The Poetry of Donald Hall

I wrote recently of a goal to read a new poem every day for 40 days, and how the best thing I got out of it was discovering the work of Donald Hall, who had just passed away. I can’t recommend his Selected Poems highly enough. Two items will have to suffice here. First, the opening of “The Stump.”

stump

Second, here’s Hall briefly introducing a great work called “Names of Horses,” which he then reads. On YouTube, the text of the poem is in the description.

This is earthy, elemental, full bodied stuff, a meditation on the great details of basic life, appreciated fully. It’s not all nature and tools, though–his book also includes plenty of domestic and family life, as well as other aspects of existence. His ideas are open, and his mind is strong.

Another piece in his Selected Poems ends with the lines, “I will live in a steady joy. I will exult in the ecstasy of my concealment.” I want to read much more of his work.

Advertisements

40 Books and 40 Poems

I’ve now finished 40 books since my last birthday. Here they are:

  1. Fear and Trembling, Soren Kierkegaard (11.10, philosophy, Lowrie trans.)–A
  2. Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer (11.20, classic, Windeatt trans.)–D
  3. Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, Richard Bushman (11.22, biography)–A+
  4. Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche (11.23, philosophy, Kaufmann trans.)–C
  5. Backwards and Forwards: A Technical Manual For Reading Plays, David Ball (11.25, literary criticism)–A+
  6. Candide, Voltaire (12.2, satire, classic)–A
  7. It’s All Relative, A.J. Jacobs (12.8, genealogy, humor)–B
  8. The Best American Short Stories 2017, Heidi Pitlor, ed. (12.16, literature)–B
  9. The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories, P.D. James (12.19, mystery)–B
  10. Rameau’s Nephew, Denis Diderot (12.21, satire, Leonard Tancock trans.)–C
  11. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rowling (1.20, fantasy)–A
  12. The Way Things Are, Lucretius (1.24, philosophy/poetry, Humphries trans)–C
  13. A Life Without Limits, Chrissie Wellington (2.9, memoir, sports)–A
  14. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, J.K. Rowling (2.13, fantasy)–A+
  15. Praise of Folly, Erasmus (2.17, satire, Radice trans.)–B
  16. Lightning, Dean Koontz (3.2, suspense)–C
  17. I Will Lead You Along: The Life of Henry B. Eyring, Robert I. Eaton & Henry J. Eyring (3.5, biography)–A+
  18. 40 By 40: Forty Groundbreaking Articles from Forty Years of Biblical Archaeology Review, volume 1, Hershel Shanks, ed. (3.10, history)–A+
  19. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, J.K. Rowling (3.20, fantasy)–A
  20. 40 By 40: Forty Groundbreaking Articles from Forty Years of Biblical Archaeology Review, volume 2, Hershel Shanks, ed. (3.30, history)–A
  21. What Have I Ever Lost By Dying?, Robert Bly (4.5, poetry)–B
  22. A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes, Adam Rutherford (4.20, science)–A
  23. Talking into the Ear of a Donkey, Robert Bly (4.20, poetry)–C
  24. Godsong: A Verse Translation of the Bhagavad-Gita, with Commentary, Amit Majmudar (5.3, religion, poetry)–A+
  25. Adrian Mole: The Cappuccino Years, Sue Townsend (5.14, humor)–A
  26. Dust Devils, Robert Laxalt (5.23, Western)–B
  27. The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, John Le Carre (5.28, fiction)–C
  28. Seven Men and the Secret of Their Greatness, Eric Metaxas (6.5, biography)–A+
  29. The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, Margareta Magnusson (6.8, living well)–B
  30. Educated, Tara Westover (6.18, memoir)–A+
  31. Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card (6.23, science fiction)–A+
  32. Things That Matter, Charles Krauthammer (6.28, commentary)–A
  33. Thomas Cole, Matthew Baigell (7.2, art history)–A
  34. Wonder, R.J. Palacio (7.4, young adult)–B
  35. The Selected Poems of Donald Hall, Donald Hall (7.6, poetry)–A+
  36. Between Planets, Robert Heinlein (7.6, science fiction)–B
  37. Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess, Bobby Fischer (7.11, chess)–A
  38. The Annotated Mona Lisa, Carol Strickland (7.19, art history)–B
  39. Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie (7.20, mystery)–A
  40. Art Explained, Robert Cumming (7.23, art)–A+
  41. Based on a True Story, Norm Macdonald (7.24, humor)–A

Also, I revised an original goal to write 40 poems, which just seemed like a chore as I tried to start it, with reading poetry for 40 straight days, which made me smile as soon as I thought of it. I reflected on the point of the goal in the first place–what did I want to get out of it?–and realizing that the experience here was more important to me than creation, I decided to delve into appreciation a bit more.

