (One exception is the discovery of the corpse beside the trout pond at the end of “The Figure of the Woods”—a climax that, despite its photorealistic presentation, may strike some readers as too fantastic.) What saves such fictions, meanwhile, from disappearing altogether into the black holes their nihilistic endings create is the richness with which Hall details his “before” shots. Those unspoiled, familial tableaux are resurrected as well as razed by the story, and they remain with us all the more because they are destroyed before our eyes.
There simply isn't much to criticize in The Ideal Bakery, a collection assembled over the course of twenty-five years. Hall is a professional, from his story conceptions to his spare, but adroit, symbolism, to his sense of irony and nuance, to his characterizations and dialogue. The Ideal Bakery, in short, offers both the delight and the nourishment its title conjures. And that is as it should be—for Hall, as readers of his poems and essays will attest, is one of contemporary literature's gourmet chefs.
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Fantasy Poets No. 4 (poetry) 1952
Exiles and Marriages (poetry) 1955
Andrew and the Lion Farmer (juvenilia) 1959
String Too Short to Be Saved: Recollections of Summers on a New England Farm (essays) 1961; revised 1979
A Roof of Tiger Lilies (poetry) 1964
An Evening's Frost (play) 1965
The Alligator Bride: Poems, New and Selected (poetry) 1969
The Yellow Room: Love Poems (poetry) 1971
Writing Well (essays) 1974
A Blue Wing Tilts at the Edge of the Sea: Selected Poems, 1964–1974 (poetry) 1975
The Town of Hill (poetry) 1975
Kicking the Leaves (poetry) 1978
*Remembering Poets: Reminiscences and Opinions (essays) 1978
The Ox-Cart Man (juvenilia) 1979
The Weather for Poetry: Essays, Reviews, and Notes on Poetry, 1977–1981 (essays) 1982
Fathers Playing Catch with Sons: Essays on Sport (Mostly Baseball) (essays) 1985
The Happy Man (poetry) 1986
Winter [with Clifton C. Olds] (essays) 1986
The One Day (poetry) 1988
The Ideal Bakery (short stories) 1990
Old and New Poems (poetry) 1990
The One Day; and, Poems, 1947–1990 (poetry) 1991
Here at Eagle Pond (poetry) 1992
Life Work (memoirs) 1993
The Museum of Clear Ideas (poetry) 1993
Death to the Death of Poetry (essays and interviews) 1994
Lucy's Christmas (juvenilia) 1994
Lucy's Summer (juvenilia) 1995
Principal Products of Portugal: Prose Pieces (essays) 1995
The Old Life (poetry) 1996
The Milkman's Boy (juvenilia) 1997
Without (poetry) 1998
The Oxford Illustrated Book of American Children's Poems [editor] (poetry) 1999
*This work was revised and republished under the title Their Ancient Glittering Eyes: Remembering Poets and More Poets in 1992.
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SOURCE: “Donald Hall's The One Day,” in Salmagundi, Nos. 85–8, Winter, 1990, pp. 344–50.
[In the following review, Pollack offers a positive assessment of The One Day and classifies the poem as a modernist work.]
Born in Hamden, Conn. in 1928, Donald Hall has lived since 1975 in a New Hampshire farmhouse where his grandmother was born in 1878 and his mother in 1903. The mother seems a supportive figure; when, as a child, the poet cried for her after lights-out, she made much less fuss about it than, say, Proust's mother. Hall (by which I mean both the reigning persona of the poems and the man in the interviews) seems remarkably unalienated. Not “happy”; Freud's remark about replacing “hysterical misery” with “ordinary unhappiness,” one of the epigraphs in The One Day, is its article of faith. What is true of sense of self also applies to that of history: the speaker in Part I of Hall's poem imagines “an old man hedging and ditching / three hundred years ago in Devon”; someone in Part II announces that “For four hundred years and sixteen generations, I kept / my castle while vassals baked flatbread.” Such pasts are easier to bear than the past of pogroms and gas chambers, but not necessarily easier to write about.
The stories Hall has told about himself in essays and interviews, and in “A Note on this Poem,” are germane to The One Day. In the first stanza the mother tells the speaker a bedtime story about a boy and his sister who build a house in the woods. The actual New Hampshire farmhouse becomes the “house of dying” we must build and the “house” we should build. The poem has been compared to The Wasteland and Four Quartets; it is distinguished from the first by its refusal to project the self's problems onto culture, from the second by its secularism, and from both by the fact that the narrative, though multiple, is coherent. The One Day is a lyric poem about mid-life crisis. But it is a lyric vastly expanded in range and subtlety by narrative elements, a plural narrator, speculation about the composite nature of consciousness, and political awareness; its crisis is that of a society as well as of a life.
The seventeen years of work Hall put into the poem have made it a model of modern prosody. The ten-line stanza used throughout is like a fine baby-grand piano, instantly responsive to change of tone. The free-verse lines, ranging from between four and seven stresses in a variety of rhythms, succeed each other inevitably. The lines describe actions: strong verbs, simple but loaded nouns replace overt metaphor. The form transmits dreamlike logic without dreamlike blur. This logic has two interconnected rules. The first is that, as in neurosis, or in the Freudian session that uncovers neurosis, time may be shuffled or reversed. The second stanza warns us of this effect:
… The old man alone in the farmhouse makes coffee, whittles, walks, and cuts an onion to eat between slices of bread. But the white loaf on the kitchen table comes undone: Milk leaks, flour and yeast draw apart; sugar and water puddle the table's top.
At age 12, the second main speaker of the poem (later a famous sculptress) spends a wonderful summer painting watercolors of her grandmother's farm. But the stanza that describes this summer comes after the one that tells how, at 15, she gives up art to take care of her mother. (The father has died in a car crash; the mother descends into alcoholism.) Both stanzas are in the past tense. The effect of this simple inversion is to deny our deep-seated expectations of growth, happy endings, reward for effort. When her son is 15, and her daughter six, the sculptress leaves them, describing their anguish with a terrible detached sympathy. She says nothing about the father or what led to this move. One tells oneself it has something to do with her art but she doesn't say this either. The moment detaches itself from ordinary causality and enters another kind of time: that of a curse, or of fixation.
The logic of the poem merges people as well as moments. Picasso's remark that “Every human being is a colony” is one of the epigraphs, and this is the aspect Hall discusses most in his “Note.” In Parts I and III, he says, “two characters speak and each quotes others”; the “male ‘I’” is the poet, but there is also “a general consciousness.” Only the sculptress's words are italicized. An early stanza describes “other citizens / and colonists”: an unemployed gay actor, a suicidal drunk, and a man in Woodbridge:
…—ironic, uxorious, the five children grown and gone; he waters his lawn with irony; he works forty hours of irony a week and lives to retire.
But these are all non-speaking roles, and the narrative situation is more complex than Hall suggests. The reader broods over clues and leads. In Part I, Hall mentions the airplanes of youth: “The Bee Gee, huge engine and tiny stub wings, / snapped around pylons in the Nationals; each year / they clipped more wing off.” But by Part III, as the sculptress describes the pills, institutions and therapy of her middle life, the airplanes have become hers: “I crashed like my daredevil pilots; it was what / I wanted.” She remarries; he does not say that he does, but the wife who, in Part I, waits upstairs at 2 A.M. while he drinks seems different from the wife of Part III. There is also the mystery that begins when Hall's dissatisfied father “[shakes] his fist over my cradle: ‘He'll do / what he wants to do!’” Dying at 51, the father cannot deliver a grade-school graduation speech. Hall says, “As I took my father's / place, my head shook like a plucked wire. / I told the fourteen-year-olds: ‘Never do anything except what you want to do.’” Later in Part I, a very alienated drinker describes his life around Sunset and Hollywood Boulevards. One thinks this must be the Hall-character during the bad period he has mentioned. Then this speaker says “My father's head shook like a plucked wire” and quotes the talismanic phrase, which by now has choked on its own ironies.
The effect of this treatment of time and character is to put the reader in an unfamiliar space. Neither a narrow chamber of subjectivity, nor a transhistorical infinity like The Wasteland or The Cantos, it is a realm where social forces can become visible. I am not saying that Hall constructed the poem to reveal these. I suspect he was tracing out certain emotional sequences (such as: loss, grief, greed, betrayal, self-indulgence, self-destruction, renunciation) and realized that these currents neither exist only in individuals, nor generate themselves. In Part II, a shepherd and a milkmaid discuss the sources of joy:
Phyllis: and I carry, my dearest, the supermarket's paperbags into my clean kitchen; I align the cans on shelves just so. I set the oven for two hours and ten minutes while I cross-country. Dryads with slim exact hips and hair assemble in my livingroom for bridge. I am cheerful in order to be approved of. We forget every skill acquired over ten thousand years of labor. I practice smiling; I forget how to milk a goat. You forget how to construct aqueduct, temple, and cloaca. We vote for the candidate who vows to abolish caritas.
Marc: I live in an unfenced compound among swineherds and milkmaids identical in age, income, and education. I am unacquainted with anyone who lives in a trailer or wears a tattoo, except for Joseph who mows my grass, whom I fear and despise. O Phyllis, O Elzira, You never sat by a cooling stove while the clock struck to study the word by candlelight. I never doubted that money excused anything done to acquire it …
Part II is called “Four Classic Texts.” What makes them classic is not form but the purpose that animates each form. “The Prophecy” is a literal Jeremiad. What at first seems funny and indiscriminate flailing—everything is damned from Ronald McDonald to plutonium waste to Elzira's adulteries—soon makes perfect sense (though the humor remains). A prophet is not a member of a party. Alone, he attacks an evil way of life. A way of life implicates every object in it, even a little styrofoam cup that reappears in glory in Part III. (One reviewer's comparison between this section and Ginsberg's “Howl” is inexact. A prophet, however angry, still hopes that ethical reform will avert doom. Ginsberg's model, St. John the Divine, has no such hope.) Hall's “Pastoral” fulfills the same function as Theocritus': a lament for lost innocence on behalf of compromised urban intellectuals. The effect of progress has been to make the guilt greater and more articulate, but no more easily purged. “You make rules, piper, by which you cannot be fired,” Phyllis murmurs to her lover; “You weep, my love, chained to the trireme's oar.” The history fulfills its classical task of drawing from events a moral that can be phrased in terms of character. When Juvenis cut his thumb, says, Senex,
… Always he imagined for one heartbeat that he might undo the error and prevent the upsurge of consequent blood …
Juvenis is wrong; but so, Senex believes, are John Ball and Spartacus, who “assemble plutonium for love, constructing a device / to reverse history's river.” Senex, “president-emperor,” who of course is Juvenis, watches impassively, meanwhile continually killing. The Eclogue looks back to Virgil's Fourth Eclogue, which the Middle Ages regarded as a prophecy of Christ. As in the “Pastoral,” everything that was originally naive has become sophisticated, what may have been latent is now retrospective—yet no less tremulous and elegiac. It is a section of considerable beauty.
Part III is entitled “To Build a House.” The movement of the poem required a resolution, yet after everything we have seen no resolution could be completely satisfying. One is glad that, at 90, the sculptress is flown to the White House; one ponders her last remark: “I felt no pain except when I stood for the medal.” The main speaker's (second) marriage is properly autumnal, vital, happy. The wife, however, is treated differently from anyone else in the poem. She is neither a speaking role nor a “colonist” but a character, and, as such, rather flat: not speaking, part of a “we,” being delightedly observed by Hall as she does the same things he does—reading, picking apples. We realize that she is his Other, and that relationship is part of the “house” we are being urged to build; but sound psychology makes weak poetry, and we are more interested in the “others” he has found in himself. Similarly, an urban sensibility may have to strain to derive a metaphorical “house” (of coherent ego, of responsibility) from Hall's actual farmhouse and orchard; however real these are, they seem as distant as Horace's Sabine farm.
But these are minor objections, which the poem itself anticipates: in Part III Hall separates himself from his “colonists.” The latter collectively reappear as (what else?) delegates leaving the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Somehow, none of them quite make it home; they are last seen “descending the cloverleaf together / to engage another Convention at the Hollywood-La Brea Motel— / wearing their nametags, befuddled, unable to argue.” There are also several stanzas that rear up suddenly with the form and rhythm of the following:
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 milltown 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.
These impersonal instructions, inimical to any hope of fulfillment (and, it is stressed, to any farm), are also a call to wider responsibility.
The One Day is one of the greatest American poems of the last few decades; what remains is to ask what kind of poem it is. Fashionable postmodernists could not have imagined it. Rejecting “voice” entirely, they would not have created such interesting voices; reducing history to stylistic pastiche, they could not place personae in so long a perspective. A Modernist poem, then—but modernist in a rather English way. Spender in the '30s wrote of “All those other ‘I's,’ who long for ‘We, dying.’” Hall has been almost unique among American poet-critics in his love for contemporary English poetry. The One Day combines the urbane historicism of a Roy Fuller or a Geoffrey Hill with American warmth and scope. Deeper than such influences is an unexpected affinity with Matthew Arnold (who also provides an epigraph). Like Arnold, Hall works in a long Romantic stanza; like Thyrsis and the Scholar-Gypsy, Hall's protagonists act out the most complex concerns of intellectuals in a stylized, often bucolic landscape; like Arnold (and few poets since), Hall seeks to dramatize sanity and wholeness. Paradoxically, it is in this affinity for a sage—more importantly, in his belief that the poet should be a sage, rather than shaman, technician, or patient—that Hall most resembles the earlier Modernists: Eliot the cooler Tennyson, Pound the self-proclaimed heir of Browning. The One Day may be the last masterpiece of American Modernism. Any poet who seeks to surpass this genre should study it; any reader who has lost interest in contemporary poetry should read it.
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SOURCE: “Keeping the World Going,” in Ohio Review, No. 46, Spring, 1990, pp. 116–28.
[In the following excerpt, Looney offers a positive assessment of The One Day, complimenting the poem for its sense of wonder and beauty.]
In “Toward a Changed Poetics,” the final chapter of Praises and Dispraises (1988), Terrence Des Pres wrote that “Writers must, it seems to me, vote to see the world keep going.” About this there can be no sane argument. What is arguable is how writers must go about casting that vote. If the imagination is, as Wallace Stevens suggested, “a violence from within that protects us from a violence without,” a “pressing back against the pressure of reality,” then Terrence Des Pres' call for a poetry of witness to the horrors, political and personal, of the twentieth century may be self-defeating. If, as Des Pres suggests it is, the horror of this century is primarily the result of the intrusion of the political into our personal lives, then what's needed is a poetry that presses back against any such intrusion and, while certainly not being blind to or denying the forces that would intrude into our lives and into language itself, keeps that intrusion from being complete exactly by the act of not allowing it to intrude into poetry. The poet's vision certainly can, and should, include the intrusiveness of politics, but it must not be another victim of that intrusion. What we need are poets whose sense of the world, and the place of the personal in it, is sound and confident enough to attack the horror by praising that which the horror, and the political machinery that creates and sustains it for its own purposes, would deny.
In his chapters on the poetry of Yeats, Des Pres speaks at length of the bards of ancient Ireland, and the legendary power of their praises and curses, and ends up voting for the curse as the more powerful. This seems short-sighted. The curse's potency is temporal, and intrinsically connected to the thing cursed. The praise, however, lives on by its own merits, by how well it reclaims and redeems that which is praised. Think of those animals on the cave walls in France. Those figures are powerful and haunt us because they are an act of praise, of love. Because, by their existence, they keep alive and redeem a part of the world now lost. It is the courage to be human, and humane, in the face of terror that we need. Des Pres himself provided the evidence of this in The Survivor, which moves us not because it curses the terror of the death camps but because it praises the strength of the human spirit not to be denied its humanity and not to be silenced. It is not courageous to give in to the terror, to allow it to claim itself as the nature of the world. In fact, it is precisely that, the nature of the world, that we must offer as a pressing back against the terror. That is how we remain human in inhumane times.
The element of praise as a force against terrors both natural and man-made is found in all three books under consideration here. But one, The One Day by Donald Hall, is all about such praise. This book-length poem longs to be whole enough to contain the world and be a keeper of it, to care for it well enough that through it the world is made a little healthier and survives longer as what it is. Donald Hall has long been associated with the call for ambition in contemporary poetry, and this book lives up to that call. It is ambitious. And its ambition is to be strong enough to embrace the world and create, if not sense out of it, at least the chance for sense.
In the epigraph to the second section of the poem, “Four Classic Texts,” Hall quotes Nadezhda Mandelstam. “Poetry is preparation for death,” Osip's wife wrote. But how can poetry, which is after all merely words, be “preparation for death”? How can we be prepared for death? By life. Life is the only preparation for death. And poetry can prepare us only by reacquainting us more fervently with life, with, as Hall writes, the “single day that presides / over our passage through the thirty thousand days / from highchair past work and love to suffering death.” It is this that Hall ambitiously sets out to do in a poem which tests the limits of narrative, using a method sometimes referred to as “fractured narrative” that allows him to weave the substance of a life and incorporate into that fabric the joys and fears and pains and passions of all human life. One of the several voices in the poem, a sculptress, speaks for Hall's ambition when she says,
I embrace the creation, not for what it signifies, but for volume and texture thrusting up from the touched places.
(“To Build a House”)
And the textures touched in this book are rich and varied. Hall turns his attention to both our real and imagined lives. Collected here are “the young women's bodies, / their smooth skin intolerably altered by ointments.” We also find a middle-aged couple who, “in muscular bodies,” “walk to their deaths together.” We find scenes which offer quiet and moving praise for life.
Dreaming of tomorrow only, we sleep in the painted bed while the night's frail twisting of woodsmoke assembles overhead from the two chimneys, to mingle and disperse as our cells will disperse and mingle when they lapse into graveyard dirt.
(“To Build a House”)
We find the small aches that accompany us, and dreams which rise from us and assume their own reality. We find all this here, though it would be more accurate to say we find all this here noticed in language. And the words are the true praise, the song made of the things that, as Rilke wrote, perish. At least part of the power poetry can lay claim to is the power language well-used evokes, the ability of words to name and to go on naming, over and over with each new reader, each new generation of readers. This is perhaps the most profound aspect of the position we, as creatures of reason, hold in the order of things. When we write of the world, as Hall does in this poem, out of a sense of love and wonder and respect, we make the world that much more human, and ourselves that much more natives of the world. Language can be the conduit for a healthy and reverent relationship between the world noticed and the noticer, but not if those who use it set out only to condemn, to consign the world and all its life and beauty to the emptiness that terror desires to consign us to.
Poets do have a difficult task. They must not only use words to reclaim and redeem the world they are a part of, they must do it in such a way that they also reclaim and redeem the words themselves from the political and mercantile destruction of language that is a constant and ongoing threat to the only conduit we have to the world and to ourselves.
This is not to suggest that all poetry can do is praise. Terrence Des Pres was correct in his contention that anger can be a source of poetic energy, even if that energy may be, like cold fusion, only occasional and unreliable. Donald Hall includes in his poem the anger of a man of common sense living in a world run by those forces which are too often the enemies of sense. “Prophecy,” one of the “Four Classic Texts,” begins with a chanted litany of things the voice rejects.
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 seventeenth green; I reject the Professional Bowlers Tour; I reject matchboxes; I reject purple bathrooms with purple soap in them.
The rejections are followed by prophecies of what will come of those who live for and by these things. And as the poem goes on, we begin to sense that this voice is not the voice of a person speaking in defense of a world wronged by the short-sightedness and callousness of human beings, but the voice of the world itself. A world that will outlast our petulant attempts to conquer it, and whose inevitable victory is hinted at “Where the drive-in church raises a chromium cross,” by the fact that “dandelions and milkweed will straggle through blacktop.”
Curses, though, are not what this poem is about. This poem is an act of love. This poem is the product of the vision of a human being who has experienced the world and struggled to remake it as best he can. It's been fashionable since Auden's poem on the death of Yeats to use his line about poetry making nothing happen as an excuse not to do the hard work that real love requires, to instead write things that look like poems but are filled by the belief that emptiness is the only possibility and, more than that, a legitimate refuge for battered, self-indulgent souls. Donald Hall has not accepted that fashion. The One Day does make something happen. It makes the world seem a little more possible for us. Along the way it offers a reverent praise for those acts of creation that make us human, and praises the solace found in any work well done. “Work, love, build a house, and die. But build a house,” he writes. Donald Hall has built a house we can feel at home in, a poem which brings us together with the knowledge we were never separate. …
Poetry must be such a refuge. Poets must have the courage and the vision, as the three discussed here do, to take on the challenge of countering the terror, the ultimate negation Des Pres speaks of, countering it with affirmation, with praise. Poetry must be allowed to remake the world in words so well that the pressure of the words might help the world keep going.
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Burke, Kathleen. “Smithsonian's Notable Books for Children, 1996.” Smithsonian 27, No. 8 (November 1996): 161–64.
Burke discusses Hall's skillful evocation of farm life in his children's fiction.
Gavin, Tim. Review of The Old Life, by Donald Hall. Library Journal 121, No. 10 (1 June 1996): 112.
Gavin discusses the intimate relationships described in the poems of The Old Life.
Lane, J. B. “Disengaged.” Canadian Literature, No. 133 (Summer 1992): 152–54.
Lane offers a negative assessment of Here at Eagle Pond, criticizing the essays as superficial.
Skow, John. “Misty about Baseball.” Time 141, No. 12 (22 March 1993): 70, 72–73.
Skow explores Hall's use of a baseball game as the framing device for his poem “Baseball” in The Museum of Clear Ideas.
Additional coverage of Hall's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5–8R; Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Vol. 7; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 2, 44, and 64; Contemporary Poets; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 5; DISCovering Authors Modules: Poets; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Edition 1; Reference Guide to American Literature; and Something About the Author, Vols. 23 and 97.
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SOURCE: “An Interview with Donald Hall about The One Day,” in Ploughshares, Vol. 17, No. 1, Spring, 1991, pp. 71–75.
[In the following interview, Hall discusses the process he used to write The One Day and the events that inspired the poem.]
[Myers:] Your work on The One Day lasted more than a decade, I believe. How long exactly?
[Hall:] It was sixteen years from the time I started the poem—not knowing what I was starting—until I finished it. (I'm always tempted to put quotations around the word, when I say “finished,” because, when I have a chance to republish anything, I tinker.) I wasn't working on it all that time. After the initial onslaught of language, I worked on it very little for the next eight or nine years; I looked at it, every now and then, resolved to get back to it … and then I quailed, and closed the book. I was frightened of the material; I was also frightened by the magnitude of the task, but the first fear was greater.
Did you know at the start that you were working on a poem that would run fifty pages?
No, because I did not know what I was working on. It felt like something big, something long, but I did not know—I did not have any notion—what it would turn out to be, or if it would turn out to be anything. In my head, I called it Building the House of Dying, and this was before I used the phrase when I wrote “Kicking the Leaves.” As I was drafting that poem, in haste and excitement, that phrase popped into a line—and I knew where it came from. Maybe at the moment of composition, I thought that “Kicking the Leaves” might be a part of Building the House of Dying.” I'm not sure. At the beginning of anything, I'm not sure of what will happen or where I'm going.
In the explanatory note you've attached to The One Day, you say, “The poem began in the fall of 1971” (my emphasis), and referred to having written the poem as though you were taking dictation. Have there been other poems, long poems, that came at you like this?
A good many poems have started as if I were taking dictation. At some point in my mid-twenties, I demanded that I understand a poem before I write it—a brief aberration. Beginning with “The Long River” and possibly earlier, in 1957 or '58, I was willing to write down any language that came heavy-laden, whether I knew what it was about or not.
So you, personally, haven't needed to know what you've wanted to say?
Not at the beginning. Generally, by the time I finish a poem—often years after I start it—I have a good idea of what I've said. I don't know what I want to say until I say it; and then I cannot be sure that is what I “wanted to say” before the words came.
But, from time to time, I have something like paraphrasable content in my head before I begin to write. Poems begin any way they please. I am more interested in poems that begin mysteriously—or possibly in mania—as if they were dictated.
Right now I'm working on a long thing, which is at the moment sixty-six ten-line poems. These ten-line units do not resemble the bricks of The One Day in anything but number. The language is different, and unlike anything I have ever written. Certainly these came—over an extended period, however—like dictation. Maybe they are no good but they excite me. A working title is My Life and Times—because these poems seem to have absolutely nothing to do with my life and times.
I want to return to your word “dictation”—a word I believe Jack Spicer used in the same way. What is the source of dictation? From where do these works and poems come?
I don't know. “Dictation” is a dead metaphor that declares that you feel passive to the flow of words: I've also called it receiving messages from the mother ship—more passive receptivity. When you speak of “the unconscious mind,” you've said nothing. Freud's unconscious can't talk, so calling it the source of language says nothing.
But parts of the mind are always asleep, always dreaming; many sorts of mental activity continue, without alert awareness or with infrequent awareness. I observe things come into my brain, whole, and sometimes understand that they are made of parts that have combined somehow and somewhere. Sometimes I feel as if I can encourage a benign receptivity that stimulates combinations. Often when I look later at language that has come “as if dictated” I can identify bits and pieces—sources in experience, in things overheard, in ruminations, in reading. It is like looking at the new baby and saying the forehead comes from Uncle Charlie, the nose from Great-Grandmother Belle …
Did you begin “Kicking the Leaves” the same way?
It began almost automatically, or at least rapidly; I was at least partly aware, in that poem, of what I seemed to be talking about. “Eating the Pig” came in such a rush that I actually dictated a prose-rush of language onto a tape. Later I labored the paragraphs into lines at my leisure.
You speak of The One Day as something of a happy accident, “impulse validated by attention,” though we know an imposing talent was behind it. But The One Day does read as though it was written in the way the long modernists poems were written: by a piecemeal process of composition, and with no deliberate intention. It succeeds, for me, through allowance of subject matter: You've permitted what came into it to stay.
When I used that phrase, “impulse validated by attention,” I was not talking about a happy accident. I'm talking about working over the texture of its language. Impulsively, I set down a word or a phrase or even a series of lines; “impulsively” means I do it rapidly, in excitement, without malice aforethought, intuitively—in a manic state. By inspiration. But I don't just leave it there on the scattery page; I attend to it. I look at it every morning for one thousand mornings. After the eight-hundred-and-second morning, I find that I don't like this word, take it out and impulsively put in another. After the nine-hundred-and-sixty-second morning, I remove the new word and restore the old one. On the one-thousandth, two-hundred-and-thirty-second morning, I realize that two words here and two words there link up with seven words eight pages later in the manuscript … and I am pleased with myself.
