Thinking with Muscle and Tongue:
The Poetry of Donald Hall
But outspoken? Downright cantankerous, some might say after reading his essays; knowing his unapologetic insistence on attention to craft; on reading the poets of other ages; his diatribes against dead metaphors; disdain for workshop-induced “McPoems”; disillusion with current academia, and finally, criticism of the present administration and possible limitations of free expression.
So who is this older man, bearded and a bit rumpled, who sits smiling on the porch of a 200-year-old farmhouse in rural New Hampshire? That anyone who lives “up there” (and without e-mail or even a computer!) could be so accomplished appears to bewilder some of the current rush of interviewers. Although the farm does figure importantly in Hall’s life and work, writers seem to focus more on the house than on the man and his work, despite Hall’s advice in “Poetry and Ambition” that, “It does help to remember that poems are the stars, not poets.” (Or houses).
Donald Hall decided to become a poet at the age of fourteen. Change and growth have been hallmarks of both the life he has lived and the work he has produced. Product of a prosperous Connecticut childhood, prep school, Harvard, Oxford, and a European stint as among other things, Poetry Editor of the Paris Review, he became a professor at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. He was vaguely discontented with the academic round, perhaps much like the speaker in “The Man in the Dead Machine,” who survived a war, but found himself,
Or say that the shrapnel
Hall found himself often writing of his memories of his favorite summer respite, his maternal grandparents’ New Hampshire farm. As a poet, he had already purposefully divested himself of his “obsession with meter” while at Oxford. He had begun to work in syllabic forms. “It gave me something to count, a rail to hang onto while I made the transition.”Avoiding the iambs, he concentrated on muscle-feel and mouth-sound as well as line integrity to construct his poems. Although he returns to traditional forms on occasion, these elements have characterized his work ever since.
When, after a divorce and “a bad five years,” he married his student Jane Kenyon, nineteen years younger, “Our friends in Ann Arbor gave us 18 months.” To further confound the odds, they left the social round of Ann Arbor and their academic employment, to move permanently to the farm and devote themselves to poetry.
Hall did not leave the classroom because he hated teaching. “I enjoyed teaching very much. The classroom was fun. At first the university seemed irrelevant; it simply provided a structure. Gradually I came to distrust the institution.”
But he has never stopped teaching. Through his poetry Hall teaches us about the human heart, mind, and psyche. Through his essays he continues to teach us to be better writers and readers of poetry, indeed of all literature.
We owe him for encouraging our horror of dead metaphors, for his unapologetic insistence on clarity and accuracy in language and punctuation yes punctuation for creating the three allegorical beings who inhabit poetry (Goatfoot, Milktongue, and Twinbird); and for unashamed admiration for those who have used language well in the near and far distant past.
I asked him about reading older poets. “My experience of young poets is that most think poetry started in 1976. Once I visited a program giving a PhD in creative writing, where they knew some of my opinions; and they told me quickly how much time they spent reading and analyzing old work. Then I found out what the old work was. It went back as far as Pound and Eliot.”
“When I was growing up, we spent a hell of a lot of time in the seventeenth century. We spent some time with Shakespeare, for heavens sake. We did not, therefore, write metaphysical poetry or (many of us) Shakespearean sonnets. But we learned some of the vast resources of a language which resembled ours, which we could not speak but read, which we could gather to ourselves by a kind of intense understanding and inward reading.”
The whole question of form derives from deep structures in the psyche, according to Hall, not from artificial intellectual constructs, as many critics suppose. “The sensual body of the poem is a pleasure separate from any message the poem may contain.”
He deeply believes that there is the surface of a poem, and then a great powerful force underlying it, which is where the real experience of the poem lies. The words in the mouth as they work their spell through sound, physical response, and image, awaken in both body and mind responses we can often not explain. This underlying force speaks in both creation of, and the response to a well-made poem.
“When we pursue the psychic origins of our satisfaction with poetic form, we come to the end of the trail.” And there we find the three beings. Milktongue is mouth-pleasure, whereby we read with our mouths (even silently) taking pleasure in the vowels and consonants in the mouth. Goatfoot is muscle-pleasure, meter, and beat, whatever sends us dancing as we read with the limbed muscles that enact the poem’s dance. Twinbird is the pleasure of match-mismatch, as we read, alert to the history, meaning, and context of words.
I asked Hall about the origin of these whimsical names. “I know exactly why I made up those names. When I was writing my essay on the psychic origins of poetic form, I knew that if I talked about “assonance,” “rhythm,” and “repetition,” my friend Robert Bly wouldn’t listen to me. He’d say, “Technique, technique, technique...” and that would be the end of that. Bob likes demi-Gods so I made him up a few. Then the invention permitted me to write some expressive impressions, almost like prose poems, which I would never have done if I’d used standard terms.”
