Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon at Eagle Pond Farm

“Old people are a separate form of life,” declared poet Donald Hall in Essays After Eighty, a few years back. “When we turn eighty, we understand that we are extraterrestrial.” Now the extraterrestrial is about to become an extra-extra one, and is issuing another orbital report as he approaches ninety. Over recent years Hall explains that poems stopped coming to him, but that “prose endures,” and in these two hundred and some pages of mostly short and spiky items, he assesses his current situation: “I shed my skin, I tell short anecdotes, I hazard an opinion, speculate, assume, and remember. Why should the nonagenarian hold anything back?” But in Robert Frost’s words about writing, something always “has to be held back for pressure,” and it would be a mistake to think that Hall in old age is now content to let it all hang out. Instead, a pervasive wit gives pressure to these opinions and reminiscences. “In your eighties you are invisible,” he observes. “Nearing ninety you hope nobody sees you.”

Writing about Andrew Marvell, T. S. Eliot defined “wit” mainly through negatives: “It is not cynicism, though it has a kind of toughness which may be confused with cynicism by the tender-minded.” When Hall began to publish poems, roughly sixty-five years ago, anything like wit was notably absent. One of his early poems, “My Son, My Executioner” (originally and pretentiously titled “Epigenethlion”), consisted of  three stiff quatrains that ended “We twenty-five and twenty-two/ Who seemed to live forever/ Observe enduring life in you/ And start to die together.” Decades later, after the death of his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, he was able to write in a rather different spirit about a visit to her grave with his dog: “Every day Gus and I/ take a walk in the graveyard./ I’m the one who doesn’t/ piss on your stone.” Not cynicism, such wit, though it may be thought so by the tender-minded; its presence in Hall’s late poems, and now in his prose, has given continuing life to the aging writer’s performance.

A Carnival of Losses consists of four sections, the first of which contains a number of short pieces, each characterized by a humorous twist. “The Beard Generation,” for example, begins by alluding to our beardless founding fathers—Washington, Hamilton, the Adamses, Jefferson—men Hall describes as “shaved mostly by slaves with straight razors.” He continues:

Then Abraham Lincoln grew a beard. Poets with three names wore beards except for Edna St. Vincent Millay. Ezra Loomis Pound wore a beard. T. S. Eliot wore initials. I grew my first beard halfway through the twentieth century, when they were shocking. The English department where I taught had a hundred teachers with hairless faces, only three of whom were female.

After these casual-sounding sentences, Hall moves into the sports arena, with an exclamatory list of baseball players impossible to associate with beards: “Imagine Lou Gehrig with a beard!  Jackie Robinson! Babe Ruth! Ted Williams!” But today’s sluggers are bewhiskered, and basketball and football players have followed suit, or perhaps hirsute: “There are beards under football helmets and above LeBron James’s basketball uniform,” Hall notes. “Some hockey players wear beards, although they are Canadian.” The closing paragraph is a one-line prediction: “Soon everyone will shave.”

In an essay titled “Pharmacies and Treasuries,” Hall writes a paean to the vanished “drugstore” and the items it contained, which—along with stools on which you could sit and drink the Coke provided by the druggist, who could also manufacture a chocolate sundae—sometimes included books not to be found at today’s CVS. Hall remembers finding a copy of what he calls a “drugstore paperback,” that turned out to be an anthology of poems in which he appeared. He ponders what we have lost:

Today, in the twenty-first century, in the MFA era, there are more poets, more poetry magazines, more poetry publishers, more books of poems—and no corner drugstores, no drugstore paperbacks, no book reviews, no bookstores and no anthologies.

From here he is led to some sharp remarks about two of last century’s favorite poetry anthologists, Louis Untermeyer and Oscar Williams. Williams’s Little Treasure of Modern Poetry “prints nine bad poems by Oscar Williams and four by his wife Gene Derwood,” Halls reports, and continues parenthetically, “(William Carlos Williams gets two.)” This reader remembers that book, with its “printed oval photographs of the poets,” but failed to remember one salient fact acerbically noted by Hall, who asks, “Would you care to guess whose portrait ends the book? Or whose portrait resides next to Homer on the cover of the paperback?” Randall Jarrell once said that Oscar Williams’s poems were “written on a typewriter by a typewriter.” Hall deflates Williams’s status further still, by recounting once introducing him to T. S. Eliot at a dinner party. “Eliot said, ‘I recognize you from your photographs,’” writes Hall, adding that “without irony Williams burbled that he recognized Eliot too.”

