Thursday, November 27, 2014

New prose from an old poet

Donald Hall’s essay “Out the Window” appeared in the January 2012 New Yorker. The title did not lie. An old man stares out his window, sees what he sees and riffs on it, his mind moving amid farmhouse ghosts and on to his own slow demise.

A hundred readers of “Out the Window” wrote letters to Hall. By then, deserted by his muse, he had given up poetry. He even regretted having published his last book of poems.

He had not given up work. Age had cooled the literary dynamo he once was, but he picked up steam as an essayist, working an hour a day, then two, then three. Many of the essays found good homes in magazines and have now been collected with fresh ones in Essays after Eighty.

Hall and I are friends, and I watched this book come into being. When he declared an essay fit for outside eyes, he sent it to me for comment and criticism. These were 30th or 40th drafts. Most of my fixes were copy-editing catches, but I also remarked on structural weaknesses and flat passages, contributed an anecdote or two and consulted with Hall about the title.

As it often is in his prose, Hall’s subject is himself, past and present. Each of the 14 essays has a theme – poetry readings, smoking, “Physical Malfitness,” death, a road trip through 1952 Europe, the beards he grew and the women he grew them for. He turned 86 in September, and because of this longevity each theme provides a wide field for memory.

A few sentences in “Out the Window” describe the ground on which Hall stands in life and as an essayist:

“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. They have green skin, with two heads that sprout antennae. . . . When we turn eighty, we recognize that we turn extraterrestrial. 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.”

The essays run on the imagination and candor of such observations. These qualities are also the source of those hundred letters he received after the essay first appeared. He breaks the silence of his alien galaxy, speaking for a generation to all generations.

This is not to suggest that Donald Hall is everyman. He has lived a rich, full life, consorting with giants of poetry in his youth, traveling the globe, working as a rock-star professor at a prestigious university, visiting the White House with Philip Roth, talking baseball for Ken Burns’s documentary, serving as U.S. poet laureate. But there is an old man’s humility in the way he writes about his life.

And an old man’s wit. He laughs at the world, and himself. A few years ago Alexandra Petri, a Washington Post blogger, illustrated her blog with a photo of the grinning, ancient, wild-haired Hall receiving the National Medal of Arts from President Obama. She assured her readers Hall was not a yeti and invited them to take part in a caption contest. Hall’s response: “With our increasing longevity, Ms. Petri should live to be a hundred. May she grow a beard.”

At the same presentation, Obama whispered something in Hall’s ear as he hung the medal around his neck. Friends who saw the clip on television wanted to know what the president had said. But Obama had been speaking into Hall’s deaf ear. Hall told friends the president had “said either ‘Your work is immeasurably great’ or ‘All your stuff is disgusting crap,’ but I couldn’t tell which.”

The prose of Essays after Eighty is a poet’s prose. Hall is working with sentence and paragraph, not line and stanza, but every word counts. Concrete images propel his sentences, and he is a master of momentum and suspense. The reader sees or tastes a moment and yearns to know what happens next.

Hall has been a prolific poet and writer in part because he mines his own experience. He lives now with limited mobility in a small space, fearful of falling and usually alone. In these essays he has reimagined his past and plumbed his present with wry humor and a good nature.

He is the wise old owl. Hear him hoot.

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