The Museum of Clear Ideas
The powerful myth of the young poet blazing brilliantly but briefly across the literary cosmos before dying still in a poetic prime has held the cultural imagination of the Anglo-American world for nearly two centuries. Initiated by the lives of the legendary Romantics George Gordon, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats, reinvigorated by the controversy surrounding the deaths of Dylan Thomas and Sylvia Plath, reinforced by the loss of musicians such as Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, the pattern of youthful promise destroyed by excess or illness has become one of the dominant paradigms in the public mind. Yet as the United States has become a more mature society, endurance, a continuing commitment to craft, and the value of a ripened sensibility tempered by trials have become components of a postmodern countermyth, especially as embodied in the life of W. B. Yeats and in the public perception of Robert Frost.
In the last decade of the twentieth century, poets born during the 1920’s-Allen Ginsberg, Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, Philip Levine, and Donald Hall-have demonstrated that there need not be a loss of fire or a slackening of attention to craft in the latter years of a poet’s life. Hall’s striking book of new poems The Museum of Clear Ideas is both a culmination of his previous efforts as a poet and an example of how a mature writer can find new and original forms to express a perspective afforded by experience.
Hall has been writing accomplished poetry since the 1950’s, but his versatility in many fields of literary endeavor has tended to deflect attention from his purely poetic achievements. Several collections of engaging critical essays, an influential and judicious anthology used at many universities, a captivating memoir, Remembering Poets (1976), which artfully combines biography and interpretation of several major poets, two extended essays about his ancestral home at Eagle Pond Farm, New Hampshire, and a number of books about baseball in which Hall deftly combines his literary skills with a genuine feeling for the central sporting pastime of American life-all of these make him a genuine “man of letters.” Hall’s ability to move gracefully from the milieu of the high literary modernists to the arena of great athletic exhibitionists and to find a language suitable to explore, examine, and express the essence of both realms is part of his unique signature as an artist and one of the most impressive and effective aspects of The Museum of Clear Ideas.
The book is divided into four sections, each a reflection of Hall’s life experiences into his seventh decade. The first part is called “Another Elegy,” the weary, semi-apologetic tone of the title signifying the stance the poet will take. Its subject is a kind of conflation of almost every biographic feature to be found among twentieth century
American male poets, particularly those of Hall’s generation: a composite called William Trout, who is a sort of ur-poet of his time. His life is described with an affectionate mockery of proletarian origins combined with familiar elements from a typical poetic career. The fusion of the folksy, the self- consciously literary, the formalistically academic, and the modishly multicultural suggest Hall’s own ambivalence about the various institutions he has lived with and in, and the poem is written as a tribute/lament for his peers, for some aspects of himself, for the art of poetry, and for the world in which it exists on uncertain terms. Hall’s tone is a mixture of awe and bemusement, sympathy and occasional sarcasm as he adjusts the distance between the voice that describes Trout’s life and work and the voice that evokes Trout’s struggles with the passions that fire his life and art. The form of the elegy is essentially narrative, beginning with an image of nature’s surge for renewal juxtaposed to a man’s life and its limits, and then moving through dazzling detail toward a picture of the intensity and emotional energy that made the life so momentarily real. Hall is concerned with the sources of poetic inspiration in the mysteries of consciousness and in an individual’s experiences. The exposition of various incidents is so entertaining that the shifts from moments of lyric beauty to interspersed dialogue to passages of almost analytic precision are part of a unified field that...
(The entire section is 1798 words.)