Donald Hall essays

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God’s Little Addiction

essays at eightyGod has this little addiction. It’s called irony. Like O. Henry (only with more staying power), She can’t help herself when it comes to trick endings, little twists, wry surprises. Big G, they call her. Big “Gotcha!”

I was reminded of this while sailing through 85-year-old Donald Hall’s collection, Essays After Eighty. Folks who like poetry know that Hall was a poet of some renown. As happens, he married another poet — one 19 years his junior —  Jane Kenyon. Jane knew her way around an iambic and could leap pentameters with flair as well. Poetically speaking, it was a high-profile and poetically-inclined marriage.

Here’s a relevant quote, from an essay called (appropriately enough) “Death”:

“In middle life I came close to dying of natural causes. When I was sixty-one I had colon cancer, deftly removed, but two years later it metastasized to my liver. A surgeon removed half of that organ and told me I might live five years. Both Jane and I assumed I would die soon, and she massaged me every day, trying to rub the cancer out. I went through the motions of chemo and finished writing what I was able to finish. Aware of my own approaching death, I was astonished and appalled when Jane came down with leukemia. Her death at forty-seven — I was sixty-six — was not trivial. Six years later I had a small stroke and potential death felt matter-of-fact. A carotid artery was eighty-five percent occluded. Dr. Harbaugh removed a pencil-wide, inch-long piece of plaque during a two-hour operation under local anesthetic. I enjoyed hearing the chitchat of the white-coated gang. Now and then somebody asked me to squeeze a dog’s ball, which tinkled to affirm my consciousness. I was disappointed when Dr. Harbaugh wouldn’t let me take the obstruction back home.”

Elsewhere in the book, Hall mentions how Jane wrote three poems about his fatal illness and imminent demise. You Know Who was listening, apparently. Either that or She fancies poetry.

And bam. Next thing you know, the doomed lives twenty-eight more years (dying in 2018) while the prime-of-life wife and rising-star poet is gone in five  (dying in 1995). Funny? Hardly.

“Life,” the atheists would call it.

“Death,” the Stoics would murmur back.

Sadly, it’s all one. Especially when you consider God’s little addiction, the all-too-personal “I” word.


A Carnival of Losses, A Big Top of Gains


I just finished poet Donald Hall’s second (and final, given his death last year) collection of essays, A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety. His prose style is concise and entertaining, proving compression (i.e. “the art of poetry”) has pay-offs for the essay writer, too. Make that “especially.”

For fans of poetry, two of the book’s four sections merit mention: “The Selected Poets of Donald Hall” (a series of reminisces about poets Hall met and interacted with over the years) and “Necropoetics” (an extended study of poems about death… something Hall was quite familiar with, having experienced the long and fateful death of his poet wife, Jane Kenyon).

Poets discussed in the “Selected Poets” section of the book include Theodore Roethke, Robert Creeley, Louis MacNeice, William Carlos Williams, John Holmes, Stephen Spender, Geoffrey Hill, James Dickey, Allen Tate, Edwin and Willa Muir, Kenneth Rexroth, Seamus Heaney, Joseph Brodsky, Richard Wilbur, E.E. Cummings, Tom Clark, and James Wright. Most of these “essays” are but a page or two long.

For a shorter one and a taste of Hall’s style, I give you his take on Kenneth Rexroth:

New Directions published Kenneth Rexroth’s poems, and I read Rexroth with pleasure and excitement beginning in my twenties and thirties. Long poems and short, I admired him and learned from him, his diction and his three beats a line. His radio talks on California NPR made his opinions public. A dedicated anti-academic, he bragged, ‘I write like I talk.’ Whatever his taste or careful grammar, I kept on admiring his poems as he kept on being nasty about me and my eastern gang. I thought of a happy revenge. Frequently I wrote essays for the New York Times Book Review, so I asked its editor if he’d like an appreciation of Rexroth. Sincerely and passionately and with a devious motive, I wrote an essay to celebrate the poetry of Kenneth Rexroth. I imagined the consternation in California after my piece came out in the New York Times—the shock, the shame, possibly the reluctant pleasure. Mind you, he would not thank me. His publisher James Laughlin, mumbling out of the corner of his mouth, brought me a meager but appreciative word.”

Kill ’em with kindness, I always say. Especially when they’re playing tribal politics, something we watch with horror as it plays out in Swampington D.C. and thus, as poets, something we should know better than to repeat in our own little microcosm of intrigues and jealousies.

The reminisce about Allen Tate is quick but quick-witted, showing Hall’s signature sense of humor:

My recollections of some poets are brief. Allen Tate always looked grumpy.

The Tate page is so white, it is reminiscent of Basho and jumping frogs. A haiku, then, to the fifth of Snow White’s dwarfs, Grumpy: