The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 955

The One Day is a book-length poem of sixty-three pages divided into three major sections: “Shrubs Burnt Away,” “Four Classic Texts: Prophecy, Pastoral, History, Eclogue,” and “To Build a House.”

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Donald Hall bases The One Day on the “house of consciousness”—the idea that one mind might express many contradictory voices and different points of view. Its tripartite organization roughly corresponds to French moral essayist Michel Eyquem de Montaigne’s Essais (1580, 1588, 1595; The Essays, 1603), traditionally held to exhibit three stages of human development: Stoicism giving way to philosophical skepticism and concluding in a moderate Epicureanism. Such an outline, however, fails to account for Hall’s powerful statements about love, preparation for death, building a house as metaphor for living, and the emergence of self-knowledge and social order. Like James Joyce’s novel Ulysses (1922), The One Day explores the thoughts of the poet over the course of a single day. As a poetic sequence, Hall’s work invites comparisons to Robert Lowell’s Notebook 1967-1968 (1969) or John Berryman’s 77 Dream Songs (1964).

The poem begins with aphorisms, or concise statements of principles, taken from Montaigne (“Each man bears the entire form of man’s estate”), from Pablo Picasso (“Every human being is a colony”), and most significantly from Abbé Michel de Bourdeille: “There are other voices, within my own skull I daresay. A woman speaks clearly from time to time; I do not know her name.” The first and third sections of The One Day are spoken by a male farmer who “speaks” in roman typeface and a female sculptor who speaks in italics. A general consciousness narrates from an objective point of view. The three voices quote others, and Hall freely intermingles their narratives, speculations, and poetic effusions; sometimes two stories develop simultaneously, conflicting, supporting, and commenting indirectly on each other. Multiplicity and imaginative richness inform the poem from beginning to end, giving the book a dreamlike and intuitive ferocity.

In section 1, “Shrubs Burnt Away,” the reader learns that the male struggles with his middle-aged complacency and looks forward to the only major event left for him: death. He thinks about his father, the values his father attempted to teach his son, his marital distress, lovemaking without emotion, and his memories of World War II. The male introduces other “colonists” of his mind, such as a homosexual actor, a retired man watering his lawn, a drunk who died after he fell from a parking structure, and a boy who read the complete works of Edgar Allan Poe. The poet states that the colonists enjoy building this house in his mind because it alleviates some of the stress of impotent, idle feelings that plague him.

The female voice tells of discovering creative talent as a girl sculpting dough in her mother’s kitchen; her father’s sudden death, however, subverts her artistic yearnings. Her mother then becomes an alcoholic, and her sister suffers from nervous breakdowns and requires constant hospitalization. A cycle of failure and mental instability seems destined to repeat itself in the lifetime of this woman. Later, in section 3, she suffers from nervous breakdowns and drug addiction herself. The male and female speakers approach death with different backgrounds, but they are united in the search for peaceful self-acceptance, meaningful relationships, and satisfying work.

Section 2, “Four Classic Texts,” develops the poetic modes of prophecy, pastoral, history, and eclogue. New characters emerge: Elzira, Abraham, Marc, Phyllis, Senex (who is related to Roman Stoic philosopher Lucius Seneca), and Juvenis (who is related to classical Roman satirist Juvenal). This section attempts to reject modern material culture and work toward restoration of the whole human being: soul, family, and society. Hall says that many borrowings in this section come from classical Roman poet Vergil, Amos and Isaiah in the Old Testament, Roman historian Titus Livy, an anonymous German soldier in World War I, and stories from The Boston Globe.

Hall shows how these four timeless themes apply to today’s fragmented world, often juxtaposing ancient history with modern idiom taken from kitchen and bedroom. Through a chaos of competing ideas, Hall forges an evocative statement about returning to a peaceful state of mind through the therapeutic art of building. Hall attempts to reverse the damages done by a modern, disassociated consciousness by looking through the eyes of ancient poets.

Section 3, “To Build a House,” returns to the male and female speakers. This concluding section focuses on praise, artistic renewal, celebration, and the purifying work of farming. It resolves the conflicts of earlier sections in a passionate, triumphant declaration of order. The male and his wife concentrate on restoring an old orchard, logging, gathering maple syrup, and enjoying the pleasures of this paradise of work. Their lovemaking once again becomes an act of celebration of the spirit. Together they build their house, carefully manage their land, and look toward the end of the day. Both male and female voices desire to approach death in a house wrought of their own hands, sheltered from fragmentation and violence.