I started mostly by using the poem in each day’s Prufrock email, supplemented with other sources I know and like. Most of them were OK, but rarely did one really grab me. During this time, though, the great poet Donald Hall died, and as I saw eulogies online, along with quotes from his work, I was intrigued and picked up his self-selected greatest hits, and it was perhaps the greatest book of poetry I’ve ever read. Absolutely amazing. Can’t recommend it highly enough.

After that, I tried bits and pieces of other books and authors I’ve liked, but nothing really stood up to Hall. One awesome new take away from a project like this is more than worth it, though!

  1. Richard O’Connell, “Prospero” 6/11
  2. Morri Creech, “The Sentence” 6/12
  3. Elizabeth Knapp, “After the Flood” 6/13
  4. Charlotte Mew, “The Farmer’s Bride” 6/14
  5. Joseph Mirra, “Who Are We Not to Judge?” 6/15
  6. Rachel A. Lott, “The Parting” 6/16
  7. Jason Guriel, “My Father’s Stamps” 6/17
  8. Richie Hofmann, “Pictures of Mozart” 6/18
  9. Edward Hirsch, “The Unveiling” 6/19
  10. Scott Cairns, “Adiáphora” 6/20, A+
  11. Dana Gioia, “The Stars Now Rearrange Themselves” 6/21, A
  12. Maryann Corbett, “Creed,” 6/22
  13. Rachel Hadas, “Cold Prose” 6/23
  14. Joshua Hren, “The Lesser Angels of Our Nature,” 6/24
  15. Donald Hall, “The Man in the Dead Machine,” 6/25, A
  16. Micheal O’Siadhail, “Conversation with Messiaen,” 6/26
  17. Donald Hall, “The Reasonable Nap,” 6/27
  18. Richard Wilbur, “On the Marginal Way,” 6/28
  19. Elizabeth Poreba, “Kenosis,” 6/29
  20. Eduardo C. Corral, “To the Angelbeast,” 6/30
  21. Derek Otsuji, “The Ditch Kids of the Maui Sugar Company,” 7/1
  22. Geoffrey Brock, “The Day,” 7/2
  23. Donald Hall, The Selected Poems of Donald Hall, 7/3
  24. Donald Hall, The Selected Poems of Donald Hall, 7/4
  25. Donald Hall, The Selected Poems of Donald Hall, 7/5
  26. Donald Hall, The Selected Poems of Donald Hall, 7/6
  27. Ernest Hilbert, “Until the Sea above Us Closed Again,” 7/7
  28. William W. Runyeon, “Church Bells,” 7/8
  29. David Yezzi, “Learning the Piano at 50,” 7/9
  30. Thomas Cole’s Poetry, 7/10
  31. Thomas Cole’s Poetry, 7/11
  32. Thomas Cole’s Poetry, 7/12
  33. Thomas Cole’s Poetry, 7/13
  34. Thomas Cole’s Poetry, 7/14
  35. Sara Teasdale, “Afterwards,” 7/15
  36. Sara Teasdale, “The Answer,” 7/16
  37. Sara Teasdale, “Autumn Dusk,” 7/17
  38. Sara Teasdale, “Blue Squills,” 7/18
  39. William Wordsworth, The Essential Wordsworth, selected by Seamus Heaney, 7/19
  40. William Wordsworth, The Essential Wordsworth, selected by Seamus Heaney, 7/20

 

Reviewed and Recommended: Godsong, by Amit Majmudar

Amit Majmudar’s new translation of the Bhagavad-Gita is the third one I’ve read, and the second one I’ve loved. Overall, it’s the best of the three. It strikes the perfect balance between the first two: it has the strain of clear pragmatism with the idioms and images of the source culture (which I really liked in the first one), along with a direct, point-blank Western style that doesn’t try to impress with mysticism but which still retains the originally foreign flavor (unlike the second version I read, which just watered it down in trying to make it sound too American).

