Posts filed under ‘Donald Hall’

To a Waterfowl

Donald Hall

Listen (the poet reads)

Women with hats like the rear ends of pink ducks
applauded you, my poems.
These are the women whose husbands I meet on airplanes,
who close their briefcases and ask, “What are you in?”
I look in their eyes, I tell them I am in poetry,

and their eyes fill with anxiety, and with little tears.
“Oh, yeah?” they say, developing an interest in clouds.
“My wife, she likes that sort of thing? Hah-hah?
I guess maybe I’d better watch my grammar, huh?”
I leave them in airports, watching their grammar,

and take a limousine to the Women’s Goodness Club
where I drink Harvey’s Bristol Cream with their wives,
and eat chicken salad with capers, with little tomato wedges
and I read them “The Erotic Crocodile,” and “Eating You.”
Ah, when I have concluded the disbursement of sonorities,

crooning, “High on thy thigh I cry, Hi!” — and so forth —
they spank their wide hands, they smile like Jell-O,
and they say, “Hah-hah? My goodness, Mr. Hall,
but you certainly do have an imagination, huh?”
“Thank you, indeed,” I say; “it brings in the bacon.”

But now, my poems, now I have returned to the motel,
returned to l’ternel retour of the Holiday Inn,
naked, lying on the bed, watching Godzilla Sucks Mt. Fuji ,
addressing my poems, feeling superior, and drinking bourbon
from a flask disguised to look like a transistor radio.

And what about you? You, laughing? You, in the bluejeans,
laughing at your mother who wears hats, and at your father
who rides airplanes with a briefcase watching his grammar?
Will you ever be old and dumb, like your creepy parents?
Not you, not you, not you, not you, not you, not you.

A delightful reading of a delightful poem. Hall has a new Selected Poems out – White Apples and the Taste of Stone (Houghton Mifflin, 2006) – 60 years worth of poetry complete with a CD of Hall reading a selection of his poems, including this one.

Charles Simic, in his review of the book in the current issue of the NYRB, describes Hall as the Elegist, and spends much time waxing eloquent about Hall’s later work – the glorious The One Day and The Museum of Clear Ideas. He also gives us, however (and it’s the best part of the review, IMHO) this superb quote from Hall’s essay on ‘Poetry and Ambition’:

The United States invented mass quick-consumption and we are very good at it. We are not famous for making Ferraris and Rolls Royces; we are famous for the people’s car, the Model T, the Model A—”transportation,” as we call it: the particular abstracted into the utilitarian generality—and two in every garage. Quality is all very well but it is not democratic; if we insist on hand-building Rolls Royces most of us will walk to work. Democracy demands the interchangeable part and the worker on the production line; Thomas Jefferson may have had other notions but de Tocqueville was our prophet. Or take American cuisine: it has never added a sauce to the world’s palate, but our fast-food industry overruns the planet.

Thus: Our poems, in their charming and interchangeable quantity, do not presume to the status of “Lycidas”—for that would be elitist and un-American. We write and publish the McPoem —ten billion served—which becomes our contribution to the history of literature as the Model T is our contribution to a history which runs from bare feet past elephant and rickshaw to the vehicles of space. Pull in any time day or night, park by the busload, and the McPoem waits on the steam shelf for us, wrapped and protected, indistinguishable, undistinguished, and reliable—the good old McPoem identical from coast to coast and in all the little towns between, subject to the quality control of the least common denominator.

And every year, Ronald McDonald takes the Pulitzer.

Reading a lot of his work in the past week, it seems to me that Hall is at least partly a victim of his own reputation. All this stuff about being the rightful heir of Frost does him a disservice (actually, calling Frost the rightful heir to Frost would be doing him a disservice, but never mind) – because it makes us think of Hall as someone who writes quiet, elegant poems about bucolic New Hampshire, and as today’s poem demonstrates, there’s more to Hall than that. Simic, in his review, writes: “The poems he [Hall] wrote before moving to the farm in New Hampshire lack a believable speaking voice”. I beg to differ.


Audio recording courtesy of the Poetry Foundation which has whole feature on Hall, along with a number of other audio recordings here.

November 21, 2006 at 5:22 am 3 comments

The Scream

Donald Hall


Observe. Ridged, raised, tactile, the horror
of the skinned head is there. It is skinned
which had a covering-up before,
and now is nude, and is determined

by what it perceives. The blood not Christ’s,
blood of death without resurrection,
winds flatly in the air. Habit foists
conventional surrender to one

response in vision, but it fails here,
where the painstaking viewer is freed
into the under-skin of his fear.
Existence is laid bare, and married

to a movement of caught perception
where the unknown will become the known
as one piece of the rolling mountain
becomes another beneath the stone

which shifts now toward the happy valley
which is not prepared, as it could not
be, for the achieved catastrophe
which produces no moral upshot,

no curtain, epilogue, nor applause,
no Dame to return purged to the Manse
(the Manse is wrecked) – not even the pause,
the repose of art that has distance.

(Donald Hall is the new Poet Laureate)

We’ve all seen the painting. The bridge, the skull like head, the swirling water, the traumatised sky – everything that goes into the making of a nightmare. And amidst it all, the pure intensity of the cry emanating from the canvas. Edvard Munch’s The Scream is one of the most iconic paintings of our time, and here Hall does a splendid job of exploring it, beginning with basic observation and slowly pushing your face deeper and deeper into the canvas until you are staring eyeball to eyeball at the vertiginous power of Munch’s vision. Hall allows you no repose here, and very little distance, and the poem is truer to the painting for it.


June 29, 2006 at 5:56 pm 1 comment