4.5 out of 5 stars
Cut to the Chase:
I don’t like poetry. I try to avoid reading poems because usually, I have the same reaction reading poems as I do when staring at abstract art: huh? But this is a selection of poems from 60 years of writings. They are intensely emotional, sparsely written, beautiful poems from the former poet laureate, and well worth the read.
I’m going to rely heavily on my favorite excerpts from Hall’s book since I think that sometimes, deciding whether or not to try out a particular poet, you really have to see the poems, rather than hear someone else’s opinions (though my thoughts are also sprinkled throughout).
Hall has a very clear, narrative style, and this collection follows his life from young adult to older widower. He opens with:
“OLD HOME DAY
Old man remembers to old man
How bat struck ball upon this plain,
Hall’s poems are often self-reflective, almost memoir-like, and talk about everything, from baseball and family to the loss of his wife (poet Jane Kenyon) to being a poet:
“TO A WATERFOWL
These are 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.
Hall writes with honesty and a nostalgia that seems sentimental without being manipulative, especially during the letters he writes to his wife, after her death:
Remembered happiness is agony;
so is remembered agony.
I live in a present compelled
by anniversaries and objects:
your pincushion; your white slipper;
your hooded Selectric II;
the label basil in a familiar hand;
a stain on flowery sheets.”
But it’s not all sad and depressing; Hall has an incredible, irreverent sense of humor that also comes out:
‘Dead people don’t like olives,’
I told my partners in eighth grade
dancing class, who never listened
as we foxtrotted, one-two, one-two
The dead people I often consulted
Nodded their skulls in unison
While I flung my black velvet cape
Over my shoulders and glowered
From deep-set, burning eyes,
Walking the city streets, alone at fifteen,
Crazy for cheerleaders and poems…
I’ve tried to give just sections to various poems (no complete ones) to give you a sense of the range of topics and styles that Hall writes with. Very little of it is abstract; most of it is narrative, straightforward, almost plainspoken, but very effective in the emotions it stirs.
Comparisons to Other Books:
For anyone unfamiliar with Hall as a poet, I think this is a great place to start, as it gives you a wide range of his work, spanning 60 years. Also, the CD is wonderful – I attended a reading with Hall once and there’s really nothing quite like hearing poems read by the author himself. If you like this, or are just looking for a smaller sample of Hall’s work, I would recommend Without, which is one of the most moving books I’ve read and details Hall’s emotions and life after his younger wife passes away.