Majmudar’s poetry sometimes does go a bit too far into prosaic territory, I felt, such as when he liberally peppers a stanza with the prefix “meta” to describe cosmic concepts. There, his Millennial-ness shines through.

But not only are his lines generally clear, gripping, and clever, but his short personal notes on each chapter are genuinely insightful and enjoyable. It’s not too often that one reads an old classic and finds translator’s notes that equal the beauty and power of the work itself. I think the last time that happened was when I read Anthony Esolen’s version of the Divine Comedy of Dante.

This new Bhagavad-Gita complements the literature and religion of the West both when it’s similar and when it’s different–either way, it’s so thoughtful that it makes you think., too. The magic of Majmudar’s work is that it can’t be clear if that’s mostly due to the translator’s subconscious or the text’s original ethos…probably some of both.

 

1

3

4

5

 

Friday At the Park

The sun sits low off to the side,
Sliding in sideways:
A perfect light for reading.

Only when I focus do I notice the birds,
Invisible infinities in the distance,
Their overlapping music a hum
So loud it becomes a dull roar we don’t notice:
A drumroll at the horizon.

Three little girls squat at the edge of the pond
Throwing old grapes to the ducks.
The girls stare at the patterns of rippled water
Spreading out behind the ducks,
And squeal in surprise when long wings suddenly appear
And flutter at the sides of geese.

“The little warm concrete faith in my hand”

Two hands on sunsut.

Overwhelmed by all
but underwhelmed by myself.

How do stress and wonder blend so cleanly
inside the same small minutes
every single day?

It’s enough force to crack the soul
like continental plates, grinding like my teeth.

So I go courting the Spirit
trying to make the magic moments
that already are:
the paradox of conscious effort.

But maybe that conflict is good,
to highlight the steady solids by contrast,
because in a corner of this epic drama
I feel the little warm concrete faith in my hand.

Three Old Poems From Las Vegas

I saw this page in a now-defunct alt-weekly sixteen years ago, and fell in love. I don’t often like new poetry, but I really enjoyed all three of these. I tore out the page and put it up in my classroom. It’s followed me from school to school since. Sometimes I’d refer to it, sometimes students asked about it, usually it just sat among the detritus that teachers collect year after year.

Last summer, I came across it while doing some decluttering, and took these pictures of each poem, and here they are, preserved now in Internet amber.

I like these because they each tell a specific yet oddly relatable slice-of-life story, told in vivid language, but not at all flowery. These are unadorned decorations on small moments, as most of my favorite poems are.

I just Googled the titles and authors–none of these poems are available elsewhere online, it seems (indeed, none of them seems to have been collected at all), though the authors all seem to still be writing, with some professional success. That makes me quite happy.

IMG_20170810_102322710IMG_20170810_102341876IMG_20170810_102352193

Dante’s Paradise: A Celebration of the Celestial

danteI finished Dante’s Divine Comedy this week, and it ended as strong as it started. Paradise takes the social commentary of Inferno and the moralizing of Purgatory and then just cranks that gorgeous poetry amp up to 11. It is, by far, the most beautifully written entry in the trilogy and maybe even imbued with the deepest ideas.

Four favorite passages may serve to illustrate.

First, from canto four, we see a meditation on how spiritual truth must be understood metaphorically by our merely mortal minds. The top and bottom of this page are pithy quotes by themselves, but the body between constitutes some of the more clever comparisons I’ve ever seen:

Paradise2

Next, from much later on, this part starts with lines that could apply to art and writing in general, but then wax eloquent about matters of faith, integrating mind and spirit, but ending with a paean to scripture and the Holy Spirit.

Continue reading

Saturday Afternoon in the Celestial Room

The threshold transition:
We open the door at the end of the hall,
after some sealings, my wife and I,
and I feel the rush of a wash.
Life is different here.

The room is empty of people now
but full of something else:
the afternoon sun splits apart
in the heavy window,
and sets soft electric rainbows
on the carpet,
an arc of full clear stars also reaches
across the floor.
Arrays of bright flowers complement the light.

It’s so quiet, all I can hear
is God’s love humming
from head to toe.

