“Even one verse alone sometimes makes a perfect poem.”
It was Donald Hall who gave us that useful and precise critical term “McPoem” to describe the garden variety contemporary poem in flabby free verse whose dismal ambitions are set to a spavined music. Hall is a savvy and perspicacious critic, and the bloke who undertakes to write about his work has the immediate task of not appearing a pure fool before his subject.
But with the best intentions in the world, the best preparation and the most meticulous care, we all write a certain number of McPoems. I’ve done so. So have Robert Penn Warren and Howard Nemerov and Richard Wilbur. Donald Hall has published more than a few, as he will sorrowfully admit. In fact, it was he and Robert Bly and Lewis Simpson and Galway Kinnell who helped to develop the McPoem in the 1960’s by borrowing surrealism’s quaintest mannerisms. This stuff was called Deep Image poetry and constituted a sort of versified Method Acting mumble. Here is a sample from Hall’s “The Alligator Bride”: “The sky is a gun aimed at me. / I pull the trigger. / The skull of my promises / leans in a black closet, gapes / with its good mouth / for a teat to suck.” In about three days college sophomores learned to write this kind of babble by the yard; in another week they learned to think it was poetry.
If Donald Hall felt called upon to defend these lines, he would make a good case for them; in literature everything is defensible because everything is open to attack, and Hall’s best critical work is his appreciations of other poets. The silly passage above may be justified by autobiographical circumstance: several times in his career Hall has foundered, has hit dry spells and halted verse composition entirely. Then he found a way to begin anew, writing in a style that looks radically different from what came before. “The Alligator Bride” is one of a number of poems that enabled Hall to pick up his pen and start over. Other poems that mark similar stages are “The Long River,” “The Blue Wing,” and “Kicking the Leaves.”
The broad variety of Hall’s writing has long been a source of wonder. Besides poetry and criticism, he has published fiction, drama, children’s literature, biography, and reminiscence. His poetry encompasses all sorts of forms, from steely epigrams, like the one addressed to a philosopher (“The world is everything that is the case. Now stop your blubbering and wash your face.”) to an attempt at a contemporary epic. This latter poem, called The One Day, is an honorable effort, but hobbled by muddy organization and some puffy rhetoric. It won an award from the National Book Critics Circle, a group whose selection committees have boasted in the organization’s newsletter that they don’t like poetry and don’t read it.
But it is not Hall’s fault that a horde of critical midges have conspired to give him a prize for work that is not his best. His best work is very fine indeed and there is plenty of it. So much of it, in fact, that my list of favorite poems is too long to include here. But I will name a few I consider among the best written in two generations: “Exile,” “At Delphi,” “The Long River,” “The Moon,” “Beau of the Dead,” “In the Kitchen of the Old House,” “The Blue Wing,” “The Table,” “Kicking the Leaves,” “The Black- Faced Sheep,” “Names of Horses,” “Whip-Poor-Will,” “Old-Timers’ Day, ” and “On a Horse Carved in Wood.”
Knowing readers will see that I’ve included a few Deep Image poems among my tip-top favorites. When Donald Hall is writing well, he can bring to almost any kind of discourse a profound and polished wit, a fineness of observation that a naturalist might envy, and a warm and ready affection. These qualities are controlled by a firm intelligence, a sly curiosity, and a wary critical sense.
When he makes mistakes it is sometimes because he tries to write beyond his means. One of his character traits is an admiration of the vatic voice, the mystic vision; he would like to achieve some of the effects we find in James Wright and Robert Bly, or even in William Blake and Walt Whitman. It is probably Whitman who tempts him into such lugubrious mistakes as these lines from “Praise for Death”: “Let us praise death in old age. Wagging our tails, / bowing, whimpering, let us praise sudden crib-death / and death in battle.” It was the thought of Whitman or of Christopher Smart that caused him to write: “We praise death when we smoke, and when we stop smoking.”