Impulse is creation; attention is critical intelligence.
Would The One Day seem, to you, too discontinuous without those uniform units of ten lines?
Yes … finding that brick, after working on the poem steadily, over four or five years, was a major breakthrough. Before that, as I remember, it was a series of thirty-five free verse poems of several pages each. … You would recognize patches, in that old version, but it was no bloody good.
When I found my unit and my shape, the language improved. Finally everything in a poem has to happen at once, with an effect of joyous or possessed spontaneity. But in composition the lucky strikes accrue separately and bit by bit.
When Keats wrote the Odes, he invented that stanza by reference or maybe by association to the sonnet. I think the stanza sprung him loose. Not to compare myself to the glorious dead, I think that the shape of my stanza, and the sense of what it could contain—how it could live by itself or set a sequence—sprung me loose.
FROM MY LIFE AND TIMES
“A HISTORY OF SOLITUDE”
Before there was anything else, solitude filled space in the form of gas—lavender, thin, smelling like mouthwash. When solitude
studied itself in school, it turned into a sphere the size of a ball bearing, unbreakable, yet soft as beans soaked
to make soup. When it grew old, solitude sprouted leaves like the winter oak's. Dead, its molecules dispersed through space
emitting perfumes of rectitude and prospect.
“A THEORY OF WOE”
Harm soup simmers on each body's woodstove where gelatin soaks from shinbones and combines with effluence from cabbages
of loss to build gray froth. Nouns of perpetual accumulation sip woe three times a day from a wooden spoon
as machines doze in the separated hayfield. There are no shadows in this blue country. Woe's nutriment nourishes. Scum feathers
gather on harm soup in the dolce twilight.
“A HISTORY OF HISTORY”
Gibbon, Tacitus, and Thucydides fished from a rowboat while it rained oysters. “Look,” said Tacitus, “it's
pouring Rome's grief on my temple.” “No,” said Gibbon: “Phyllis has emigrated.” History takes correction from immaculate
leopards who remain alive—but history retains nothing; it stuffs fact stew into its face, vomits, and gorges again,
as the guitarist plays “mournful melodies.”
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SOURCE: “Donald Hall's Old and New Poems,” in Michigan Quarterly Review, Vol. 30, No. 4, Fall, 1991, pp. 699–716.
[In the following essay, Joseph explores how Old and New Poems is an example of how Hall's poetry has evolved throughout the years and how the collection relates to the genre of American Modernist poetry.]
In 1978, when he was fifty, Donald Hall published his seventh book of poems, Kicking the Leaves, to widespread acclaim. Hall's reputation as a critic, anthologist, editor, literary journalist (and, arguably, one of our leading persons of letters) was by then already established. Almost suddenly Hall was talked about as a poet. The publication of his next book, The Happy Man, eight years later, more than enhanced Hall's reputation. At fifty-eight, Hall not only was writing poems as well as he ever had, but was writing, some claimed, as well as anyone in his generation. The Happy Man (which received The Lenore Marshall/Nation Prize) served as a prelude for The One Day, published two years later, on Hall's sixtieth birthday. In The Washington Post Book World, David Lehman unequivocally declared the book “major work.” Widely, often extravagantly, praised, The One Day received the 1988 National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry.
Last year Ticknor & Fields—in a beautifully-designed edition—published Hall's Old and New Poems.Old and New Poems isn't a “new and selected poems.” In fact, Hall doesn't present his “old” poems by the books in which they appeared; instead, he divides the poems into nine time periods, the “old” poems beginning “1947–1953” and ending “1979–1986,” the twenty-two “new” poems (which have the force of a book) designated “1987–1990.” The poems from The One Day are excluded. In a Note, Hall acknowledges that he has altered many of the “old” poems; he is among those poets (Yeats, Moore, and Lowell are others) who sometimes (and sometimes extensively) revise earlier published work. Clearly, in Old and New Poems, Hall presents the “old” work in the context of the “new,” so that the reader sees the poems as part of a work continuously in progress.
Old and New Poems is an important book. It not only represents the achievements of one of the best poets of a prodigiously talented generation; its qualities also measure American poetry at the end of the Modernist century. Hall's poetry is aesthetically ambitious—as complex, actually, as the century's aesthetic undercurrents. Old and New Poems also reflects the gifts of a poet whose powers have expanded during his fifties, into his sixties—a rare accomplishment.
There are multiple ways Hall's poetry might be valuably critiqued: a textual scrutiny—a variorum—of his revisions, comparing the changes; an analysis of the compelling metamorphoses of certain subjects and emotions; or a look at the relationship of Hall's prose—both literary and journalistic—to his poetry. But, at the very least, Hall's poetry requires an appreciation of its formal and aesthetic dimensions. Hall's ability to embody the aesthetic landscapes of post-World War II America immediately impresses the reader of Old and New Poems. Hall is part of a generation that has had to confront the continuous effects of Modernism. His catholic critical tastes (as an anthologist, most recently of The Best American Poetry (1989) he has been a tastemaker); his passion for chronicling the art (as the first Poetry Editor of The Paris Review, he helped popularize the interview form); his editorial largesse (as an advisor to Wesleyan University Press during the 1960s, he had a say in publishing the early work of James Wright, John Ashbery, Louis Simpson, James Dickey, Robert Bly); his cutting-edge essays and reviews on the state of the art written from outside the creative writing business: Hall keeps in touch with poetic currencies. Old and New Poems and The One Day reveal that Hall's appreciation of the art of poetry first of all exists in his poems.
In a 1981 essay, “The Poetry Notebook: Two,” in talking about the avant-garde, Hall accurately observed: “If one notion ties much of the avant-garde together, over the past thirty years, it is concentration on construction rather than feeling or idea. This construction may be aleatory, a concentration on the method of construction rather than on an intended shape.” In addition, Hall described the distinction between constructivism and expressionism which focuses, critically, on a poem's aesthetic emphasis on either “form” or “feeling”:
[f]rom time to time people have fiddled with dividing art into two camps called after the names of the two movements: constructivism and expressionism. (I use small letters to indicate a usage more general than the movements named by capitalization.) Expressionist art expresses feeling (by distortion, exaggeration, fantasy); feeling is its end. Constructivism concentrates on form …1
This commonly-used conceptualization of Modernist art, however—valid as it is—doesn't take into account what actually distinguishes Modernist poetry: the critical role of a poem's language. When language becomes the primary focus, the “form”-“feeling” dichotomy takes on secondary importance; “constructivism” and “expressionism” take on different meanings.
As good a place as any to begin defining Modernist notions of poetic language is Sigurd Burckhardt's little-known but brilliant 1956 essay, “The Poet as Fool and Priest”:
If there were a language pure enough to transmit all human experience without distortion, there would be no need for poetry. But such a language not only does not, it cannot exist. Language can no more do justice to all human truth than law can to all human wishes. In its very nature as a social instrument it must be a convention, must arbitrarily order the chaos of experiences, allowing expression to some, denying it to others. It must provide common denominators, and so it necessarily falsifies, just as the law necessarily inflicts injustice. And these falsifications will be the more dangerous the more “transparent” language seems to become, the more unquestionably it is accepted as an undistorting medium. It is not windowglass but rather a system of lenses which focus and refract the rays of an hypothetical unmediated vision.2
Modernist language cannot be “transparent”; language, by its nature, is “social”; language “arbitrarily orders,” by expression, “the chaos of experience”; verbal meaning arises out of a language of juxtaposed refraction. In this sense, “expressionism”—as its most astute and eloquent proponent Gottfried Benn argued—is at the heart of Modernism: “the complete parallel in aesthetic terms to modern physics and its abstract interpretations of the world, the expressive parallel to non-euclidian mathematics, which abandoned the classical concept of the last 2,000 years in favor of abstract spatial dimensions. … The expressionist [knows] the profound, technical mastery that art demands, its craft ethos, the moral of form.”3 The language of Modernist poetry, as Susanne K. Langer argues, is “abstract”: “The relation of poetry to the world of facts is the same as that of painting to the world of objects; actual events, if they enter into its orbit at all, are motifs of poetry, as actual objects are motifs of painting.”4 A modernist poem must be aware of its form.
If the emphasis is on language, a poem's verbal constructions are more important, in the first instance, than an emphasis on either “form” or “feeling.” As Burckhardt put it: “The first purpose of poetic language … is the very opposite of making language more transparent.” Restated, the first purpose of poetic language is verbally to refract or focus, to form meanings which, because of the nature of language, are social. Looked at this way, the aesthetic topography of Modernist poetry is more complex than the “form”-“feeling” dichotomy. On one side of the spectrum is poetry that does nothing creatively to dispel or refract “transparent” language. Over the past fifteen years, many critics have lambasted a certain type of “first-person” “free verse” poem. The type of poem that deserves disdain, however, isn't, necessarily, a “free verse” poem that uses “I” (a patently absurd basis of critique), but, instead, a poem which, by its formal decisions, does nothing to focus or refract the subjective language of the “I”—by meter, rhyme, lineation, diction, rhythm, stanza, syntax, as well as rhetorical devices such as irony and anaphora. In fact, the “new-formalist” poem that apes conventional metrical and rhyming devices is as “transparent” as the earnest “free verse” poem that does nothing formally or structurally to focus or refract meaning. As Burckhardt perceived, the essential problem with a poem that makes its language transparent is that it fundamentally lies: … “[S]uch a language not only does not, it cannot exist.” It is artifice, not art. Its verbal effects are no more artistically viable than the verbal effects of journalism; nothing in its language—to paraphrase Pound—creates “news that stays news.”
Once poems that make language transparent are appropriately dismissed, a reader is, aesthetically, in the realm of poetry—where language is most intensely refracted and focused into meaning and emotion. To understand the intricate aesthetic variations that exist within this realm, I often return to an essay by Roland Barthes, “Is There Any Poetic Writing?” in which Barthes makes the distinction between “classical” and “modern” poetic language. “Classical” language, he says, is full of connections that
lead the word on, and at once carry it toward a meaning which is an ever-deferred project. … Classical language is always reducible to a persuasive continuum, it postulates the possibilities of dialogue, it establishes a universe in which men are not alone, where words never have the terrible weight of things, where speech is always meeting with the other.
On the contrary,
modern poetry destroyed relationships in language and reduced discourse to words as static things. This implies a reversal in our knowledge of nature. The interrupted flow of the new poetic language initiates a discontinuous nature, which is revealed only piecemeal. … Modern poetry is a poetry of object.5
Barthes doesn't say it, but it is important to see that a poem written in “classical” language need not be formally “transparent”; a poet can form, through “possibilities of dialogue,” language that refracts or focuses “transparent” discourse. Of major twentieth-century poets, Yeats, Rilke, Frost, and Brecht are examples of “classical” poets—all masters, in different ways, of form, but at the same time believers in the communicative and dialogical values of words. What Barthes classifies as “modern” poetic language, on the other hand, defies the very notion of “transparent” language. Among major American poets—to varying, complicated extents—Williams, Moore, Pound, and Stevens could be classified as “modern” under Barthes's distinction. Of course, none of these poets completely denies “classical” dialogue (Stevens especially). But, as different as they are, these “modernists” share, imaginatively, a profound sense of the fragmentation of social and emotional realities, and a strong sense of the poem's form containing, at least at some level of perception, something that can be looked at separately, something “objective,” different, and apart, from the poem's more communicative expressions. Not surprisingly, each of these poets, again in different ways, considered him -or herself part of the “avant-garde” (although, today, the avant-garde is identified, for the most part, with poets who completely reject the dictates and fictions of “classical” language). What is clear at the end of the Modernist century is this: critical tensions in American poetry exist between “transparent” poetic language, on the one hand, and “refracted” poetic language on the other, and—among refracted poetries—between poetic languages that are “classical” or “modern.”
What is clear from Donald Hall's Old and New Poems is his consistent, even aggressive, resistance to “transparent” language. From the very beginning, Hall creates language that refracts unmediated “transparency.” Hall's poetic impulse is fundamentally formal. This isn't to say that Hall is a poet without subject matter: he very much is, and always has been. From the beginning, he has articulated, metamorphosed, and combined his themes: an acute awareness of grief and loss grounded in personal experiences with death; a strong sense of family and genealogy; a deeply-felt reaction to the elements, to things of the earth; a moralist's edginess toward power and its manifestations, especially war; identification with children, both on social and personal levels; a compelling sense of the physical universe; an awareness of art, and its making; a strong desire for happiness and love, on personal, religious, and social levels; and a profound historical sense of place (especially the locale of his ancestral farm in New Hampshire, where he now lives). But it is, critically, impossible to think of Hall's subjects without considering the ways in which he consciously forms his language to include them.
The language of the early poems is exclusively “classical.” In the first two time designations in Old and New Poems, “1947–1953” and “1954–1958,” the poems are written mostly according to metrical schemes, in syllabics, with end-rhymes, and in stanzas of consistent linear lengths throughout a poem (in the poems “1954–1958,” less imposed, more “open” forms are occasionally used). All of these poems have vitality still—verbal sharpness, emotional sting. Listen, for example, to the edgy, almost colloquial pentameter of the concluding stanza of the lament, “Exile”:
Exiled by years, by death no dream conceals, By worlds that must remain unvisited, And by the wounds that growing never heals, We are as solitary as the dead, Wanting to king it in that perfect land We make and understand. And in this world whose pattern is unmade, Phases of splintered light and shapeless sand, We shatter through our motions and evade Whatever hand might reach and touch our hand.
Or, to the intensely compressed and subtly rhymed syllabic quatrains of “Je Suis Une Table,” in which the poem's formalization of language is, itself, a subject to which the poet responds emotionally:
It has happened suddenly, by surprise, in an arbor, or while drinking good coffee, after speaking, or before,
that I dumbly inhabit a density; in language there is nothing to stop it, for nothing retains an edge.
Simple ignorance presents later, words for a function, but it is common pretense of speech, by a convention,
and there is nothing at all but inner silence, nothing to relive on principle now this intense thickening.
Or listen, for a change of pace, to the opening pentameter lines of “1934”—a narrative packed with historical details—quickened by rhymed couplets:
In nineteen-thirty-four we spent July At a small farm, my mother's father's. I Was five years old. Father got White's News Letter, Fridays, which said that things were looking better. Bright Model A's kept speeding past each day, Fouled by the eagles of the N.R.A. And blew their brassy horns at us, the farm Where nothing and no one ever came to harm.
Or, for a more flexibly expressed emotional density, the opening quatrain of “The Kiss”:
The backs twist with the kiss and the mouth which is the hurt and the green depth of it holds plainly the hour.
By 1958—at the age of thirty—Hall's formal and substantive range are impressive: his primary sense of a poem already is its language. You can't miss the poet's preoccupation with metrical, linear, and syntactical expressions, his deep imaginative response to the ways words, within formal structures, come to sound in language.
In the poems after 1958, though, something altogether different aesthetically happens: Hall pretty much abandons predictable metrical lineation and end-rhymes, aggressively compressing his language within “open” verbal structures. His focus shifts to visual, musical, and psychological expressions of image. As the aesthetic expands, so do Hall's probings into the relationship between form and emotion. One extremely strong poem, “Internal and External Forms,” is directly on point:
What the birds say is colored. Shade feels the thickness shrubs make in a July growth,
heavy brown thorns for autumn, curled horns in double rows. Listening the birds fly
down, in shade. Leaves of darkness turn inward, noises curve inward, and the seed talks.
Like “The Kiss,” “Internal and External Forms” is based upon a work of art—“The Kiss” after an Edvard Munch painting, “Internal and External Forms” after a sculpture by Henry Moore (whom Hall has referred to as his “most important teacher”6). By not referencing the poems, Hall gives them an immediate abstract quality. Then, by the juxtaposition of images, the compressed quality of the quatrains, and the lovely shaped sounds accentuated by enjambments, Hall makes the poem primarily an object for aesthetic satisfaction—like a piece of sculpture. The poem's first “meanings” are the ways in which its language forms; the poem's other “meanings”—the inward and outward existences of the physical world—are located within the language. Henry Moore was an avowed Modernist; “Internal and External Forms” is primarily a “modern” poem—as are many others written by Hall during this time. One of the most beautiful is “The Long River”:
The musk ox smells in his long head my boat coming. When I feel him there, intent, heavy,
the oars make wings in the white night, and deep woods are close on either side where trees darken.
I rowed past towns in their black sleep to come here. I passed the northern grass and cold mountains.
The musk ox moves when the boat stops, in hard thickets. Now the wood is dark with old pleasures.
The poem certainly has a “surreal” quality about it. But surrealism is a form of Modernist expressionism; a “surreal” poem—one that refracts and disassociates expected, conventional images, syntax or grammar—is, at the very least, antithetical to “transparent” language. Read this poem out loud, pausing slightly, as one should, at the end of each line: the pleasures are deeply musical; “The Long River” is, in Pound's term, melopoeic. A poem primarily musical is, of course, a poem formed, to some extent, into an “object” of aesthetic appreciation. Through an imagistic expressionism, Hall has entered a realm of “modern” language.
“Internal” and “external” images dominate the poems from “1966–1969,” and almost all of the poems from “1970–1974.” A number of these are among Hall's best, for example “The Alligator Bride,” “Apples,” “Gold,” and the gorgeous “The Town of Hill”:
Back of the dam, under a flat pad
of water, church bells ring
in the ears of lilies, a child's swing
curls in the current of a yard, horned
pout sleep in a green
mailbox, and a boy walks
from a screened porch beneath
the man-shaped leaves of an oak
down the street looking at the town
of Hill that water covered forty
years ago, and the screen
door shuts under dream water.
The poem—one sentence—is apparently discursive. But the language, intensely heightened by the line lengths and breaks, the space around the couplets, and the “dream water” ending, is what primarily impresses. Hall, here, reminds me of Zukofsky, another poet who masterfully knows how to empty a poem's meaning into its song. Some critics (many of whom admire Hall's “classical” work) refer to Hall's poems from 1958 to 1974 as “deep image.” The notion of “deep image” may apply to poetry less formally inclined than Hall's, but it ridiculously misstates Hall's aesthetic. During these years, Hall imaginatively explored language as a primary poetic activity—emotional effects are achieved, first of all, through verbal formulations. Discourse isn't the primary objective of these poems—although it is often an effect. The poems demonstrate a complicated tension between form as the poem's primary subject, and its other subjects; part of what Hall is doing is inquiring how meanings come through, or don't come through, a poem's language.
Then, during the next three years, in a radical shift, Hall almost completely abandons a “modern” aesthetic. Writing the poems that would be included in Kicking the Leaves, Hall returns to discursive “classical” language. But, again, he also expands his formal range. The switches have explosive effects: the expanding language holds expanding subject matter. The poems “open” into language no one had ever quite seen or heard before from Hall. The formal expansion of discursive language continues with equal, if not more, force into the poems from “1979–1986,” which include poems from The Happy Man.
The variety of the poems from 1975 to 1986 dazzles. On the one hand you have the sensuous, euphonious perceptions of “Twelve Seasons”:
After two weeks of heat pressing on sweetcorn— haze dropping on hay, opaque air—this morning wakes cool with a bright wind, and the mountain clear, Kearsarge blue under transparent running air, cold rapid energy sharp as pitchforks. It is morning for fires in the stove, wood's architecture opening shafts and corridors of fire, vacancies, gases. It is a day for clearing rocks from the fields, volunteers, elm saplings. Tomorrow we eat the body and drink the blood in the community of the white church where the day's pleasure occupies a pew beside suffering.
On the other hand, the dark, troubling narrated discourse of “My Friend Felix”:
“Beginning at five o'clock, just before dawn rises in the rearview mirror, I drive at eighty, along, all through Texas. I am a pencil extending a ruler's line to the unchangeable horizon west as I repeat a thousand quarrels with my wives …”
Or there's the sharp-eyed, memory narration from “Kicking the Leaves”:
This year the poems came back, when the leaves fell. Kicking the leaves, I heard the leaves tell stories, remembering, and therefore looking ahead, and building the house of dying. I looked up into the maples and found them, the vowels of bright desire. I thought they had gone forever while the bird sang I love you, I love you and shook its black head from side to side, and its red eye with no lid, through years of winter, cold as the taste of chickenwire, the music of cinderblock.
During the time he was writing the groundbreaking “classical” poems of The Happy Man, Hall also began forming together pieces of a poem he'd started in the fall of 1971. The result was Part II of The Happy Man, “Shrubs Burned Away.” Set in the center of The Happy Man, it is a profoundly “modern” poem. Revised and retitled “Shrubs Burnt Away,” the poem becomes Part I of Hall's celebrated next book, The One Day, “a poem in three parts.”
There is really no poem in American poetry quite like it. Taking his “modern” impulse well beyond the “internal” and “external” formal objectification of images, Hall combines multiple voices, rhetorics, and subject matter within ten-line stanzas written in “long-line” variable meters. The poem's narrators are subsumed within competing discourses and subjects. The One Day works on multiple levels, a number of which include, as subjects of aesthetic inquiry, the poem's formal expressions: you can't read the poem without being struck by its complexity and interplays, how meanings “objectify” inside the poem's music. For example, consider this stanza from “Shrubs Burnt Away”:
The world is a bed, I announced; my love agreed. A hundred or a thousand times our eyes encountered: Each time the clothes sloughed off, anatomies of slippery flesh connected again on the world's bed and the crescent of nerves described itself in the ordinary curve of bliss. We were never alone; we were always alone. If we were each the same on the world's bed, if we were each manikins of the other then the multitude was one and one was the multitude; many and one we performed procedures of comfort.
Or this, the third stanza of “Prophecy,” carried over to the fourth:
Men who lie awake worrying about taxes, vomiting at dawn, whose hands shake as they administer Valium, - skin will peel from the meat of their thighs. Armies that march all day with elephants past pyramids and roll pulling missiles past generals weary of saluting and past president-emperors splendid in cloth-of-gold,— soft rumps of armies will dissipate in rain. Where square miles of corn waver in Minnesota, where tobacco ripens in Carolina and apples in New Hampshire, where wheat turns Kansas green, where pulpmills stink in Oregon,—
dust will blow in the darkness and cactus die before its flowers …
Meanings as overlaid and rich as these simultaneously empty and fill into their own music throughout this masterpiece in which Hall creates an almost infinite depth.
Now, two years after The One Day, we have Old and New Poems. The new poems—if they had been issued as a separate book—would merit the response Kicking the Leaves,The Happy Man, and The One Day received. The “new” poems are distinguished by an astonishing imaginative mix between “classical” and “modern” forms. Hall's range continues not only to broaden, it also deepens; the poems sometimes come right off the page with intensity. One, for example, “Tubes”—written in five parts, composed in syllabics, and combining first and third person ironic narratives—is especially compelling. This is its concluding Part V:
“Of all illusions,” said the man with the tubes up his nostrils, IVs, catheter, and feeding nozzle, “the silliest one was hardest to lose. For years I supposed that after climbing exhaustedly up with pitons and ropes, I would arrive at last on the plateau of Walking-level- forever-among- moss-with-red-blossoms, or the other one of Lolling-in-sun- looking-down-at-old valleys-I-started- from. Of course, of course: A continual climbing is the one form of arrival we ever come to— unless we suppose that wished-for height and house of desire is tubes up the nose.”
The book's final poem, “Praise for Death,” comprised of thirty-eight sectioned cinquaines, is as “modern” as The One Day. By wildly shifting diction and syntax, rhetorical modes, rhythms, multiple meanings and ironies—interspersing personal and historical narratives and textual references to earlier poems—Hall makes the poem sing at an impassioned pitch:
… in our mouths: pass, pass away, sleep, decease, expire. Quickly by shocking fire that blackens and vanishes, turning insides out, or slowly by fires of rust and rot, the old houses die, the barns and outbuildings die. Let us praise death that removes nails carpenters hammered
during the battle of Shiloh; that solves the beam-shape an adze gave an oak tree; that collapses finally the seller's roof into his root cellar, where timber sawn two centuries ago rots among the weeds and saplings. Let us praise death before the house erected by skill and oxen.
Let us praise death in old age. Wagging our tails, bowing, whimpering, let us praise sudden crib-death and death in battle: Dressed in blue the rifleman charges the granite wall. Let us praise airplane crashes. We buried thirty-year-old Stephen the photographer
in Michigan's November rain. His bony widow, Sarah, pale in her loose black dress, leaned forward impulsively as the coffin, suspended from a yellow crane, swayed over the hole. When she touched the shiny damp maple of the box, it swung slightly away from her …
Multiply this intensity and depth imaginatively at least ten times and you get some idea of the poem's cumulative power.
Then, there is—befitting a poet acutely aware of the tensions between “classical” and “modern” poetries within himself and within the art—“This Poem.” Its powers resemble Stevens's “The Plain Sense of Things” and “The Planet on the Table.” “This Poem” not only captures the central imaginative impulse of Hall's old and new poems, but also expresses, as only Donald Hall can, exactly what a Modernist poem at the end of the century is:
This poem is why I lie down at night to sleep; it is why I defecate, read, and eat sandwiches; it is why I get up in the morning; it is why I breathe.
You think (and I know because you told me) that poems exist to say things, as you telephone and I write letters—as if this poem practiced communication.
One time this poem compared itself to new machinery, and another time to a Holstein's cud. Eight times five times eight counts three hundred and twenty syllables.
When you require it, this poem consoles— the way a mountain comforts by staying as it was despite earthquakes, Presidents, divorces, frosts. Granite continues.
This poem informs the hurt ear wary of noises, and sings to the weepy eye. When the agony abates itself, one may appreciate arbitrary art.
This poem is here. Could it be someplace else? Every question is the wrong question. The only answer saunters down the page in its broken lines strutting and primping.
It styles itself not for the small mirror of its own regard— nor even for yours: to fix appearance; to model numbers; to name charity “the greatest of these.”
All night this poem knocks at the closed door of sleep. “Let me in.” Suppose all poems contain this poem, dreaming one knowledge shaped by the measure of the body's word.
