Our greatest living poet? If you think so, please give generously at your local English Dept.
Donald Hall, no. 2 seed in the West Bracket for the APR March Madness Tourney this year, is one of America’s best poets. He’s a Whitman and a Frost rolled into one: an accessible lyric poet who writes vividly on just about everything, in tone: mocking to elegiac, in rhythm: metered, and rhymed to free. If Hall is not getting streets and schools and halls named after him, postage stamps and monuments, it’s because his long career wasn’t flashy at the start and because he’s been too close to po-biz for too long (even on a farm you can be close to po-biz). Hall writes brilliantly at times, but more for fellow poets than for the people. You can’t fool the people. If this sounds odd in a discussion of a contemporary poet—well, that proves my point. The people and po-biz are far apart and have been since Frost made a name for himself almost a hundred years ago. The 60s culture flew the flag of Ginsberg for a time, but that’s almost played out. Famous American poets today? That would be Poe, Dickinson, Frost—and Billy Collins.
MARLA MUSE: I made those poets.
OK, Marla, let’s examine Hall’s entry in the APR tourney, “To A Waterfowl,” a tongue-in-cheek title after Bryant, America’s first famous poet, and advisor to President Lincoln (no, it wasn’t Emerson or Whitman, who were largely written into the canon by 20th century academics).
In the very first lines of the poem, we can see Hall letting slip that he cares more for a brainy take on the history of poetry than he does for the people: he pokes fun at the latter (“women with hats”) while invoking the former: “…applaud you, my poems.” In his Vita Nova, Dante sometimes spoke to his own poem as an emissary to Beatrice (giving his poem advice in his poem) and Whitman wrote self-consciously of “my poems”—Hall, however, is in the bitter, sarcastic, modern mode, waging war on the public:
Women with hats like the rear end of pink ducks
applaud 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 thing? Hah-hah?”
I guess maybe I’d better watch my grammar, huh?”
I leave them in airports, watching their grammar
MARLA MUSE: Women in hats! So appropriate for the wedding over in England today!
Hall, however, “feeling superior,” does poke fun at himself, as well: “I am a sexual Thomas Alva Edison,” and “I have accepted the approbation of feathers” even as he excoriates society and its entertainments—“Godzilla Sucks Mt. Fuji”—and those businessmen with their briefcases and those ladies with their feathers and hats.
In the last stanza, Hall does confess that the male and female elements he despises are, in fact, the parents to his beloved poetry. Addressing “his poems,” he takes a mocking tone with them in the end, too:
And what about you? You, laughing? You, in the bluejeans,
laughing at your mother who wears hats, and at your father
who rides airplanes with a briefcase watching his grammar?
Will you ever be old and dumb, like your creepy parents?
Not you, not you, not you, not you, not you, not you.
So Hall ends up making fun of everything, his poetry, eternity, youth, poetry as eternal youth—is he mocking Plath and her style at the end (see “Daddy”)?—and pulls it all down around him in a glory of acerbic glee.
But Hall won’t be forgiven by his public; the insult in the first stanza drives them away for good—that’s just how the public is; Hall being cute later on in the poem won’t save things. The public will see it all for what it is: clever self-pity. Hall sets it up so the only thing that can triumph is the poet’s sarcasm—which is unpoetic and inane or deliciously brilliant, depending on your temperament.
Harjo’s “A Postcolonial Tale” is a different fish. She begins:
“Everyday is a reenactment of the creation story. We emerge from dense unspeakable material, through the shimmering power of dreaming stuff.”
So different from the Hall: “unspeakable,” “material,” “power,” and “stuff.” If Hall was a dog ripping and feeding on detail, Harjo is a sheep, simply in awe, without speech.
But then Hall had a kind of reach, and so does Harjo:
“This is the first world, and the last.”
Then Harjo joins Hall in a parade of didactic commentary. Hall hits the businessman, Harjo hits TV and the oppressive “whiteman.”
“Once we abandoned ourselves for television, the box that separates the dreamer from the dreaming. It was as if we were stolen, put into a bag carried on the back of a whiteman who pretends to own the earth and the sky.”
But Harjo finally abandons Hall’s articulation and goes for the transcendent:
The imagination conversely illumines us, speaks with us, sings with us.
Stories and songs are like humans who when they laugh are indestructible.
No story or song will translate the full impact of falling, or the inverse power of rising up.
Of rising up.
Is Harjo big, and Hall, small?
It depends on your temperament.
Harjo wins on a last second three-pointer, 69-68.