But if those aberrant lines are set against the last stanza of “At Delphi” we see the difference when the poet is at the top of his form. Before knowing this poem, I could never imagine that I would find an American lyric that would give me the sensation of being a figure in a painting by Hubert Robert or Claude Lorrain. The speaker of “At Delphi” has told of a visit to the city of the ancient oracle and of his remembering the history of the locale. These final lines distill his experience:
No priestess spoke. I heard one sound.
The donkey’s sure and nerveless plod
Past ruined columns of a god
Made dactyls on the ground.
I am not merely praising the restraint of the lines, though Hall knows well an important point of which others are unaware—that restraint is not a negative virtue. It is just that in these lines a quiet tone sounds a deeper resonance than in other poems where the voice straining for prophecy drowns out nuance.
When Hall’s ebullience is successful, though, he is more effective than Allen Ginsberg or Anne Waldman or Diane Wakoski or two score other poets who have made careers of ranting. One poem, “O Cheese,” is intended partly as a send-up of the relentless apostrophizers. (“O cheeses of gravity, cheeses of wistfulness, cheeses / that weep continually because they know they will die.”) When his considerable and considered humor animates his phrases, we can often find lines as charming as this description of cows in “Great Day in the Cows’ House”: “Now these wallowing / big-eyed calfmakers, bone-rafters for leather,,/ awkward arks, cud-chewing lethargic mooers, / roll their enormous heads, trot, gallop, bounce, / cavort, stretch. leap, and bellow— / as if everything heavy and cold vanished at once / and cow spirits floated / weightless as clouds in the great day’s windy April.”
But for Hall the road of excess does not always lead to the palace of wisdom. His humor too may betray him and in a prose poem called “The Presidentiad” it does so murderously. I will quote two sentences simply to show that aliquando dormitat bonus Homerus, that even the brightest among us may have profoundly moronic moments. “Disraeli wore knickers and practiced swinging a golf club. He whistled frequently, which annoyed Calvin Coolidge, who had affected the dress of a Prussian general from the 1870 war.”
These sentences are dreadful enough to demonstrate clearly Hall’s courage. He seems willing to try almost anything. He must foresee that a great deal of what he attempts will fail, yet he goes ahead and gives it his best shot. Few contemporary poets of Hall’s stature have written so badly; we simply cannot imagine Richard Wilbur or Henry Taylor stepping so clumsily on their cravats as Hall does in the last section of “Eating the Pig,” for example, or in “The Wreckage.”
But then few other poets are likely to produce an eerie triumph like “The Moon.” “A woman who lived / in a tree caught / the moon in a kettle,” this poem begins, and it goes on to tell a wonder tale about how the woman boiled the moon down to a bean and ate it, and how it “grew / like a child inside her” until she had to give it birth. Now the woman nurses the moon “while the wind perches / like a heavy bird / in the void branches / of a tree, beside / a cold kettle.”
This haunting little story is presented in diction as simple as anyone can muster; the meter is an unobtrusive line of two accents; the syntax is straightforward. The difficulties of conception and composition are apparent only when we consider Hall’s purpose—to invent, using entirely traditional folklore material, a new legend that accounts for the lunar phases.
It is tempting to dismiss this poet’s simpler poems as being too obvious in intention and too easy in execution to bear fruitful close examination. But his simplicity is as deceptive as it is engaging. “Old Timer’s Day” is a bit more complex than “The Moon” in its use of simile, but its language and narrative line are just as simple as in the other poem, and its final allusive simile ascends to an effect touching and surprising. The lines report the sight of a favorite baseball player of yesteryear who is taking part in an old timers’ game, “laboring forward / like a lame truckhorse” after a fly ball and catching it at the last instant. It’s a good catch, and the spectators applaud. “On a green field / we observe the ruin / of even the bravest / body, as Odysseus / wept to glimpse / among shades the shadow / of Achilles.”
The animal metaphors that the poem has employed in its earlier lines—truckhorse, filly, gartersnake—have not prepared us for this sudden elevation of comparison, the revelation of heroic dimension. The surprise of the allusion transforms our experience of the poem with a gesture that looks nonchalant, the magician’s gesture as he releases a flight of doves from empty air while his audience sits silent with astonishment.