No other poet of Donald Hall's generation has written with Hall's breadth in both “classical” and “modern” poetic languages. Only Hall has imaginatively embodied—only Hall has ambitiously probed—the depths of the borderlines between these languages.
Old and New Poems shows that Hall's imaginative tensions and ambitions evolved over time. He has been—perhaps inevitably—misread. But, with Old and New Poems and The One Day, the work need not be misread in any reductive way. Imaginatively, Hall, like Yeats and Stevens, discovered the depth of his aesthetic in his fifties. We see this in no other poet of his generation: most (including many who received more acclaim in their thirties and forties) by their fifties, and into their sixties, have confined themselves—often with embarrassing results—to writing out of decades-old formal and substantive modes. Hall has, and continues to have, what the best always have, the imaginative capacity, to paraphrase Montale, to break the language continuously into the art of poetry.
Donald Hall, The Weather for Poetry: Essays, Reviews and Notes on Poetry, 1977–1981 (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1982), p. 352.
Sigurd Burckhardt, “The Poet as Fool and Priest,” ELH: A Journal of English Literary History, Vol. 25, No. 4 (December 1956), pp. 279–98.
Cited in J. M. Ritchie, Gottfried Benn: The Unreconstructed Expressionist (London: Oswald Wolff, 1972), pp. 103–4.
Cited in Michael Hamburger, The Truth of Poetry (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1969), p. 25.
Cited in Rachel Hadas, Form, Cycle, Infinity: Landscape Imagery in the Poetry of Robert Frost and George Seferis (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1985), p. 31.
An Interview with Donald Hall,” The Day I Was Older: On the Poetry of Donald Hall, ed. Liam Rector (Santa Cruz, CA: Storyline Press, 1989), p. 135.
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SOURCE: A review of Their Ancient Glittering Eyes: Remembering Poets and More Poets, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 239, No. 29, June 29, 1992, pp. 48–49.
[In the following review, the critic offers a positive assessment of Their Ancient Glittering Eyes.]
“Curiosity endures, surviving criticism or philosophy,” affirms poet and critic Hall (Here at Eagle Pond) as he introduces a distinguished gallery of poets [in Their Ancient Glittering Eyes: Remembering Poets and More Poets]—Frost, Thomas, Eliot, Moore, MacLeish, Winters, Pound—with verisimilitude and freshness enough to satisfy readers. An expansion and revision of Remembering Poets (1978), this records the younger Hall's involvement with the “old ones” even as it adds depth and grace to his designated genre of “literary gossip.” His respect for the writers does not preclude frankness or significant revelations: readers learn that the elderly Frost, behind his mask of benign farmer-poet and eventual reputation as a monstrous egotist, was startlingly vulnerable—burdened with sadness, driven by guilt. The most thorough portrait follows Hall's relations with Eliot, disclosing a personality rather than a “monument”—an unusually humorous and surprisingly “American” poet. And his reminiscences of the lonely, disconcerted Pound may be the book's most insightful. Although Hall's voice in these recollections and interviews is quiet, even self-effacing, he writes as a trustworthy and sympathetic witness, one who reveres his subjects: “Their presences have been emblems in my life, and I remember these poets as if I kept them carved in stone.”
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1366
SOURCE: “A Poke Over the Wall,” in Commonweal, Vol. 120, No. 16, September 24, 1993, pp. 21–23.
[In the following positive review, Keen argues that The Museum of Clear Ideas is primarily about how humans cope with endings and issues of closure.]
Donald Hall's new book of poems, The Museum of Clear Ideas, made me want to run out into the yard and shout. And check the tomatoes, and the box scores. To reread Horace, James Wright, and to undertake a study of the undervalued art of tone. As I write, we have shaken loose the bonds of the basketball season, and turned our full attention to baseball. If you're near a major league stadium, you're probably close to a bookstore that carries poetry. Get The Museum of Clear Ideas; it's perfect for the season, and you can reread it when winter comes and the tyranny of the hoop grips the nation once again.
Clad in Williams-and-Sonoma yuppie green, the book's cover only hints at its organizing conceit with an outline of home plate. The poems in this volume tackle the problem of coming to an ending from a variety of perspectives and forms: elegy, lyric sequence, and Horatian ode. Hall deploys his work in and against these genres in a sequence that invites meditation on their characteristic relations to time and to human means of marking time.
If the shape of the sequence “Baseball,” in nine innings, made of nine, nine-line stanzas suggests that the end must occur exactly where it does, when the form actually runs out, the poem leaves the reader in a condition of suspension between games, between actions, between memory of past seasons and appetite for another season:
9. No Red Sox tonight, but on Friday a doubleheader with the Detroit Tigers, my terrible old team, worse than the Red Sox who beat the Yankees last night while my mother and I watched —the way we listened, fifty years back— spritely ghosts playing in heavy snow on VHS 30 from Hartford, and the pitcher stared at the batter.
Though they watch in the hospital, the outcomes of the illnesses that “Baseball” has documented go unreported; with a deft hand Hall waves away the symbols and allegories that so often infest literary versions of baseball. No home-run and heaven here. He directs our attention away from the diamond to the natural world:
By the railroad goldenrod stiffens; asters begin a late pennant drive in front of the barn; pink hollyhocks wilt and sag like teams out of the race.
Good old-fashioned metaphor conjures up two kinds of time in a delightful shimmer of tenor and vehicle. “Baseball” inhabits an alternative realm already, a fictional space suspended outside of ordinary time. Addressed to the Dada collagist Kurt Schwitters (1887–1948), the poem attempts an explanation of the theory and practice of baseball, through meditations obliquely related to the 9 x 9 x 9 form. The enjambment, or running over lines, between the stanzas of the “First Inning” contrast with the businesslike picked-up pace of the “Third Inning.” In this fashion the shape of the sequence instructs its imagined reader in the pace(s) of the game. Yet the material contained in this vessel of Hall's invention suggests the reach and amplitude of an imagination at play in the fields of memory, opinion, prophecy, and fresh experience. Hall's ability to use varied sentence-structure, and the cohabitation of sentence and line in stanzas, to emphasize shifts in tone and rhetorical strategy keeps this long poem from dulling in the ear. This interesting communication makes a significant contribution to poetry's conversation about the relations between visual art and literature.
In focusing on “Baseball,” I have leapt ahead in the order of the book, which begins, wryly, with “Another Elegy.” When I heard Hall read this poem, he explained that the fiction of the poem allowed him to write his long-stalled elegy for the poet James Wright, who died in 1980. Bill Trout, the dead poet remembered in “Another Elegy,” is a creature of invention, but this has been the case in poets' elegies for fellow poets, from Milton at least. How much does “Lycidas” tell us about dead Edward King, and how much about ambitious John Milton? Even the rhetoric of praise and blame distorts the remembered life. Hall writes a canny critique of the form and its history:
It is twelve Aprils since we buried him. Now dissertation- salt preserves The Collected Poems of William Trout like Lenin. Here is another elegy in the tradition of mourning and envy, love and self- love—as another morning delivers rain on the fishbone leaves of the rotted year.
The humor with which Hall delivers and lampoons the conventions of elegy is carried further by the hilarious spoof of the canonizing poet's bio, “from” the imaginary The Norton Anthology of Contemporary Verse. Appearing in the “notes” section of The Museum of Clear Ideas, this further fiction lays bare a convention of contemporary poetry books: the appendix of notes used as an exhibit of the poet's learning and as a key to obscurities the reader will have encountered.
Hall identifies the persona, Horace Horsecollar, who speaks the odes of the poem “The Museum of Clear Ideas,” in such a note: “Lacking Latin, he follows his master visually—the number and shape of stanzas in Horace's first book of odes.” These poems form the volume's second sequence, in which the range of tones and topics widens even further. As in “Another Elegy” and “Baseball,” the state of contemporary poetry comes under Hall's scrutiny; Horsecollar does not exempt his ventriloquizer when he criticizes: “Praising our places, we / praise ourselves while pretending to look outward.” Poets build shrines to themselves,
in every Poetry, by printing reflections, in free verse without noticeable attention to line breaks, on snapshots of the poetic mother and father, in their weird clothes, on vacation, before the poet was born: How poignant it is, how remarkable that one's parents were older than oneself! Then they died. Oh.
This cutting indictment of the bland subject matter and weak form of contemporary poetry does not attempt to disguise Hall's own interest in remembering persons and places, in fixing the details of daily life in verse. In The Museum of Clear Ideas a reader will find love poems, poems about a sick parent, frightening diagnoses, aging, sex, and the old neighborhood. Hall does not eschew the ordinary; he inhabits it. Books and poems and language belong in this poet's everyday world, so we find poems about old affairs or old friends cheek by jowl with his criticism of contemporary poetry.
Hall's determination to renew language's energetic engagement with the world calls our attention to the rhetoric we use in our daily interactions. Hall deplores the falsity of what he calls “The Jargon of Things,” and “The Tongue of High Coy.” In a book preoccupied with the problem of making an end, of reacting honestly to the endings that herald our own foregone conclusion, the danger of language's misuse should not be underestimated.
The final poem in the book, “Extra Innings,” takes up the fear of death directly. In these extra poems, which surprise the reader with a return to “Baseball,” Hall suggests that compassionate actions and the solaces of dailiness can hold fear at bay. Loss is forestalled but not denied in the conclusion to “Extra Innings,” which recalls the penultimate game of the 1975 World Series:
I wear my yellow sweater; we eat scrambled eggs from blue and white dishes; her hair's kerchief is yellow. We gather yellow days inning by inning with care to appear careless, thinking again how Carlton Fisk ended game Six in the twelfth inning with a poke over the wall.
Do I need to point out that the Red Sox go on to lose the Series in the seventh game? Anyone who has suffered with a team, or waited for the results of the blood test to come in, knows the condition that Hall describes, “inning by inning with care to appear careless.” Hall celebrates the ceremonial calendar of the baseball season in its relation to human lives. In poetry, in patterned language unleashed in time, Hall arrests us in the moment of hope that holds off the end.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 745
SOURCE: “The High Pasture,” in Sewanee Review, Vol. 102, No. 3, Summer, 1994, pp. lxxxix-xc.
[In the following review, Sherry offers a positive assessment of both Life Work and The Museum of Clear Ideas.]
[Life Work and The Museum of Clear Ideas] are olympian books. They are wise, but are written against every convention of wisdom.
Life Work turns its diary of the quotidian into a treatise in which the duties and pleasures of labor are measured. The mixed attitude of duty and joy suffuses Mr. Hall's prose, its cadences alternately stately and capricious, elegiac and carnivalesque. A mock-classical decorum provides tonal unity for the long title poem of The Museum of Clear Ideas, whose shadowy protagonist—Horace Horsecollar—holds the sequence together in a fusion of Horatian gravities and cartoon simplicities.
Such combinations are high artifice, and the hand of a master craftsman shows in his fashioning of sentences into sententiae. But, if one moral can be attached to the story told in Life Work, the lesson is that it is only through work that ideas come at all: discipline is the one effort we can make at wisdom. It is a writerly wisdom to which Mr. Hall has attained, and if his yoke seems easy, his burden light, this impression is fostered by a success that is primarily stylistic, a success evidenced equally in prose and verse.
What animates the words and message of Life Work is a paradox that is no contradiction: the twelve or more hours a day that this author puts into writing and related activities seems a wholly gratuitous enterprise, a revel of dedications. “Technique is the test of a man's sincerity,” as Ezra Pound counseled those earnest but incompetent versifiers of 1913; and Mr. Hall proves the truth of his enabling paradox in his verbal fabric, in his crafting of a physical body of language that is easy but never boneless, supple but not lax. His is a style of elegant plainness, at once dignified and natural. As such it is remarkably supple in accommodating the range of emotions rushing into this moment in the writer's life: a recurrence of cancer has enforced a sense of imminent endings and has caused an understandable sharpening of the pleasures lived through in the interim. These are verbal pleasures; there is always the sensuous and almost erotic rustling of word against word; and this sensuousness is lined by a silence that comes from a more ascetic discipline, and that speaks here of last things.
The poems in The Museum of Clear Ideas vary widely in tone and manner, ranging from the condensed and sometimes bitter eloquence of “Another Elegy,” written for a poet whose dissipations appear to have been inextricably linked with his distinctions, to the game-playing ingenuity of “Baseball,” a sequence composed on the magic number of nine—nine poems (for nine innings), each one consisting of nine stanzas of nine lines with nine counts each. If syllabic verse goes against the natural (accentual) grain of English, it is fair to say that this sequence remains mechanical rather than organic—prosody is not poetry, after all; and the speaker seems (inadvertently) contorted to the rococo-baroque of the rules, which do not of themselves generate a voice.
It is the voice of the title poem that remains the most extraordinary thing about this collection. Its syntax reminds us of neoclassical Latinity; its tonalities are learned and sometimes pedantic; it offers these ample resources up to the counter-rhythm of the heckler: “Or say” opens the second part of two-poem pairings within the sequence, and this antiphonal speaker turns the voice back upon itself, doubling, enriching:
When I was young and sexual I looked forward to cool Olympian age for release from my obsessions. Ho, ho, ho. At sixty the body's one desire
sustains my pulse, not to mention my groin, as much as it ever did, if not quite so often.
The syntactic convolutions and inflated diction in this mock-classical piece—
As for Horsecollar, Decius, he'll take this desk, this blank paper, this Bic, and the fragile possibility that, with your support, the Muse may favor him
—turn over statement into poetic possibility, for the classical hype is a record of human hope no less moving than absurd. It is a sonority rinsed and chastened by its own opposition, and that the opposite possibilities dance so well together is a major achievement in a poetic career that has featured several major achievements in the last decade.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 241
SOURCE: A review of Lucy's Summer, in Quill & Quire, Vol. 61, No. 5, May, 1995, p. 51.
[In the following positive review, Schott commends Hall's ability to bring the past to life in Lucy's Summer.]
Lucy is the author's mother and this account of the events of the summer of 1910, Lucy's seventh, come from the stories she told about her childhood. Her mother started a home-based millinery business that summer but still had to can hundreds of jars of peas, beans, tomatoes, and rhubarb. The routine is broken by an itinerant photographer who takes a portrait of Lucy and her little sister, by the Fourth of July parade, and by a trip to Boston, where Mother buys supplies for her hats.
One of the trip's wonders is a visit to the penny toy counter in Woolworth's. Some of those toys, along with the old hat pedestals, still rest in an upstairs room of the house where Hall himself now lives. No wonder he can make the past so real and so immediate. A prize-winning poet, he illuminates the ordinary events of that summer with careful detail and expressive language.
Accurate detail and variety in perspective make these illustrations strongly narrative. The scratchboard technique gives them a richness of texture and an appropriately old-fashioned appearance, and creates almost magical effects of glowing light and dark shadows. [Lucy's Summer] is a book to pore over often, with text and pictures giving renewed pleasure with every reading.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 811
SOURCE: A review of Life Work, in Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 15, No. 4, July–August, 1995, p. 29.
[In the following review, Thorpe offers a mixed assessment of Life Work, faulting the work for indulging in too much “name-dropping.”]
There are plenty of definitions of work, including the cynical one by Bertrand Russell—that it's merely moving matter from one location to another. Additional words—or ideas—for work include labor, toil and moil, struggle, swink (archaic), drudge, grub, plod, exert, strain, and goodness knows how many others.
This memoir by Donald Hall [Life Work] seeks to put the concept of work into a context of the literary and intellectual life, yet not lose sight of the word's basic denotations of laboring or “swinking.” In the full sense of the term, work is as spiritual as it is physical. The idea that “labour” is somehow spiritual too is not new—it goes back at least as far as the “Works and Days” of Hesiod in ancient Greece, and it figures beautifully in the “Georgics” of Virgil in ancient Rome. What Donald Hall seeks is to put his own idiosyncratic stamp on the term and to share it with a large audience of general readers.
Life Work is a (salubrious) book for several reasons. The chief of these is that Hall is one of the few living American examples of an authentic Man of Letters, after the grand old manner of Edmund Wilson and T. S. Eliot. We read Hall as an engaging jack-of-all-trades—as the author of literary criticism, poetry, children's books, general essays, and even a fascinating volume on the topic of baseball. Like Eliot and Wilson, he has won a variety of literary prizes and he can write convincingly for all audiences on just about any subject.
If this book has a special power and poignancy to it, it is because Hall discovered, when he was halfway through writing it, that he had metastasized cancer of the liver. He pauses in his writing to undergo surgery in which two-thirds of his liver is removed, and then returns to his task. Needless to say, the latter parts of Life Work have about them a new sense of urgency and a new eloquence. Yet the language never descends into alarmism, nor does Hall's calm voice ever lose its measured pace and its ability to keep our interest on every page.
The business at hand, for Hall, is the precise nature of work and the benefits arising therefrom. To buttress his sentiments about it, he likes to refer to other famous “workers” in the arts and humanities, using them not so much as authorities but rather as touchstones in the manner of Matthew Arnold. He likes what Henry Moore (the sculptor) said:
The secret of life is to have a task, something you devote your entire life to, something you bring everything to, every minute of the day for your whole life. And the most important thing is—it must be something you cannot possibly do!
Certainly a theme throughout Life Work is that the mental, if not the physical, task must have an impossibly severe challenge to it. Here is the goal which Hall sets for himself in his poetry:
My own high road is to make poems better than Dante, Homer, and Virgil, not to mention folks closer to home like Whitman, Dickinson, Frost, Stevens, and Kinnell.
(Some readers will find the last one rather anticlimactic.)
The colloquialism of “folks closer to home” is symbolic of Hall's versatility. He is a writer with the highest of highbrows, yet he can talk cows with the farmers of New England where he was born. In Life Work he descants on doing farm chores with nearly the same solemnity that he uses when talking of poetry. He also puts a strong creative labor into maintaining relationships with colleagues, friends, or relatives, and he is a nearly compulsive letter writer. All of this is merely a part of the general fabric of work, and Hall's dominant message emerges as a belief that work is to be identified with life itself and that life, for all practical purposes, ceases when we no longer have the will to labor on the spiritual or physical level.
If there is anything weak about Hall's memoir, it may have to do with his fairly constant name-dropping: appellations of big-time writers, critics, and artists turn up with distressing frequency, lending an ever-so-slight hint of the pompous to what would otherwise be a totally charming autobiography. On the other hand, Hall has for decades been a member in good standing of the literati, so perhaps we have to expect a certain amount of references to the luminaries. This “shortcoming,” however, need not detract from the readability and incisiveness of what Donald Hall has to say, even as he slowly turns to face his own death.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 806
SOURCE: “Proseurs,” in Sewanee Review, Vol. 104, No. 1, January, 1996, pp. 142–49.
[In the following excerpt, Gwynn criticizes Hall's use of publishing sales figures to defend modern poetry in Death to the Death of Poetry.]
What happens when poets turn their hands to prose? We might expect that they would have an easy go of it, wouldn't we? Prose, after all, is easier to forge than poetry. Prose writers are spared having to learn phrases like medial caesura or substitute foot: all that each of them has to know is how to put a semicolon in its place and make subjects and verbs agree. Poets, on the other hand, go mad worrying about such silly matters as when to end their lines; now that everyone uses a computer, prose writers have even that minimal decision made automatically for them, courtesy of Bill Gates. Any hack can write a sentence like “So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens,” but it takes a true genius, a poet, to break it into eight lines that have kept English majors bemused for the better part of a century. Yes, when poets shed all that nasty baggage of rhyme, meter, and terminology they have been forced to lug across the Landscape from Hell (“All out for Onomatopoeia. Next stop Synecdoche”) you'd expect them to soar. For the most part they do, though some soar distinctly higher than others.
The works of critical prose under review here, which represent several years' accumulation, range widely from the lordly (or ladily, in this case) work of scholarship to the more informal collections of reviews, occasional pieces, and the interview, that mainstay of the contemporary poet's repertoire. No works of fiction by poets have crossed my desk recently, though at least three of the authors discussed here have produced widely admired specimens; but much that lies in the autobiographies and memoirs that I can mention only briefly here might pass for such (and, yes, the pun was intended). One of the poet-critics under discussion has even produced a genuine best-seller, a spirited apologia for homosexuality that takes a tack different from the shrill invective of the gay-rights activists.
One of the monuments of this century's literature is the distinguished body of criticism by American poets. I recently edited an anthology of American poet-critics born between 1888 and 1916, and I was consistently taken with the quality of the writing, beginning with Pound, Eliot, and Ransom and ending with Jarrell, Hayden, and Ciardi; they look even better when their prose is compared with the unreadable mumbling that passes for much contemporary academic criticism. We may have no poet-critics of comparable stature today, but there are many doing distinguished work, most of them as practical critics, a class largely overlooked in this age of theory. …
… Hall's ill-titled Death to the Death of Poetry takes its prompt from a widely discussed essay in Commentary by Joseph Epstein, “The Death of Poetry.” Hall answers Epstein by cleverly resurrecting an essay by Edmund Wilson—“Is Verse a Dying Technique?”—which foretold the same imminent demise sixty years earlier: “Poetry was never Wilson's strong suit. It is worthwhile to remember that Wilson found Edna St. Vincent Millay the great poet of her age—better than Robert Frost, Marianne Moore, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams.” Hall is unsparing in his attack on Epstein, who describes a reading by two unnamed but identifiable younger poets as symptomatic of the art's terminable disease: “heavily preening, and not distinguished enough in language or subtlety of thought to be memorable.” Hall responds: “Such disparagements are pure blurbtalk. He does not quote a line by either poet he dismisses. As with the aging Edmund Wilson, Epstein saves time by ignoring particulars of the art he disparages.”
I might have found Hall's rebuttal more convincing if he had not fallen back on a tired recitation of publishers' sales statistics to prove that poetry is alive and well. The list of poets who have “sold their books by the tens of thousands” provides me with only the coldest of comforts: “Adrienne Rich, Robert Bly, Allen Ginsberg, John Ashbery, Galway Kinnell, Robert Creeley, Gary Snyder, Denise Levertov, Carolyn Forché; doubtless others.” He might have added Suzanne Somers, Leonard Nimoy, and Jimmy Stewart to the list if sheer quantities provide any index of good health. Hall's book doesn't have a discernible order, with interviews alternating with reviews and autobiographical essays; but there are so many juicy insider's glances that it seems silly to carp about structure. My favorite moment is a description of a double date from the poet's Harvard years in which the participants were Hall, a “beautiful, bright, blonde” Radcliffe student, Robert Bly, and Adrienne Rich! I will leave it to the curious reader to discover who was with whom.
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SOURCE: “The Harvard Advocate,” in Michigan Quarterly Review, Vol. 35, No. 4, Fall, 1996, pp. 745–54.
[In the following review, Goldstein assesses three examples of Hall's nonfiction works—Principal Products of Portugal, Death to the Death of Poetry, and Life Work,—and explores what these works reveal about his poetry.]
These days the theory of literature has taken up, again, the infinitely interesting matter of literary production—how writing gets written, revised, edited, published, distributed, reviewed, reprinted, canonized. It is a subject that has fascinated Donald Hall all of his life, the more so after 1975, when he resigned from his tenured position in the English Department at the University of Michigan to return to his ancestral farmhouse in New Hampshire and begin life as a free-lance in the literary marketplace. His principal goal in going it alone, liberated from the routine of teaching, grading, serving on committees and socializing with other academics, was to write the major poetry he felt stirring within him, his equivalent of T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets or, in his own generation, Galway Kinnell's The Book of Nightmares (1971), John Ashbery's Three Poems (1972), or Adrienne Rich's Diving into the Wreck (1973). His much-honored volumes, Kicking the Leaves (1978). The Happy Man (1986), The One Day (1988), The Museum of Clear Ideas (1993), and The Old Life (1996), are installments of what might be considered a single project best named by the rejected title of one of the volumes, Building the House of Dying. How these poems have gotten written and published is one subject Hall speaks frequently about in the three nonfiction books under review, but one subject only. The books are compendiums of diverse materials, by-products of his commitment to the making of major poetry.
The title Principal Products of Portugal is “code for things miscellaneous, unrelated, boring and probably educational.” The phrase reminds us of data we were taught in elementary school because it was good for us to have knowledge of the world's business, no matter how remote from our little patch of experience. The title is disarming, apologetic, a cover for the republication of many commissioned pieces that paid the bills while Hall toiled each morning on his verse. A history of “Casey at the Bat,” interviews with Bob Cousy, Carlton Fisk, and Red Auerbach, an appreciation of Henry Adams's historical writing, a survey of Andrew Marvell's poetry, a tribute to Henry Moore, a night-piece on graveyards, a memoir of having been affected viscerally as a child by the movie Last Train from Madrid—twenty-five pieces of this kind do have the randomness of olive oil, cork, pulpwood, wine, petroleum, and figs. How many poets in twentieth-century America could have earned a commission by writing an essay entirely about the Detroit Tigers' decision to move Mickey Stanley from centerfield to shortstop in the 1968 World Series? Not T. S. Eliot. Not John Ashbery. And yet, we are not talking about Grub Street. Baseball is as much a part of Hall's imaginative world as the pastoral elegy, and his ability to make the connection between those two subjects, and so many others, defines him as a capacious man of letters, a mediating spirit of our time.
“If we stick to what we already know, we stick to what we already do,” Hall writes. He has been able to broaden the range of his poetry by casting his net, of financial necessity, beyond his accustomed sphere of interests. Retirement has abetted this tendency, as Hall has sought to amplify his writing by educating himself further in history, religion, and science. Having read the 2,597 pages of Henry Adams's History of the United States during the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison, Hall is outraged that more writers don't read this “major work of American literature,” nor Gibbon, Motley, and Parkman. He rightly claims that poets will sooner read very minor poetry of the past and present than the greatest works of history. His reading of Adams et al., which was not work for hire, nourished The One Day and informs the experimental poems he has written since. Characteristically, Hall turns the facts of Adams's chronicle against the rational act of tracing cause and effect in time. In The One Day Hall writes a deadpan stanza about the delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, then follows it with this send-up of history-writing as a mode of understanding how heroes persist in cultural memory:
Some delegates hitched rides chatting with teamsters; some flew stand-by and wandered stoned in O'Hare or borrowed from King Alexander's National Bank: None returned to plantation, farm, or townhouse. They wandered weary until they encountered each other again, converging on Hollywood Boulevard bordered with bars in their absurd clothing like movie extras, Federalist and Republican descending the cloverleaf together to engage another Convention at the Hollywood-La Brea Motel— wearing their nametags, befuddled, unable to argue.
