Years ago, in his essay “Football Red and Baseball Green,” Murray Ross contrasted the battlefield dynamics of the former with the latter’s ostensibly more pastoral qualities. By virtue of its subtle but intense mannerisms, its lack of time limit and essentially cyclic action—a “summer game” that in fact encompasses spring’s renewal and autumn’s decline—baseball has long been regarded as the “poet’s game.” (The Oxford English Dictionary credits Whitman with the earliest printed instance of the term “baseball”) Donald Hall, one of America’s foremost men of letters, has long concurred with this view. Though he has written about other sports, it has been baseball—”this daily game,” as he puts it—that has remained a preoccupation through four decades of essays, memoirs, children’s books, criticism, and poems. Always, there have been poems.

As The Museum of Clear Ideas amply shows, baseball is still the poet’s game. The book’s title section falls between two shorter sequences of poems—”Baseball” and “Extra Innings”—as if between the foul lines in Fenway Park. The nine innings of “Baseball” set out to explain our national pastime to a late German collage artist. Perhaps collage and poem resemble baseball itself, “assemblages of ordinary things” that ultimately constitute a kind of order for the viewer, reader, or fan. Indeed, the game lends Hall a vocabulary to address matters urgent but often difficult to discuss: loss, illness, aging, death. When he devotes the first inning of “Baseball” to “false starts,” he alludes not only to a pitcher’s balk and to games halted by rain but to one’s own wrong moves and self-thwarted days. As with a balk, he points out, the game continues, we falter and go on, “the runners move up.”

The poet borrows from the sport’s formal structure as well, employing strict nine-syllable lines in nine-line stanzas in each of the innings. This overall arrangement seems as natural, even inevitable, as the layout of a ballpark; the whole poem has a pleasing angle to it, an odd rightness that fits baseball’s own “enterprise of ongoingness.” This can make the book’s best passages difficult to quote out of context, akin to good pitches thrown to get out of a tough inning. Sometimes Hall strikes out the side, as when he wickedly prophesies that by 2028 more folks will have MFAs than VCRs, forcing the NEA to offer poets government subsidies not to write. More often, however, his subject is closer to home; in particular. Hall examines the nature of lost time and the various means by which we avoid thinking about where time eventually leads.

By the middle innings. Hall’s interest—like a tiring pitcher’s—is in maintaining some control over his stuff, “as if language were a grid / for athletes.” We see that his purpose in “Baseball” is not to explain how the game is played but why it’s played and what this can mean: “the generation / of old players hanging on, the young coming up.” This sense of a quickly closing (and perhaps final) season murmurs in the poem’s background like a hometown crowd anxious for the daily rally that never comes. Unlike the fan, the poet—in real life battling diabetes and cancer—cannot say “Wait till next year.” Still, baseball offers him familiar terms for observing the passing days:

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.

The three poems in “Extra Innings” capitalize on baseball’s (and poetry’s) value as “an alternative to days,” much as Robert Frost once defined poetry as “a momentary stay against confusion.” But the respite is only momentary; accordingly. Hall adds a syllable per line, a line per stanza, a stanza per inning—all of it building inexorably toward what will be the final out.

At the center—or pitcher’s mound, as it were—of the book is Hall’s other “daily game,” a poet’s chronicle of work and rest, love and loss. “The Museum of Clear Ideas” imitates the Odes of Horace in their praise of common fears and desires, the mingled grief and joy of each day’s “offering of pleasure.” Eagle Pond’s ice gives way to April, lovers betray and reconcile, the body fights illness and age. In this museum the clearest idea on display is the battle against complacency; one poem, honoring pioneers of flight such as Leonardo and the Wright Brothers, moves from buoyancy to cataclysm in just a few lines: “ingenuity / and courage sustained them their moment’s release / from the ponderable weight / of gravity. . . . But they / prepared us Dresden’s fire and Nagasaki’s.” While most of the poems here are less grim, they consistently argue a quietly dignified carpe diem by their titles alone: “Winter’s asperity mollifies,” “The times are propitious,” “We explore grief’s . . . “

