A joyful, wistful celebration of poetry, poets, and a poet’s life.
Personal matters that former poet laureate Hall wrote about in Essays After Eighty (2014, etc.) pop up again, this time with a greater sense of urgency: “As I write toward my nineties I shed my skin. I tell short anecdotes, I hazard an opinion, speculate, assume, and remember. Why should the nonagenarian hold anything back?” In the book’s fourth section, “A Carnival of Losses,” the author returns to stories about his New Hampshire life, relatives, friends, his appearances on Garrison Keillor’s radio show (where once—off air—they traded dirty limericks), watching baseball, and interviewing Boris Karloff in high school. Also included here is his somber and poignant New Yorker piece, “Necropoetics,” largely about his wife, poet and translator Jane Kenyon, who died in 1995. “Poetry begins with elegy,” he writes, as he ruminates on the subject. Poetasters will enjoy his “The Selected Poets of Donald Hall” section, pithy, sharp, and gossipy profiles and anecdotes about poets he has known and met, some slight—e.g., “my recollections of some poets are brief. Allen Tate always looked grumpy.” These are countered by those Hall loved, like Robert Creeley, Theodore Roethke, Seamus Heaney, and James Wright. Then there’s James Dickey, the “best liar I ever knew,” and Tom Clark, the “best student I ever had.” Hall’s admiring piece on Richard Wilbur includes a short, insightful passage on prosody in Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress.” The book’s first section, “Notes Nearing Ninety,” shows off Hall’s humor and wit, as in “The Vaper,” about how vaping helped him quit smoking (mostly), “The Last Poem,” about the only time he expressed his politics in a newspaper ("it went bacterial”), and a piece about frequently losing his teeth—literally.
There’s much to enjoy in these exuberant “notes.”