Even Henry Adams would get a laugh out of this surreal invention at the expense of our founding fathers. Indeed, the stanza reflects Adams's central discovery, as Hall defines it: “People do the opposite of what they say (and think) they do.” These delegates thought they were forging a virtuous new nation from the chaos of human appetites; but they created a libertarian society in which citizens were permitted to build cities like Hollywood in order to ceaselessly indulge their appetites. Adams's history enables Hall to articulate his sense of a civilization spinning out of control, toward the kind of terminal confusion that oppressed Adams himself when he wrote his autobiography.
Hall's prose, like his verse, is witty and pungent. It intends to be memorable, to be jotted down in commonplace books, to be quoted in the halls of Congress and in schoolrooms. “Sensible people agree: A day spent without the thought of death is a wasted day.” “Art is the source of the compassion by which we prefer funding misery over funding the arts.” “Design is nutrition for mind as food for body.” “The existence of honest, difficult, human intelligence consoles us. Poetry's thinking consoles us.” Epigrammatic and condensed to the point of proverbial economy, such sentences keep the reader alert to the nuances of Hall's prose. When Hall says that he would like to wallpaper his room with Henry Adams's sentences he indicates how important sentences are to a sensibility in need of the richest possible linguistic nourishment. A prose work like “Trees” erases the distinction between verse and prose; it is as highly wrought and rhythmically sophisticated as a poem of Marvell's. If it were in French it would be acclaimed by the admirers of Ponge and Bonnefoy as the cutting-edge of the contemporary parole.
Part of Hall's powerful style is a certain dogmatism that will arouse occasional resistance; this is a problem only for readers who can't tolerate opinions contrary to their own. Hall quotes William Blake's line, “O Rose, thou art sick,” and then asserts, “it is useless to ask, ‘What does Rose mean? What does sick mean?’” I think most readers would respond that it's not useless at all, that Blake especially, one of the most disputatious of all poets, expects us to ask precisely those questions on the way toward a full appreciation of the poem. Hall says of the generation of American writers born in the 1920s that it was “the first generation in American history for whom Europe was not an issue.” “Not an issue” is not precise enough to base an argument upon, but surely it would be difficult to speak very long about the likes of Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht, Donald Justice, John Ashbery, and W. S. Merwin, not to mention the more complex cases of Robert Bly, Frank O'Hara, and Adrienne Rich, without describing very powerful European influences on their work. To be fair, the statement occurs in a memoir of James Wright, the best essay in the volume, in which Hall is seeking to define the unique, native voice of this Ohio poet and claim it as the essential voice of his generation.
Hall becomes polemical only when writing of literature, which is why those essays are the most fun. He would never make a statement as preposterous as the following if he were writing about baseball or the Constitution: “Victorian England … [was] a literary culture that saw poems as commendable ideas accompanied by sugary noises; a literary culture that never found room in its poetry—except for the unpublished Hopkins—for the powers of ambivalence and conflict.” The remark will be red meat in graduate seminars devoted to Browning, Arnold, and the Rossettis. It catches Hall at a critical location too far outside the academy, where the presence of informed colleagues and students, and a library of commentary, would chasten such dogmatism. Fortunately, remarks like these are like the few spoiled grapes that come in succulent bunches from the groves of Portugal.
Death to the Death of Poetry is Hall's fourth volume of essays, reviews, notes, and interviews in the Poets on Poetry series published by the University of Michigan Press. This one is shorter and slighter in content, perhaps because Principal Products of Portugal siphoned off some material that might have enhanced this collection—the essay on E. A. Robinson, certainly, and the ones on Marvell and James Wright. The interviews with Liam Rector and Peter Stitt that comprise 53 of the book's 157 pages are available in other books. I suspect that Hall sent the book to press a bit sooner than he would have in earlier years (The Weather for Poetry, in 1982, numbered 335 pages) because he was eager to enter the controversy he engages in the title essay. In the last few years a number of books and articles have decried the supposed unpopularity of poetry and predicted possible extinction for verse in the near future. Hall is exasperated with these doomsayings and in the volume's title essay he sets his impressive polemical skills against them.
As he points out, critics are always declaring poetry in a state of crisis. In the early 1930s Edmund Wilson, in his essay “Is Verse a Dying Technique?” claimed that poetry was losing its public, in large part because it had become so difficult to understand. Had Hall wished to move backward historically he could have found voices like Wilson's in every generation. David de Laura has written that “from about 1820, well into the 1850s, the continuous context for the discussion of poetry in England was a fear that it was nearly defunct.” Now the Victorian and modernist eras are seen as periods when poetry had both prestige and a large following, just as thirty years from now the same situation deplored by our contemporaries will be proclaimed by critics as a golden age. Hall believes that this is a golden age for poetry: “More people write poetry in this country—publish it, hear it, and presumably read it—than ever before.” He cites statistics to prove the vitality of contemporary poetry and affirms—there is no way to prove it—that a substantial portion is of sufficiently high quality to stand with the masterpieces of the past. Critics who loudly deplore the writing of their time can never acknowledge the fact of its excellence. As Max Apple said in a recent interview, critics of today complain that there is no Faulkner among us. But when Faulkner was publishing his masterpieces the same kind of critics were complaining that there was no Henry James among them. Such people can never be satisfied—except by the stir of controversy they promote around themselves by their melodramatic pronouncements.
Hall's essay on the subject is important because it is grounded in evidence not easily dismissed, including his long memory of the history of poetry since the early 1940s. Harvard was the crucible in which his expansive tastes took form. He edited the undergraduate literary magazine, the Harvard Advocate, and in 1950 published as his first book an anthology of undergraduate writings from the eighty-four years of “Mother Advocate.” (His chief editorial coup was prying loose from T. S. Eliot nine tyro poems.) In those giddy years in Cambridge Hall associated with Robert Bly, John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara, Adrienne Rich, John Ciardi, Kenneth Koch, Richard Wilbur, Robert Creeley, Archibald MacLeish, Richard Eberhart. “Quite a bunch!” he exclaims. Thanks in large part to this fostering milieu, Hall enjoys the full range of poetries written in the postwar period, a period whose taste he has helped to shape through his anthologies, textbooks, essays and reviews, teaching, lectures, and readings. If you like only one kind of poetry you can get depressed if you don't see abundant attention being paid to it. (People don't seem to be talking about the poets with whom you feel the most affinity? This must signal the imminent doom of poetry.) Because Hall's taste is capacious and even contradictory, he takes heart from the general enthusiasm for all manner of poetry and song. It comes as a surprise to hear him say that the poet he admires most in his generation is Robert Creeley, in part because he rarely mentions Creeley when he analyzes poems, and in part because Hall tends to favor his personal friends when he glorifies his generation in print: Bly, Kinnell, Wright, Simpson, Geoffrey Hill. The future of poetry is assured so long as the independence and originality of writers like Creeley—who has grounded his innovative practice on a prolonged study of poetics—are rewarded by the respect of commentators like Hall.
“I was a fierce advocate for the contemporary,” Hall says of his earlier self, and it's true that, though he is famous for his encouragement of new talent, his principal interest is and will always be his own generation. For poets born before 1920, like Lowell and Berryman, Hall displays very mixed feelings. Berryman, he writes, is a “problem,” a poet whose work often incites “disgust” though Hall acknowledges that he is always snatched back into respect for Berryman by some graceful or pungent poem. Hall passionately loved Lowell's early work but grew increasingly unhappy with the late style, which he considers self-indulgent and slack. Hall will not be negative in print about personal friends, a limitation of his criticism, but he does not study them in print either. We shall have to wait for a collection of letters to find his expert discriminations of their work, and theirs of his own. His review of W. D. Snodgrass's Selected Poems gives us a peek into his opinions on that poet and friend, but Hall withdraws tactfully from analysis in favor of autobiography. Finally, Hall is concerned to place poets in terms of his own development in the historical era that followed modernism. He will not, he says, act the “bobbysoxer” like Helen Vendler, the current Harvard tastemaker, swooning over Jorie Graham and Brad Leithauser, nor the curmudgeon, like Yvor Winters, dispraising everyone but his own epigone. Hall claims larger sympathies because of the generous New England upbringing that established his temperament.
Hall's parents lived in suburban Connecticut, where, he claims, everyone wanted to be just like everyone else. But he spent his summers on the New Hampshire farm to which he eventually retired, and this rural world nourished his literary sensibility: “In the culture of the country … there was fantastic diversity—in education, aspiration, income, appearance; what you wore, what you ate, what you did for fun—from house to house along the roads and lanes. Eccentricity was a value; a major ethical notion was everybody's right to be different.” For Hall poetry became the living symbol and agent of that diversity. When he praises poets it is for their ability to capture attention by the force of a compelling style. He was “immediately enthralled” when he read Theodore Roethke's The Lost Son. “I remember the general flabbergast when Thom Gunn's first poems went public,” he writes. In a series of short notices from the Harvard Review he praises the “natural speech” of Etheridge Knight and the “dailyness” of Wendell Berry and the “headlong assault” of Gerald Burns. He likes to be caught off guard by both the familiar and the unfamiliar. He lives in a mixed neighborhood of poetry, enjoying the plurality of voices as he would at a community fair or church social.
Hall has guaranteed that we cannot talk about his literary opinions or his verse without recurring to the alpha and omega spot of his personal universe: Eagle Pond, New Hampshire. “I have modeled my late life in this house on my grandparents' as they lived here in work, love, and double-solitude,” he writes in Life Work, his summing-up of the lessons he learned at his two residences in the old manse. As a boy he first heard poetry recited by his grandfather Wesley Wells, as the old man milked the cows or worked in the field; and he watched with fascination as his grandmother Kate worked incessantly at the multitudinous domestic chores of a mixed farm. Faithful readers of Hall's writing since his first volume of poems, Exiles and Marriages, in 1955, have come to know this family intimately. In “Elegy for Wesley Wells,” written in the early 1950s after his grandfather's death, Hall wrote, “I number out the virtues that are dead, / Remembering the soft consistent voice / And bone that showed in each deliberate word.” He has never stopped remembering or numbering out those virtues, and Life Work is the most ambitious memoir thus far of the time he shared with the eldest members of his family. Even readers who feel like they could write a full-length biography of Wesley and Kate Wells out of Hall's already-published writing will be surprised to find a density of new detail and revised judgement in this book as Hall confronts his own mortality in the land of his ancestors.
Life Work is written in journal form, a sequence of meditations that begins casually and then is jolted into urgency halfway along by news of the author's cancer and a succession of lab tests, treatments, and operations. Notations about the meaning of work that had seemed rather disinterested and speculative in Part One become tense and dramatic as Time's winged chariot carries the author faster and faster toward the imagined finale of his many literary projects. He is comforted by his wife and friends, and keeps working in defiance of death. (In a ghastly irony, after publication of the book Hall's wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, contracted leukemia and died of it in 1995.) The nature of his work, he comes to understand, is a recapitulation of his grandparents' work; it is joyful and exhausting and interminable, and it binds together past, present and future by its enabling rules and conventions. The grandparents did the work of husbandry Virgil described in his Georgics and Eclogues; Hall writes here and in some of his poems in the manner of Virgil about the timeless and eternally recurring processes of manual labor.
The prose of Life Work is not artless exposition but has the charged intensity of verse. Listen to the rhythms of a sample descriptive passage:
Later in the winter he drove an ox up hill pulling a sledge, loaded up the cordwood and brought it down for sawing, splitting, drying, and stacking in the woodshed next summer for the winter to follow. After woodchopping, probably the next most difficult task of the year was carting ice from Eagle Pond to store in the icehouse behind the tie-up's watering trough. Neighbors worked together taking ice from the pond, often in February, when the ice was two feet thick. First, they scraped snow off, then with horse-drawn cutters scraped long lines onto ice, back and forth, making a checkerboard of ruts, then split the ice into great oblong chunks, then floated ice-slabs to shore, making watery channels for more slabs. Ice-farming hazards were the cold and the wet, slipping into the freezing water, even drowning dragged down by heavy winter clothes.
The sonic architecture makes the sentences a pleasure to read, as the alto vowels are deployed against the plosive consonants: the i of “ice” especially and the heavy t and d sounds crescendoing in the final phrase. But these regional details are not offered for the sake of mere musicality. One hears in passages like this the solemnity of a historian who will not allow significant human activity to pass into oblivion. Most readers of Hall will be as ignorant about the methods of ice-cutting as of making syrup and spreading manure. Hall feels obliged to educate his readers and immortalize his grandfather's way of life at the same time.
Increasingly, Hall has not only modeled his work habits after his grandparents but made persistent use of them as subject matter as well. Compare the prose passage above to his long poem of reminiscence, “Daylilies on the Hill.” In the following passage Hall describes the efforts of a neighbor to help his grandparents clean out a well clogged with mud after a hurricane:
Wesley milked his girls in the barn, gave Riley some oats and water, shook hay down for the sheep, then watered and grained the hens and harvested eggs. When he climbed up hill, first thing he saw was the forked branch stuck in the ground, its lantern
burning faint in the dawn's light. Then, as he watched, Freeman hauled his shape up from the narrow well, finished at last, proud and weary, pointing to lucid spring water pooling at the bottom, gathering.
Lengthy descriptive passages of this kind dare the reader to declare them boring. The cosmopolitan tone and accelerated speed of modernist poetry supplanted the Romantic, retrospective mode Hall is now trying to reclaim. Though Hall has experimented with the aleatoric and the surreal, his characteristic rhetorical stance is defiance of the neurasthenic T. S. Eliot and all the urban wastelands of modernist verse. When first reading Hall's poetry of pastoral recollection, one thinks of Wordsworth's pleasure in returning during middle-age to the Lake District of his youth after years at Cambridge, London, and elsewhere. But Hall does not, as Wordsworth does, write brief lyrics that enact epiphanies brought on by strange “spots of time.” Rather, he writes anecdotally about the minute particulars of work, the “dailyness” of country labor he praises in the prose and verse of Wendell Berry.
It might be going too far to compare the detached paragraphs of Life Work to the blocks of ice or clumps of hay to which Hall devotes such attention; but certainly the value given to steady work at determinate and sequential tasks is shared between the generations. “Anyone who loves accomplishment lives by the clock and the list,” he writes, and to illustrate the point he makes lists of duties in the book, itemizes a typical day, calculates how long he must write and revise everything from a long poem to a book review before they reach resolution and conclusiveness. To undertake a substantial amount of work, he acknowledges, is to enslave yourself to the dreaded constraints of time. The love of work arouses morbidity, Hall's childhood temperament, just as it arouses joy in achievement and good humor under pressure. Hall asks for a larger range of vocabulary that will distinguish the drudgery of the assembly line from the labor of sustaining a whole existence on a farm, and those kinds of work from the ludic task of writing a poem. And how do we distinguish, likewise, the hours of leisure/recreation/amusement? For his grandfather, listening to a baseball game on radio was pure recreation; for Hall it is a pleasure to observe the work of athletes on television, but it is also primary research for work he may later undertake for Sports Illustrated at so much a word, and then for a substantial poem like “Baseball” in The Museum of Clear Ideas. A writer's work is never done because the best writers bring the totality of their knowledge and experience to bear on each piece of writing. Like the ox-cart man he has written about in different formats, who takes his goods to market and then sells the cart and ox as well and starts all over again when he returns to his village, Hall aspires to transfer all that he has and knows into his late, long works. “Only when you empty the well does water return to the well,” he writes in Death to the Death of Poetry.
Life Work, then, shows Hall moving spiritually well beyond the literary politics fomented by his Harvard experience. He has become a Christian, or rather, recaptured the piety he once felt when visiting the local church with his grandfather (who slipped him candies with a wink). He will continue to comment on poems and reputations, all the more securely for locating himself in a two thousand year old tradition of religious belief. As he describes his own daily experience he senses increasingly the presence of his progenitors at his shoulder: Virgil, Whitman, Pound, Eliot, Moore, Frost, and Williams. And in the devoted tones of the advocate he seeks to reanimate the life before poetry, when as a child he watched his grandmother design her gardens and his grandfather seed his fields. “I speak his name against the beating sea,” Hall wrote elegiacally of Wesley Wells almost fifty years ago. In Life Work he concludes by saying, “I repeat stories I grew up on, stories that created me.” It is territory that no other poet can steal from him, a realm of ever-renewing inspiration, a well that never runs dry. Making it known to readers has been the work of a lifetime, and in the process Hall has made his books of central importance in the national literature.
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SOURCE: “‘Building the House of Dying’: Donald Hall's Claim for Poetry,” in Agni, Vol. 47, 1998, pp. 175–83.
[In the following essay, Walsh discusses the role of history and modernity in The One Day.]
“In my head for a long time I called it Building the House of Dying.”
—Hall on the book that became The One Day
“Diatribes from our current art-bashers—columnists, senators, fundamentalists—bring nothing new to our culture,” says Donald Hall, characteristically blunt in his most recent collection of literary essays, Death to the Death of Poetry (1994). “America's eminent know-nothings have always understood: Artists are sissies providing pastimes for rich folks.” His italics, his sarcasm. Hall's not here to help pass the time. He's more ambitious than that. He's nothing if not ambitious. “As I like to say,” he writes in his paean to vocation, Life Work, “I average four books a year—counting revised editions of old books, counting everything I can damned well count. Counting books, book reviews, notes, poems, and essays, I reckon I publish about one item a week, year-in, year-out.” But Hall's ambition runs deeper than numbers. He laments the limited aspirations and achievement of contemporary American poetry. “McPoems,” he calls the typical product. “Usually brief, they resemble each other, they are anecdotal, they do not extend themselves, they make no great claims, they connect small things to other small things.” Hall's written more than a few of these himself. See his Old and New Poems for a very enjoyable sample.
They make no great claims—but what are rich folks or any folks to make of this, from Hall's 1988 book-length poem The One Day?
Your children will wander looting the shopping malls for forty years, suffering your idleness, until the last dwarf body rots in a parking lot.
Nothing here to help the digestion between rounds at Kiawah. Even if the children aren't looting, what if they're just shopping the shopping malls (though this would deprive us of the pleasure of looting's diminution into our lot—lot), is that any consolation? The prophecy holds. This in itself may not be a great claim, but it is the beginning of a great claim—a great question. If virtue and invention come of necessity, then does the lack of necessity in modern life, the luxury we have to idle (granted, the idle is set frenetically high for many) mean the end of virtue and human resourcefulness, the end of what millennia of experience have taught us to think of as distinctly, valuably, essentially human? “We forget / every skill we acquired over ten thousand years of labor,” Hall writes. “I practice smiling; I forget how to milk a goat.” Does abundance mean atrophy? Does push-button technology render us effete and ineffectual, as in “Of course I couldn't kill a rat with a putter / even if it shuddered in my daughter's crib,” so that we have no response to and indeed no ideas better than the looming barbarian solution?
… Tribes wandering in the wilderness of their ignorant desolation, who suffer from your idleness, will burn your illuminated missals to warm their rickety bodies. Terrorists assemble plutonium because you are idle
What are we to do? The One Day asks this question quite clearly, quite emphatically. It also, and this is what makes it a risky, great book, answers the question it poses.
Not that one reads the poem for this big question and answer, the meaning; such is, in T. S. Eliot's phrase, “a bit of nice meat for the house-dog” of the mind. Hall teases the appetite in the early going: “Never do anything except what you want to do.” But this is more morsel than meal or, to change the metaphor, more alarum than answer. It haunts the rest of the poem—and it is the haunted poem itself that is Hall's answer, or, to use his more appropriate term, his claim.
The prospect of meaning diverts the reader so that the poet-burglar can do his essential work, work that does not admit of simple or even complex paraphrase, such as I have begun to attempt here. The essential work involves delight and mystery—moving, not convincing, the reader.
And The One Day delights and moves in myriad ways. Hall's great mastery of sound is the first mover, striking the ears first, naturally, but reminding us that the auditory canal courses deep into the skull. Sound vibrates fluid and air in there under the eyes, behind the nose. It fills mouth and throat and lungs. The flesh and bones of even the silent reader feel all this before the mind figures. The body thrills at the crash and trill of “course,” “couldn't kill,” “rat,” and the mounting rhyme of “putter,” “shuddered,” and “daughter's” in the lines quoted above, which end with the frustration and resignation of the plosive stop consonant of “b” in “crib.” The lower lip protrudes babyishly, you can't help it. And listen to the assonance, the nasals, sibilants, dentives, and liquids (one doesn't know these terms offhand, but exhilaration moves him to explication) of “the young women's bodies, / their smooth skin intolerably altered by ointments.” Isn't there something gooily intolerable about the word “ointment”? It tastes funny.
Then the mind has the pleasure of experiencing the great history of poetry that constitutes, in a strict sense, The One Day, which is not to say that it is text-bookish in the least. It's not about the history of poetry; it is history, an embodiment and extension of tradition, of, as Eliot has it, not that which “is dead,” but that which is “already living.” Maybe it's best to say that Hall used everything he knows of poetry to write the poem, and he knows an awful lot.
There is, for instance, the modernist trick of multiple voices with which Hall enacts his epigraph from Picasso, “Every human being is a colony”:
(Who is it that sets these words on blue-lined paper? It is the old man in the room of bumpy wallpaper. It is the girl who sits on her drunken mother's lap or carries her grandmother's eggs. It is the boy who reads the complete works of Edgar Allan Poe. It is the middle- aged man motionless in a yellow chair, unable to read, daydreaming the house of dying. The colony takes comfort in building this house which does not exist, because it does not exist—as I stare at the wrist's knuckle, idle, without purpose, fixed in a yellow chair.)
Hall prophesies apocalypse à la Revelations, but is more specific and modern, as in the “looting the shopping malls” lines, or more viscerally horrifying: “Fat will boil in the sacs of children's clear skin.”
The last lines of the poem fulfill Marianne Moore's request (Hall has published a study of Moore) in “Poetry” for “imaginary gardens with real toads in them”:
… Together we walk in the high orchard at noon; it is cool, although the sun poises upon us. Among old trees the creek breathes slowly, bordered by fern. The toad at our feet holds still.
Vying for Whitmanian sweep, Hall puts even the bathroom, if not the kitchen, sink in front of the reader's mind's eye:
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 seventeenth green; I reject the Professional Bowlers Tour; I reject matchboxes; I reject purple bathrooms with purple soap in them.
Here Hall reveals, even revels in, the Jeremiah in him that Whitman repressed in the later editions of Leaves of Grass—a querulousness, a bitter despair not often associated with the Good Gray Poet. See “Respondez” in The Neglected Walt Whitman:
Let the people sprawl with yearning, aimless hands! let their tongues be broken! … … … … … … … … … … … … … … Let all the men of these States stand aside for a few smouchers! let the few seize on what they choose! let the rest gawk, giggle, starve, obey!
and compare it to Hall's:
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. …
Yet violent as the imagery is, as much as it rejects, we find that rejections become formations, that prophecy itself is left standing. Destruction constructs, in the words of the author's note that follows the poem, “ten-line bricks which could build the house and remain whole.” It is this paradoxical phenomenon of building by wrecking and wreaking that gives The One Day its momentum.
This is especially true of the middle of the poem. In the section titled “Pastoral,” the poem suffers and parodies mid-life crisis:
Phyllis: My Hermes, you sit with your pipes pocketed at committee meetings and eat nonbiodegradable donuts and drink whitened coffee without protest. You play sets of tennis with the director you dislike, and laugh shaking your head as your baseline shots fall continually past the baseline. You make rules, piper, by which you cannot be fired. I cheat my employer; I quit and take unemployment because I deserve it. You exploit your employees. My friend in the city attorney's office reduces the charges. You weep, my love, chained to the trireme's oar.
Marc: I fly with my family to San Juan for a week attended by Moriscos. Drunk after the party, I fumble to embrace the babysitter, taking her home, who will not sit for my children again. I choose a girl from Records instead, who is twenty-three and thinks I am rich. Later when I am bored I disengage myself, sending her presents. Ingratiating to boss, insulting to employees, I endure my days without pleasure or purpose, finding distraction in Rodeo Drive, in duplicate bridge, in gladiators, and in my pastoral song.
Some pastoral. Hall perverts the form to effect what he calls “dreamlike monstrosity.” Monstrosity helps clarify choices, and “never do anything except what you want to do” haunts because it requires incessant choice. Something monstrous is easier to reject, and, because there is so much not to do, rejection is the first business of doing what you want to do.
Though not the last: abjuring purple bathrooms may be a start, but where does one go from there? After such irony, what engagement? It takes Hall forty pages to earn earnestness, to muster the wherewithal to overcome irony, but he most unmistakably does:
Gazing at May's blossoms, imagining bounty of McIntosh, I praise old lilacs rising in woods beside cellarholes; I praise toads. I predict the telephone call that reports the friend from childhood cold on a staircase. I praise children, grandchildren, and just baked bread. I praise fried Spam and onions on slices of Wonder Bread; I praise your skin. I predict the next twenty years, days of mourning, long walks growing slow and painful. I reject twenty years of mid-life; I reject rejections. The one day stands unmoving in sun and shadow.
It takes the entire poem to show that the way to meaning lies not in rejection of all but the self, not in self regard, not even in “each other,” but in “a third thing: / a child, a ciderpress, a book.” Recognition and acceptance of the necessity of death replace distraction and denial. “From burnt houses and blackened shrubs, green rises / like bread.” The house of dying and the house of living, it turns out, are one, and our true lot, Hall proclaims, is to “Work, love, build a house and die. But build a house.”
He is as emphatic as Whitman in the preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass: “This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone who asks, stand up for the stupid and the crazy. …” Whitman goes on, as you may recall or imagine, while Hall is not as specific or exhaustive (who is?). He lists less. But Hall's example of combining bitter rejection with hopeful proclamation argues better than any critical essay could against Whitman's (and the Modern Library's) decision to elide the darkest shade of the Good Gray Poet, for the extreme negativity of The One Day intensifies, even as it qualifies, its eventual affirmation.