He explains his own work in the following way: “Most of my poems are clearly governed by line length and sound. The visual arrangement on the page is a vague form of musical notation for pronunciation. With the heroic English line, or shorter versions, you have a wealth of ways to make a noise, gifted you by history. In free verse you are free to improvise a structure and a coda, which makes it difficult, and extremely satisfying. It is mystifying and wonderful.
But I have also written in syllabics, and syllabics are essentially a visual form. They are necessarily symmetrical. Sometimes they are obvious. “Baseball” is a poem in nine sections of nine stanzas each of nine lines, each line of nine syllables. Writing to a syllable-count, or with that as my only measure is like going to the opposite of everything that I have ever doneŅand that always has its attractions. Poems seem to have a different tone, more probing sometimes more funny, more ironic.” For example, the poems in “The Old Life” are syllabic, although Hall admits they are not his favorite part of his own work. His advice continues to be of the no-nonsense variety:
On rejection: “It is wise to think that the reason for a rejection is simply that the editor did not like your work. It could be true!”
On editing: “Cultivate a group of trusted readers.” Hall sent The Painted Bed to ten such readers; then revising for six months, he changed the “I” to “he”. Then he sent it to ten others. “People ranged form Galway Kinnell and Robert Bly to a woman in her twenties.”
On revision: “I love it. I work hard at it. It could be a year before I let a poem go. As you get older you get more patient. Write the best poetry you can, no matter how long it takes.”
Deeply believing in “thinking with muscle and tongue,” Hall says, “We must read aloud; we must listen. We must roll vowels on our tongues, chew on consonants; we must keep the beat with arm and leg.”
I first encountered Donald Hall in a 1985 anthology which contained many of his most well-known poems up to that time “Names of Horses,” “Kicking the Leaves,” “My Son, My Executioner,” “The Man in the Dead Machine,” “The Toy Bone,” “The Oxcart Man” (which went on to become an award-winning children’s book). I was taken by the wide variety of his subject matter and the interweaving of past and present which gave the work a quality of being outside of time, or perhaps, given the proper stimulus, all times are interwoven within us.
“Kicking the Leaves” exemplifies that quality as he begins with, “Kicking the leaves, October, as we walk home together/from the game, in Ann Arbor/on a day the color of soot, rain in the air” and he proceeds to revisit walking home from school with his knickers swishing like the leaves; visiting his grandparents’ farm as they stacked leaves against the house for winter insulation; playing in the leaves with his father as a small child; watching his growing children; regaining his motivation to write; his father’s too-early death; ending in a pile of leaves as: “Now I leap and fall, exultant, recovering/from death, on account of death, in accord with the dead,/the smell and taste of leaves again/and the pleasure, the only long pleasure, of taking a place/in the story of leaves.”
I first saw Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon in person at the 1992 Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in Stanhope, New Jersey, where word had spread through the festival that Hall’s cancer had returned. He and Jane did a dual reading of poems about death and loss. When Kenyon read her well known “Let Evening Come” no one in that audience dreamed that she would be the first to be taken. A friend and I sent Hall a healing stone and received a gracious thank you, saying that he would place it beside the bed.
An exchange of longer letters followed after I read “Their Ancient Glittering Eyes,” Hall’s interviews with Pound, Eliot, Thomas, Moore, MacLeish, and Winters, luminaries who were the gods of my college years. We reminisced about the days when Oscar Williams’ little anthologies delighted us. Recently, he wrote, “I’d love another afternoon and evening with Ezra Pound, walking around Rome and going to Crispi’s. I would love a session with Robert Frost. I would love to have tea and Scotch with T. S. Eliot. In each case, I doubt that we would be talking about anything technical in poetry, but would talk about our lives, tell anecdotes. We would be poets talking within poetry, not about it.”
He survived the cancer surgery, crediting Jane’s healing hands with helping his recovery. Their life of “double solitude” and creativity continued as documented in “When the fine days”:
Let us descend Camilla, to the long white
In a 2004 essay Hall recalled, “When we moved to the farm, away from teaching and Jane’s family, we threw ourselves into the life of writing poetry as if we jumped from a bridge and swam to survive.” As Kenyon developed as a poet, “That was exciting to watch,” Hall became a freelance writer, academic style, editing anthologies, publishing poetry, essays, criticism, even magazine articles, “to keep the pot boiling.” They had twenty-three years together.
And then, as they did worry about his health, the first of a series of terrible ironies entered their lives:
Together we worried
Back at the motel, after all day by her bed, I walked up and down, talking to myself without making a sound, staying clear, and made a slip of the tongue: “My life has leukemia.”
