A Review of The Selected Poems of Donald Hall

by Ernest Hilbert

Donald Hall, The Selected Poems of Donald Hall (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015) 160 pp.

“To write something as good as the poems that originally brought you to love the art. It’s the only sensible reason for writing poems,” Donald Hall declared in his early sixties in a Paris Review interview (he served as the magazine’s first poetry editor in the 1950s). Now in his eighties, Hall has assembled what he feels is his very best work in the newly published Selected Poems of Donald Hall. By his own reckoning, the new Selected is less than a third the length of its predecessor, White Apples and the Taste of Stone: Selected Poems 1946–2006 (indeed, the 2007 volume runs to a door-stopping 448 pages, bound with a compact disc of Hall reading the poems). The concision is worth noting, given that the vastly prolific Hall has published no fewer than twenty volumes of poetry, including two previous Selected volumes. The slender volume contains a mere 140 pages of poems, not many more than a typical debut collection of poetry. We can’t help but feel that much depends on this final selection, because, as Hall admits in the post scriptum, he will “make no more poems.” Hall chose not to include chapter headings, which would have indicated the books in which the poems originally appeared. This unfenced approach allows his selection to read seamlessly, like the book every young poet dreams of writing.

Selected and Collected poems can be structured in a number of ways. The Collected Poetry of W. H. Auden, published in 1945, was arranged in alphabetical order by first lines, placing “Musée des Beaux Arts” at the beginning with its opening line “About suffering they were never wrong” (some credit the poem’s popularity to this placement). Frederick Seidel’s massive Poems 1959–2009 runs in reverse chronological order from Evening Man (2008) back to his controversial first book, Final Solutions (1963). Hall’s ordering of earliest to most recent suits his brand of poetry, which maps the poet’s many personal observations and experiences, from the remarkable exuberance of youth to the toughened perceptions of age.

When asked, What do you write about? Hall typically answers “love, death, and New Hampshire” and, of course, “always Eagle Pond Farm,” his “ancestral family place.” These are in abundance in these pages, and much else besides. The book begins with a poem of birth, though one complicated by thoughts of the poet’s own mortality. “My Son My Executioner” is composed in buoyant ballad stanzas intended to echo nursery rhymes:

Sweet death, small son, our instrument
Of immortality,
Your cries and hungers document
Our bodily decay.

A poem on the occasion of his father’s death, just a few pages on, is more indirect and haunted, symbol-laden, fashioned in free verse, and less at ease than the earlier stanzas.

when my father had been dead a week
I woke
with his voice in my ear
I sat up in bed
and held my breath
and stared at the pale closed door

white apples and the taste of stone

Hall has described the last line quoted above as “syntactically” and “spatially disconnected” because it came to him from nowhere one day after he dreamt his father had called to him. He admits that he doesn’t understand entirely what the white apple is—an “apple made of stone,” a “snowball,” without “nutrition,” “frightening.”

In the mid-1960s, Hall interviewed the English modernist sculptor Henry Moore for a New Yorker profile, an assignment that led to Hall’s first full-length biography, Henry Moore: the Life and Work of a Great Sculptor, published by Gollancz in 1966. Moore’s signature form is a monumental reclining human figure in bronze, which Hall reimagines in the short poem “Reclining Figure,” stimulated by the semi-abstract style of the sculpture itself.

Then the knee of the wave
turned to stone.

By the cliff of her flank
I anchored,

in the darkness of harbors
laid-by.

Hall has always been stylistically adventurous and wide-ranging, taking up methods, discarding them for new ones, and sometimes returning to them later. Hall never seems to have been entirely comfortable in the mainstream of American verse after modernism. He instinctively avoids abstractions and other impulses that might have the effect of diluting the emotional honesty and force of his poems. After the earlier, somewhat experimental adventures in this selection, Hall’s poems realize equilibrium between the assurance of measure and the liberties of open form. The poems of his mature period grow out of his use of this style to address the pleasures and terrors of the natural world, the consolations and losses of domestic life, and most especially the hard times that follow those losses.

The first stirrings of the famous Hall style are heard in “The Stump,” when the “Strong men climbed with ropes / in the brittle tree.” The confident voice has arrived, portraying the world with the naturalist’s eye and singer’s ear. Life and death intermingle with the relics of human work in the world Hall inhabits:

There is a sailing ship
beached in the cove of a small island
where the warm water is turquoise.
The hulk leans over, full of rain and sand,
and shore flowers grow from it.

We glimpse “Mount Kearsarge” looming on the horizon as his beloved sits by the “woodstove . . . while I bring glasses of white,” a “Great blue mountain! Ghost.” We watch as the rich “coal fire burned in a basket grate” while “ash collected on the firebrick / like snow.” These poems lie deeply in the great pastoral tradition of Virgil’s Eclogues, Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calender, and Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads. We are present “in the dark tie-up” with “seven huge Holsteins” of “Great Day in the Cows’ House,” where though “they are long dead: they survive, in the great day / of August to convene afternoon and morning / for milking.” We experience a child-like enchantment in “Kicking the Leaves,” written when Hall was in his forties, walking with his children “home together / from the game,” which stimulates memories of his own childhood:

I kicked at the leaves, making a sound I remember
as the leaves swirl upward from my boot
and flutter; and I remember
Octobers walking to school in Connecticut,
wearing corduroy knickers that swished
with a sound like leaves; and a Sunday buying
a cup of cider at a roadside stand
on a dirt road in New Hampshire; and kicking the leaves . . .