Still, one may be impressed with Hall's language, the sweep of his vision, the ingenuity with which he shapes bricks and puts them together, and yet ask, what do you mean, “build a house”? Bravo that you lived through your mid-life crisis, that you have a nice home, with old lilacs and all, but what good does it do homeless me? To put it in the most dreaded way, who cares? This is the 20th century. I don't have time for anything more than a McPoem, if that.
Yet Hall has noted that there are more American poets and poems out there now than ever before, and the phenomenon of the “sensitive poet” is prevalent enough in the U.S. to provoke a cartoon from Matt Groening (best known as the creator of The Simpsons television program, but also author of the darkly funny Life in Hell books). After offering some useful questions for figuring out “if you are the sensitive poet type”—
Are you “different”? Do you feel “special”? Are you “complicated”? Do you enjoy “poverty”?
—Groening suggests that beginners equip themselves with “pencil, paper, somber clothing.” More advanced sensitive poets will need “pencil, paper, bitterness.” The cartoon then offers the following exercise: “Write a poem about a fleeting emotion unique to you,” the cartoon instructs, “using a complex and private system of symbols that no one else can possibly understand.”
So many poets and poems, so bafflingly little communication. Eliot wrote that “the uses of poetry certainly vary as society alters, as the public to be addressed changes.” In the late 20th century, then, does poetry serve to pad solipsism, to aid the escape from modern reality by modern reality's spoiled, somberly clothed, over-sensitive and under-employed children? The poet's greatest pride and achievement is his miraculously intact sensibility, the elaborated beauty of his isolation—therein the preciosity of much of what currently gets called poetry. Recall Hall's recipe for McPoems: “they do not extend themselves … they connect small things to other small things.” Many poets aren't men speaking to men, but men speaking to themselves, consigning the reader to the dubious pleasure of eavesdropping on a solitary mumbler.
But maybe this is for the best. Maybe modernity has so thrown us back upon ourselves that we have no common ground, only our separate, “complex and private,” incommunicable systems. At least one psychologist has suggested that the “sensitive poet” type, detached from the outside and elaborately connected inside, might be the ideal model for contemporary identity. In Love and Will, Rollo May writes that such a “schizoid character” is necessary in a “schizoid world … in which, amid all the vastly developed means of communication that bombard us on all sides, actual personal communication is exceedingly difficult and rare.” Only a schizoid character, focused inwardly on his complex and private system, can “stand against the spiritual emptiness of encroaching technology and … not let himself be emptied by it.” Only such a character can “live and work with the machine without becoming a machine.”
Well, Hall does co-opt modern technology as analog for the structure of his poem. “If I succeed,” he writes, “the surface of the poem should look smooth but, like the great console radios of my youth, when you look behind this facade you see a maze of tubes and wires to connect everything with everything else. And there is something faintly smug about the “third things” he esteems in The One Day. It is easy to write:
The one day speaks of July afternoons, of February when snow builds shingle in spruce, when the high sugarmaple regards the abandoned barn tilted inward, moving in storm like Pilgrims crossing the Atlantic under sail. The one day recalls us to hills and meadows, to moss, roses, dirt, apples, and the breathing of timothy— away from the yellow chair, from blue smoke and daydream. Leave behind appointments listed on the printout! Leave behind manila envelopes! Leave dark suits behind, boarding passes, and soufflés at the chancellor's house!
… if you live, as Hall does, on an ancestral farm in New Hampshire.1 Such a landscape makes for Hall a lovely background for “an instressing of his own inscape,” to use Gerard Manley Hopkins' phrase for Lucifer's treasonous song, and indeed there is much inscaping in The One Day. The devil makes him do it, maybe—or the bombardment of modernity. Colonize yourself, or your self will be colonized for you. Poetry, obviously, helps in this endeavor; and so it can lead to the sensitive poet phenomenon. But the third things Hall esteems counter this tendency. A child, a ciderpress, a book … the history of poetry—these things we hold in common, and in communing over them we find value outside ourselves, beyond the limits of our space and time. The very nature of poetry recalls us to these third things. While in prose, words are means for the message they are deployed to convey, the words of a poem insist that they are ends in themselves, that we feel them with our senses and hearts even as we manipulate them for some purpose. Each brick has heft and texture worth the moment's measure.
Thoreau reminds us that home-building is (if you'll forgive a pun) an edifying occupation:
Who knows but if men constructed their dwellings with their own hands, and provided food for themselves and families simply and honestly enough, the poetic faculty would be universally developed, as birds universally sing when they are so engaged? But alas! We do like cowbirds and cuckoos, which lay their eggs in nests which other-birds have built, and cheer no traveller with their chattering and unmusical notes. Shall we forever resign the pleasure of construction to the carpenter?
Hall has published poetry since The One Day and has plans to publish more soon, but this book stands as his central achievement. It is ambitious. It makes a great claim, then backs it up. “Work, love, build a house and die. But build a house.” Reading the poem we feel the “pleasure of construction.”
Hall has observed that:
In the act of reading, the reader undergoes a process—largely without awareness, as the author was largely without intention—which resembles, like a slightly fainter copy of the original, the process of discovery or recovery that the poet went through in his madness or his inspiration.
What are we to do when necessity's discipline no longer obtains, when milk magically flows from the plastic udder, when nothing need be done? If Hall's equation of reading to writing is true, and certainly poetry, of all literary forms, inspires and requires the most active engagement on the part of the reader, then in reading The One Day we exercise the poetic faculty, we cultivate our capacity for poiesis. Reader, in other words, becomes poet, and a poet, to paraphrase Thoreau, is someone who, having nothing to do, finds something to do.
Hall is careful to note elsewhere that he paid hard-earned dollars for his place in New Hampshire, ancestral though it is. He bought the farm himself.
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SOURCE: “Donald Hall: Elegies from Eagle Pond,” in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 245, No. 12, March 23, 1998, pp. 72–73.
[In the following interview, Hall discusses the death of his wife (poet Jane Kenyon), his editing of her last collection of poetry, and Without, his own poetry collection about their life together.]
Eagle Pond Farm is familiar to even the casual reader of Donald Hall. The weather-beaten spread, hard by Route 4 at the foot of Ragged Mountain in Wilmot, N.H., has been home to Hall's maternal clan since 1865. It is the subject or setting of many of his poems and essays, providing a consistent reference point for more than 40 years of work. It is the place where Hall spent summers growing up, returning for good in 1975 after remarrying and giving up tenure at the University of Michigan to write full-time. And it is the house where his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, died in 1995.
In Without, due from Houghton Mifflin in April, Hall records the unbearable facts of a present he and Kenyon were powerless to alter. A slow-motion portrait of Kenyon's descent into the horrors of aggressive treatment following her leukemia diagnosis in 1994 at the age of 46, the collection continues without recoil through to her last days, spent choosing the poems for Kenyon's Otherwise: New & Selected Poems, and her final minutes. A second section addresses Kenyon directly, after her death. With their deliberate cadences, the poems seem written from a place beyond solace or anguish, a contracted world that leaves Hall bereft, with no relief, but still insisting on trying to say what has happened.
Readers will of course be tempted to draw parallels between Hall's book and Ted Hughes's best-selling Birthday Letters whose publication made front-page news: both men were married to poets whose work was often highly personal and who were beset by depression and mania, and both collections address the poet's departed spouse in verse. While the real-life likenesses end there, Without is already generating the kind of attention unthinkable for many books of poetry. The book has a first printing of 10,000 copies (perhaps five times the usual); Hall has recently been profiled in Mirabella and for National Public Radio; more media attention is sure to follow. While some of the reception is obviously due to a master poet who has written a culminating work, it raises questions about what it takes for a book of poems to penetrate the national consciousness.
In Without, Hall is forced to fight it out with a career's worth of demons: death, family, sex and how to proceed in a life that offers no guarantee of value or redemption. The struggle is made still more poignant by the fact that no one expected Hall to be alive to tell of it. Hall had written about his own illness a few short years before in books like The Museum of Clear Ideas and Life Work, both published in 1993, speaking plainly of his colon cancer and the metastasis that took more than half of his liver. An Emmy Award-winning Bill Moyers special, A Life Together, found Hall and Kenyon resolved to make the most of their time together at Eagle Pond, as the threat of recurrence loomed. But with Kenyon's diagnosis, The Old Life, as Hall called the book of poems he published the year of her death, was over.
That Hall has remained at Eagle Pond Farm, where Kenyon “led the way back” after their marriage, seems fitting at the very least. On a gray February morning, PW is met at the kitchen door by Hall, and by Gus, the long-haired “dear mongrel” who makes appearances in Kenyon's poems and, more frequently now, in Hall's. Almost immediately, Hall ushers us into his study, closing the door to reveal the wall of photos of Kenyon he writes of as “The Gallery” in Without.
“That's the woman I married,” Hall says of a young, slightly awkward Kenyon hidden behind thick framed glasses. “And that's the beauty she became,” he says, gesturing to Kenyon “foxy / and beautiful at 45,” with tresses of dark hair offset with silver framing her strong features and even gaze.
Hall's own appearance has changed dramatically from the man of the Moyers special, reading tours and book jackets. Wisps of thinned red hair reach his shoulders, and a nearly gray beard spreads densely across much of his face. Hall is also rather tall; the net effect is authoritative, if not imposing. As he moves to sit in a chair by a window facing the road, waving PW to a couch across the room, it's difficult not to feel a little daunted. But Hall quickly makes one feel at ease, talking with what one recognizes as characteristic frankness about his prolific and esteemed career.
That career now includes 13 books of poems and what Hall calls the work that “supports my poetry habit”: essay collections, textbooks, profiles of poets and artists, children's books and short stories. Hall's 1955 poetic debut at age 27, Exiles and Marriages (having himself married three years earlier), was such a success that he had trouble living it down. Part formalist send-up of bourgeois dalliance and divorce and part grave T. S. Eliot-influenced metaphysical inquiry, the book captured the literary zeitgeist of the period Robert Lowell called “the tranquilized fifties” perhaps too well. A glowing Time magazine review—rare even then for poetry—ran along with a photo of Hall as a serious young Harvard graduate (his colleagues on the Advocate included John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch and Robert Bly, who remains his best friend), one who would go on to win the Lamont poetry prize for his first outing. Hall, now 69, chuckles over his younger self's precocity. “I remember the man who wrote those poems, and in the immortal words of Richard Nixon, ‘I peaked too soon.’ I began to do better work later on,” such as A Roof of Tiger Lilies (1964), “that wasn't noticed.”
If that initial burst of fame tapered off after a while, it was enough to fuel a transition to a successful academic career. Having picked up a second bachelor's at Oxford and spent time as one of Harvard's Society of Fellows, Hall settled at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in 1957. He had two children with his first wife, and went on to publish and edit widely during the ensuing two decades. The marriage ended in 1969, and Hall entered what he has called “a bad patch of mid-life.” When he met Kenyon in Ann Arbor, she was 22 and he 42; they married two years later. The impetus to move to Eagle Pond, inhabited by the family ghosts that populate Hall's work, came from Kenyon. The two were to devote themselves to writing, with Hall embarking on a freelance career that continues to this day. Hall's textbook, Writing Well (now in its ninth edition, with Addison Wesley Longman), was selling briskly, which “made it possible to think about coming here” in 1975.
Kicking the Leaves vaulted Hall back into prominence in 1978, going on to sell nearly 100,000 copies over the years. Many of its poems reappeared in Old and New Poems (1990). “The standard sentence in the reviews of that book,” Hall quips, “is that Hall has been around a long time and published a lot of books, but it wasn't until he quit teaching and moved to the New Hampshire house with his second wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, that he began to get good.” Hall begs to differ somewhat but allows the pundits a measure of truth. “I felt a little aggrieved for some of my old poems, but if my work got better while I was here, I think it was partly because I was watching Janie, with tremendous stubbornness and hard work, get better and better.”
Kenyon had just published her third book (exclusive of her translations of Anna Akhmatova), Let Evening Come, to warm reviews, and the two began to read together more frequently. Hall had already found further critical success with The Happy Man (1986) and The One Day (1988). The latter, a long poem in four parts that was 17 years in the making, won the NBCC Award for poetry and was a Pulitzer nominee. The book also, along with a collection of naturalist essays called Here at Eagle Pond, inaugurated Hall's long relationship with Houghton Mifflin, its (now defunct) imprint Ticknor & Fields and editor Peter Davison.
Hall remembers these times as some of the couple's happiest. “Jane's reputation had finally caught up with her poetry. And we went out and read together, and we lived in this house, and got up early, and worked. We had to make boundaries in order to live together and do the same thing, but we did, and it was just magnificent.” Kenyon's Constance came out in 1993, along with Hall's Museum of Clear Ideas and Life Work. After Hall's illness, the couple went out on a joint book tour and also traveled to India for a second time.
They did their last reading together in January 1994, at Bennington. “We came back here, and she began to have flu symptoms. And I flew down to Charleston to do a reading and a lecture, two nights gone.” After missing a connection on the way back, “I called and asked how she was doing. She told me about this terrible nose bleed, and how she had gone to the hospital to have it stopped, and that they were doing blood work. She was more upset, though, about the car's not starting and having to get it towed. This is hard to believe,” Hall says, visibly agitated and upset, “but as I stood there, I thought ‘Jane has leukemia.’” He pauses again, apologetically: “I can't stop telling this story.”
Hall began drafting Without during Kenyon's treatment. “I nursed Jane here and at the hospitals, but there was a lot of other time to fill, and the most absorbing thing I could do was write. She often couldn't, but she was glad somebody could.” As they had done during Hall's illness, the couple resolved to take things exactly as they came. “Jane and I were not deniers, we were proclaimers. We were not cheerful with one another. Writing about this is what I would have expected from us, and Jane did, too.”
After Kenyon's death, Hall stayed at Eagle Pond, drafting and redrafting—often up to 200 times—the poems that would become Without. Slowly, he began to send them to friends and to read them in public. “People came up to me and spoke as if I had been brave to read these poems aloud. I don't feel brave. Talking of grief, talking of suffering, is something I seem to need to do. For some people, that's not their way. But to bring it to someone else, I think, relieves me.” Seeing Otherwise through to press was also a comfort.
Asked if he thinks that the circumstances of Kenyon's death have anything to do with her increased posthumous fame, Hall concurs: “Her fame is infinitely greater since her death, but she was aware that people were talking about her more and more, and reading her more, before she even got sick, so I don't feel too badly about that. She knew that people were beginning to find her.” If Without gets more people to discover Kenyon's work, Hall will be all the more pleased. “She'd kick my ass if she thought I was promoting her at all before.”
The idea of a glimpse into the raw stuff of a writing life shared—and, in different ways, cut tragically short—between two accomplished poets may be the main attraction for readers of both Hughes's Birthday Letters and Hall's Without. In the latter's case, the book will almost certainly be taken up, as Hall notes, “as a companion to the grief of others.” But, he continues, “Art is what gets it from here to there.” Just as any work must put up or shut up, it is the poems themselves that will hold readers to Without. “I may have failed in what I attempted to do, but a poem is not a poem unless it is a work of art. It may begin with a scream of pain, but you make that into a work of art or you have utterly failed.”
Since completing Without, Hall has not sent out any new poems to magazines, although he has been writing, and is “not ready to think about” his next collection. He will do a stint “teaching literature to poets” at New York University after a 10-city reading tour, where he will read Kenyon's work as well as his own. “Before, she wouldn't let me, but I'm reading her because I want to be with her. And I think that everything I write for the rest of my life will be affected by Jane, by the loss of her and her poetry. I'm surrounded by her. She's here.”
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 980
SOURCE: “The Way We Write Now,” in New York Review of Books, Vol. 45, No. 12, July 16, 1998, p. 41.
[In the following excerpt, Bayley discusses Hall's exploration of grief in Without.]
Poets must often write to cheer themselves up, and in so doing the good ones can cheer up their readers as well. Thomas Hardy's passionate love lyrics to his dead wife, the wife to whom when she was alive he had paid very little attention for thirty years and more, are also an acknowledgment of himself as he was, an acceptance of what he had done, or failed to do. So moving are these poems, and in a sense so self-delighting, that the reader too feels calmed and blessed at second-hand, endowed while he reads them with the same sort of self-acceptance.
This is the art that moves Donald Hall's poems to and for his dead wife, the poet Jane Kenyon [in Without]. These, too, are poems addressed to the dead which in reality can only have been written for the poet and for his reader. Unlike Hardy's they celebrate a marriage of deep intimacy and great happiness, but all things come to the same in the end. Hardy mourned that his wife had abruptly left him, just as she sometimes did when callers came to the house. She had departed finally “in the same swift style,” as if to say “Goodbye is not worthwhile.” Like all who have been bereaved, Hall in his poems lives among the same sort of memories.
I want to sleep like the birds, then wake to write you again without hope that you read me. If a car pulls into the drive I want to hide in our bedroom the way you hid sometimes when people came calling.
So many poets—Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, Tennyson, the one following the other—have pointed out that nothing is worse in a bad time than the memory of good ones. Hall adds his own variant:
Remembered happiness is agony; So is remembered agony. I live in a present compelled by anniversaries and objects.
But the paradox holds: the poets were incorrect, at least where their poetry is concerned. For the reader, and surely for the poet too, Hall's extraordinarily clear awareness of what is over and gone is more present and more appealing in words now than it could have found room to be in life. The house, the hospital, the course of his wife's leukemia, the dog Gus, the cemetery, the mountain and lake nearby, “Perkins,” Jane Kenyon's nickname for her husband, the gothic horror of her complex and meticulous treatments—all these, together with the sense of an unbroken human intimacy, make the poems almost mesmerically readable. It is as if they were not poems at all but experiences undergone with and by another human being. And yet art remains of course; for
Art was dependable, something to live for.
And we can only be together in the saving dishonesty of art, the hypocrite lecteur and the poet who makes poetry out of what he has suffered, even out of the grotesque medical rituals which can be inflicted on us today to keep us going.
… blood-oxygen numbers dropped towards zero and her face went blue. The young nurse slipped oxygen into Jane's nostrils and punched a square button. Eight doctors burst into the room, someone pounded Jane's chest, Dr. McDonald gave orders like a submarine captain among depth charges, the nurse fixed a nebulizer over Jane's mouth and nose—and she breathed.
The symbolism of technology leaks into the verbal patterns of Hall's poetry like the chemicals from an intravenous drip, seeming native as well as natural to the mode, just as their own state-of-the-art life-handling technology did to Lowell's Life Studies and Berryman's Dream Songs. As in Hall's last collection, The Old Life, the mosaic of a whole period, with all its inner moods and its physical accessories, is masterfully accomplished: a time seen in the sad debris which seems to survive all the changes and chances, as the prayer book calls them (Hall and his wife were both believers), of our fleeting world.
Yesterday I cleaned out your Saab to sell it. The dozen tapes I mailed to Caroline. I collected hairpins and hair ties. In the Hill's Balsam tin Where you kept silver for tolls I found your collection of clips from fortune cookies: YOU ARE A FANTASTIC PERSON! YOU ARE ONE OF THOSE PEOPLE WHO GOES PLACES IN THEIR LIFE!
The clock given “our first Christmas together” keeps bad time.
… Now it speeds sixty-five minutes to the hour, as if it wants to be done with the day.
This poetry is too meticulously aware of itself not to know how much it must itself be comforted by the past and its losses, even luxuriate in them, as Hardy did in “After a Journey,” his magic poem for his dead wife, Emma. When Jane Kenyon is in remission and seems on the road to recovery
He felt shame to understand he would miss the months of sickness and taking care.
In such crises it has to be one's own feelings that count. No poem here misses the irony of Jane's cry: “I wish you could feel what I feel.”
It must have been unbearable while she suffered her private hurts to see his worried face looking above her, always anxious to do something when there was exactly nothing to do.
The truest misery of terminal conditions—cancer, Alzheimer's—is the isolation they enforce on each once non-separate partner, and the concentration the still intact partner can only feel on his or her own feelings. Both in this case were poets, but one poet cannot console another with art, any more than believers can with belief. Both were practicing Christians, but in the poetry that fact emerges only in accounts of happenings, not in affirmations. …
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SOURCE: “With Jane and Without: An Interview with Donald Hall,” in Massachusetts Review, Vol. 39, No. 4, Winter, 1998–1999, pp. 493–510.
[In the following interview, Hall discusses his relationship with his late wife and how he has coped emotionally since her death.]
Anyone acquainted with the story of Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon cannot help but stand in awe of the irony which, if it appeared in fiction, would appall by its tear-jerking manipulation. The reality, as I stand before Jane Kenyon's grave, leaves me saddened and numb.
The lines on their shared stone are from Kenyon's poem, “Afternoon at MacDowell.” Although she wrote it with Hall in mind when he, as he has said, was “supposed to die,” they now stand in testimony to Kenyon, and look, mistakenly, like words he must have written for her:
I BELIEVE IN THE MIRACLES OF ART BUT WHAT PRODIGY WILL KEEP YOU SAFE BESIDE ME
Four miles North of the Proctor cemetery on Route 4, just past Eagle Pond Road, in the shadow of Ragged Mountain, is Eagle Pond Farm. There is no sign, no name on the mailbox, but the satellite dish overwhelming the North side yard announces the home of a man who cannot live unconnected to his beloved baseball games.
The living room seems truly a living room, a room lived in, informal. It is surrounded, as would be expected, by books; an open book of pictures of sculpture by Henry Moore lays on the coffee table in front of the couch on which I sit. By the window Hall's chair faces the T.V. and VCR which must have received, recorded and replayed thousands of ballgames. The Glenwood stands nearby. On one wall is a gallery of photographs, some already familiar from String Too Short to Be Saved. Beyond are rooms I am curious about but will not see.
This is Hall's ancestral home, but it was Kenyon's “absolute love of this place and desire to live here” which enticed him back, turning it from the place of which he once wrote, “I will not rock on this porch / When I am old,” to the place, as he would later write, that held “love and work together.” Coming back to Eagle Pond was the second smartest thing he and Kenyon had done, he now admits.
The first smartest thing was getting married. And Jane really brought me here—this is my old family place—but I was sensible: I had tenure and I had children in college. Jane said she would lock herself, chain herself rather, into the root cellar rather than go back to the academic world, and I followed her. I really wanted to do what she was suggesting, and we came here, and she absolutely flowered.
She came from a town where her family lived and she had friends. She didn't want to party very much, but there were people around, and she had a job. She came here and she was alone. She had her garden. She had poetry and she began to read it more thoroughly and more seriously and to write it everyday, to work on it every single day. Well, there were times of depression when she couldn't, but mostly she really threw herself into it.
When I came out a few years ago with Old and New Poems, it got a lot of reviews. (I mean, some of my books had two reviews.) There was one characteristic sentence in all the reviews that said “Hall had been around for a long time, published for twenty years, but he really started to get good when he and his second wife moved from the academic world to New Hampshire and settled down.
One thing that's tragic about that is that I was forty-seven when we moved here; Jane was forty-seven when she died. She didn't have the chance. She made the most of her years.
For most of us 1969 was the year of Woodstock, Manson, and Chappaquiddick, it was the year we lost both Jack Kerouac and Judy Garland, and it was the year Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, but for Donald Hall it would become a year to be remembered for a different reason. He had hit a low point in his life, a “bad patch of mid-life” lasting six years. He had been separated for two years and was now divorced. In the spring, at the University of Michigan, he led a class of more than 100 students in a large lecture hall. Although he didn't know it, Jane Kenyon was among those students, so she got to know him, to observe him, as a poet and teacher, before he was ever aware of her.
Every Autumn I taught a poetry writing class, ten or twelve kids, and I put a notice on my office door saying, “If you would like to be in this class, by August 1st leave me a selection of …”—I don't know what I said, five or ten poems. One of the envelopes that year was from Jane Kenyon. It was the first time I remember seeing her name.
I remember one particular poem in there, which is in From Room to Room, and it's in Otherwise. It's a poem called “The Needle.” Strangely enough there are many things in it that are characteristic of her later work, although she wrote it originally perhaps when she was 19 or 20. In between she wrote a lot of poems, some of which are in From Room to Room, and others never got there, which were not characteristic of her later work.
But there was that poem, and there may have been others in that manuscript that I admired a lot, but I don't remember them. I think maybe that poem got her in the class. Thank God.
Hall got to know Kenyon in this class. They would all meet one night a week for a few hours in his living room.
We were very familiar, the whole class. I became one of the class, not a leader. At the beginning I would lead because they didn't know each other and I would establish vocabulary. Later, I had to put up my hand to be allowed to speak. I exaggerate. It was very good: This class met as a workshop without me for two-and-a-half years after the class was over. They were really good. She was by far the best poet out of it, to date—and probably will be, but there are several others who have published and done books.
Last summer I finally went through Jane's papers and notebooks and in one notebook, college notebook, I found: “When I discovered that I lived not three doors from Donald Hall it was like when I learned that Dublin was a Viking stronghold or when I wanted to take the goldfish out of the bowl but found that the water was too cold to sustain life.” That had to be at the very beginning of the class, because this was 1969, everybody called me Don, not Donald Hall … That amused me to no end.
At this time Hall's interest was not even remotely romantic.
I was in between marriages, shortly after my divorce, two years after my separation, shortly after the actual divorce, and I was petrified of marriage or of committing myself to one person. What I did about that was to have lots of girlfriends, a prophylactic promiscuity. I saw different people all the time, daytime or nighttime.
Jane was twenty-two then. She was not particularly attractive. By the time she turned forty she'd become beautiful. It's extraordinary that she went in that direction, but I wasn't originally that attracted to her. I liked her personally. After that class we saw each other when she'd come to office hours with a poem.
I knew she went to live with a guy, her boyfriend, the following June, and then the following October or November I heard from mutual friends that they weren't getting on and that she was going to move out. She had been skeptical about this relationship anyway. He wanted to get married, and moving in was a compromise, but she felt miserable—there is no contradiction there—about the breakup, felt like a failure. I was told she was depressed afterward. So I called her up, maybe in December of 1970, and said “Come on over and I will cook supper,” or “I'll take you out to dinner.” She spent the entire time talking about this guy and so I came up with an inventory of disasters of my own and we talked about other people. This went on for awhile. We saw each other about once a week and then I noticed that my other girlfriends were dropping off. They'd move away and I didn't replace them. I had to go out to California that summer and Jane was the last person I saw before I went out and the first person that I saw when I got back.