That is my reaction, the feelings of a reader sentimental about baseball and Homer, and there will be others who find the poem a little too calculated, a little too contrived. Yet Hall distrusts contrivance, and it is partly because of his ambition to avoid it that he turns to his vatic and surrealistic repertoires.-He is possessed by natural but contrary urges: to use the poem as a means, of exploring new levels of emotion, new planes of discovery, and at the same time to shape it into a dramatic and artistic whole. One of his exercises in personification, “The Poem,” begins by describing the explorative function: “It discovers by night / what the day hid from it.” It ends by affirming the mysteriousness of its subject: “Who knows / what it is thinking?”
Well, the poet knows something of what the poem is thinking. Not because he has written it, but because he has written it many times. And if the poem manages to say something a little different to him each time, the way he hopes it will speak to other less accustomed readers, it also manages to say some of the same things over again. Our ordinary everyday lives are just as mysterious and amazing as the imagination we bring to bear upon them; in fact, there is no ordinary life that is not esoteric at heart.
“The Coffee Cup” takes this latter theme as its subject. Calmly it set the scene of life in a small New Hampshire town: “The newspaper, the coffee cup, the dog’s / impatience for his morning walk: / These fibers braid the ordinary mystery.” The lines then record the death and funeral of Anthony “Cat” Middleton, the schoolbus driver, and of his replacement by Mrs. Ek, a woman “with one / eye blue and the other gray.” If this New England day were observed from a distance, spatial or historical or sociological, it would be indistinguishable from a thousand other days, its cycle of dying and living repeated as in a corridor of mirrors. But when we see it close up, it displays its mysteriousness in unique details, like the image of Mrs. Ek’s eyes. Hall then draws his conclusion, without the skimpiest transition: “Everything / is strange; nothing is strange: / yarn, the moon, gray hair in a bun, / New Hampshire, putting on socks.”
Here is one of those places where the poet must have foreseen that objections would be brought and decided that the risk was necessary. He knew that some persnickety critic would describe the last phrase, “putting on socks,” as anticlimactic almost to the point of bathos and wayward almost to the point of grotesqueness. He knew that another critic would call the phrase preachy and sentimental. But he went ahead and wrote it down and published it.
A composer once confided to me that certain passages of Stravinsky did not bear up well under harmonic analysis. “In fact, some bars look just plain stupid,” he said. “All you can do is shrug and say, Well, it’s Stravinsky so it must be all right.” That’s the way I feel about this passage and a number of others: well, it’s Donald Hall so it’s probably okay. Lesser poets wouldn’t get away with the things he does, but then lesser poets wouldn’t attempt them.
Hall’s poems allow us to see him in many guises, as Urbane Augustan, Metaphysical Wit, Pastoral Elegist, Biting Satirist, and so on. I don’t know that a critic is entitled to prefer one voice over another; it is his duty to give the poet the freedom of the character he chooses to write about. But an admiring reader is permitted to have favorites, and when I place myself in that position I find that I like the Openhearted Christian maybe best of all.
In these days it is nearly impossible to write plainspoken religious poetry. We have grown addicted to our dim self-doubt and acid ironies, and a simple heartfelt religious lyric is likely to seem falsely ingenuous, unconvincingly childish. We are so unused to the mode that we may think we smell mockery even where we know there is none. Yet such poems can still be written—with a little help perhaps from Anonymous, Ben Jonson, and George Herbert—and, with a little willingness on the part of the reader they can still be brightly enjoyed. Here is “A Carol”:
The warmth of cows
That chewed on hay
As small he lay.
Chickens and sheep
Knew He was there
Because all night
A holy light
Suffused the air.
Darkness was long
And the sun brief
When the Child arose
A man of sorrows
And friend to grief.
[Old and New Poems, by Donald Hall (New York: Ticknor and Fields) 244 pp., $24.95]
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