A reader looking for a reliable guide to the ebbs and flows of recent American poetry, its quicksilver shiftings of shape and sensibility, might do far worse than to consult Donald Hall’s “Poems Old and New,” a gathering of work spanning the years from 1947 to 1990.
More clearly perhaps than an anthology, in which general developments are refracted through the personal styles of many different poets, Hall’s book charts the major watersheds that our poetry has crossed in the last 40 years as registered by a single artist. The fact that the most impressive poems come in the last 60 pages of the book says more about Hall’s own special talents than about the progress of American poetry; the main styles of the last 15 years evidently have proven more congenial to his imagination than those of the previous 25.
It must be noted that one reason Hall’s poetry provides such a useful index to changes in period style is that Hall doesn’t display a clearly recognizable style of his own. A poet of skill and intelligence, possessed of a particularly fine ear, Hall has been overshadowed by the more original poets of his remarkably rich generation, many of whom he has promoted as a reviewer and editor of anthologies. Poets such as Robert Bly, Louis Simpson, Galway Kinnell, W. D. Snodgrass and James Wright have been both friends of Hall and beneficiaries of his generous praise.
At times, Hall permits his admiration to shade into imitation; a number of the poems in this book openly draw on the stylistic resources of Bly, Simpson, Kinnell and others. Inevitably, these poems fall short of their models, since style at second-hand tends to lose its original force, becoming mannered and unconvincing.
Even when his poems can’t be traced to the influence of a single figure, they seem to follow more general shifts in poetic fashions. Thus Hall moves from the hard, ironic, New Critical formalism of his early work to the open, “naked,” quasi-surrealist mode that took hold in the ‘60s, from there pushing on to more extended narrative and descriptive forms in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
The very look of the poems changes dramatically as one thumbs through the volume, at first regimented into orderly stanzaic blocks in the ‘50s, suddenly dwindling in the ‘60s to irregular wisps of language, slowly fattening out in the ‘70s, finally returning in the ‘80s to what looks like the regular blocks of verse with which the book opens. Needless to say, these changes go much deeper as well, and the poems at the end of the book only superficially resemble those of the beginning; for one thing, they’re much better.
If Hall never entirely escapes the pressures of period style, such pressures can have salutary effects when combined with a strong personal disposition. In his more recent poetry, Hall has increasingly come into his own, finding forms and methods that serve his gifts better than either the constrictive wit of ‘50s formalism or the loose, associative Imagism of the ‘60s.
Starting in the mid-'70s, Hall’s poems begin to expand, both in length and width; his line grows more capacious, his poems divide themselves into uneven sections, as if marking stages in a meditation; most important, they start to show a new attention to subject matter.
Here, too, Hall may have been swimming with the current; many poets in the ‘70s allowed themselves a new freedom to explore subjects, adopting some of the flexibility of prose to the contemplative aims of poetry. Be that as it may, Hall seems much more at ease in this style than he did with the short, image-based lyric of the ‘60s and early ‘70s. Hall’s imagination is not metaphorical but meditative; he is better at connecting and weaving images and thoughts than he is at producing individual metaphors that startle us with their incongruity and rightness. His longer poems of the last 15 years are moving, elegiac meditations on the rhythms of natural process and the ubiquitous presence of death.
Many of these recent poems are set on or near the New Hampshire farm where Hall has resided since leaving his academic post at the University of Michigan in 1975. A number of them are Lawrentian animal poems, in which pigs, sheep, horses, cows and chickens take turns embodying the generational cycles of life and death. Others trace the history of the farm as it came down to Hall from his grandparents.
What ties these poems together is a common concern with mortality and transience, the eternal counterpoint of what passes and what remains, or as Hall titles one poem, “Granite and Grass.” At times, this theme is too baldly stated; death in the abstract may be too boring in its very terror to serve poetry’s demands for intricacy and surprise. The farm poems are most engaging when they dwell on the sensuous reality of creature and landscape, without allegorizing them out of existence.
To my mind, the best poems in the book come in its last two sections, containing work from the ‘80s. Here Hall moves in still another direction, pressing outward from the circle of his own history and geography to take in the experience and especially the suffering of others. There are some fine dramatic monologues that evoke the quiet dross of the quotidian as a backdrop for tragedies of aging and suicide; these poems combine the linguistic pressure of poetry with the circumstantial density of fiction.
But Hall’s most exciting work to date goes beyond the frame of the individual life altogether: In a number of recent poems here, and even more in his 1988 long poem “The One Day” (which unfortunately is not excerpted in “Poems Old and New”), Hall experiments with a form that weaves together heterogenous strands of history, narrative, prophecy and description, producing a thickly textured tapestry with dissonant energies.
In their ongoing tangle of details, these poems resemble linguistic fugues; motifs recur, are developed, fused with other motifs, and the effect is to capture some of the profusion and variety of life, even when the ground tone is death. Miniature versions of this form are “Six Naps in One Day” and “The Coffee Cup”; the most extended example, and the last poem of the book, is “Praise for Death.” I can offer only a taste of this mode:
is strange, nothing is strange:
yarn, the moon, gray hair in a bun.
New Hampshire, putting on socks.
It does no disservice to Hall to say that none of the poems in this book are as good as the book-length “The One Day,” which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. In its ambitious scope and dazzling complexity, that poem succeeds in rising above the changing tides of period style, touching a height at which decades become irrelevant.
If it does nothing else, “Poems Old and New” helps to make that achievement seem all the more impressive, by showing how long it took Hall to find a style that answered to his own imaginative needs and strengths.