I began to get worried that this was getting serious. After all, I was 19 years older than Jane and she would be a widow for 25 years, but we kept coming closer and closer together. When we first mentioned marriage we decided the age difference was too great. We dismissed it, but then it came back again, and finally around Christmas or New Year's '71–72 we decided to get married. We got married in April of '72.
Three years later they moved to Eagle Pond. Their first January was the coldest on record in New Hampshire. With no central heating, no insulation and no storm windows, they relied heavily on the heat generated from the single wood-burning Glenwood in the parlor, with a little heat filtering in from the kitchen beyond. Hall would write at the dining room table twenty feet away, feeling the cold, but often both he and Kenyon would be writing or reading in chairs on either side of the woodstove, trying to stay warm.
By the following winter, woodstoves in place in both their studies, as well as new storm windows and insulation, they began to establish the daily routines that would allow them to make a workable life together. It was a house of habit, of pattern. They developed a series of daily routines that set boundaries, and by setting boundaries, created a kind of freedom within.
We lived by routine. I would get up about five or so, a little before Jane, and start the coffee and go get the Boston Globe, come back, and I would take a cup of coffee into Jane. I am the type who leaps out of bed and is wide-awake. Jane was a morning person. She liked to get up early. But she was slower, and to have the odor of coffee beside her was bliss for her. And then I would read the paper, have my breakfast and get to work. Again, Jane was a little slower: she would walk the dog up the hill—she would be gone a half an hour—and then she would be ready to get to her study. She got to her study a little later than I did but we both worked in the morning. We never interrupted each other. Once a year we had to knock on each other's door but we were very polite about it. We would have lunch together and take a nap together perhaps, and in summer Jane did a lot of gardening, and I did a lot of working on children's books or other prose for the rest of the day.
Often the two poets did not meet or talk most of the day as they lived parallel lives. During their working hours they lived separately together. “We were very scrupulous in our separateness,” Kenyon said.1 Hall has called this separateness a “double solitude.” In his brief essay, “Life After Jane,” Hall writes, “For 20 years we had lived alone together in our big old house, making separate poems in a common enterprise. Our marriage was close, and dread of separation only brought us closer until it seemed that we made a single soul.”
We had studies that were as far apart as possible. Mine was on the ground floor in the northwestern corner; hers was the second floor in the southeastern corner. We were in the same house and we wanted to be, but just as far apart as possible. I'm always talking about the double solitude. We were rather reclusive. We got together and had a wonderful time together, but we spent the day in the same house without a great deal of contact. Sometimes we would meet in the morning, coming in the middle from our two studies far apart, and get a cup of coffee. We wouldn't even speak. I would pat her on the butt, and we'd get back to work.
We lived together twenty-three years, and we lived together much of the time simply in the same house.
While in Michigan, Kenyon had not been writing very much, nor had she yet established work habits that would enable her to devote the time her writing required. “Of course I've had to establish and learn to honor my own habits of work,” Kenyon said, “My own pace, my own areas of interest and struggles. When we married, he had long since established all of these things for himself. My work habits have evolved over time, just as his had.” Hall says:
She wasn't writing so much and, when we were first married, we had the problem of her getting over me having been her teacher. At first when she wrote a poem it was when I was out of the house. I would go off to a poetry reading for a couple of days and I'd come back and she would have a draft. I was obviously inhibiting her and I worried about that. I'm sure that she did, too.
I worried that I'd be a living reproach because I work so much. Her first book came out the year my sixth book came out, and that could be hard to deal with, but Jane was very stubborn. I think that being isolated with me and doing a lot of reading helped her.
Living in isolation at Eagle Pond, sharing the same work, could be a setting for fierce competition and envy. Add in the egos that writers sometimes carry and it could be a case for pure strife.
People say, “Were you competitive?” Well, we weren't in any petty way that bothered us and let us get mad at each other, but I think that we were both stimulated by the presence of the other doing work, and there was a point when—well, Jane moved ahead gradually up to a point—and there was a point, I think sometime in the early '80s when she brought me a bunch of poems that just knocked me on my rear, because she made a great move—toward the end of her second book really. I wanted to write poems that were that good. If that's competition, it's great.
You know, nobody was getting mad at anybody, but it happened a few times. On the same day, one of us would get an acceptance from one magazine and the other a rejection, and it just meant that the one who was accepted couldn't be quite so happy as he/she would have been otherwise. But we handled it all right. Nobody quarreled.
One way in which Kenyon was able to keep things in perspective was to be part of a workshop, what she called “The Committee,” with two other poets, Joyce Peseroff and Alice Mattison. “My own group of peers,” Kenyon said, “has been equally important to my development of skills and nerve.” It gave her support different from that she received from Hall, as well as a kind of permission to oppose Hall's opinions.
I saw her get stronger, and with the help of the women's movement, still stronger. The help of working with two other women was very important: Joyce Peseroff and Alice Mattison. I would accompany them or they would workshop here sometimes and I would be very careful to stay away while they worked. A couple of times we all met down at the Lord Jeffrey Inn in Amherst and I stayed out of their room when they were workshopping.
They gave each other courage. They gave each other courage as women, I think, simply the courage to be ambitious, the courage to take on the work. I think they genuinely helped each other that way, derived partly from the feminist movement.
She'd come to them when I had insisted that some word was wrong and she'd say, “Well, Perkins says …” and they would overrule me sometimes. It wasn't automatic. These are my friends, too, Joyce and Alice.
Kenyon gave Hall the name “Perkins” after a trip to Maine.
We happened to be driving in Perkins Cove and there was Perkins Drug Store, and Lawyer Perkins, and so on, and Janie laughed and said “This Perkins must be quite a fellow” and began to call me Perkins. I think behind it is the fact that I was her teacher and I was kind of an institution at the University of Michigan and “Donald Hall” is not the name of your husband; it was the name of a statue in a park somewhere. I think that's where Perkins came from.
A natural-born promoter, a man generous with his time, often helping young writers, Hall found himself in the position of needing to reign in his liberality.
She kept an eye on me. Alice Mattison says that if some editor took her poem, Jane would think it was because that editor had had lunch with me once sixteen years before. She talked with her friends about it, that maybe she should discount this success because somebody was just trying to please Don. It was a real burden for her. Living with a poet who is older than you and has had some success may help you some but you have to doubt the help. In a way it is like being rich: “Do they love me or my money?”
Although they ultimately were to become each other's first readers, in the beginning it was difficult. Perhaps because of their initial relation as teacher-student, it took time for Kenyon to feel comfortable in their relationship as peers. They had begun to workshop in Michigan with Gregory Orr and, as long as a third person was present, they were able to talk about each other's poetry.
Hall, however, was comfortable from the beginning. He recognized in Kenyon someone who was neither deferential nor dishonest.
Well, I never doubted her for a minute, and I felt enormously friendly toward her within the first week or so of knowing her. It was a wonderful class where people were friendly to each other and were frank with each other, but she was particularly funny and sharp all together.
I remember her coming to my office hours one time after the class was over. We were talking about one of her poems, and I suddenly thought of a poem of mine that reminded me of hers. There happened to be a copy of it there. I picked it up and I looked at it and I saw something I could revise, so I began revising my poem in front of her and then trying it on her, and I never felt—oh, she was aware of the disparity between my years and my experience and hers, of course—but she never felt deferential in any icky way at all. There was something stubborn in her, something that needed to defy authority. I think she was a straight and honest person.
By the time we moved here we could help each other. We didn't do this helping everyday, you know. We both kept things close to ourselves until we'd revised them a lot and we were ready to show them to somebody else, and then virtually always the other was the first reader. That might happen every two or three months. I'd say, “I left two or three things on your footstool,” and wait for her response.
Often the asked-for response was greeted with a certain amount of skepticism. As Kenyon said:
I reach the point where I just can't see one more thing to do with a poem. I've poked and poked. Yet I sense that it needs more. Even if I think it is finished, I still want Don to confirm my opinion. We can't either of us finish poems without each other's critical opinion. Once I have Don's ideas, and the ideas of my workshop, then I can complete the work. Finally, of course, I must please myself, taking some suggestions and rejecting others.
Everything in me resists what Don is saying at the moment he's saying it and when I climb the stairs I'm saying, “He's dead wrong, he just doesn't get this.” The next day I sit down, look at his suggestions, and think, “Why don't I just type it up that way to see what it looks like?” Sure enough, he's found something.
Oh, sure, I did the same thing, and with other people, too. I can never say, “Yes, you're right.” Rarely did I see suddenly that something was right. I could sometimes and so could she. Often I'd say, “I'll write that down,” or “I'll give it a try,” and then discover, in fact, that I wanted it that way. And so, yes, Jane said that she used to mutter going up the stairs, “Perkins just doesn't get it,” and then, she said, “I'd go and do everything he said.” Well, I don't think she went and did everything I said, nor I everything she said. Sometimes when I read her poems aloud I see one word that I remember objecting to.
I wanted confirmation all the time from her, and I was always a little dissatisfied. She could never quite tell me what I wanted to hear. She was very tough and not at all given to any holding back of criticism. One night she was reading the manuscript of a whole book of mine, The Museum of Clear Ideas. Now, it's a book that a lot of people like, and I like, but Jane didn't like it—and half way through reading it—she had seen parts of it all along, but she was reading right through it, and she was coming almost to the end of it—she was sitting on the sofa over there and I was sitting here and she looked up weeping, and saying, “Perkins, I don't really like it,” and I wept and said, “That's all right, that's all right.”
Jane would be writing and she would think, “Perkins is not going to like this” but, if she decided to go ahead with it, she had made her decision. I think my trick of repeating words close to each other was something I picked up from Yeats who could do it so gorgeously. I was doing it without a brogue. When I did that I knew Jane wasn't going to like it. Is she going to be right? Would I do better to change? You know the two lines that are on Jane's tombstone are from her poem “Afternoon at MacDowell”: “I believe in the miracles of art but what / prodigy will keep you safe beside me?” I might have said miracle twice. Jane used a thesaurus and if you look up miracle the first word is prodigy.
It was a natural, if somewhat arrogant, assumption, given their age difference and Hall's established career, that Kenyon would always remain in the role of apprentice. Kenyon herself said, “Whatever it is that I know about writing poems, I have learned most of it from being with Don, moving to his ancestral farm, keeping my ears open when his peers come to visit. One very important thing I've learned from Don is to be ambitious. Just do it, and take the knocks and praise as they come.” Hall has strong feelings about how much he learned from Kenyon.
I think the most important thing for me was watching the progress of Jane, watching her learn to be a poet by such assiduous work. She read in a way different from me. I was an extensive reader. I wanted to add more books to my life list. There was lots of English literature on which she spent little time. She would spend two years reading nothing but Keats, his poems, his letters, biographies, and learn enormously from Keats. I think I did more intensive reading because of her. But it was her daily work that I admired most, that stubborn struggle that came from inside.
Working with Akhmatova, making her translations of Akhmatova, was to her mind the most important thing in her poetic life. She did not have Russian but she worked with a very intelligent, very literary teacher named Vera Sandomirsky Dunham who would talk about individual words in great length until Jane felt she got to know how Akhmatova made her move. That was intensive reading and study even though it was not her language. I watched all this and it made me want to work harder. It made me want to try harder.
When I was an undergraduate, I remember saying a silly thing to John Ashbery. I was a little younger. I said, “Doesn't it make you mad when a friend of yours writes a good poem?” And John said, sensibly, “No. I just want to write a better one.” I don't know that I was particularly trying to write a better poem than Jane, but I was trying to keep up with her. People assumed that she would learn more from me than I would from her, for natural reasons of age, and for chauvinistic reasons. I'm 19 years older. I started young. We used to argue about who helped the other more, each naming the other, but now she can't answer me. I think she led me more than I led her.
The assigning of roles to the two poets based upon gender or age, relegating them to some irrelevant rating system, may have prompted the need to establish structure in their public readings as well as in their private lives. Their first reading together was early in their marriage.
I guess it was not until we'd come to New Hampshire. There were several people who knew Jane's poetry who asked us to read together, but then nobody else in the audience knew her. One time someone introduced her as “Joan,” and another time some idiot in an English department asked her if she did not feel dwarfed. She got her feelings hurt. She said to me one day, “Perkins, let's not read together any more. We are not going to read together anymore.”
Well then, ten years later, when she published two or three books and people were getting to know her, one time we read two days in a row—me one day and her another day—but there was a question period for the two of us in between, and she got three times as many questions as I did. Jane said “Perkins, I think we can read together now.”
When we read aloud together the last five years, we read A-B-A-B. When two poets read together, the first one is always the warm up man, and because I was older and male, unthinking people would sometimes ask me to conclude. We had a rule that we would switch each time, that if I was A one week then I would be B the next week and so on. This setting of rules—this sounds rigid—solved a lot of problems.
In their readings together, Hall and Kenyon provided a study in disparate styles. Kenyon's readings were low-keyed and understated. With her the poem was all. Hall is exuberant, enjoying the performance, with vocal intonations that carry the listener on waves of melody and cadence, and hand gestures that help visualize the rhythm. His words are only one part of the total achievement.
When I read my favorite poems of hers, I sing them in a way that she would never do, dwelling on the vowels. I can't really imitate her way of doing it. Her way was much more understated. When I was a kid I didn't know whether I wanted to be an actor or a poet. My reading style also comes from listening to Dylan Thomas, admiring, requiring a kind of extravagance of performance.
There are poetry readers that I'm very fond of who are low-keyed like Jane. I'm fond of their reading: Galway Kinnell. I know that some people find me too extravagant and that's all right. That's the way that I am. I can't really read like her.
Sharing the same work created comfort and ease. Kenyon said, “I think it is pleasant not to have to explain what I am doing, or trying to do.” Hall puts it his way:
I think that many people presume that a poet should marry someone not connected with poetry. In my own experience, that didn't turn out to be true. With Jane, poetry was part of the intimacy. The problem with poets marrying each other is the difficult problem of being in the same contest and one winning and one losing. This would happen with us with magazines occasionally, but because of the age difference, it seldom bothered us and we handled what we had to handle very well. But in love the lovers cannot spend their whole time looking into each other's eyes. I have written about the doctrine of the third thing. Their eyes join, as it were—in the old notion of vision coming out from the eyes—in the third thing: the baby they have together, which Jane and I didn't do; the dog that we had together; the Boston Red Sox; the South Danbury Church; and poetry, of course, the biggest thing of all. We didn't only talk about poetry. We talked about the weather, we talked about whether our feet hurt, but also we could, driving in the car or in the evening at supper, talk about poetry, not our own poetry but other people's and, of course, well, on occasion each other's poems. Poetry was an enormous third thing between us.
Although not properly diagnosed until she was 38 years old, depression was a constant in Kenyon's life. It was something Hall would also suffer from. Bill Moyers had once suggested to Kenyon that perhaps her depression may have been a gift from which her poems grew. Hall suggested a similar idea when he said of the torturous lives of T. S. and Vivienne Eliot, that if we cherish Eliot's poetry we must be grateful to the marriage and to Vivienne. I asked Hall if he felt now that the poetry ever validated the suffering of an artist or their family.
That's a question I have been thinking about recently, in fact. I know that many people say “yes” and I would have said “yes” many times, but, a year after Jane died, I became as bipolar as she was. Freud said that this happened 30٪ of the time in the essay called “Mourning and Melancholy.” From some time in June through some time in August, I had agony and depression that were extreme.
We don't have the choice, mind you. We all suffer and we must suffer in this life, and a bipolar person does not have a choice except by seeking chemical help. I seek it as she sought it. She got depressed even with her chemical help, and frequently wrote her best poems while she was coming out of depression. The medication never made her into a flat line like the brain dead line on the monitor. She still had her ups and downs, as I do now. I would say that you don't have a choice in the matter, which invalidates the question—but I'm dodging the question. Therefore my answer is, “I am not sure.”
Hall, thinking aloud, steps into the role of interviewer and asks himself, “Why does bipolarity exist? What is the Darwinian explanation of it, if there need be one?”
Stephen Gould would say there doesn't have to be a Darwinian explanation for everything. Look at this: if mania includes finding the wheel—was it Archimedes in the tub who sang “Eureka?”—if mathematicians, scientists and poets are manic—then mania benefits not only the poet and the writer and his family, but humanity. Depression typically only affects the poet and the poet's family. So that would mean that from the point of view of DNA or the generality of society, of the species, there would be a function to bipolarity or at least to the manic part.
Both Robert Lowell and Theodore Roethke were Bipolar-I, which means that in a manic period you do things that get you locked up. There is a trail of destruction among many, many marriages of the poets. I am not at the moment thinking of many who had only one wife: William Stafford, I know. Robert Frost, I'm sure, was faithful to Eleanor as long as she lived. I'm sure if we go back there would be many more examples. In modern times, I would say, probably the percentage of divorce is even greater than it is in the general population—always miserable. Wendell Berry is an exception, a very happy exception. Dick and Charlee Wilbur stayed together.
When Jane was depressed, extremely depressed, in the absolute pits, I couldn't do anything for her. When she was mildly depressed there were many ways in which I could help. It probably also makes you—there's something to be skeptical about there—it makes you important. But if you can genuinely help, that makes the secondary gain not terribly important.
When Jane went manic, which was rare, she would lose her sensitivity to the feelings of others. That happens when you are hypo-manic or Bipolar-II. When I am manic, I become careless of what I am saying and to whom I am talking. This happened rarely with Jane. For the most part she was tremendously alert, almost over alert, to the feeling temperature of everybody in the room.
My daughter and her husband used to tease Jane because she would come into a room and say, “Are you all right? Your color doesn't look good.” She would be hypochondriacal for the dog and the automobile. She was alert to others, one reason I think she was reclusive. Sometimes people would call on me and she'd go hide in her study or the bedroom. When she was with someone, she related to them so intensely. One phenomenon I've heard again and again after her death: “I only knew her for twenty minutes but I felt as if I knew her forever.” Peter Kramer, who wrote Listening to Prozac, said that to my editor, Peter Davison. It was exhausting for her and so, if she were mildly depressed, especially, she would avoid company.
I had seven years of Freudian therapy with an analyst. Jane had some time in psychotherapy. Her depression was a chemical event but the intelligence can deal with depression to a degree. The talking cure can provide you ways of looking at things. For instance, I remember that earlier in my life I would be with someone and I'd decide that person was angry with me, grumpy, and I'd think “why?” and I'd get grumpy. I learned the Freudian art of reversing everything. If I thought Jane looked grumpy I would say, “What am I mad about?” Then I would often find it was a letter I had read the night before. It didn't have anything to do with her. The brain can help, with training.
She was often depressed, but she tried not to be.
Out of the maelstrom, poetry is created, and the reader is drawn, enjoyably, toward the sadness.
We all have depression and sadness. It's about us. Poetry, writing about suffering is beautiful because the language is beautiful. If this is a contradiction, I think energy comes from contradiction.
There's a poem by Thomas Hardy that I say all the time, “During Wind and Rain.” If you paraphrase it, it's all depressing. I read it and I am exhilarated. I love it. The dance on my tongue, in my mouth, is so happy.
Now when a poem is a happy poem beautifully done, it's perfectly fine, but there's not much energy. The energy comes from the conflict, I say, between the sensual delight of the body of the poem and the facing of sad reality in the paraphraseable content.
And now, in that true facing of sad reality without Kenyon, how does Hall work?
Something strange has happened to me: I can still write poetry—I work on poetry every day—but I cannot do anything good in prose. I have tried to write prose because I want to, I like to, it helps me to. Nothing is so distracting as writing.
I am lonely now. I miss her terribly, and if I could throw myself into work, well, I would be happier. The happiest time of the day for me is when I am working on poems, but you can't do that all day. I have worked on fiction. I have worked on essays. I have worked on a prose book about Jane and her illness. I wrote that book three times long hand but the prose never started to be prose. I know when the rhythm comes and the syntax works and you flow with it. My prose now is just “blah, blah,” sentence after sentence. It's not satisfactory. It's curious—Jane died three-and-a-quarter years ago and I have not, with minor exceptions, been able to write prose since. My day is working on poetry, maybe trying to work on some of the prose, going to sleep to rise and work on poems again.
Writing without Kenyon as his first reader, Hall sometimes finds himself asking, “How would Jane do it?”
I don't think Without or subsequent poems resemble her closely. I don't think they are plagiarism, but I do think they're a little closer, the later poems—especially the last one in Without, “Weeds and Peonies,” and the poetry I have been writing since. After all, Without was finished two years ago and I have been working on poetry every day. I'm not about to think about another book for a while. I certainly have enough poems for another book but if I keep them around, they will weed out or get better. I hope.
As I get ready to leave, Hall holds his dog, Gus, by the collar. Gus has a habit of keeping visitors from leaving. Honored at first that Gus wants me to stay, I then think that maybe he wants everyone to stay.
Driving toward Boston, I play our conversation over and over in my head, thinking of Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon, and the long white house that held love and work together:
We meshed terribly well. She had a bad relationship with her boyfriend, which had broken up badly, and I had come out of a divorce, and we seemed to discover a secret that practically nobody else has ever discovered because it is so difficult to understand, so profound …
Here Donald Hall, the actor, takes over. A smile, subtly small, and a spark in his eye, indicate that he is manipulating me, his audience of one, creating a buildup that hits, not like the crescendo expected, but with the power of a whisper:
We found that we could be kind to each other, virtually all the time.
We had a fight every four years and therefore it was dreadful. We seldom got irritated or said anything snappy and we'd try to make the way easy for each other without, I think, the one deferring to the other.
We were determined to be happy in our relationship. We set out to do it, and when things came up that could hurt the relationship, like somebody saying “Don't you feel dwarfed?” which made her a little person compared to me, we avoided that situation—in order to be happy.
We had a good time together. There were certain things, private things that we did: going down to the pond in the summer by ourselves, playing ping-pong in the cellar by ourselves, me reading aloud to her almost every day. I read her The Ambassadors aloud twice from beginning to end. There were just so many pleasures.
We decided that it was permitted to be happy.
All Jane Kenyon quotations, unless otherwise noted, are from “Two Writers under the Same Roof—A Conversation with Donald Hall & Jane Kenyon” by Marian Blue (AWP Chronicle, May/Summer 1995, Volume 27, Number 6, pp. 1–8).
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1502
SOURCE: “Expansive Poetry,” in Hudson Review, Vol. 51, No. 4, Winter, 1999, pp. 792–802.
[In the following excerpt, McDowell argues that Without is an example of expansive poetry and lacks the sentimentality one might expect from the emotional subject matter.]
More then a decade has passed since the anthologies Ecstatic Occasions,Expedient Forms, edited by David Lehman, and The Direction of Poetry, edited by Robert Richman, made the first ensemble attempts to recognize a change in our poetry: the renewed interest in form. It has been ten years since the special issue of Crosscurrents (1989), edited by Dick Allen, gave the name Expansive poetry to the writing of a number of poets, most of them in their thirties, who argued for more accessible poetries, including the use of form and story, and honest, clear, critical prose that illuminated texts for general readers.
Since then the early Expansive poets, and others of their generation with whom they share common ground, have published more than a hundred books of poetry and criticism, and hundreds of magazine and newspaper essays and reviews. All of this work has served many useful purposes, not the least of which was giving the lie to the claims of some critics (who seldom bothered to read the writers they were criticizing) that Expansive poets could not back up their goals with their own poems. Like it or not, the poems, essays, and reviews by Expansive poets have done much of the work that needed to be done in order to open up the field, making the appreciation of poetry outside writing programs and the academy possible once more. Expansive poets created an atmosphere of greater tolerance for poetry written in traditional meters, for poetry that rhymes, for poetry that tells stories. One need only look at the latest issue of one's favorite literary quarterly to witness more and more established free verse poets suddenly writing in form and narrative.
“Do you get the feeling you've won?” Donald Hall said to me at the Associated Writing Program convention two years ago in Washington, D.C. I was standing outside a room where more than two hundred people had crowded in to hear a panel built around Rebel Angels: 25 Poets of the New Formalism, the first anthology to represent the Expansive poets. Of course, Hall knows, as I do, that poets who get caught up in winning as they attempt to revise the canon stride through dangerous brush. Poets who get carried away with winning prizes are equally misguided. In the poetry business, the prize-giving process is usually so tainted by conflicts of interest that only the uninitiated and the naive can possibly be impressed. Winning is not the point. Having something artful and important to say, and having an opportunity to say it, is really all that matters. Like the successful writers before them, Expansive poets have had to fight for the opportunity to be heard, and I suppose that is a kind of winning—the right to address an audience at large.
But even as Expansive poets and their concerns have become a significant part of our poetry landscape, strange disappointments shadow them. One is that many of their critics still have not read their work. Another is the odd attitude recently adopted, it seems, by some older, established poets, that Expansive poetry never really happened, that it doesn't mean a thing. In a recent American Book Review article, the reviewer claims that Expansive poets can't be taken seriously until they write as well as John Ashbery, Jorie Graham, and Robert Pinsky. One might be puzzled by the list, for Pinsky has himself been linked to Expansive poetry. And one can summon up a growing legion of readers who would argue that many Expansive poets do write as well as, or better than, Ashbery and Graham. Such an assertion, in such a review, is confusing, but only until one recognizes the embarrassing attempt at favor-trading, the smack-smack-smack of lips kissing up, kissing up. Still, the ABR writer finds an ally in a recent Parnassus writer's opinion that Expansive poets are bad because they are Populists. Dozens of urban and ethnic Expansive poets are no doubt grateful to be instructed in their populist roots. Others might ask, with Mark Twain “Is Populism bad?”
If this type of shrill name-calling is sad to see, the other development is even worse. At that AWP panel, Henry Taylor surprisingly attacked Expansive poetry. As far as most of us could make out, he was just tired of it all. In the introduction to the latest volume of Best American Poetry, editor John Hollander dismisses new formalism, which is to say Expansive poetry, as just silly. These reactions by an older guard remind me of the envy and regret felt by some who loiter on the dock as a ship they would like to be on sails out to sea.
