American Idyll

(Anthony Russo)
Reviewed by Billy Collins
Sunday, April 16, 2006


Selected Poems 1946-2006

By Donald Hall

Houghton Mifflin. 431 pp. $30

Since 1995, Donald Hall has been so closely associated with the untimely passing of his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, that his long life's work in poetry, arcing over six decades, may be said to have become partially eclipsed by the shadow of her death. His tributes to her in Without (1998) and The Painted Bed (2002) created for Hall a reputation as a primarily elegiac poet. But Hall, as his loyal readers know, is that and more.

The publication of 226 selected poems in White Apples and the Taste of Stone comes, then, as a welcome and needed reminder of the expansiveness and weight of this poet's output. It is also an opportunity to enjoy the delightful variety of his work and the sheer charm of his voice. This hefty book, accompanied by a CD of Hall reading some of his work, is a physical and literary manifestation of his importance, not only as an authority on grief but as a major figure in the canon of contemporary American poetry.

Hall has long been placed in the Frostian tradition of the plainspoken rural poet. His reliance on simple, concrete diction and the no-nonsense sequence of the declarative sentence gives his poems steadiness and imbues them with a tone of sincere authority. It is a kind of simplicity that succeeds in engaging the reader in the first few lines. "In October of the year," one poem begins, "he counts potatoes dug from the brown field." Another opens: "Looking through boxes/in the attic of my mother's house in Hamden,/I find a model airplane." Many poems are further stabilized by Hall's love of storytelling, a narrative exuberance that produces anecdotal poems as well as longer, more complex weavings.

Hall himself may be as sophisticated as any American poet (he studied at Harvard, Oxford and Stanford and taught at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor), but his persona is agrarian. His decision to detach himself from academic life, with its slow but steady intravenous drip of a salary, and retire to a family farmhouse in New Hampshire gives him the barnyard credibility to write about the lives of farmers and their animals alike. Pig, hen, horse, sheep and cow -- all are subjects of sympathetic meditations on the animals whose lives are taken to sustain ours. "Eating the Pig" should be required reading for all literate carnivores.

In Hall's poetry, as in reality, the dead outnumber the living. The mood of loss that attends the passing of generations saturates this collection. In "Traffic," the poet returns to Earth after having "wandered a lifetime among galaxies" to find "the people gone, ruin taking their place. . . . Freddie Bauer is dead. . . . Agnes McSparren is dead. . . . Harry Bailey is dead. . . . Karl Kapp is dead,/who loaded his van at dawn,/conveyor belt supplying butter, cottage cheese, heavy cream." In hindsight, it almost seems that Hall's longstanding elegiac preoccupations served as a kind of preparation for the loss of Jane Kenyon, whose protracted illness and death are assiduously and tenderly chronicled in poem after poem.

Death has long been poetry's favorite lens, but this collection also demonstrates Hall's versatility in form and subject and his ability to advance happily in a number of poetic and tonal gears. Witness the comic apostrophes of "O Cheese" ("O village of cheeses, I make you this poem of cheeses"); the noble formality of "Names of Horses"; the grim celebration of "Praise for Death"; the whimsicality of "On Reaching the Age of Two Hundred" ("It was the usual thing:/dried grapefruit for breakfast"); or the imaginative bravado of "The Impossible Marriage," which enacts the fiasco of the wedding of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman.

Hall must also be credited with the distinction of being America's best baseball poet. In this collection, each of the nine innings gets its own poem -- composed of nine nine-line stanzas -- and for those who want more balls and strikes, the poetic game stretches into four extra innings as the poet continues to stitch his sports metaphor into the fabric of his life. "Baseball is not my work. It is my/walk in the park, my pint of bitter" is an interesting declaration coming from a poet well-known for locating happiness in work.

One quibble for the more scholarly reader is that the poems are not listed by date or grouped by their books of origin; rather, though chronological, they are creatively but unhelpfully presented in sections bearing their own sometimes puzzling titles.

Still, White Apples and the Taste of Stone offers the most generous array of this poet's work to date, plus a bonus of almost 20 new poems. If you are interested enough in contemporary poetry to have read this review to the end, then the collected poems of Donald Hall should have a place on your night table and, later, on a shelf within easy reach. ยท

Billy Collins's latest collection of poetry is "The Trouble With Poetry and Other Poems." He is a former U.S. Poet Laureate.

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