Donald Hall has edited a number of collections of contemporary poetry, has written a Recitatio on Robert Frost and, in 1961, an autobiographical reminiscence of his childhood in New England, STRING TOO SHORT TO BE SAVED. It is as a poet, however, that he is best known. His first volume of poems, EXILES AND MARRIAGES, won the Lamont Poetry Prize for 1955. In 1958, THE DARK HOUSES was published; A ROOF OF TIGER LILIES appeared in 1964.
These volumes comprise, generally speaking, a single chronicle of a man’s increasing separation from persons and places, and a consequent search for personal identity. Increasingly cut off from the old New England that nurtured him, the poet struggles to live self-reliantly without, at the same time, isolating himself completely. Here the word poet means the speaker of most of the poems and not inevitably Mr. Hall personally. The main themes which run through the three volumes are nostalgia for the past, or a region, which the modern world has left in decay; some bitterness and scorn for the kind of life which has displaced rural New England; and, of most importance, the problem of individual freedom.
Technically, the volumes also show a progression. Beginning with a preponderance of closely rhymed, evenly metered stanzas, Hall’s later work moves toward greater freedom in style and structure. Less reliance on rhyme, more irregular lines which move less to a meter than to syntactic patterns, and a diction and syntax closer to spoken speech and prose come to characterize the later poems. Such a movement in style is not unusual in contemporary poetry. In “Apology,” from EXILES AND MARRIAGES, for example, he uses rhyme, alliteration, caesurae, and meter to create a formal effect to which the poet himself objects. In contrast, in some of the poems in THE DARK HOUSES, he allows the repetition of the syntactic unit to provide the prosodic form. The effect is at times deceptively prosaic.
In his later verse Hall made, along with a change from metrical to syntactic prosody, a movement toward a more direct utterance, with the poet speaking in a more nearly normal voice to the listener. From a quiet, conversational start in a poem, Hall will often attempt to build gradually toward emotional intensity and even shock. He is likely to move from whimsey or unadorned observation to fantasy or the surrealistic, and sometimes to violence. Perhaps the technique mirrors a theme: beneath the surface of the normal, even the humdrum, lurks the bizarre, the unsettling, even the terrifying. Poem after poem follows such a procedure, and treats such a theme. “A Child’s Garden,” from EXILES AND MARRIAGES, is an example. The poet relates the tale of a boy whose revered grandfather has died and who cannot return to the garden where they once were so close. That the grandfather is, in many other poems, characterized as representing the old New England serves to relate the poem to the theme of loss. The effect on the boy is at first whimiscal, then frightening. Childish innocence gives way to confusion, violence and fear. Hall is often about the task of resurrecting that lost innocence nostalgically, or exploring the psychological results of having lost it. Coloring everything is a sense of dying. For all its whimsy, its boyish fantasy, and its slightly academic wit, Hall’s verse is finally somber, sober, and perhaps a bit over-serious. The note of puritanism is strong: the love of a hard land; respect for those who work long for little; introspection and even moral righteousness. Such qualities are more...
(The entire section is 1478 words.)