The world of poetry has always had its moments of generosity. Some, no matter how busy, will write jacket comments for new books if they possibly can; some donate money to favorite literary organizations, or to writer-friends in need. But today, it seems that acknowledgement and attribution are in short supply. Some older poets appear to be genuinely surprised, even caught off guard, by the success and growing influence of Expansive poetry. What else but fear can possibly be at work here, fear concerning who or what will have the last word? I have noticed a deer-in-the-headlights look to much of the dismissive protest waged against Expansive poetry. It is the most banal of desperate, historical revisions. Where fifteen years ago the status quo held that free verse was good, formal verse was bad, and Expansive poets hardly existed, today their argument holds that free verse and form are good, but Expansive poets are evil.
The practice of criticizing work you have not read, and the attitude that a thing does not exist when in fact it does, are as goofy as the Disney character himself. Through their talent and diligence, Expansive poets are most responsible for the sea change in American poetry. They have opened up more possibilities, more terrain, for all poets. Only the small-minded, the running scared, persist in denying the truth. …
The story that drives Donald Hall's thirteenth collection of verse, Without, is familiar even to many casual readers who do not pay much attention to poetry.1 In January 1994, Hall's wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, was diagnosed with leukemia. In April 1995, she died in their bed at Hall's ancestral farm outside Wilmot, New Hampshire. These are only the facts. The poems in this book offer up all of the intense living and dying that filled those last sixteen months. They also help us to understand the extraordinary partnership, based on work, sex, and an abiding mutual respect and kinship, that endured for twenty years. The title poem is really a sequence of poems that mark the progress of Kenyon's illness and the heroic, desperate attempts to save her.
Daybreak until nightfall, he sat by his wife at the hospital while chemotherapy dripped through the catheter into her heart. He drank coffee and read the Globe. He paced; he worked on poems; he rubbed her back and read aloud. Overcome with dread, they wept and affirmed their love for each other, witlessly, over and over again.
The book concludes with a series of letters Hall wrote to Kenyon in the year after her death. This chronicle of goodbyes, of grief and survival, cannot fail to move readers. Yet despite its universal themes, the artistic success of Without was no sure thing. In fact, to publish such a book at all amounts to taking a great chance. I have heard, on occasion, the book dismissed by some who have not read it on grounds that it must be sentimental. They are wrong. There are times, akin to walking out of a dark room into blinding sunlight, when we meet a true fellowship of art and life. I think of van Gogh's paintings, and try to imagine my response to them if I were ignorant of the details of his sorry life. Something essential would, for me (and I am sure for others, too) be lost. Very little art successfully risks sentimentality and self-pity to portray what George Crabbe called “the life itself.” Without is art stripped of all artifice, which is to say stripped of all opportunities for dishonesty. Perhaps because these poems are so clearly life-in-art, and art-in-life, we cannot put them away, even though we might wish to. …
I've implied throughout this chronicle that the detractors of Expansive poetry should read more of the work before wailing, and they could start with [William] Logan's new book, Vain Empires or, in fact, with all of the books I've discussed. Like it or not, the fact alone suggests a serious literary movement. The proof is in the written record, which already exists and is growing, and which only need be read.
Without, by Donald Hall. Houghton Mifflin Company.
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SOURCE: A review of Without, in Poetry, Vol. 173, No. 4, February, 1999, p. 312.
[In the following positive review, Ullman compliments Hall's candor and his ability to put his grief into words in Without.]
Grief's soundings—their depth and intricacy—arise from Donald Hall's thirteenth poetry collection as naturally as mist over water, even as they also provide the harshness from which the book takes its form. Without is described by the publisher as “a companion volume” to Hall's most recent collection, The Old Life, which also is autobiographical but covers a greater territory of Hall's life up to the present and offers names, events, and gossipy or literary recollections that might appeal to a reader of biography as well as poetry.
Without, in contrast, is more focused and, understandably, more steeped in feeling that is never excessive yet never lets up. It trains a magnifying beam on the fifteen months his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, battled leukemia, and on the following year of mourning during which Hall shapes his grief, his memories, and his solitary experience of their once-shared home and friends into letter-poems addressed to her.
These poems are marked by candor that is often helpless, always stoic. Many of them display a simplicity, a domesticity, and a willingness—or maybe a need—to hover in the silence of white space, all of which call to mind the grace and restraint of Kenyon's own poems. But their references to routine, the presence of pets, and the nuances of weather and of seasonal change are infused with the approach, and then the fact, of her absence. They are not so much meditations as retrievals: “I drive and talk to you crying / and come back to this house / to talk to your photographs.”
Like his wife's eyes which, in the days before her death, she fixes on him “shining, unblinking, / and passionate with love and dread,” these poems are luminous with hard fact, especially two long sequences, “Her Long Illness” and “Last Days,” which chronicle the brutalities of illness, treatment, and relinquishment. Writing of the Total Body Irradiation that precedes a bone marrow transplant, he describes Jane lying on a gurney “alone in a leaden / room between machines that resembled / pot-bellied stoves. … / It was as if she capped / the Chernobyl pile with her body.” Sleeping with her the night before the most heroic of her treatments, he refers to their bodies assuming their familiar spoon-like positions, perhaps for the last time: “the spoons clattered / with a sound like the end man's bones.”
Even the most habitual aspects of married life are enlarged by the irony of circumstance. Upon hearing Jane's prognosis, they “[rocked] on the bed in their horror, / they wept and held on / against the proliferation of her blasts. … / This ardent / merging recollected / old passionate connections at two / in the afternoon: / brief, breathless, ecstatic, then calm.”
A particularly poignant passage reports that, having learned the leukemia is back and there is nothing more to be done against it, the couple spends two of Jane's last good days picking funeral hymns, writing her obituary, and working on her final book of poems. It concludes: “Later, as she slid exhausted into sleep, / she said, ‘Wasn't that fun? / To work together? Wasn't that fun?’”
Hall's acts of witness, unflinching before the harshest realities, accommodate levity as well. When he visits Jane in the antibiotic cube to which she is confined after intense radiation, he spends fifteen minutes covering himself in hat, mask, booties, surgical gown, and latex gloves: “Jane said he looked like a huge condom.” A year after her death, he writes to her, “Every day Gus and I / take a walk in the graveyard. / I'm the one who doesn't / piss on your stone.”
Several self-contained poems are placed between, sometimes within, the longer sequences, offering subtle variations in voice, subject and sometimes form or strategy. “A Beard for a Blue Pantry,” whose title comes from a friend's dream, weaves associations of “blue” and “beard” into flexible word-and-memory-play, a gymnastic flight of consciousness that circles the fact of illness and impending loss. “The Porcelain Couple,” a poem full of furniture and figurines, poignantly enacts Hall's experience of packing up the possessions of his recently deceased mother and then returning home numbed and exhausted to see his and Jane's possessions through the same lens, as artifacts of vanished life. “Without,” reprinted from Hall's previous collection, erupts with raw grief, feeling in violent rebellion, through a headlong progression of nouns and sentence fragments: “silence without color sound without smell / without apples without pork to rupture gnash / unpunctuated without churches uninterrupted.” An especially powerful poem, “The Ship Pounding,” sustains the shockingly apt metaphor of a hospital as a huge ship “that heaves water month / after month, without leaving / port, without moving a knot, / without arrival or destination.”
Caught up in facts and feelings vastly beyond his control, Hall has managed in this collection to make them shapely and shareable. His grief, so keenly and elegantly sustained, provides a map for others to follow if they risk, as he has, loving what they may well lose.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9511
SOURCE: “How to Peel a Poem: Five Poets Dine Out on Verse,” in Harper's Magazine, Vol. 299, No. 1792, September, 1999, pp. 45–60.
[In the following roundtable discussion, poets Hall, Cynthia Huntington, Heather McHugh, Paul Muldoon, and Charles Simic discuss their favorite poems and what makes them special.]
Poetry has been described, in eras past, as “the natural language of all worship,” “the hop-grounds of the brain,” “devil's wine,” and “the bill and coo of sex.” Contemporary assessments tend to be less poetic. Poetry today is something that the federal government should fund, that our publishing houses must support, that the public schools ought to permit a larger place on the syllabus, that our creative-writing programs might give more recognition, that we honor each year (as we do “Quality,” “Math Awareness,” and “Medical Librarians”) with a “National Poetry Month.” Rarely does the public discourse on poetry speak directly to the value of poems; rarer still is the suggestion that poems simply be read and heard and enjoyed.
Hoping to correct this oversight, and taking a cue from the Chinese proverb “Recite poetry only with a poet,” Harper's Magazine invited five practitioners of the art to dine together at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City. Each was asked to bring to the table a poem he or she truly loved, and then to tell us why.
Donald Hall is the author of fifteen books of poetry, the latest of which, Without, received the 1999 PEN-Winship Award for the best book of 1998 by a New England writer.
Cynthia Huntington is professor of English at Dartmouth College and the director of the creative writing program. She is the author of two books of poetry and The Salt House, a memoir.
Heather McHugh is the Milliman Distinguished Writer in Residence at the University of Washington in Seattle. Her Hinge & Sign was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1994. Her latest collection of poetry is The Father of the Predicaments.
Paul Muldoon is the Howard G. B. Clark '21 University Professor in Humanities at Princeton University and the newly elected Oxford Professor of Poetry. His most recent collection, his eighth, is Hay.
Charles Simic is the author of fourteen collections of poetry, the latest of which is Jackstraws. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1990 for The World Doesn't End.
[Charles Simic:] All these poems have one very simple virtue. When you finish reading them, you want to go back to the beginning and start reading them again. Most poems are forgettable. They may strike us as witty and clever, but once we're done we have no particular wish to return to them. To make someone reread something you've written is no small achievement.
[Cynthia Huntington:] You approach a poem, you go through it, you get it, you go away. The poems we've chosen don't allow that. They disappoint, or deflect your expectations, and that's why you go back to them.
[Paul Muldoon:] If the poem has no obvious destination, there's a chance that we'll all be setting off on an interesting ride.
[Heather McHugh:] I think one of poetry's functions is not to give us what we want.
[Donald Hall:] In logic no two things can occupy the same point at the same time, and in poetry that happens all the time. This is almost what poetry is for, to be able to embody contrary feelings in the same motion.
[McHugh:] I will misquote Simic here, to the effect that the poet isn't always of use to the tribe. The tribe thrives on the consensual. The tribe is pulling together to face the intruder who threatens it. Meanwhile, the poet is sitting by himself in the graveyard talking to a skull.
[Hall:] I'm surprised that we all picked twentieth-century poems.
[McHugh:] I was tempted to pick an earlier one, and then I thought, “Everybody else is going to be doing that.”
[Simic:] I expected that Heather and Paul and Don would pick something with great verbal richness. So I wanted to get something really plain. The kind of poem that cats and dogs could understand.
[Muldoon:] Or write, perhaps.
[Huntington:] All our poems have animals, except for Ezra Pound.
[Muldoon:] There's a “shag” in Ezra Pound.
[McHugh:] There's at least one in everybody.
[Muldoon:] I mean the bird.
[McHugh:] Where there's God there are animals. The shop window, by the way, occurs in each of our choices.
[Muldoon:] Oh, that's interesting. The flaneur.
[Hall:] “During Wind and Rain” has a shop window?
[McHugh:] Well, your poem is the least susceptible to this reading.
[Huntington:] Heather has this urge to bring things together.
[McHugh:] It's a hermit's foible.
[Huntington:] No, it's wonderful.
“DURING WIND AND RAIN” (1917)
BY THOMAS HARDY
They sing their dearest songs— He, she, all of them—yea, Treble and tenor and bass, And one to play; With the candles mooning each face. … Ah, no; the years O! How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!
They clear the creeping moss— Elders and juniors—aye, Making the pathways neat And the garden gay; And they build a shady seat. … Ah, no; the years, the years; See the white storm-birds wing across!
They are blithely breakfasting all— Men and maidens—yea, Under the summer tree, With a glimpse of the bay, While pet fowl come to the knee. … Ah, no; the years O! And the rotten rose is ript from the wall.
They change to a high new house, He, she, all of them—aye, Clocks and carpets and chairs On the lawn all day, And brightest things that are theirs. … Ah, no; the years, the years; Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs.
[Hall:] I'm happy to say this is the most beautiful poem in the English language. The paraphrase of the poem is, “People have a lot of fun together, especially in families, and then they get old and sick and die.” For me the sensuous pleasure of the poem is in conflict with its melancholy paraphrase. And in this poem the conflict between the enormous, beautiful, erotic sounds of the poem and the decay, death, sickness of its—for a lack of a better word—content makes for an explosion. There are only three metaphors in this poem. There's “mooning,” which is common, as the candelabrum shines off the faces as the sun shines off the moon; “reel,” which can be a number of things—dancing, for instance—but in this context it's the reeling of somebody old and feeble; and then, finally, the last word of the whole poem, “ploughs,” which is an extraordinary word, because the rain-drop is to the granite as the plough is to the earth. Time suddenly elongates, and the sound of the word does the elongating. That last line is equal, metrically, to “And the rotten rose is ript from the wall,” but it takes forty-seven times longer to say because it has all those long vowels and consonants: the assonance of “names,” “rain” and “down,” “ploughs”—all dipthongs that you can hold on to forever. And the wonderful hiatus between “drop” and “ploughs.” Earlier, with “carved names,” to get from one vowel to another you have to climb over the boulders of four consonants—r,v,d,n. I think we read poems with our mouths, not with our eyes, not with our ears, not with our intelligences. And this is a poem with enormous mouth-joy. This is like oral sex, this extraordinary pleasure of these words in the mouth. He originally wrote the last line: “On their chiseled name the lichen grows.” I don't think that Thomas Hardy sat down and said, “Ah, let me see, I'll have the identical dipthongs first and last, and a different pair of dipthongs in the middle.” He fiddled with it until it felt right. That's what poets do. And when it felt right, he went on and wrote another poem. I think there's a terrible line here. That's my rule: there has to be something awful. “And the rotten rose is ript from the wall” is pretty bad. He had originally written, “And the wind-whipped creeper lets go the wall.” I think I like that better.
[Muldoon:] What did he have first for the last line?
[Hall:] “On their chiseled names the lichen grows.”
[McHugh:] Now, that's a better revision.
[Muldoon:] He was concerned about the rhyme with “house,” I guess.
[Hall:] And fiddling around to make the rhyme better, he made everything else better. Does anybody hate this poem?
[Simic:] It's a great poem. What I find interesting is how each stanza is a tableau, an idealized family scene cut short by an ominous concluding image.
[Hall:] I think that “While pet fowl come to the knee” is second in sound to the last line. There's that long vowel in the middle, that terribly short one at the beginning, that rather short one afterward. And it seems to me explosive.
[Muldoon:] I wonder if what really makes this poem fly off the page has to do with the imagery in the last stanza—this extraordinary vision of the graveyard furniture. And I wonder if that in a way doesn't really compensate for some of the perhaps less than wonderful moments along the way. Because I think the poem is quite risk-taking, assuming that he's aware of the risks he's taking.
[Hall:] Who knows what Thomas Hardy was aware of? Believe the poem, not the poet.
[Muldoon:] The poem knows but someone has got to be keeping a little eye on how the poem is coming out.
[McHugh:] I love his attempt to luster up the material versions of their lives by furnishing them with the very best in carnal effects: “a high new house.” “All of them, … Clocks and carpets and chairs / On the lawn all day, / And brightest things that are theirs. …” All those alls! All those utmosts! The ultimate in appointments, but still, “Ah, no.” They can't avoid the ultimate appointment.
[Hall:] I have a different reading of the last stanza. I think it's parallel to the singing and the breakfasting. I think they are simply moving house.
[Simic:] They're getting richer, but time is passing.
[Muldoon:] You know, Don, you're absolutely right. Literally, of course, they are moving to a new house. I always read “high” as “on a higher plane.” I've never read it literally, if such a thing is possible.
[Hall:] I'm very literal. But I allow that there are different possible readings. “Reel,” for instance.
[McHugh:] And the great thing about readings is they needn't be ranked.
[Hall:] Each present tense, which we discover by the end of the first stanza, is the memory of someone who looks back and laments. Scenes of singing together around the piano, gardening, men and maidens together, and what has happened? The years have intervened. “The rotten rose is ript from the wall.” “How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!” Images of frailty and debility, and then, finally, images of the long dead.
[Huntington:] What's so rich here is that all the positive images are very time-bound too. Music is measured in time. Clearing the moss, breakfasting—movement through the day, movement through their lives. Time the killer is also the time in which songs are sung. Time the killer is also the time in which the moss grows, in which you breakfast, in which you move house.
[McHugh:] I love the degree to which the first and last stanzas' provisions against time employ the superlative—“their dearest songs,” “And brightest things.” Yet at each turn some equally embodied small thing—the leaves, the birds, the rose, and then a single raindrop—becomes the incarnation of all time. That's what does them in: one raindrop down their names. That's what's so excruciating. You think that some particular will save you, but it's the particular that effaces you.
[Hall:] The first line rhymes with the last line, every time. And then in between we have the interlocking rhymes of B C B C and the refrain line of “years” and “O's.”
[Muldoon:] “The years O” is such a powerful refrain that he wants to resist using “yea” each time. He's got “yea” and then he's got “years O.” Then he's changed it to “aye,” which where I come from we would pronounce “eye,” though I gather here it's pronounced “ay.” If he had Y-E-A at the end of the line and Y-E-A-R-S at the end of the line further down, some subliminal little danger signal would be sent to the reader.
[Hall:] If it is pronounced “eye,” he is doing what Emily Dickinson did all the time, which is to take two dipthongs and rhyme on the second part. He rhymes the long “e” in each case, as it goes “eyeee … dayeee.” So that's a rhyme, too. It's the kind of off-rhyme I don't associate with Hardy, but the possibility is there.
[McHugh:] It also permits the subliminal other of the words rhymed with “aye”—“ply,” “guy,” “by/buy,” and “die.” These are unsaid perhaps but pocketed in the understudy of the poem.
[Huntington:] And the punctuation—every line is controlled by punctuation, given a precise timing.
[Hall:] Punctuation and syntax are the last things anybody thinks about these days. Maybe they're the last things I think about, but I think about them a long time. I've been talking about the mouth part of the poem, but the rest of the body of the poem is the hands moving, the legs moving, the dance. And the dance is determined by punctuation and line breaks.
[Muldoon:] I once knew a woman who broke off a relationship because the man used ellipses and three exclamation marks after every sentence. Yet the gap the ellipses imply in this poem, the sense of time having passed, and the shift in each of those stanzas—if those ellipses weren't there it wouldn't work.
[McHugh:] And if you look at the words that precede them, three out of four are body parts. There is this momentum of the living toward itself, which Hardy then cuts off, or contains.
[Hall:] Richard Wilbur once said that the genie gets his strength from being enclosed in the bottle. The passion here of letting flow, the impossibility of acceptance, and the absolute tightness and closure—these are the qualities that we tend not to have in contemporary free verse.
[Muldoon:] I wonder here if, in preparation for “Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs,” Hardy isn't wittingly presenting a line that is less than stellar: “How the sick leaves reel down in throngs!” “See the white storm-birds wing across!” “And the rotten rose is ript from the wall.” Don pointed out that this last line was worse than the one he originally had. I'm pretty sure Hardy would've known that.
[Huntington:] You think he's holding back for the big moment.
[Simic:] The hopelessness of a poetic gesture in the face of the inevitable.
[Hall:] It could be simply that he fiddled with it until it felt better.
“THE TAXIS” (1963)
BY LOUIS MACNEICE
In the first taxi he was alone tra-la, No extras on the clock. He tipped ninepence But the cabby, while he thanked him, looked askance As though to suggest someone had bummed a ride.
In the second taxi he was alone tra-la But the clock showed sixpence extra; he tipped according And the cabby from out his muffler said: “Make sure You have left nothing behind tra-la between you.”
In the third taxi he was alone tra-la But the tip-up seats were down and there was an extra Charge of one-and-sixpence and an odd Scent that reminded him of a trip to Cannes.
As for the fourth taxi, he was alone Tra-la when he hailed it but the cabby looked Through him and said: “I can't tra-la well take So many people, not to speak of the dog.”
[Simic:] What are the extra charges? Other people's baggage?
[Muldoon:] Or his own. In each instance some further version of the self is coming into play. Donald, in particular, was talking about the poem beginning with the mouth, and I think in that sense the poem teaches you how to read it. My reading of “The Taxis” comes out of “I can't tra-la well.” It's a version of “I can't bloody well,” or “I can't fucking well,” or something along those lines. “I can't tra-la well take / So many people, not to speak of the dog.” I am always tempted to read this poem from end to beginning, despite the fact that its shape has got to do with building on the notion of multiple personalities and the accrual and accretion of personae on a journey or throughout a life. In a certain sense, he carries the reader's bags also, to get back to Charlie's point. The reader becomes invested in some way in the poem and recognizes something about the situation while hoping for a revelation.
[Hall:] When we talked about the Hardy, I talked mostly about its mouth sounds, the last line especially. This poem is more the dance than the mouth, the pulse and thrust of limbs, with the “tra-la” making a tricky step. It becomes a movable refrain. The dance surprises us in its flourishes, then concludes with a turn-and-hold that resolves itself. It's sound again, but dance or muscle pleasure more than mouth pleasure. It's all iambic in a very disguised way—iambic pentameter. I have looked at it, in a general way, as the accrual of experience but also in particular as the accrual of the erotic life.
[McHugh:] Eventually the cabby knows there's somebody else.
[Hall:] He probably sees all these women.
[McHugh:] Yes. Freud tells a terrible old Austrian teaser in Jokes and the Unconscious: A wife is like an umbrella. Sooner or later one takes a cab.
[Muldoon:] MacNeice was one of those writers who in Ireland were perceived as being English. In England he was perceived as being Irish. I think he fell between the cracks.
[Hall:] I have two other MacNeice lines going through my head:
It's no go the Yogi-Man, it's no go Blavatsky; All we want is a bank balance and a bit of skirt in a taxi.
[Muldoon:] “Bagpipe Music” is a great poem. I think there were probably numerous bits of skirts in taxis.
[Simic:] Let's not forget the dog.
[Huntington:] I think the primary meaning of this poem is very much as we've put it, but it's interesting to entertain the idea that he's wrong. Everyone but him seems to know there are six people in the taxi. Perhaps he only thinks he's alone.
[Hall:] That magnificent conflict between “alone” and the many is what makes energy in this poem. I also think the dog is enormously funny. “Not to speak of the dog.”
[Simic:] You have the sense it's a large dog, right?
[Muldoon:] The dog is Cerberus too, and for the first time it strikes me that a rough anagram of canis, “dog,” occurs in MacNeice's very name. And he would be conscious of this.
[Hall:] We bet on him being conscious.
[McHugh:] Even of the unspeakable, the music of opportunity, the “tra-la.”
[Huntington:] When he's alone “tra-la” sounds kind of simple, but by the time we get to “I can't tra-la well take / So many people” it's darkened itself quite a lot.
[McHugh:] By the last stanza the “tra-la” has deserted him and has fled from the first line to the second, into the cabby's territory. By his “tra-la” the cabby means something entirely less dreamy than does his passenger. The cabby is some sort of supervisory tollkeeper, the protonotary of sins. There's not only a dog in this poem but a god as well.
[Hall:] The “tra-la” is a musical, nonsensical interjection that confirms the poetry of poetry.
[McHugh:] I kept thinking of taxis and logos in their old Greek senses, as in taxis de pasa logos, which is roughly paraphrased as “form is in the very nature of things.” In poems in general, the tra-la always half resists the poetic forms. In this poem, the forms it resists are social forms too. But however much the “tra-la” may hope to be free, nevertheless there's the taxis—with its meter running.
[Hall:] A poem is not an essay, and the music and the body of it are there as counter-sense; they are countering sense.
[Muldoon:] Yeats wrote, “You can refute Hegel but you cannot refute ‘A Song of Sixpence.’”
[Simic:] I was particularly spooked by those “tip-up seats” in the third stanza.
[Hall:] That's one of the clues to the gender of these extra people.
[McHugh:] Ah, the gender doesn't matter. Only the sex.
[Huntington:] The dog's a bitch.
[McHugh:] Seeing as we are at the Algonquin, did you know that Dorothy Parker never house-trained her dogs?
[Muldoon:] And why would she? Then she'd have to bring them inside.
BY FRANK O'HARA
If I rest for a moment near The Equestrian pausing for a liver sausage sandwich in the Mayflower Shoppe, that angel seems to be leading the horse into Bergdorf's and I am naked as a table cloth, my nerves humming. Close to the fear of war and the stars which have disappeared. I have in my hands only 35 cents, it's so meaningless to eat! and gusts of water spray over the basins of leaves like the hammers of a glass pianoforte. If I seem to you to have lavender lips under the leaves of the world, I must tighten my belt. It's like a locomotive on the march, the season of distress and clarity and my door is open to the evenings of midwinter's lightly falling snow over the newspapers. Clasp me in your handkerchief like a tear, trumpet of early afternoon! in the foggy autumn. As they're putting up the Christmas trees on Park Avenue I shall see my daydreams walking by with dogs in blankets, put to some use before all those coloured lights come on! But no more fountains and no more rain, and the stores stay open terribly late.
[Huntington:] I love Frank O'Hara. He's so funny, and not in a throwaway sense but by tripping you up every time you think you know where you're going. The disordered syntax, the images that seem to promise a depth and yet stop you before you can go further with them. The false connectives. The most mysterious line to me is “If I seem to you / to have lavender lips under the leaves of the world, / I must tighten my belt.” That makes complete grammatical sense, but what the hell does it mean? It has a lot of possible meanings within the context of the poem, but when you take it out of context it has strands going in different directions. This could be a reworking of a Wordsworth poem, with a lot of subversive intent. Everything is conditional. It all follows from “If I rest for a moment … that angel seems to be leading the horse into Bergdorf's”—if you can accept that, you can accept the rest of the poem. There's an opportunity for fantasy and imagination to enter this very ordinary lunchtime scene and change everything. I also love the way there's such a personal voice in here but no person. It's a deliberate pose, and we know we're invited to play along with it. I think O'Hara loves New York the way people who aren't from New York love New York. It never stops being exotic to him.
