First and Last: Donald Hall

poetrywriting

I thought it would be a fun experiment to post the first and last poems in a particular poet’s “collected works” edition. I guess in my mind posting the first poem – and by first I mean oldest, and by oldest I mean when the poet was at his youngest – and last poem will show some shift in maturity and sensibility, maybe a shift from optimism to crankiness, maybe the opposite, maybe a shift in formality and prosody, or lack thereof – or maybe it’ll show nothing at all, and that will be fine too. Anyway, the first poet I chose is Donald Hall, because 1) I think Donald Hall is great, and 2) it was the book sitting closest to me. Also the title of the book nicely sums up the project here: Old and New Poems. The funny thing is this book hardly finds Donald at the end of his career – this is a midway-point greatest hits collection if anything. Since this book you could argue Hall has only become more popular – only a couple years ago he was made the poet laureate of the nation.

I find the first poem especially serendipitous as we just got finished with an epic baseball game at the park, and I can see a day like this being remembered from old man “to old man” in the future. It’s also funny that the “youngest” poem in the book is about an old man. The second poem is not actually the last poem – I know first post and I’m already breaking the rules – but the last poem is much to long to transcribe here (yep, almost every poem you find here has been typed by hand by me – hardly any of them exist online). The last poem is the morbidly titled “Praise for Death” and is a glorious thing, so do track the book down if you can. I should note that as these last poems were written in 1989 Hall had been diagnosed with colon cancer and so was looking death squarely in the face, which, cruel as it is to say, usually makes for great poetry. So this is the penultimate poem, and still a bit longish itself. You could probably argue that Hall’s most obvious change is from short form to long form poetry. Let’s see what else we find:

Old Home Week

Old man remembers to old man
How bat struck ball upon this plain,
Seventy years ago, before
The batter’s box washed out in rain.

This Poem

1
This poem is why
I lie down at night
to sleep; it is why
I defecate, read,
and eat sandwiches;
it is why I get
up in the morning;
it is why I breathe.

2
You think (and I know
because you told me)
that poems exist
to say things, as you
telephone and I
write letters – as if
this poem practiced
communication.

3
One time this poem
compared itself to
new machinery,
and another time
to a Holstein’s cud.
Eight times five times eight
counts three hundred and
twenty syllables.

4
When you require it,
this poem consoles –
the way a mountain
comforts by staying
as it was despite
earthquakes, Presidents,
divorces, and frosts.
Granite continues.

5
This poem informs
the hurt ear wary
of noises, and sings
to the weeping eye.
When the agony
abates itself, one
may appreciate
arbitrary art.

6
This poem is here.
Could it be someplace
else? Every question
is the wrong question.
The only answer
saunters down the page
in its broken lines
strutting and primping.

7
It styles itself not
for the small mirror
of its own regard –
nor even for yours;
to fix appearance;
to model numbers;
to name charity
“the greatest of these.”

8
All night this poem
knocks at the closed door
of sleep: “Let me in.”
Suppose all poems
contain this poem,
dreaming one knowledge
shaped by the measure
of the body’s word.

* * *

One thing I notice the older poet writing about more and more is, obviously, death. Hall at this point was older, yes, but not of an age to truly face death – however the world had presented him with this cancer, and thus he was forced to accept death prematurely, only to go on living and writing up until the present day. I can’t imagine the effect this has on a person, but the poetry, just two poems, tells us that the person goes from crisp, somewhat weightless, formal (iambic tetrameter) “poetry’s poetry” based on a simple theme to a more casual and rustic exploration of global, universal themes. Poem not as poem but as container of life. I’ll leave you with that, make of it what you will. My well’s run dry on this post so I’ll be back another time.

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