donald hall’s farm
dispatch from 02139, en route to 03287 (in which a flock of fellows and co-vivantes board buses and roll along route 4 into new hampshire, for an audience with a high priest of american poetry)…
back in the faraway house that hums without me now, back in the heat of summer, when the fog was lifting on this year of thinking sumptuously, when i first got a peek at the calendar of what the days and weeks and months would bring, my eye was drawn sharply and swiftly to a little rectangle tucked at the top of the month of october.
it read: field trip to new hampshire farm of poet donald hall.
be still, my hurried heart.
i promise you i am not indulging in the great irish art of embellishment when i tell you i nearly slumped from my chair. i slapped the pine ledge of my writing desk, slapped hard, flat palm against the knotty plank of old french pine. i gasped. i am certain, if memory serves me, i felt a quiver in my arms.
one doesn’t stumble across an invitation to might-as-well-be mecca, the holy place and farmstead of an american poet laureate, just any old friday.
like so many things in my life, i’d come late to donald hall.
but when i did — stumbling across him in an essay in the new yorker last january, one titled, “out the window,” one you can find here — i sat transfixed by the power of his words.
hall, now 84, was named u.s. poet laureate in 2006, the 14th such poet potentate of the library of congress.
billy collins, himself the poet laureate from 2001 to 2003, once wrote that hall “has long been placed in the frostian tradition of the plainspoken rural poet.”
he has written some 22 books of poetry, at least four biographies, 11 children’s books (most notably, “ox-cart man”), six memoirs, three plays, and more. but it wasn’t till page 40 of the january 23, 2012, new yorker, that i sat up and took hard notice.
he wrote there, straight through to the bottom of page 43, about aging, about growing old in a particular place, his family’s 150-year-old new hampshire farm, a place he’d long ago committed to memory. knew by heart, by season, by length of light and shadow. knew by fluttering of birds and drifting of snow on the old barn roof.
he wrote words that rocket-launched into my heart, ricocheted around in there, and left me gasping, quite frankly, for air.
take a listen (i’ll offer snippets, a swatch from here and there, all from that one glorious four-page essay)…
“twenty years later,” hall writes on page 41, “my circles narrow. each season, my balance gets worse, and sometimes i fall…my fingers are clumsy and slow with buttons…
“new poems no longer come to me, with their prodigies of metaphor and assonance. i feel the circles grow smaller, and old age is a ceremony of losses, which is on the whole preferable to dying at forty-seven (when his wife, the poet jane kenyon, died) or fifty-two (the age of his father when he died). when i lament and darken over my diminishments, i accomplish nothing. it’s better to sit at the window all day, pleased to watch birds, barns, and flowers. it is a pleasure to write about what i do.
“generation after generation, my family’s old people sat at this window to watch the year. there are beds in this house where babies were born, where the same babies died eighty years later….
“after a life of loving the old, by natural law i turned old myself. decades followed each other….however alert we are, however much we think we know what will happen, antiquity remains an unknown, unanticipated galaxy. it is alien, and old people are a separate form of life…if we forget for a moment that we are old, we are reminded when we try to stand up, or when we encounter someone young, who appears to observe green skin, extra heads, and protuberances.”
i could go on. but, you, please, read for yourself.
check out books from your library. i did. some 17 in all. only just the other day, i checked out two more. and bought one, “life work,” a slender volume i’ll tuck inside my backpack, pull out if i get brave, hand to mr. hall, and ask, shyly, if he’d put pen to a page that is his, but lives on my shelves now.
and since i promised you, long ago, that we would share the glories of this year, i wanted you to have a head start. to spend a swatch of time whirling and swirling inside the poetry of donald hall, while i poke around the clapboard farmhouse, with the narrow porch where the birdfeeder hangs. where, if i’m lucky, i’ll press my nose to the window, deep and wide, where he looks out, keeps watch, as autumn turns to winter, turns to spring, and back to summer.
i’ll drink in the gnarly branches of the maple and the oak, and the “bluing air of afternoon.” i’ll tiptoe into the cow barn, built in 1865, and scan the hayfields that are the crossbeams and the vaults of a lifetime of pure poetry, born and raised and resurrected in a little town nestled in the mid-hills of new hampshire.
i’ll stand deeply still. inhale and pray. words of thanks, first, for this rare gift. and begging words just after, that whatever’s in the air, the earth, the floorboards, seeps into me, and teaches me to see, out the window, in the ways that mr. hall so clearly sees.
and now, as promised, a few assigned readings:
let’s start with ox cart man, a book that might be tucked on every child’s library shelf.