The female speaker finds a renewed ability to work at her craft of sculpture, seizing each hour to chisel away at alabaster. The female looks back on her troubled past of failed relationships, psychiatric treatment including electroshock therapy, and drug addiction. She realizes that a singleness of mind is the most prized goal in her life. Through a fresh commitment to her art, she finds old grudges against her father and mother disappearing. She can now sleep without disturbing dreams, enjoy the company of old friends, and spend meaningful time with her children. Both male and female realize that their final determination to build a house means they want to leave this world as happy, fulfilled, whole people who enjoy the support of family and friends.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 897

In its conception, The One Day resembles a sonnet sequence, wherein a poet writes a series of concise poems linked to one another and dealing with a single, unified theme. In addition to the contemporary poetic sequences by Lowell and Berryman, Hall may be looking back to Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “The House of Life,” a sonnet sequence published in 1881 that explores the poet’s love for his dead wife and records events in their life together.

Donald Hall’s skill with poetic structure is evident in The One Day’s use of free-verse lines varying in length from ten to fourteen syllables, arranged in ten-line stanzas. Sections 1 and 3 have approximately the same number of stanzas, just as the four subheadings of section 2 are equally balanced. Hall says that the surface of the poem should appear smooth, but that—like an enormous electronic device—if one looks behind the smooth exterior, one sees a byzantine array of wires, tubes, and transistors. The organization is so precise that the reader may view each stanza as an independent lyric; however, the book is best appreciated through close attention to its uniform metaphors.

Five metaphors run through the poem, by which Hall illustrates the many pitfalls and conflicts each person must face over a lifetime. First, the dominant metaphor of the house of consciousness and building one’s own home allows Hall to introduce the two main voices. The original title of the book, Building the House of Dying, shows that Hall looked at the work of building as necessary preparation for death; people cannot die without first leaving something of value behind, be it farmhouse or sculpture.

Second, one day in a person’s life becomes a microcosm or mirror of an entire life. During one day, the male and female speakers look back to their past, living their lives over again. Thus Hall develops the concept—which also interested William Wordsworth in his poem “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey”—that a person constructs reality by the process of thinking and remembering. The poem follows Hall’s thought processes as he seeks to understand his life, although much of the narrative material is pure fiction.

Third, Hall uses the metaphor of the bed as a universe. All thoughts about self, family, society, love, and death take place on this piece of furniture common to all homes. The bed both unites and divides, reflecting life’s larger struggles in why people make love: for the satisfaction of lust, for companionship, for procreation, and for communication. The bed becomes another mirror of the soul in The One Day. In fact, one might imagine the whole “action” of the poem taking place as the poet reflects in a reclined position on his bed.

Fourth, the poem makes frequent references to airplanes. The male remembers the stories of Wrong-Way Corrigan, Amelia Earhart, Will Rogers, and a Pomona fireman, who all disappeared flying various kinds of aircraft. The female recalls with vivid clarity the stub-winged pylon racers of her youth, daredevil pilots, and tragic commercial airline crashes. The theme of flying as an escape from necessary work on earth becomes linked to pilots who attempt to build their houses in the sky.

Finally, Hall uses the metaphor of work as a restorative activity. Humanity will save itself only if men and women can find meaningful commitment to work that nourishes the soul.

Although The One Day contains strong unifying themes, the subdivisions of section 2 can also be approached as independent poetic genres. “Prophecy” is the poet’s inspired declaration of divine will and prediction of future catastrophes. Isaiah prophesies that obstinate nations such as Babylon and Egypt will suffer from flames and plagues of God’s wrath because they refuse to worship in the proper way. Similarly, the poet of The One Day states that he will strike down false buildings and reject materialistic values because they corrupt the human will.

“Pastoral” is a dialogue between Marc and Phyllis. Traditionally a poet uses this mode for a treatment of shepherds and rustic life, sometimes in the form of a discussion about the virtues of country living. Hall looks back to Vergil, who made his pastorals a vehicle for social comment, and uses this dialogue to describe the emptiness felt by many contemporary married couples. Hall’s characters are firmly located in modern suburbia; they lament the stultifying order, sense of restraint, and dishonesty of middle-class American ways. The husband feels incapable of the most basic emotion or defensive action. The wife feels claustrophobic in her perfect home entertaining perfect friends for a game of bridge.

“History” takes up the character of president-emperor Senex and explains the nature of his rule through ancient, medieval, and modern times. Hall brings into question the idea of recorded history. If history books tell of enslavement, executions, trench warfare, and tyranny, humankind needs to reject history in order to restore the human mind.

The last subsection, “Eclogue,” returns to the pastoral formula of the love-lay, in which a shepherd sings a song of courtship. In Hall’s case, this song concerns renewed love relations and the building of a new history. In order to build the future properly, the poet must concentrate on the restitution of mothers, fathers, and faithful sexual relations. Greed and dishonesty must be replaced by self-respect and the enjoyment of real labors.

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Themes