[Hall:] His nerves are always humming. He surprises me every time he makes a turn: “and I am naked as a table cloth.”
[McHugh:] The trail from the stony equestrian to the liver sausage to the angel and nakedness and those disappeared celestial bodies seems to me a trail from materialism to spirit. There's an urge toward exhaustions of the flesh. If his lips seem lavender, then they aren't purple enough; he cinches his belt a little tighter. He's aiming for some end, and that's dysfunctional in a society of means—a consumer society.
[Huntington:] This poem's definitely about consuming: shopping, Bergdorf's, sandwiches, women with dogs in blankets.
[Simic:] Whitman has poems like this, and so do early twentieth-century French poets, in which the speaker moves through the city like a camera. O'Hara mentions places like Bergdorf's and the Mayflower Shoppe the way Apollinaire would name neighborhoods and streets in Paris to give the poem the feel of verisimilitude. Different realities collide in a city. “I could live so many lives here,” one says to oneself. O'Hara's poem is a little ode to the transformative powers of the imagination.
[Huntington:] In O'Hara there's always that undercurrent of melancholy, and in the poems it comes and it goes. It's not dismissed, it's not solved, and it's not denied, but it doesn't take control. It never takes a dramatic leap into the abyss. It's skating between emotional levels.
[Muldoon:] That's partly because the beginning, the middle, and the end are not necessarily in that order in the conventional sense, because the first three, four lines would conventionally be the end of the poem, where there is some kind of resolution and a rocket goes up and “The End” comes up on the screen. And somehow the lack of resolution at the end is, I suppose, what's really of interest to him. “If I rest for a moment”: if we did think of that as the end of the poem, the poem is about a momentary stay against confusion, except it's much more interested in the confusion than in the stay. “If I rest for a moment” is basically what any poem is about from line to line—it rests at the end of the line, and it might rest even in a world where no rest is possible, perhaps, where maybe lunch isn't even going to happen.
[Huntington:] I think resting is slightly dangerous in this poem. “If I rest,” all of these things are going to happen, but if you keep going, then you can stay on the surface of things and you're okay.
[Simic:] Just as you think he's going to take off and make great claims about What I've Seen and What I Understood, he undercuts himself and ends quietly.
[Hall:] I feel that if I rest I'll sink under the lack of sensation. It's as if there's an absolute necessity to keep moving in order not to sink. He has to keep the ball in the air all the time, and I find it always attractive, that restlessness, nerves humming, that spinning it out of the gun.
[McHugh:] And also what makes for that underlying basso continuo that you love, it seems to me, has to do in this poem—and again I really think it's a poem about the consumer and the consumed—with indentation. I do think that the indented lines, the lines with teeth, are the low-lying lines. Semantically, those indented lines are all lines of fatality. And that helps give this poem the register that saves it from mere restlessness, high jinks.
[Simic:] “No more fountains and no more rain, / and the stores stay open terribly late.” To use an old jazz term, he's “cooking” now. He can say anything that pops into his head and it'll sound great.
[Muldoon:] Is it a particularly American phenomenon, this Mayflower Shoppe?
[Simic:] The Mayflower Shoppe was on Park near Fifty-ninth Street. I used to go there. It was just a cheap place to eat. I knew Frank O'Hara in those days. If you had thirty-five cents for lunch your options were limited and you sat over at the fountain—near the Plaza Hotel. And the lavender business, I think, has to do with the trees, the way the sunlight would come down and the way people would look around. I mean this is, to me as a New Yorker, an ex—New Yorker, what is impressive here. There's a real city scene here, a hard-core realism.
[Huntington:] The Mayflower Shoppe does not take you to the Mayflower.
[Hall:] The poem becomes less particular as it goes toward the end, and it seems to me that ten years later or five years later, however long Frank had lived, he would not have gone into “early afternoon! in the foggy autumn … no more fountains and no more rain.” There is the kind of yearning and melancholy at the end, as opposed to the Mayflower Shoppe and Bergdorf's, that changes the direction of the poem.
[Simic:] There's a wealth of possible meanings. When he mentions the Mayflower Shoppe and Christmas, he knows these words will give rise to certain associations in the reader, but he leaves it at that. This is not a poem with an elaborate subtext of ideas.
[Huntington:] The idea that the stores stay open late should be a very nice thing, but it's not.
[Hall:] It's one of the great surprises in the poem, that “terribly.” Such a dumb word, but it comes alive here, and actually a kind of terror comes through.
[Simic:] Well, it's urban solitude. A lone speaker who is going to be alone as the stores stay open terribly late.
[Huntington:] The other use of the word “open” in this poem is “my door is open to the evenings of midwinter's / lightly falling snow,” and again there's the sense not that things are open and welcoming but that they haven't closed down as they should. There's a feeling of danger.
[Hall:] I don't understand the connection between “locomotive” and “march.” I mean “march” is walking, for God's sake.
[McHugh:] That's a misfortune—everybody is allowed one.
[Hall:] I say there's no wonderful poem without at least one crummy word in it.
[McHugh:] Then he had to redeem “march” by putting in “season.”
[Huntington:] When I find these things in O'Hara, I think I'm way too susceptible to them, because I think, “Oh well, he knew that was a terrible line, and it's hilarious.” That's not necessarily a good way to read people.
[McHugh:] Well, he redeems it in other ways. That is, if you look, as I can't help doing always, at the first and last lines, it's also a poem about time, which is another way of saying consumability. The relation between “for a moment” and “terribly late” is potent. You would think that the urban was the place of the very fast, but in fact in this poem what O'Hara articulates is the possibility of the urban as a kind of perpetuity, with resting for a moment as the poetic occasion, which is a fleeting occasion.
[Hall:] I love that line of abstraction—“distress and clarity.” If things are clear they are melancholy—“distress and clarity.” The essence of lyric poetry is oxymoron.
[Muldoon:] I'm just thinking about the “lavender lips under the leaves of the world,” “tighten my belt.”
[Huntington:] I'm thinking of O'Hara's comment on form in poetry: you want your pants to be tight enough so everyone will want to go to bed with you.
[Muldoon:] The “tighten my belt” thing has to do with, “If I'm hungry, if I tighten my belt, I won't feel it.” But I agree that there is a sexual aspect running throughout the poem: “the lavender lips,” wherever they might be; “under the leaves of the world, / I must tighten my belt”; the locomotive—it sounds like a bad film. And I think that's why he recovers himself insofar as he can on “march.”
[Hall:] Frank O'Hara could not use the word “lavender” without thinking of being gay.
[Muldoon:] That's the undertow of this, isn't it?
[Simic:] All lyric poems are narcissistic. They are the earliest form of personal ad. They've been saying for more than a thousand years, “I'm a sensitive, vulnerable, misunderstood, barely solvent, lovable little fellow who would like to meet a person of exquisite taste who is not averse to an occasional roll in the hay.”
[Huntington:] I think it's defended at the same time. He shows some vulnerability like a tease. Perhaps this will get the crowd—I'll show my vulnerable side. But at the same time he's being overt and open and dramatic, he's also mocking that whole movement that seems to lead, at that point in the poem, to the great Romantic statement. And in the syntax of a great Romantic statement, he speaks nonsense: “Clasp me in your handkerchief like a tear, trumpet / of early afternoon!”
[Simic:] Roman poets sometimes do this kind of stuff: you evoke all the clichés of the tradition, all the self-pity, but you're playing off all these things and having a great old time doing it. These are usually poems written by incredibly sophisticated, clever individuals who know the traditions, and every time they look at something, they think of something else, like the trumpet business. Allusions, allusions, allusions.
[McHugh:] The voice of continence!
[Simic:] It's that wonderful play between the poet and the tradition. What is amazing is that the end product sounds genuine. He's making it all up, and yet I find myself deeply moved. Great french fries.
[McHugh:] Be it noted that all the poets picked red meat.
[Hall:] Does anyone know a good poet who's a vegetarian?
SALAD AND CHEESES
“TRAVELING THROUGH THE DARK” (1962)
BY WILLIAM STAFFORD
Traveling through the dark I found a deer dead on the edge of the Wilson River road. It is usually best to roll them into the canyon: that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead.
By glow of the tail-light I stumbled back of the car and stood by the heap, a doe, a recent killing; she had stiffened already, almost cold. I dragged her off; she was large in the belly.
My fingers touching her side brought me the reason— her side was warm; her fawn lay there waiting, alive, still, never to be born. Beside that mountain road I hesitated.
The car aimed ahead its lowered parking lights; under the hood purred the steady engine. I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red; around our group I could hear the wilderness listen.
I thought hard for us all—my only swerving—, then pushed her over the edge into the river.
[Simic:] This is a poem I've known for about thirty years, and as I was re-reading it I was struck by the speed and matter-of-factness of the narrative. Plain language, no striving to be poetic, a commonplace American experience retold. “Traveling through the dark” has a kind of literary echo—Dantesque, dark night of the soul—but the specificity of what he finds makes you forget the opening phrase. Then it's plain details, but Dante's still there: the narrator finds himself in a kind of hell; he has to make a very difficult decision. Where his art comes in—and I've never thought of Stafford as a very artful poet—is how quickly I'm implicated in this hell, this difficult moral decision. When he's standing over her after he says, after this police report, “she had stiffened already, almost cold. / I dragged her off; she was large in the belly. / My fingers touching her side brought me the reason,” and then I, too, as a reader, am stuck. This is a poem of huge solitude, because every time we make moral decisions we're alone, if we're really honest. And the car turns into a partner there: “lowered parking lights,” as if embarrassed. Stafford doesn't say what his emotions are, but his car is becoming emotional, and then we get this very strange line: “around our group I could hear the wilderness listen.” Group? What group? The car? The fog? The dead deer? This is a kind of cop-out—it's not just me, we're all in this together. We always assume that we must save all the innocent, but in truth choices must be made. Stafford was a conscientious objector, so the issue of sacrificing the innocent in order to save others would have been very big for him. And if you know anything about country roads, there are curves, and there could be teenagers coming back from …
[Simic:] Yes—driving fast, coming around the curve. Or maybe Heather is driving.
[McHugh:] I'm the world's best driver.
[Huntington:] What's his difficult moral choice?
[Simic:] The other innocent—the prom kids, say—are ideas, but this is the immediate life. I have to kill the one who is here before me, to save the abstract others.
[Hall:] Is he thinking of performing a cesarean?
[Huntington:] I think Don's point is that he really sets up a false idea that there is a choice to be made. Is he going to take this little fawn fetus home in his car?
[McHugh:] And there's an anterior problem. As soon as you say “to swerve might make more dead”—which is actually one of the moments I love most, because there are four stresses in a row—then to stop might make more dead also. And he stops. He could have killed somebody then.
[Huntington:] He's got his lights on.
[Hall:] I do think that the moral dilemma is, in a sense, trivial. But I agree that it's a hard thing to do, as to kill your own cat is a hard thing to do.
[Huntington:] You've killed a cat?
[Hall:] I haven't done it, actually.
[Simic:] We happen to have a cat here tonight.
[McHugh:] And we've just eaten it.
[Muldoon:] The fact that the “swerve” is repeated there in the “swerving” might easily be problematic, because the “swerving,” by the end of the poem, more significantly has to do with the moral dilemma. The moment I make that argument I see the contrary argument, which is that there is a terrifically throwaway aspect to the poem. When one reads “dead on the edge,” one has a little swerving, because it's not absolutely certain whether it means that the narrator is on the edge or that the deer is on the edge.
[Hall:] It's that wonderful repetition of the vowel sounds there: “dead,” “edge.”
[Simic:] What we need to understand is that you don't have much time to make this decision, because, as Heather pointed out, if you stop the car, someone can come around the curve and kill you, too.
[Muldoon:] You either push it over the side or what? You shoot it?
[Hall:] Perform the cesarean?
[Huntington:] It's not really a choice. I distrust this poem on a certain level. I have a distrust for “I could hear the wilderness listen,” for the certainty of the speaker that Nature, History, Culture, Morality are all overseeing his choice.
[Simic:] I think it's ironic. I don't think he really means it.
[Huntington:] “I could hear the wilderness listen.” You think that's ironic?
[Simic:] I think it's a description of the great silence that surrounds you in that moment.
[Huntington:] But that's not what he said.
[Muldoon:] There's an awkwardness throughout that stanza. “Under the hood purred the steady engine” is not exactly a line that's changing the state of poetry. In another context one would say it's absolutely clichéd. “I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red.” Hold on, is the exhaust turning red or am I turning red? But what I would say in favor of this knowing awkwardness is that it's constantly forcing one to ask, “What is my reading here of this situation, of this poem, from word to word?” And maybe we've done it a little bit of an injustice by suggesting that there's a choice involved. He doesn't really present it as a choice.
[Hall:] I think “aimed” is a wonderful word, because it's threatening. What do you aim? You aim a gun, an arrow. A commonplace, yes, but it's the perfect word. It's subtle, the way Stafford is. I talked a moment ago about killing a cat. There's one cat in this poem I'd damn well like to kill. “Purred.” Disgusting word. Every good poem has one disgusting word in it. It's a damned dead metaphor.
[Muldoon:] Except, of course, that there is an argument to be made for Stafford's witting use of the metaphor, being conscious of it as a cliché. I said it myself that in another context it'd be dreadful. But it's possible that this clichéd way of discussing things was simply an attempt to record the event as it happened, which is basically, I think, what he's trying to do. It's a hand-held poem.
[Huntington:] Perhaps it's not a poem about making a moral choice but a poem about having to endure the moment.
[McHugh:] That word “still” keeps being drawn both to “still alive” and to “stillborn,” which are opposites. There is a sense in which this poem stays in that static moment—the undecidability of things. There is the unmoving thing dead on the edge, and then there is the edge of the river, which is eternally moving and also dividing. Then there's the thing that splits one thing from another, the thing that makes the canyon that it's “best to roll them into.”
[Muldoon:] The poem has gone over the edge, and he's conscious of its having gone over the edge.
[McHugh:] It's a self-criticism in a way.
[Muldoon:] The arguments for keeping both the “swerving” and the “swerve” is that he has “dead on the edge” in the second line and he comes back to it.
[Hall:] The comma with “still” bothers me, because if the fetus is still how do you know it's alive? Alive still? How does he know it's alive? I read once from the speech of a Language poet who ridiculed this poem because it was William Stafford saying, “I'm a nice guy. What a nice guy I am.”
[Muldoon:] I don't think that's what he's saying.
[Simic:] Oh, no, no, no, no, no.
[Huntington:] That's reductive.
[Simic:] The strength of this poem is that we find ourselves in his shoes. I ask myself, what would I have done in the circumstances? I would have done the same thing, and it would have been very difficult. To me the strength of the poem is that it draws me in. I don't feel any separation.
[McHugh:] The one word you object to, Don, is “purred,” and from my point of view what that word calls up is the poetic intention to make another animal worth as much as the doe.
[Hall:] There's no cat in the word “purred.”
[McHugh:] But I don't mean the particular cat any more than he means the particular “purred.” What I do mean is that there's another animal claim on the moment.
[Simic:] I think it's an unfortunate choice.
[McHugh:] It's a cutesifying choice in a certain way, but to my mind that's the reason that the indecisiveness is the greater power of the poem.
[Muldoon:] I think it's infelicitous, but an argument can be made for its infelicity.
[Hall:] I know, but I think it's a bad argument.
[Muldoon:] To be devil's advocate, what would be wrong with the poet, the speaker in the poem, coming out and appearing to be a good guy?
[McHugh:] It's rarely loved. I've never liked this poem myself, but one of the perks of this evening's convocation is that I find myself beginning to understand why the poem might so appeal to Charlie.
[McHugh:] There is a moment of necessary decisiveness not necessarily rooted in the evidences of the world. There are all kinds of evidences there, but decisions must be made. For me, there's this kind of haplessness about happenstance.
[Simic:] What is very true to me about this poem is that it seems like a great moral decision, and that gives you a kind of heroic sense, of making a decision between life and death. But then there's a kind of a horror when you realize it's not a moral decision, that you're just doing the inevitable, which is much worse. If you have a moral decision you can walk away feeling moral.
[Hall:] I love the quiet cadence of this poem, way behind its iambic pentameter. I find it assuring.
[McHugh:] That's part of Stafford's charm.
[Hall:] When he's good, which is often. Somebody once asked, “Mr. Stafford, what happens when your poem is not up to your standards?” And he said, “I lower my standards.”
“THE LAKE ISLE” (1916)
BY EZRA POUND
O God, O Venus, O Mercury, patron of thieves, Give me in due time, I beseech you, a little tobacco-shop. With the little bright boxes piled up neatly upon the shelves And the loose fragrant cavendish and the shag, And the bright Virginia loose under the bright glass cases, And a pair of scales not too greasy, And the whores dropping in for a word or two in passing, For a flip word, and to tidy their hair a bit.
O God, O Venus, O Mercury, patron of thieves, Lend me a little tobacco-shop, or install me in any profession Save this damn'd profession of writing, where one needs one's brains all the time.
[McHugh:] This is the poem of a pedant who dreams of hanging out with the pedestrians, who appear here quite literally as streetwalkers. The brightness he inveighs against in brains is present as a glow in the carnal display cases. The poem he parodies here—Yeats's “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”—is very young Yeats and deserves parody in the sense that a whole genre of Romantic pastoral in English poetry deserved parody at just that moment. But although I chose to bring Pound's poem to dinner, by nature I'm much more given to the poem it makes fun of. Yeats writes:
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree, And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made: Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee, And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
To “live alone in the bee-loud glade” sounds great to me. Pound writes his poem just after Yeats has declared Romanticism dead. Pound has even stayed at Yeats's place for a while. The parodic impulse is thus rooted partly in affection. But affection is more Yeats's métier than it is Pound's. I am thinking of the last line of Yeats's poem: “I hear it in the deep heart's core.” You sense that the “heart” is only an anagrammatical twist away from the “earth,” and you can't help feeling a landed love—not just a love of nation but some kind of geophilia. I see Pound's failings written into the triumph of his poem—his raving and pounding away at usury and fools. The “neatly” and the “loose” can't help fighting each other here, and there's a sense in which the neatness of all of that pounding can't help seeking its release in the “loose” and the “shag.”
[Hall:] Pounding, eh?
[McHugh:] Yes, yes. I have a secret theory that most poets, at one time or another, write into their poems their own self-criticism. Ezra Pound's anagram is “A proud zen”—his zen is his great stuff, but his pride does him in. He pounds his humor away over time with tendentiousness.
[Huntington:] I think what's fond and appreciative about the parody is that there's a sense of personal power in Pound here—he's not contending with Yeats. Pound is great when he's contentious and constrained, but in this poem there's an assuredness that makes him more likable.
[McHugh:] You're right. There's a way in which he's Yeats's friend at the moment, and I love that redemption. He's humbling himself, doffing his hat: “O God, O Venus, O Mercury, patron of thieves.” The whole poem is about restraint: all I want is “a little tobacco-shop.” Even at the end: “Save this damn'd profession of writing, / where one needs one's brains all the time.” Brains were the thing Pound thought made poetry. Yeats knows, and says all the time, that the heart is the thing that makes poetry. For me it's a very interesting convocation, that of these two souls.
[Hall:] I don't think it's parody, though. Maybe I'm just quibbling, but I think it's friendly comic allusion to the Yeats poem. I once asked a young poet, “What do you write?” And she said, “I write God-gimmes. God gimme a house by the side of the road, and so on.” This is a God-gimme. It's not parody. Parody is an antithesis within style, using the same style and making it ridiculous, and this does not do that at all. There are a zillion Pounds, and this is one of them. It's the ironic, prosey Pound, where one needs one's brains all the time. Think of all the Pounds there are: the Provençal Pound, the Cathay Pound—which leads to this sarcastic, prosey Pound—and then the Mauberley Pound, which is quite contentious. No one has bequeathed so many styles to twentieth-century poetry as Ezra Pound did. It's extraordinary.
[McHugh:] Well, you love the lovely Pounds, and I love the ugly Pounds.
[Hall:] No, I love this because—well, it is rather beautiful in its little descriptions.
[Simic:] It's a very literary poem. It echoes so many smart-ass Roman poets who found poetry in being anti-poetic. The poet pretends that he'd rather be a mule driver or a toll collector than waste his days writing love poems to some snotty heartless floozy. I've had that thought myself—a nice little pastry shop next to a Catholic girls' school wouldn't be so bad.
[McHugh:] “Innisfree” is that same small wish. In that sense, too, the Pound is not so much a parody.
[Muldoon:] It's a reversal. It's a reversal of thought.
[Hall:] So it's an homage. He works with point of view: “For a flip word, and to tidy their hair a bit.” Who's saying “a bit”? It's the whores who are saying it.
[McHugh:] That's right. The power of this poem is that it invests itself in investment, in the teaspoonfuls or the inches—the bits. The formal strategy of the poem is to get more and more mincing about its loves and then burst out in “this damn'd profession of writing, / where one needs one's brains all the time,” that grandeur of the thing it claims not to want.
[Hall:] It's a small poem by Pound, but the pacing of it is just so precise and accurate. It's a poem I keep coming back to.
[Muldoon:] This must be one of the earliest uses of “flip” in that sense: “flippant.”
[Hall:] Did anybody bring an OED?
[Muldoon:] “Flip” is what this poem's about.
[McHugh:] And it's wonderful that it works the way the “bright” does—it looks toward the brains at the end and refuses them. From the first line you can see this trajectory: “O God” to “patron of thieves,” that diminuendo. It's a rejoicing in the diminuendo, but it knows that at the end it's going to burst out in the thing it really wished for.
[Simic:] The poem also relates to Frank O'Hara. Forget about nature, he seems to be saying. Urban life is so much more interesting.
[Hall:] He has perfect pitch for diction: “in due time, I beseech you, …”
[McHugh:] Yes, and it comes to “all the time” at the end. It starts with “in due time” and it comes to “all the time.”
[Hall:] “Give me,” “Lend me,” “install me.”
[McHugh:] Yes—he starts with “give me,” and then he goes to “Lend me,” and then he says, “At least install me in a profession, at least make me work.” American poems go in the opposite direction generally. They start from thieves and brains and aim for God and Venus, the Romantic grandeurs.
[Hall:] I do love the clever, young, funny fellow who wrote this poem. There are so many Pounds to love and so many Pounds to hate.
[McHugh:] A ton of Pounds.
[Simic:] I love the poem except for those last two lines. “Save this damn'd profession of writing, / where one needs one's brains all the time.” I don't believe it for a minute. Ordinarily, Pound is a genius at recycling literary clichés, but not in these final lines.
[McHugh:] But he discovers himself in those last two lines. High reference and low irreverence are the great conjunction in Pound.
[Hall:] What saves the last two lines for me is the contradiction to the earlier style. There's a fake elevation all the way through—the wonderful description of things, the poetical thing, and then the sarcastic drop in tone. It's a young man's poem.
[McHugh:] As is Yeats's. I mean, “Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee / And live alone in the bee-loud glade”—that's beautiful writing, but the poem's pastoralism smacks of the errors of the contemplative ideal, as surely as Pound's refutation of the pastoral smacks of the errors of commerce.
[Muldoon:] Here's a question that's come up throughout the course of the evening: How conscious is the writer?
[McHugh:] In poets, there is no such thing as poetic intention. Only in scholars.
[Hall:] It's dangerous. When we talk about Hardy's bracketing of vowels and so on, we are not saying that he went to the blackboard and decided he would write his poem by formula. People can think we are talking about the poet as a crossword-puzzle maker, and that's why I tend to deny it.
[McHugh:] I love the argument, Don, which I very much take to heart and have always repeated, that the poet feels his way toward the finished-ness of the poem.
[Muldoon:] But surely the poet must know.
[McHugh:] There is a kind of protoknowing.
[Huntington:] You say: “This is a really good line, even if I don't know what it means.” And then when you finally figure it out, everybody else knew all along.
[McHugh:] And it's always nice if someone says you knew.
[Hall:] I want to rewrite a little bit of almost every poem I read. There are many times that I think I have such high notions of what poetry should be that no poem is ever good enough. Henry Moore said that every time he began a sculpture he wanted to be better than Donatello or Michelangelo, and every time he finished he knew he hadn't been. But he had the temperament to say, “Well, maybe the next one.”
[McHugh:] Oscar Wilde said of tobacco that it's exquisite and it never leaves one satisfied—what more could one want? For me no destination is adequate. What I'm interested in about faith is the requirement that there be no comprehensible end.
[Huntington:] It's not that I fiddled until I came across the Final Truth but that I fiddled until I got something I didn't know I was going to get—something surprising and satisfactory.
[McHugh:] And beyond one's self, beyond one's ken.
[Huntington:] And you leave it alone when you understand that it might not be perfect but there is some serendipity and some grace. Something unexpected has entered in, and you don't know quite what it is, but you know well enough to leave it alone.
[Muldoon:] Because you've recognized something.
[Hall:] There always comes a time when I can't see any more to do, and believe me, I do not mean that what I leave alone is necessarily a good poem. I hope to hell it is, but what might ultimately be good about a poem is something that I was not consciously aware of. Still, I did it. Something in me did it. One writes in a largely intuitive and sensual manner and then leaves it alone until perhaps one's friend points out a bloody stupid line.
[Muldoon:] That's either the very simple or the very complex element—that one's own capacity for self-delusion is major. Everything looks great, somehow, at the time.
[Hall:] In the act of plunging one's self into writing at the desk, one leaves one's identity behind. And in that sense it's without ego. But of course the attempt to make great art is not an act of humility.
[Muldoon:] No, but to try to make it involves humility, selflessness before the idea of it being made.
[Hall:] I'm not sure.
[McHugh:] Well, the it is not just an id.
[Huntington:] Moses has the ego to go up the mountain and talk to God, but when he goes up there he gets his socks knocked off.
[McHugh:] Only God has the ego to mark those words in stone.
[Hall:] I intend a poem, a line, only insofar as I do not cross it out.
[Muldoon:] I'm not interested in what the poet intends, I'm only interested in what the poem intends.
[Simic:] I agree. God, in his infinite mercy, made poems far smarter than poets.
[McHugh:] We tend the poem. The intending is something else.