JANUARY 10, 2015
THE MOST VALUABLE GIFT literary artists have to offer readers is their report on the state of their interior lives. The more they make themselves known to us, the better we understand other human beings in general and ourselves in particular. Poems and essays are particularly well suited for this basic literary task, and, in both genres, Donald Hall has been one of our country’s most accomplished, intelligent, and engaging writers for more than 60 years.
Hall’s bearded visage is the close-up cover image of his new book, Essays After Eighty. It’s an intimidating face, time-ravaged, severe, fearless, alert, and wise. It’s a face that suggests its owner has lived with unusual seriousness and intensity and that he has absorbed both the pain and the pleasure of such living. And it’s the right image for the cover of this book, a collection of 14 essays, various in temperament and tone. At 134 pages, Essays After Eighty is a relatively short book. Even so, it tells us a great deal about the interior life of Donald Hall.
In the title essay, Hall writes about writing: “As I work over clauses and commas, I understand that rhythm and cadence have little connection to import, but they should carry the reader on a pleasurable journey.” In “A Yeti in the District” and “Thank You Thank You” he writes about traveling as a poet, giving readings, receiving honors, hanging out with poets, and swapping anecdotes with poets — although, in this book, he doesn’t have much to say about his or anyone else’s poems. Which is an omission that probably won’t trouble anyone — it’s an engagingly personal book. Hall’s prose is the star of the show. He’s refreshingly direct, efficient, down-to-earth (also earthy), and witty. Many of his sentences are epigrammatic; many of his paragraphs, like this one, are unpretentiously brilliant:
When my generation learned to read aloud, publishing from platforms more often than in print, we heard our poems change. Sound had always been my portal to poetry, but in the beginning sound was imagined through the eye. Gradually the out-loud mouth-juice of vowels, or mouth-chunk of consonants, gave body to poems in performance. Dylan Thomas showed the way. Charles Olson said that ‘form is never more than an extension of content.’ Really, content is only an excuse for oral sex. The most erotic poem in English is Paradise Lost.
Hall is, first and foremost, a poet. Born in 1928, the same year as Philip Levine and Anne Sexton, a year after Galway Kinnell, John Ashbery, W. S. Merwin, and James Wright, he has published more than 50 books, among them some 22 volumes of poetry. Prolific as he’s been, if he’s not quite as revered as some of his peers, it’s very likely because he’s had to make a living as a freelance writer for the past 50 years.
But if Donald Hall didn’t set out to be beloved, like Frost, for instance, who was famous for playing to his audience, he nonetheless wrote a beloved children’s book, Ox-Cart Man, and more than a few beloved poems. (“Names of Horses” is one that immediately comes to mind.) Still, some his poetry is prickly and unflattering (e.g., “Adultery at Forty” and “To a Waterfowl”). And it’s fair to say that in his writing in general and in these essays in particular, he takes pains to “speak” frankly about himself:
I had the usual girlfriends but our [his and his wife Kirby’s] greatest difference was my single-minded literary obsession. I required a wife who remained passive in the face of my determination.
Indeed, he’s a remarkably forthcoming writer, which is to say that he often chooses to make himself interesting to his readers by revealing things that most other poets would probably keep to themselves:
I signed the last divorce papers while anesthetized for a biopsy of my left testicle. The tumor was benign, but divorces aren’t.
Donald Hall may be remembered better for having been Jane Kenyon’s husband than for his own writing. Kenyon’s portrait of herself — though arguably just as candid — was one with which readers could sympathize: she struggled with depression and terminal cancer, and she wrote about these experiences directly and without self-pity. Hall professes eternal love for Kenyon in his writing, and the reader believes he’s speaking the truth because he writes so frankly and explicitly about the way he handled his grief:
Jane died at forty-seven after fifteen months of leukemia. I mourned her deeply, I wrote nothing but elegy, I wailed her loss, but — as I excused myself in a poem — “Lust is grief / that has turned over in bed / to look the other way.” Among spousal survivors, many cannot bear the thought of another lover. Some cannot do without. In Ulysses, Leopold Bloom thinks of a graveyard as a place to pick up a grieving widow. Thus I found myself in the pleasant company of a young woman who worked for a magazine — a slim, pretty blonde who was funny, sharp, and promiscuous. (We never spoke of love.) I will call her Pearl. After dinner, we sat in my living room drinking Madeira and talking. I pulled out a cigarette and asked her if she would mind… “I was going crazy,” she said, and pulled out her own. She told me about her father’s suicide. I spoke of Jane’s death. When she left the room to pee, I waited by the bathroom door for her to emerge. I led her unprotesting to the bedroom, and a few moments later, gaily engaged, she said, “I want to put my legs around your head.” (It was perfect iambic pentameter.) When we woke in the morning we became friends. We drank coffee and smoked. When I spoke again of Jane, Pearl said that perhaps I felt a bit happier this morning.
He is similarly honest about the humiliations of old age, and those of us that are senior readers of his work are especially fortunate that he’s chosen to write about what we have coming to us:
Not everything in old age is grim. I haven’t walked through an airport for years, and wheelchairs are the way to travel. For years a pusher has scooted me through security in fifty-four seconds, and for years I have boarded the plane before anybody else […] In 2010 a university gave me an award. I flew there with Linda [his partner], and at two a.m. of the prize day I woke with stomach flu. Imodium shut me down by noon, and I struggled through my honors at four p.m. The next day I was shaky and frail when we flew back by way of Baltimore-Washington. A pusher wheelchaired me to the Southwest Airlines gate for Manchester, New Hampshire. As usual I was first to board, Linda behind me. As we started toward the empty seats, my trousers fell down around my ankles. “Technical difficulties,” Linda announced.
This has to be the least sugarcoated account ever written about these kinds of difficulties, which is the quality that makes the anecdote more valuable than grim. What happened was awful, but he shows us exactly how he got through it. These deeply human moments enlighten — even comfort the reader — when Donald Hall converts them into engaging and memorable language. The humor of the last three sentences is his particular intelligence, his gift to readers of Essays After Eighty — Hall tells us the meanest truth in such a way that we can smile about it.
Every bit as apt as its front, the back cover of Essays After Eighty is austere, smart, and illuminating. Instead of blurbs, or a publisher’s hype, or another photo, the space presents plain text, all Hall:
My trainer, Pamela Sanborn, works me out Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. She’s tiny and strong, four foot ten and a hundred pounds of muscle. If she had to, I’m sure she could carry my two hundred pounds slung over her shoulders. For half an hour each session she has me do cardio on the treadmill, squat with five-pound weights, lift tenners over my head and out from my sides, stretch muscles, stand up no hands with a beach ball between my knees, and do push-ups (as it were) standing against a wall. Exercise hurts, as well it might, since by choice and for my pleasure I didn’t do it for eighty years. (Once in my fifties I walked four miles). Pam is cute and loves to work out. When her marriage ended, she found a new companion on an Internet site called Fitness Singles. At the moment, the two of them are bicycling through Italy.
When I divorced, I looked for women who lazed around after poetry readings.
The quote is a virtuoso demonstration of how much this writer can pack into a single paragraph — and then how edgy, frank, and funny he can be in a single sentence, playing off the eight sentences that come before.
Hall is a master of using rhythm and cadence to enliven his sentences and paragraphs, though his work has never been especially academic. He was a professor for a while, but he gave it up to move with Jane Kenyon to New Hampshire. Having outlived both his wives and survived two bouts with cancer himself, he lives there still, in his grandfather’s farmhouse, though he’s never been a farmer either. Essays After Eighty is lively testimony to his having done the one thing he always wanted to do — write it! — and doing it better than most of us can even dream of doing.