By DONNA URSCHEL
Following his appearance at the National Book Festival on Sept. 30, Poet Laureate Donald Hall opened the 2006 literary season by reading 19 of his poems. These beautiful poems—crafted with simple, direct language—covered topics of love, aging, loneliness and desire.
The imagery of Hall's poetry will be long remembered by the nearly 300 audience members who gathered in the Montpelier Room on the evening of Oct. 3 to hear him read. All of the poems came from his latest book, "White Apples and the Taste of Stone: Selected Poems 1946-2006."
Carolyn Brown, director of the Office of Scholarly Programs and the John W. Kluge Center at the Library, introduced Hall as "someone who has helped us see and feel and name what is known but barely whispered in ordinary lives; who knowledgeable beyond our perceiving, using a studied craft, elicits deep recognition of things forgotten or barely known."
Hall read his poems in largely chronological order. The first poem was "My Son, My Executioner," about the complex emotions that arise when one becomes a father. Hall said he was 25 years old when his first child, a son, was born.
The next poem from his early years was "The Sleeping Giant." After he finished, he told the audience, "Those poems were written when I knew what I was going to say. But I left behind rhyme and meter and rationally planned poems."
"The Long River" was next, followed by "The Man in the Dead Machine," which talks about a helmeted skeleton that sits upright in the cockpit of a World War II plane called the Grumman Hellcat. "I remember how that poem started," said Hall. "I was driving along, having a waking dream. In my mind,
I saw an intact airplane in the jungle vines with the pilot's skeleton strapped in the seat. … I was having a hard time in life then, and the image was a metaphor for how I felt. I pulled to the side of the road and wrote down the beginnings of a poem."
He read "Ox Cart Man," a poem that he crafted into a children's book that won the Caldecott Medal in 1980. "I worked on the poem for a year before I realized that I could make it into a children's book," Hall said. "That's a New Hampshire story, of course. In 1975, when I moved back to the farm with Jane, I was full of New Hampshire stories."
Hall left a tenured professorship at the University of Michigan to return to his ancestral home, Eagle Pond Farm, in Wilmot, N.H. In the rural setting, Hall and his wife, Jane Kenyon, a former student of his at Michigan, devoted themselves to writing and their careers flourished.
Hall read "Names of Horses," one of his most well known and beloved poems. When he was young, spending summers with his grandparents on the farm, Hall, who started writing poetry at age 12, wrote his poems in the mornings and worked on haying with his grandfather in the afternoons. The farm equipment was pulled by hard-working horses. In the poem, Hall pays tribute to those noble beasts, "… O Roger, Mackerel, Riley, Ned, Nellie, Chester, Lady Ghost."
After "Names of Horses," Hall read "To a Waterfowl," a humorous poem of six stanzas that he called "a poetry-reading poem." The first two stanzas:
Women with hats like the rear ends
of pink ducks
applauded you, my poems.
These are the 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
I guess maybe I'd better watch my
I leave them in airports, watching
The next poem was "The Day I Was Older," written by Hall to mark the milestone of passing age 52, the age at which his father had died. "Edward's Anecdote" followed, a touching "monologue" poem about a husband discovering his wife's affair.
The next three were "Retriever," "Letter with No Address" and "Her Garden," poems dealing with the death of his beloved wife. In 1995, at age 47, Jane died of leukemia, and Hall wrote extensively of his mourning and loss.
Two days after Jane died
I walked with our dog Gus
on New Canada Road
under birchy green
April shadows, talking
to make him understand.
A quick mink scooted past
into fern, and Gus
disappeared in pursuit.
The damp air grew chill
as I whistled and called
until twilight. I thought
he tried to follow her
into the dark. After an hour
I gave up and walked home
to find him on the porch,
alert, pleased to see me,
curious over my absence.
But Gus hadn't found her
deep in the woods; he hadn't
brought her back
as a branch in his teeth.
Hall also read "The Wish," "Affirmation," "Secrets," "The Master," and "Summer Kitchen."
In June's high light she stood at the sink
With a glass of wine,
And listened for the bobolink,
And crushed garlic in late
I watched her cooking, from
She pressed her lips
Together, reached for kitchenware,
And tasted sauce from her
"It's ready now. Come on,"
"You light the candle."
We ate, and talked, and went
And slept. It was a miracle.
As Brown said in her introduction of the poet laureate, Hall's clarity and simplicity give the "marvelous illusion" of writing poetry with "great ease."
"Masters in whatever field frequently leave the uninitiated with the illusion that they simply fell out of bed one morning and produced the exquisite musical concert, or the one-in-a-million sports performance, or some other perfect-and-graceful-beyond-belief display," Brown said. "We, of course, know better."
Donna Urschel is a public affairs specialist in the Library's Public Affairs Office.