WHITE APPLES AND THE TASTE OF STONE: SELECTED POEMS 1946-2006
By Donald Hall
Houghton Mifflin, $30, 431 pages
REVIEWED BY WILLIAM H. PRITCHARD
Here are 60 years’ worth of Donald Hall’s poetry. Not long ago, Richard Wilbur brought out a collection of his poems from the same decades, and Mr. Hall now joins him as the two living American poets who have provided us, over an extended period, with oeuvres of amplitude and distinction. Both bring to their poems, in addition to memorable lyric cadence, a critical intelligence that also reveals itself in their prose: Mr. Hall’s books of memoirs (the most interesting being “Life Work,” 1993) and biographical studies are especially notable.
But the resemblance ends there, since Mr. Hall’s verse, increasingly in recent years, has become relentlessly autobiographical, personal in its focus on the man and those loved ones he has lost — particularly his wife, Jane Kenyon, herself a poet, who died in 1995 at age 47.
Robert Frost once called poetry “a measured amount of all we can say,” and suggested that among the things not to be said — subjects to be kept back, rather — might well be “friends, wife, children, and self.” Mr. Hall made the decision, after his wife’s death, to keep back nothing and to expose the self in all its buffetings, its sufferings.
In “Distressed Haiku,” he imagines someone asking about his enterprise, “Will Hall ever write / lines that do any thing / but whine and complain?” The question, in its willingness to imagine something other than a pious response to expressions of grief, makes it evident that humor, black as it is, can check the uninhibited flow of sad reflection.
Mr. Hall’s humor can sometimes shock, as when in “Letter After a Year,” written as so many of the poems are — to the dead Jane Kenyon — he visits her grave in April, the spot having been inaccessible in winter weather. He is accompanied, he tells her, by his dog: “Every day Gus and I / take a walk in the graveyard. / I’m the one who doesn’t / piss on your stone.” He then imagines her asking him, “Where the hell are you?” to which the answer is, “In hell.”
At times Mr. Hall takes a less than uplifting look at the whole business of putting words on the page, especially when the subject is close to unendurable. In the longish and very fine “Letter at Christmas,” he steps outside to check the weather and pass on the news to the absent woman; then it is “Time for the desk again. / I tell Gus, ‘Poetryman / is suiting up!’”
As a poetry man Mr. Hall suited up early, publishing his first book when he was a junior fellow at Harvard, and even before that taking an Oxford degree and an active role in introducing the English to what was happening in American verse. He wrote lively essays about his experiences and interviews with significant predecessors — Eliot, Pound, Frost — and turned out at regular intervals slim volumes in changing styles, from tersely ironic to more psychologically open, “deep image” (as it was called) ventures.
But it was when he wrote about his own life, especially the summers spent with his grandparents on the New Hampshire farm where he still lives, that his poetry became more expansive and humanly explorative. In a three-part long poem, “The One Day,” he managed to combine Whitman-like range of perception with moments of satiric and passionate anger at what was happening to the American landscape: “Survey, cut a road, subdivide, bulldoze / the unpainted barn … build Slope’ n’ Shore, name the new / road Blueberry Muffin Lane …”
In “The Museum of Clear Ideas” (1993), Mr. Hall showed himself a brilliant formalist, writing a superb poem about baseball (“Baseball”) in an ingenious syllabic verse where each “inning” is composed of nine stanzas of nine lines each, and in which the witty and serious are wholly intertwined. At about this time, he fell dangerously ill, had part of a cancerous liver removed, and survived — only to have Jane Kenyon stricken with the leukemia that, after a failed bone marrow transplant, would kill her.
The last hundred pages of “White Apples and the Taste of Stone” are about her illness, her death, and the husband-poet’s retrospective formulations, musings, and outcries, in “letters” written to her four days, four months, a year afterwards: “Your presence in this house / is almost as enormous / and painful as your absence” (“Letter with No Address”).
Mr. Hall’s ear for the line is so strong and delicate that individual poems take on distinctive rhythms, even though their prevailing mode is free verse. Some of these are handsomely realized in the CD of Mr. Hall reading his poems that accompanies this volume.
Perhaps the most striking of these late poems is “Without,” the title poem to a volume published in 1998. It consists of eight unrhymed stanzas of seven lines each, the whole without capital letters or punctuation: “we lived in a small island stone nation / without color under gray clouds and wind / distant the unlimited ocean acute / lymphoblastic leukemia without seagulls / or palm trees without vegetation.”
It is a tour de force that overall feels more humanly affecting than loudly theatrical. More often the poems are cast as quotidian news items — the weather, gossip about friends, visits to children and grandchildren — sent beyond the grave from the man who remains this side of it. A sequence of them, in rhyme and stanzas, almost explicitly recalls Thomas Hardy’s “Poems of 1912-13,” written to his dead wife Emma. Mr. Hall’s “Her Garden” begins “I let her garden go./let it go, let it go/How can I watch the hummingbird/Hover to sip/With its beak’s tip/ The purple bee balm?whirring as we heard/It years ago?”
But it isn’t only the few poems in formal measures that justify comparison with Hardy, since no verse that I’m aware of, written since “Poems of 1912-13,” matches Mr. Hall’s in its exploration of what it is like to live without the loved woman. One of the demands Wallace Stevens put on poetry in his “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction” was that “It must give pleasure.” Grim as the subject is of these late poems from a poet’s old age, their sustained and sad achievement gives pleasure to the reader while making most contemporary poems look minor, even trivial by comparison.
William H. Pritchard is Henry Clay Folger Professor of English at Amherst College and the author of “Updike: America’s Man of Lettters.”