There are books here, of course.
I sit, bathed in one pool of light,
and open and read.

From the Book of Moses,
that temple text par excellence:
“The Lord spake unto Enoch…
and his heart swelled wide as eternity;
and his bowels yearned;
and all eternity shook.”

Then from Psalm 119,
a perfect poem of passionate praise:
“With my whole heart have I sought thee:
O let me not wander from thy commandments.
Thy word have I hid in my heart,
that I might not sin against thee.”

There’s only one painting
in this peaceful garden library:
The resurrected Savior
His arms open in welcome.

I sit and look and listen and feel.
I pray and the presence feels just a little closer.
This white room–
so simply elegantly simple–
floats beyond time and space,
in a galaxy of suns
until I see the shadow of a tree outside,
leaves swaying in a tiny breeze.

We leave hand in hand,
slow to go
but happy to have been here
and ready for the rest.

 

 

The REALLY Old Farmer’s Almanac

978053I recently read the Latin poet Virgil’s work The Georgics, a four-part poem about the world of rural shepherds. Pretty decent pastoral stuff, especially part I.

Still, with its emphasis on astrology, agriculture, and animal husbandry, I felt like I was reading an ancient Roman version of the Old Farmer’s Almanac.

Shakespeare’s Best Female Character

screen-shot-2016-12-08-at-2-54-27-pmShe’s in a poem that’s rarely read. Not only is she Shakespeare’s best female character, she’s his second best character overall (darn you, Hamlet!). She’s Lucrece, of the long narrative poem The Rape of Lucrece.

Two things especially impress me about her. The first is right before the criminal act of the title, when she attempts to persuade her attacker not to do it. She does not, however, say what might come to mind first in that situation, like saying that it’s cruel and selfish and hurts an innocent person. She actually improvises a compelling bit of oratory that appeals to his point of view, essentially warning him about the unintended consequences this act will have on his political career. Quite clever.

But after it happens, most of the rest of the story takes place inside her head, as she mentally soliloquizes about her situation for dozens of pages. She throws out one apostrophic lament after another, addressing her impassioned complaints to fate, lust, the gods, etc. Her thoughts here go far deeper than just depression (though, obviously, that’s a big feature) as she waxes profound about the nature of life and the world in a frenzy of philosophy that would make the Prince of Denmark jealous. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s truly and undeniably great writing.

More than once while reading it, I marveled at the depth of detailed world building that Shakespeare achieved in the mind of this one woman, and often wished that the reader could have met her under better circumstances.

 

Anthony Esolen’s Translation of Dante’s Inferno

downloadI had never read the Inferno because, unlike other classics where there is broad agreement on which translations are the best, opinion here is divided. However, over the summer I read this amazing essay by Anthony Esolen (which I cannot recommend highly enough–it may be the best essay I’ve read all year); I was so impressed that I looked to see what else he had written, and lo and behold, he’d translated Dante.

This book was a beautiful joy from beginning to end. Dante’s story is even better than I’d imagined it would be. I was surprised to see it so full of, what was for Dante, contemporary social criticism. Quite a few of the movers and shakers of his world–men who had wronged him personally–were called out by name and given the retribution of having their eternal torments depicted in poetry. Even more surprising was the fact that popes were among that number (indeed, multiple passages basically say, “Hey, Pope Boniface VIII–you suck!”).

Dante’s criticism even veers into satire at points, with the punishments of hell fitting that “poetic justice” paradigm we expect. He seemingly relishes such opportunities to kick some of his targets when they’re down; for example, noting not only that one kind of sinner might spend eternity with their heads literally turned around backwards, but that the tears they always shed are running down between the cleft in their buttocks. Other sinners are seen wallowing in raw sewage forever. Stay classy, Dante!

This is not to make light of the text at all, though. In fact, the last several sections contain some of the most gruesome, horrific scenes I’ve ever come across in a book (and I read a whole lot of Stephen King as a kid!). The final scene, in the very center of hell, is fantastically graphic: Satan, frozen from the waist down in a lake of ice, has a second and third face on either side of his giant head, and each of the three mouths is eternally chewing on one of the great traitors of history: Brutus, Cassius, and Judas Iscariot. The image is incredibly vivid–below is just one of the more tasteful illustrations I found online.