These poignant balances indeed clarify the daily game called mortality, yet not in a way that precludes Hall’s considerable wit. For example, the opening gag in “Mercury, descendant” (as in “descendant” from Henry Ford’s Model T!) gives way to the final line’s “procession of motors following / a sable Lincoln.” Elsewhere, Hall can sting with a rich venom, his prey sometimes literary (“Let many bad poets”), sometimes political or economic (“Praise Mammon-Mazda”). Yet even in the satiric glee of such poems a reader can discern a deeper sense of regret and self-accusation, as if the various personae represented Hall’s own voice at different points in his notable career.

This career—the “play” of words as the poet’s “work”—is itself the subject of Hall’s most recent prose. Yet where The Museum of Clear Ideas turns out to be as satisfying and memorable as a championship season, Life Work bears the tone of an already remembered one. Near the end of this “essay-book,” in fact, Hall (recuperating from surgery to remove his liver cancer) writes of having just begun a “new longish poem” that seems to him to give off “a posthumous odor.” If the scent wafts through Life Work, it manages to do so in a way not altogether somber.

A diary-cum-essay on people and themes Hall’s readers have come to expect, Life Work parallels his ancestors’ work on the land with his own work on the page. From the start, he admits the dubiousness of the comparison (“I’ve never worked a day in my life”), all the while reserving the right to make it. Turning from the daily game of poetry, his plan here is to write each day “a few pages . . . about my own work and the sensibilities I derive from my parents and my grandparents. Oh, I have many notions about work.”

So he does. Hall writes mordantly in praise of the compulsive, serving up anecdotes culled from a lifetime’s reading, writing, and teaching. We hear how the sculptor Henry Moore—for Hall a model of devotion to craft—at 80 built a new graphic studio next to his house in order to extend his workday. Others appear similarly admirable for their worklust in old age: Frost, Emerson, Freud, Henry James. More admirable still are Hall’s own forebears, the New England farmers and dairymen and jacks-of-all-trades whose ghosts continue to haunt Hall’s Mount Kearsarge and Ragged Mountain, his Eagle Pond Farm, his poems. From his Connecticut grandfather he inherits the ethic of “woik-woikwoik”; from the New Hampshire side of the family, “wuk-wuk-wuk.” Even the farm’s outbuildings hold to this philosophy, doing their part:

The cowbarn lay along Ragged’s
incline, the west side

dropping down, manure pile
underneath tie-up and pigpen

beside manure pile. The east wall
underneath the barn

is huge slabs of granite wedged
against Ragged’s earth.

Throughout his daily ruminations Hall tests the various definitions of his subject. “There are jobs, there are chores, and there is work,” he tells us; we push through the first and second kinds of labor to reward ourselves with the third. He argues that, more than “what we do to feed ourselves and keep ourselves warm,” to work is to devote our lives to some endeavor. For Hall this can be summed up in a term he borrows from the Indian novelist Gureharan Das, absorbedness. That is, the contentment resulting from “work so engrossing that you do not know that you are working.”

As age and failing health impinge upon his peace of mind, the writing continues to absorb him, keeping him from wondering how little time he may have left: “I cannot stop speculating—except when I work.” Such an aesthetic has been Donald Hall’s commitment. Accordingly, he quotes from the Gospel of John at the start of Life Work: “We must work the works of him who sent me, while it is day: night comes, when no one can work.” Hall extends that injunction through each page of this fine “essay-book,” reminding us that even as we work against the night we arc as well working toward it. In small tasks and large, “woik” or “wuk,” we seek absorbedness. For there is, as Hall puts it at the end of Life Work, “only one longterm project.”


[The Museum of Clear Ideas, by Donald Hall (New York: Ticknor and Fields) 120 pp., $18.95]