In selecting moments from these pages that seem rich with a sardonic though not at all bitter humor, I have neglected a deeper poignancy, in which the diversions of the carnival give way to a less protected sense of the losses entailed as the carnival goes on.

What will almost certainly turn out to be Hall’s final book of poetry was a slim volume of eighty poems, culled from his lifetime output of verse. In A Carnival of Losses, this Selected Poems is now followed, in properly comic fashion, by “The Selected Poets of Donald Hall,” a hundred pages of brief reminiscences of mostly American poets from Theodore Roethke to James Wright. Of these, by far the shortest is devoted to Allen Tate: “My recollections of some poets are brief. Allen Tate always looked grumpy.” E. E. Cummings, conjured in the act of judging an undergraduate poetry contest, doesn’t fare much better: “His face never looked as if he heard anything. He was sullen, unsmiling, dour—possibly because he was judging an undergraduate poetry contest.” Though not a poet, Saul Bellow appears briefly, leaving early from a meeting because he was “pissed off” at something. (Hall expands: “Over four decades every time I saw Bellow he was pissed off.”) As for poet and novelist James Dickey, Hall describes him as the best liar he ever knew.

These squibs might sound malicious, yet there is little or no malice in the jaunty, pleased mode with which Hall delivers them. Some portraits are notable for their mischievous warmth, especially the one of Richard Wilbur whose poems Hall discovered when he was a freshman at Harvard. Decades later in 2017, just before Wilbur died at ninety-six, Hall telephones him, and after a brief conversation hangs up relieved that “he still sounded like Dick. His appearance and demeanor have always resembled his work—handsome, formal, warm, wry, as elegant as the curls of his italic hand, and young.” A just and noble epitaph for an old poet, from a slightly less old one.

In selecting moments from these pages that seem rich with a sardonic though not at all bitter humor, I have neglected a deeper poignancy, in which the diversions of the carnival give way to a less protected sense of the losses entailed as the carnival goes on. In the book’s third section, “Necropoetics,” Hall revisits, probably for the last time, the illness and death of his second wife, Jane Kenyon, juxtaposing his thoughts with some of their poems, such as the close of his “Weeds and Peonies”:

                                    ...I pace beside weeds


and snowy peonies, staring at Mt. Kearsarge
where you climbed wearing purple hiking boots.
“Hurry back. Be careful, climbing down.”
Your peonies lean their vast heads westward
as if they might topple. Some topple.

He ends the personal essay with the memory of how “after her death Jane’s voice and mine rose as one, spiraling together images and diphthongs of the dead who were once the living, our necropoetics of grief and love in the unforgivable absence of flesh.”

But the book does not end on that ultimate note of loss; rather there is a touching move back toward the living. The poet recalls his great-grandfather, Ben Keneston, the original occupant of Eagle Pond Farm, the house Hall has so frequently celebrated in print. It is told of great-grandfather that he once instructed a hired man to count the number of a herd of cattle moving from one pasture to another. The hired man, unable to cipher, is heard repeating, “There’s one, there’s one, there’s one...” Hall assumes that after his own death the farm will be no more, but is unexpectedly assured by his granddaughter that she and her husband will move into it. These were, he relates, “the happiest words I ever heard, a joy that depended on dying, therefore an inevitable, even a reliable joy.”

And so the great-great-great granddaughter of Ben Keneston, together with her husband, will keep alive the family residence. “And after Allison and Will?” Hall muses. “There’s one, there’s one, there’s one, and maybe there’s another.” No further words necessary.

“Will Hall ever write / lines that do anything / but whine and complain?” Thus, in “Distressed Haiku,” the poet imagined someone’s annoyed response to the many poems about grief and loss he has written. The loss of Donald Hall, who died June 23, was anticipated in his later years by prose that neither whined nor complained, but was darkly humorous and life-enhancing. Nor did he fail to provide his own epitaph, a wholly graceful one: “When the poet stops, / the poem begins. The poem asks only / that the poet get out of the way.”


‘A Carnival of Losses’
Notes Nearing Ninety

Donald Hall
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $25,  224 pp.

William H. Pritchard, a frequent contributor, is the Henry Clay Folger Professor of English, Emeritus, at Amherst College.

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Published in the September 7, 2018 issue: View Contents
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