Beside the text itself, Esolen has given us a great gift in this volume. The translation itself is crisp, clear, and moving, but the other features also make this a great book: the Italian text on each facing page, the extensive endnotes delving into Dante’s references in detail, and a series of appendices that provide excerpts from seminal texts that all informed Dante’s vision. I made frequent use of these, and look forward to a time when I can just sit around all day and absorb them all. For the avid reader of classics, Esolen has provided a truly fine treat.

satan-consuming-judas-from-dantes-inferno

Middle Age

Middle age is the time of life when you yearn for the memory of the fierce passions you had a few decades in the past, but at the same time you yearn for the quiet peace you hope to have a few decades in the future.

(Inspired by reading Dana Gioia’s poem, “Meditation on a Line From Novalis”)

Reviewed: Pity the Beautiful, by Dana Gioia

41DlOh9NUtL._SX303_BO1,204,203,200_I’ve read some great essays by Gioia as they’ve popped onto my radar over the years, but I’ve only seen a smattering of the actual poetry of one of America’s best and most important poets.

Having just read his most recent collection, I can highly recommend it. Gioia writes about the kind of thoughts and concerns I also care about. His work is what the kids I teach might call “relatable,” though they themselves, ironically, would find his meditations on careers, economics, rituals, and domestic relationships mostly incomprehensible, coming as they do squarely from the heart of a middle aged, middle class man. He’s the kind of man that the classic Twilight Zone episode “The Obsolete Man” memorialized, and like that classic bit of TV, this book of poetry might be called prophetic in some future day, when the target audience of like-minded readers will be ever and ever smaller.

There’s no pretension of universality here. In fact, that’s what leads to my one major ding against the book–it includes several poems translated from the Italian by other writers. As good as they are, the tone and style are wholly off from Gioia’s, and break the unity of the rest of the book, like an anachronism in an otherwise convincing fantasy.

Among the best works are “Prayer at Winter Solstice,” which includes such great lines as these:

Blessed is the road that keeps us homeless.
Blessed is the mountain that blocks our way.

Blessed are hunger and thirst, loneliness and all forms of desire.
Blessed is the labor that exhausts us without end.

Blessed are the night and the darkness that blinds us.
Blessed is the cold that teaches us to feel.

Continue reading

Time and Poetry

I need more poetry in my life. This occurred to me not long ago when I noticed on my shelf Bill Brown‘s book, The Gods of Little Pleasures. I had bought this in a tiny craft store in Virginia on my honeymoon 12 years ago, and had still not finished it. This week, I finally did.

And loved it. Brown’s poetry is exactly the kind of thing I like. His themes include reverence for age and a domestic life enhanced by appreciation for the natural world. I wish I could share more of this wonderful collection, but here are two items.

First, Brown reading the last poem in the book, from which the title comes:

“Worship” appears to be the end of a little trilogy that concludes The Gods of Little Pleasures. The other two–“Backwoods Vespers” and “Prayer”–are also excellent.

Second, here’s another one I loved, appropriate for this time of year:

“October Poem”

The cat on the porch cocks an eye

as I tote wood for October’s fire. Perhaps she

remembers naps beside the hearth.

“First frost, first fire,” my father said;

and this morning’s yard is ashimmer.

Lost in the push of my life, the one

to earn bread and shelter, it’s good

to recognize an order both immediate

and beyond my plans. Hope, like desert rain,

is always welcome. That’s the danger.

This morning hope comes in little rituals

lost to summer: splitting wood, gathering

kindling from oak branches at the fence.

Building the first fall fire is like lighting

a prayer candle to some space lost

among the daily rhythms of the heart.

One can stop time only in dreams,

but at the edge of a season, I sense

a slowing of the blood; something resolute

and fleeting is remembered for an hour,

then forgotten. I take my coffee to the porch,

sit by the cat, and watch the first smoke rise

in unknown messages toward heaven.

“We Real Nerds”

A wonderful parody, posted here.

 

Today’s poem is by David Hernandez

We Real Nerds

We real nerds. We
Love words. We

Break lines.We
Trim vines. We

Craft poems. We
Tall gnomes. We

Can’t dance. We
Hold stance. We

Reread. We
Wear tweed. We

Small herd. We
Tenured. We

Got smarts. We
Fat hearts. We

Prolong. We
Live long.