or this, short one, “the things”
by Donald Hall
When I walk in my house I see pictures,
bought long ago, framed and hanging
—de Kooning, Arp, Laurencin, Henry Moore—
that I’ve cherished and stared at for years,
yet my eyes keep returning to the masters
of the trivial—a white stone perfectly round,
tiny lead models of baseball players, a cowbell,
a broken great-grandmother’s rocker,
a dead dog’s toy—valueless, unforgettable
detritus that my children will throw away
as I did my mother’s souvenirs of trips
with my dead father, Kodaks of kittens,
and bundles of cards from her mother Kate.
and lastly, though, please don’t stop here…
a poetry corner, where you can curl up, on this fine october day, and drink in the sounds of donald hall in his many forms. please do click on “letter with no address,” written to jane kenyon, his wife who died of leukemia in 1995. you will hear your heart crack.
i promise to post dispatch, post field trip, once we’re back from eagle pond farm, up new hampshire way. if you could visit any poet in the world, who might it be, and why? and feel free to leave a line of poetry here as proof.
p.s. i realize that if you don’t have a subscription to the new yorker the link above won’t get you directly into the essay, but rather to a bit about the essay. i wish i could get around that, but i can’t. your library will have a back issue of the new yorker, i do believe. if you’re stuck, i will xerox and snail mail. you can send me your address via email.
A sigh is going to have to do it for me this time. Sounds like a man I ought to know about. Thanks, bam!
a sigh from you is a beautiful sound, is poetry in and of itself. you’ll be on the bus with me, as we roll up the blue highways.
Funny how stories of death propel you to “get busy livin'” as was said in The Shawshank Redemption…. beautiful. Thank you.
Beautiful, beautiful. Enjoy your pilgrimage! xoxo
Oh, how lovely! I gulped down your dispatch and now will have to go back and drink it drop by drop, but it excited and inspired me so that I had to get to the bottom quickly. Thank you for introducing us to this “poet potentate!”
I bet you love Mary Oliver as much as I do. I carry a tattered xerox of “Wild Geese” in my wallet.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
oh, dear karen. bless you for bringing this to the table. mary oliver stirs my soul like nobody else. i will sit in a room with her — and a couple hundred other folk — in just a few weeks.
home now from the farm, from the poet’s epicenter, and it was such a fine and heavenly and unforgettable day. i will write once i sit in stillness for a while, and let the gems sift through and through….
dear beautiful chair friends, i have put a gallery of snaps into a facebook album that you can find here: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10151111235069261.456836.608649260&type=1
not sure if that will work, especially if you aren’t on facebook. but while i dash to get two boys stuffed with pumpkin pancakes, it must suffice. more to come, i promise. but today our college boy is coming home, the little one has a dear friend sleeping on the bunk just above his, and there is no typing time. sigh……
with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
smiling by the windows looking out
in our directions
back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you
over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you
with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is.
~ and this feels timely for me for fall and all it speaks to my heart.
breathless, gasping for air on that one. i am sliding merwin onto my short list. oh, the tapestry of poetry we weave here. the collected works of the chair.
lamcal, as always, you knock me off my chair with the power of the words and wisdom you bring here. thank you for bringing thanks.
Oh you have me on a poem roll…reaching back to this one I found 26 years ago…and it has never left me.
Little Girl Wakes Early
Robert Penn Warren
Remember when you were the first one awake, the first
To stir in the dawn-curdled house, with little bare feet
Cold on the boards, every door shut and accurst,
And behind the shut doors no breath perhaps drew, no heart beat.
You held your breath and thought how all over town
Houses had doors shut, and no whisper of breath sleeping,
And that meant no swinging, nobody to pump up and down,
No hide-and-go-seek, no serious play at housekeeping.
So you ran outdoors, bare feet from the dew wet,
And climbed the fence to the house of your dearest friend,
And opened your lips and twisted your tongue, all set
To call her name—but the sound wouldn’t come in the end.
For you thought how awful, if there was no breath there
For answer. Tears start, you run home, where now mother,
Over the stove, is humming some favorite air.
You seize her around the legs, but tears aren’t over.
And won’t get over, not even when she shakes you—
And shakes you hard—and more when you can’t explain.
Your mother’s long dead. And you’ve learned that when loneliness
There’s nobody ever to explain to—though you try again and again.
When you return to the Great Lake of Michigan on the Illinois shore…let’s celebrate by meeting at the Poetry Institute…bet we could find some other souls to meet up. 🙂 We could have a poem-in.
oh, lamcal, you are endless.this one cracks my heart. i love the word “accurst.” can we all please go to poetry school?
love the “poem-in.” and, silly me, we do dwell in the hometown of poetry….it’s in the water, as it is in the new hampshire woods…
[…] upon a time, i sat in donald hall’s living room, at his farm in new hampshire. those hours grow more and more radiant across the […]