By DONNA URSCHEL
During the same week in May that Queen Elizabeth of England visited Washington, D.C., the Library of Congress hosted two princes of poetry, U.S. Poet Laureate Donald Hall and British Poet Laureate Andrew Motion. Sharing the stage for the first time and reacquainting the poetries of America and the United Kingdom, Hall and Motion read their own poems and those of their countrymen in the Coolidge Auditorium on May 10 and in Chicago on May 7.
The British ambassador to the United States, Sir David Manning, and British Embassy officials, who had just finished hosting the queen on her visit to the nation's capital, were in attendance, along with some 400 poetry fans.
The historic series, "Poetry Across the Atlantic," is sponsored by the Library of Congress, the Poetry Foundation and the London-based Poetry Society. Poetry Foundation President John Barr initiated the series after a conversation with Motion, in which they decided it was a worthwhile and important literary undertaking to promote a reunion of masters of the English language in poetic forms.
The poetries of the United States and Great Britain have experienced a "separation" in the past quarter to half century, Barr said in his evening remarks. "It's like a separation of two branches of a large family—not staying in touch because they are too busy with their own affairs."
Earlier, in a written statement, Barr said the goal of the readings was to "promote critical awareness of, and a shared readership for, the contemporary poetry written on both sides of the Atlantic."
Hall said, "In the 1950s, English and American poetry was one thing. But the two poetries have pulled apart for no good reason. I'm pleased to take part in this symbolic occasion and to help bring them together again."
Motion, however, attributed the separation to "the way in which American poetry received modernism and embraced it, and the way in which we received it and didn't."
Carolyn Brown, director of the Library's Office of Scholarly Programs, introduced the poets and pointed out their striking similarities: Hall and Motion both attended the University of Oxford, studying English, and both have won Oxford's prestigious poetry prize, the Newdigate Award. Brown said the poets are prolific and highly disciplined, and bring a similar sensitivity to their observations.
The U.S. poet laureate was the first to read his poetry, selecting works from his recent book "White Apples and the Taste of Stone: Selected Poems 1946–2006" and reading one recently written poem titled "Maples." Hall, who attended Oxford after graduation from Harvard, told the crowd, "England meant a great deal to me. My two years at Oxford was a wonderful time; I hung around with many young poets." Hall spent the early years of his career in England, before returning to America to become a distinguished author of 15 books of poetry and 23 books of prose.
In the evening's opening remarks, Librarian, James H. Billington, who gave a brief history of the laureate posts in both countries, announced that this reading by Hall was to be his last Library appearance as U.S. poet laureate. Citing age and mobility issues, Hall has opted not to serve a second term.
Hall started his reading with the poem "Love Is Like Sounds," which he wrote as a sophomore in college when he broke up with his high school girlfriend. An excerpt:
Late snow fell this early morning of spring.
At dawn I rose from bed, restless, and looked
Out of my window, to wonder if there the snow
Fell outside your bedroom, and you watching…
…Love is like sounds, whose last reverberations
Hang on the leaves of strange trees…
Hall read nine more poems, including "Mount Kearsarge," the love poem "Gold" and "Ox Cart Man." He also talked about his marriage to his beloved wife Jane Kenyon, who was 19 years his junior and a distinguished poet. She died of leukemia in 1995 at age 47. The poems about Kenyon included "Her Garden," "Summer Kitchen" and "The Ship Pounding." From the "Ship Pounding," a poem written during her illness:
Each morning I made my way
among gangways, elevators,
and nurses' pods to Jane's room
to interrogate the grave helpers
who tended her through the night
while the ship's massive engines
kept its propellers turning…
Hall read to an appreciative audience that listened intently, audibly sighed at the beautiful, sensitive poems and laughed at the humorous ones. From "Love Poem," his second love poem of the evening:
When you fall in love,
you jockey your horse
into the flaming barn.
You hire a cabin
on the shiny Titanic.
You tease the black bear.
Reading the Monitor,
You scan the obituaries
Looking for your name.
Hall also included two poems on old age: his new one, "Maples," and the final poem of his reading, a humorous piece, "On Reaching the Age of Two Hundred":
…At my birthday party
I blew out two hundred candles
one at a time, taking
naps after each twenty-five.
Then I went to bed, at five-thirty,
on the day of my two hundredth birthday…
The British poet laureate read six poems, three of them "by people not me, to give you a glimpse of what's going on in England." Motion also took a moment to acknowledge Queen Elizabeth's visit to Washington. "I know she's been here, but I don't think she knows I'm here," he said.
The British poet laureate is appointed by the monarch, but it is no longer a lifetime post. Motion's term, which began in 1999, will last 10 years. The British poet laureate is often commissioned to write poems for various royal occasions, such as the 100th birthday of the late Queen Mother. In contrast, the U.S. poet laureate is appointed by the Librarian of Congress to a one-year term and is often reappointed for a second year. The U.S. poet laureate is asked to promote poetry in America's culture but does not receive commissions to write poems for official events.
Motion, who is tall and suave, with a deep English-accented voice, started his reading with poems by other British poets: "Walking with Russell" by Don Paterson; "Phrase Book" by Jo Shapcott; and "Poem" by Simon Armitage. From his own work, Motion read "Anne Frank Huis," a poem he wrote at age 20 when he visited Anne Frank's house (huis) in Amsterdam. He also read "Fox Provides for Himself," a poem about the fox in his garden. The poem, Motion said, "has an ingenious rhyme scheme."
Motion's final poem for the evening was "Wish List," which is about his father, who died a year ago. It is a fantasy wish list of his father's possessions that Motion thought would be appropriate to bury with his dad. "What I wrote is a mini-biography of him," Motion said.
…Your army pack for D-Day,
With its German phrasebook
and a map of Normandy…
mom's wedding ring…
your season ticket for the London train…
a box of fishing flies…
Your dying word,
Which I never heard.
Carolyn Brown returned to the stage to wrap up the program, thanking both poets. She acknowledged Hall one more time, and the audience gave the outgoing U.S. poet laureate a standing ovation. To view the event, go to www.loc.gov/today/cyberlc/feature_wdesc.php?rec=4057.
Donna Urschel is a public affairs specialist in the Library's Public Affairs Office.