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.