In the aftermath of Jane’s illness and death the work becomes towering rage, grief, horror, letters to the dead, to the living, old age, attempts at new love. Hall‘s poetry entered a new phase
He took the horrific details of the fifteen months of Jane Kenyon’s cancer treatment, including a cross-country trip for the bone marrow transplant which failed, and turned them into poetry. He took words others have heard thousands of times: “The cancer is back; there’s nothing we can do,” and made those into poetry. He described the myriad ways of his grief in the letters he wrote to Jane for over a year, some of which are now poems, at once tender and unsparing in their reality:
... Now your hillside
And later, in “Kill the Day,”
He envied whatever felt nothing. He envied oak
Has anyone chronicled the details of sickness, love, loss, and death with such beauty, such loving details the better to keep the loved one close? And how has Hall done it? The same way he does everything else in plain, clear-eyed language, telling detail, concern for how the lines feel in the mouth, for the sound of the words, for even the punctuation.
In one of the earliest poems in Old and New Poems (1990) called “September Ode,” there is a line, “Nothing lives which seasons do not mend.”
So nine years later, there he was, standing before a tented workshop called “Conversations on Craft” at the Dodge Poetry Festival in 2004.The September morning was cold and Hall wore a cotton shirt and a light sport coat, while the audience was bundled in sweaters and scarves. The seasons had indeed mended much, and produced a towering body of work.
We had intended to begin this profile with an interview at the Festival, but events intervened and we agreed to converse by mail. We exchanged laments over our ruined shoes, since days of downpour had turned into the Dodge Mud Festival. I was able to enjoy Hall’s rueful greeting of a New England autumn: “Now I’ll have to wear socks and a jacket when I go out to walk the dog.”
For those who have not been familiar with Halls’ work, his latest book, White Apples and the Taste of Stone, provides a selection of poems from 1946-2006 fifty years of accomplishment, and a wealth of impressive poems await the new reader.
One reads the early childhood poems, the evocations of beautiful and sad New England landscapes of his boyhood, baseball, community characters, the passing of a way of life in all of America, cows, horses, the occasional comment on the wider world. The early work is metered and rhymed; then we can see the evolution toward syllabic and then free verse.
Some smart-mouth critic recently claimed that the way to get into a Hall poem is to die. Not true. Yes he writes about, (as he told a fellow plane passenger who asked what he “did”) love, death, and New Hampshire. One can’t live a quiet life in a centuries-old community without being conscious of being surrounded by those who have gone before, even the horses. But Hall’s focus is most often on the living, those left behind to cope with loss, death, and grief, as in “Twelve Seasons”:
She works uphill over the ankle-turning stones
...Behind the dead elm with its branch for swinging from,
Or he creates a joyous, if unusual, tribute to spring in “Great Day in the Cows House”:
Now these wallowing
Oh Camilla, is it conceivable that
getting-in-the-way clothes onto a wide bed
Kearsarge and Ragged Mountain preside over all as in the final section of White Apples and the Taste of Stone, Hall returns to familiar themes in his newest poems: the farm, his grandfather, his younger years, old loves, old memories. Early in the book he paid tribute to his grandfather in “Elegy for Wesley Wells”:
Against the clapboards and the window panes
The length of Wesley Wells, old man I loved,
Five poems from the end, in “Witness’s House” we find the farm again. Here it is Hall growing old alone like his Grandmother Kate. Surviving without the many aspects of his life with Jane, he will still:
Hall does not choose to end this latest volume with a poem in the spirit of “Affirmation,” as he did with The Painted Bed:
Let us stifle under the mud at the pond’s edge and affirm that it is fitting and delicious to lose everything.
That poem does find a place nineteen pages earlier in a section called “Throwing Away.” Rather, he ends this volume with a new poem, “The Hunkering,” which is somehow hopeful as the land (and the poet?) prepares to survive another New England winter, whatever that winter brings, as
And now in 2006, “There is my face in The New York Times. It’s shocking to be so public,” he tells an interviewer on Public Radio in New Hampshire. What will it mean? “A lot of attention to my work. Houghton Mifflin will be able to get my latest book, White Apples and the Taste of Stone around more. I am very pleased. I want to be read. That’s why I write.”
What will he do as his project as Poet Laureate? “It’s too soon to tell. I’ll go down to Washington and see what the possibilities are. Perhaps more poetry on NPR, maybe even satellite radio”. Hall’s installation as Poet Laureate will take place in Washington in October.
Because it seems so prophetic, it is hard to resist not ending with lines from an older poem, “September Ode,” a rhymed and metered poem which was not included in the latest work. In it, the poet observes the turning trees which,
The rounding season will restore and mend.