“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.”