Auld Lang Syne

Friday, March 16, 2012

Donald Hall keeps on keeping' on

Arrived by package on porch recently: 2011 poetry book, Back Chamber by Donald Hall.


OK, he is the former Poet Laureate of the US and who am I, mere mortal local Maine poet, to review or (gasp!) critique his poetry?

Here's the thing: I love poetry and I am a HUGE fan of DH. But...

I begin by saying there are many poems in this collection which I love, notably: "Ruins," "Sleep," "The Week," "Searching," and "Green Farmhouse Chairs."

But there are poems that fall flat for me and others that are, for me, awful. Even as I write this, I am cringing a bit. But there are these poems that leave me cold or annoyed, poems like "Creative Writing," for example, which seems more like a punch line at a party than poetry to me. "The Pursuit of Poetry" fails for me due to a tone of arrogance, and it is off-putting in its self-consciousness. The poem steams with a sense that the speaker of the poem is a bit wearily full of himself and cannot be bothered with "regular folks." (Hall speaks of himself in the third person in this line: "Donald Hall" declined to become hors d'oeuvers) The lines, Stacey called happily from her "Poetry House" / to invite my attendance at an open mike, I watched/color drain from my hand as if it were sculpted in snow./ suggests the famous dismisses the eager fan or the aspiring poet. It is beneath Hall to do this in such a public way as this, even if it is how he feels.

A large issue for me in this volume is Hall's casual use of the f-word. Seems out of place, awkward. Seems a bit embarrassing for a person of his stature, age, talent. The word seems to appear suddenly in an otherwise splendid poem. I agree that this might be more me than anything else. I am not offended by the word in some contexts. I have used it myself (an example would include my poem about a WWII medic in Daughter of the Ardennes Forest (Main Street Rag, 2007). In that case, I used the word in a dialogue between soldiers. But... in a poem such as Hall's "Three Women," the word comes across as demeaning. Maybe that was his aim. If so, I lose a bit of respect for him here. If we compare that poem with the poem, "Bangers and Mash," wherein he uses the phrase "made love," the contrast is startling. And, for me, puts "Three Women" high on the "ick scale." Conversely, I see the use of the word in ""Poetry and Ambition" as perfectly appropriate.

So what's MY problem? Is it the demeaning nature of the word when applied to relationship? I guess it might be that. But really, I think it is this area where Hall seems to have lost his love. He is a sad widower no matter what else. Jane's death cannot become an excuse however. It is a fact of Hall's existence. I have to say that those poems of grief are the most holy and yet raw poems of his. I LOVE the collection he did a few years ago, The Painted Bed. I relish each and every poem for its breathtaking honesty and the beautiful way he deals with grieving the loss of his best person in the world. I read these poems at the same time as I read Carol Muske-Dukes' Sparrow.
These two books were perfect to read together, one from the male and one from the female perspective on loss and yet they were the same — because loss knows no gender divide. Back Chamber does not live up to the quality of either. I am sad to not have that quality of work to admire here.

It is certainly true that Hall is an icon of American poetry. But likewise he is an aging icon which may factor in regarding this collection. His fine attention to detail, rich images, and notation of all that he sees from his perch have perhaps gone to seed or his edge is dulled by dotage. His best poems may be behind him.

So, no apologies, dear DH. I still think you are one of our best. Your laurels are well-earned and deserved. Just not here.

1 comment:

  1. Good Morning, Carol,
    I,too, love Donald Hall's poems. So I especially appreciated your critique of his current collection, BACK CHAMBER. It is very hard to write a good review that is not totally enamored of the work being reviewed. So thanks--and I will return to this as a model for my reviews.