Poems of youth and family life at Eagle Pond are kin to Hall’s genial essays on the same topics, which have proven popular from the early 1960s with String Too Short to Be Saved, through Seasons at Eagle Pond in the ’80s, and most recently with Essays After Eighty, in which he writes of “a white landscape that turns pale green, dark green, yellow and red, brown under bare branches, until snow falls again.” Readers may sense that Hall’s seasonal, local America is fast vanishing, displaced by sprawling suburbs, troubled inner cities, and the endless distractions of a media-saturated age. Hall’s reminiscences are reassuring and almost exotic in their simplicity.

At the midpoint of the book we encounter the ode “Names of Horses,” which deserves to be considered Hall’s masterpiece. It is a meditation on passing generations, cycles of the natural world, family bonds, lingering melancholy of memory and encroaching age, all exquisitely shaped. The horses that work the farm move through seasons and years, grow “old and lame,” and are replaced by new horses with “brute shoulders, strained against collars.” On Sundays, the horses too are permitted to rest.

You trotted the two miles to church with the light load
of a leather quartertop buggy, and grazed in the sound of hymns.
Generation on generation, your neck rubbed the window sill
of the stall, smoothing the wood as the sea smooths glass.

These nearly primeval visions are Hall’s trademark, invested with such energy that we feel present and part of a scene. Take, for instance, when in “April you pulled cartloads of manure to spread on the fields, / dark manure of Holsteins, and knobs of your own clustered with oats. / All summer you mowed the grass in meadow and hayfield. . . .” Hall also catalogues the names of horses—some real, some invented—that worked the farm and were laid to rest in the soil they turned:

For a hundred and fifty years, in the pasture of dead horses,
Roots of pine trees pushed through the pale curves of your ribs.
Yellow blossoms flourished above you in autumn, and in winter
Frost heaved your bones in the ground—old toilers, soil makers:

O Roger, Mackerel, Riley, Ned, Nellie, Chester, Lady Ghost.

Hall has explained that he “wrote [“Names of Horses”] when Jane and I moved into this old family house, and I remembered my summers with my grandparents. It’s been one family here since 1865.” Hall married his second wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, in 1972. Their married life served as the subject of a Bill Moyers PBS documentary, “A Life Together,” which aired in 1993, making them one of the most famous literary couples in America. Some of the most powerful evocations of their happiness together came to Hall in poems written after her death from leukemia at the age of 47 in 1996 (she was New Hampshire’s poet laureate at the time). The poems in his 1998 collection, Without, describe Jane’s illness and his time caring for her. They are composed in a grieving and emotionally-decentered free verse, such as the heart-breaking “Letter with No Address,” in which he writes to Jane, “there’s news to tell you.” The busy world goes on, endlessly renewing itself.

Maggie Fisher’s pregnant.
I carried myself like an egg
at Abigail’s birthday party
a week after you died,
as three-year-olds bounced
uproarious on a mattress.

Still, the poet is absorbed by memories of a better time.

Ordinary days were the best,
when we worked over poems
in our separate rooms.
I remember watching you gaze
out the January window
into the garden of snow
and ice, your face rapt
as you imagined burgundy lilies.

Your presence in this house
is almost as enormous
and painful as your absence.

After the initial phase of mourning, Hall was inspired by Thomas Hardy’s elegiac late poems to return to the graceful meters of his own earliest poems. Here Hall’s memories of his days with Jane are crystalline, brimming with simple gratitude, as in “Summer Kitchen.”

In June’s high light she stood at the sink
With a glass of wine,
And listened for the bobolink
And crushed garlic in late sunshine.

I watched her cooking, from my chair.
She pressed her lips
Together, reached for kitchenware,
And tasted sauce from her fingertips.

“It’s ready now. Come on,” she said
“You light the candle.”
We ate, and talked, and went to bed,
And slept. It was a miracle.

Hall has remarked that some of his poems took “a year and a half and went through about two hundred drafts.” This is not surprising from a man who once wrote that “mere literary talent is common; what is rare is endurance, the continuing desire to work hard at writing.” This painstaking work, the labor of a lifetime, is refined in these pages. We are left with the sense of a life richly lived and beautifully observed, filled with striking and memorable images of what Hall calls the “up-and-down story of a life.” If one desired an introduction to Hall’s poetry, it would be hard to improve upon this latest Selected. It whets the appetite for more and we are encouraged to seek out, to discover or rediscover, the many poems in the larger Selected volumes and the individual collections themselves. Hall has advised that “life should be lived toward moments when you lose yourself in what you are doing.” We now have a superb, concise selection of Hall’s finest poems in which we may, very simply, lose ourselves.