Sour Notes Will Happen


I thoroughly enjoyed Donald Hall’s hand-picked “best hits” (in 2015) The Selected Poems of Donald Hall. For me, only a couple of poems hit a sour note, but that’s a great batting average, for poetry.

One was “Black Olives,” which lamented high school days when young Donald was good at being a mascot, a class president, and a poet (his best line as a young poet: “dead people don’t like black olives”),but not a favorite of the beautiful cheerleaders. Seems the cheerleaders preferred (news flash!) halfbacks and quarterbacks — muscle and brawn over meter and ballads. But then, in the last stanza, the Empire (A Young Poet) Strikes Back (at an Elderly Age):

Decades later, after the dead
have stopped their blathering
about olives, obese halfbacks wheeze
upstairs to sleep beside cheerleaders
waiting for hip replacements,
while a lascivious, doddering poet,
his burning eyes deep-set
in wrinkles, cavorts with their daughters.

OK, OK. We all like to see the jocks get theirs in the end, but this is a tad yuck, no? Or maybe our times are too PC for their own comeuppance.

On a more serious note, I give you “The Master” in its entirety. It’s the type of poem established poets love to write (and can get away with) while unestablished poets would be laughed at if they submitted it to a journal.

It’s similar to novelists who talk about characters “taking over” their novels, wresting control from the author as in a prison uprising. Oh, brother. It all sounds accurate and deep, sure, until you read and reread and say, “Huh?” (Which is “dumbese” for “Where’s the emperor’s clothes?”). Here it is, by the name of (what else?) “The Master”:

The Master
by Donald Hall

Where the poet stops, the poem
begins. The poem asks only
that the poet get out of the way.

The poem empties itself
in order to fill itself up.

The poem is nearest the poet
when the poet laments
that it has vanished forever.

When the poet disappears
the poem becomes visible.

What may the poem choose,
best for the poet?
It will choose that the poet
not choose for himself.

I can appreciate how, as a person and poet, your own idiosyncrasies and sentimentalities and bad habits can get in the way, but to personify a poem like that? To imply that the poem has shoved its creator aside to touch the hand of God, Sistine Chapel-like? Whatever.

Still, I cannot emphasize enough that I count myself a big Donald Hall fan. And Jane Kenyon. I wish to hell the two could have written a few decades more on their little New Hampshire acre of paradise on pond at the foot of Mount Kearsarge.

As a final sour cherry, I picked a good one. It’s from the grandfather of all paying poetry markets, Poetry. The July / August 2018 issue. Here it is, in its entirety, scribed by the prolific writer Joyce Carol Oates:


take you where
you don’t want to go.

Where you’d been
and had passed smilingly through,
and were alive. Then.


Whew. If you or I sent that baby in, it would not have made it past the first reader, a summer intern English major. But coming from the well-established literary firm of Joyce, Carol, & Oates? In! And taking up precious real estate.

Pass the cherries….

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