The poet ...

Published December 17, 2006

The short cold days of winter have come to northern New England, and Donald Hall dreads them. He is the nation's poet laureate, a man made for this job, a poet seasoned to speak about essential things - what poetry means in our age, what poetry is, and isn't. Hall is also a 78-year-old man, bowed, slowed but not quite stilled, wishing he were 70 again.

He writes little now, or seems to. When I visited him recently, he said he had a couple of poems under way and was thinking about another. You can't trust what poets tell you about their works in progress because they delight in exaggerating their misery, but Hall is famous for his industry. He has almost always had dozens of poems in various stages of revision. Some mornings now, he works on his memoirs, but others he spends reading and dozing in the blue chair in the living room of what was once his mother's family's farmhouse.

Age has not diminished Hall's standards for poetry, including his own. The Nov. 13 New Yorker published his Maples, a poem that condenses nearly his entire lifespan into 22 lines while also striking the themes of his lifework: decline and loss, place, nature, mankind's addiction to wanton destruction.

The poem begins with its narrator as a boy too young to work the farm. Instead he pumps away the summer days on a swing his grandfather hung from a fat maple branch. Maples ends with these lines, written in the same farmhouse, in the shade of the same maple tree:

Sixty years after the swing, a lofty half-dead tree

drops branches on the grass. I call tree people

to tear out dead limbs for next year's sake,

fearing the wind and ice storms of winter,

dreading broken trees, and bones, and cities.

Hall and the maple and the fate of the world converge in this poem. In its last sentence his fears for the sick tree become his fears for himself and for civilization. Even the maple, so sturdy, so renewable each spring, so majestic in the landscape, only seems permanent. Even Donald Hall cannot outwork time.

What he says about poetry is what he has always said. The laureateship is not his first soapbox. He was a columnist for American Poetry Review, a prolific critic, the general editor of the University of Michigan's long-running Poets on Poetry series. As a critic, he knocked down pedestals, sung unsung poets and held up a single ethic about a poet's role in society.

"I suggest that poets have a duty to write good poems and that their duty ends there," he once wrote.

His advice to poets: "Remember what matters. Remember that you work to make a star that will burn - outside you and even for a while after you - high in the sky."

And: "The poet's role is to sit at his desk every morning and make poems until they are perfect."

In an essay on his friend and contemporary, Galway Kinnell, Hall wrote that during a conversation Kinnell paused and said slowly: "I don't have any interest in any poem to which the poet didn't bring the whole of his life to bear at the moment of writing."

'Treated like royalty'

Hall's farmhouse is white with green trim. The rocky dirt driveway is horseshoe-shaped. It curves around a maple tree - the one in the poem - before arriving at the front porch and the kitchen door. Opposite the house stands a weathered barn, long a relic but for its second life in Hall's poetry.

It is easy to cite these specifics about the homestead but difficult to explain the aura of the place to people from away. It is a country house, modest, not grand, a place with a past and also a place in the past. The country around it has changed little, except in its uses, or lack of uses. If anything, the demise of farming has turned the land further back to nature than it was a century ago. There are other houses like Hall's, and yet his is distinctive in a way that houses in suburbia and even today's expansive "country houses" on 5-acre lots are not.

I have known Hall for more than a quarter-century, visited his farmhouse many times and written often about him and his late wife, the poet Jane Kenyon. And yet as I drove up to see him again, I felt guilty.

Like almost anyone, Hall appreciates public recognition. He is grateful to have been named poet laureate. But he is also weary of the celebrity surrounding his appointment - the media interviews, the public appearances.

"When I go someplace now, I'm treated like royalty," he said. "I feel as if people are curtsying to me."

I didn't curtsy, but I did have my tape recorder with me. Knowing Hall's penchant for pleasures of the mouth, I had made him a liverwurst and onion sandwich for lunch, his choice. It was a bribe, and we both knew it.

During our interview, Hall described his view of the modern popular culture and poetry's place in opposition to it. It is a culture of sameness and duplication, an accelerating, computer-driven frenzy of information, he said. Poetry must ignore all this and be what it has always been.

"It's the private rather than the public," Hall said. "It is homemade. Each poem is something different. Part of the problem in this age is that everything you look at exists in multiple copies. Poems are one at a time."

This is by no means a new place for poetry in the culture.

"Wordsworth's poetry was a refuge from an industrial age that was just beginning," Hall said. "Since that time, I think poetry has been a refuge. The forces of duplication and many-ness are greater than ever before and will presumably continue to become greater."

Posed against this "continuous aggravation of information and sameness," and in a world of human strife without end, poetry's function has remained constant. "Poetry can't do anything about anything," Hall said. "Poetry makes nothing happen." What the best poetry can do, in his view, is convey two things: beauty and feeling. "By means of its beauty it is practicing the emotions."

Years ago, in a positive review of a book by his contemporary, Adrienne Rich, Hall singled out one phrase from one poem as violating this core belief of his. The phrase was "The failure to want our freedom passionately enough," and Hall wrote that it was "language about emotion, which embodies no emotion."

As students in Cambridge more than half a century ago, Hall and Rich dated briefly, even doubling once with Robert Bly and his date. Hall remembers being "awful" on one of these dates, starting an argument with Bly that turned violent, but he and Rich later became friends. They are now statesman and stateswoman of American poetry.

In accepting a special citation at this year's National Book Awards banquet, Rich told the audience that poetry is often seen as "inadequate or unprofitable and hence useless."

She went on: "Either way, poets are advised to hang our heads or fold our tents. Yet, in fact, throughout the world transfusions of poetic language can and do quite literally keep bodies and souls together."

The argument about whether poetry matters in the modern world, and how it matters, is an old one. In a 1989 essay for Harper's, Hall recounted - and discounted - the parade down the decades of critical laments proclaiming the death of poetry.

"There are a thousand ways to love a poem," he wrote. "The best poets make up new ways, and the new ways take getting used to."

Poetry and place

During his three decades at Eagle Pond Farm, there have been at least four Donald Halls: the poet in middle age coming into his own; the poet husband, as he and Kenyon loved, wrote and prospered in the same farmhouse; the widower poet in grief after Kenyon's death; and, now, the wizened poet.

All these Donald Halls have been poets of place. And his is a familiar place in American poetry: rural northern New England.

Any poet is sensitive to labels. To call someone a New England poet or a regional poet is to suggest that his or her work will appeal principally to those who live where the poet lives. Hall's large body of work includes many poems that refer to place either tangentially or not at all. But when I asked him about the limits of place in his poetry, he turned the question around.

"Limits are also opportunities," he said. "If you're fully in a place so that all human feeling can have some echo in the place itself, you're not so much limited by your place as you are liberated by it."

There may be no maples to mark the seasons in Houston or Santa Barbara, but people there "know what a maple is," Hall said. "They can imagine a maple."

The poem Maples is not about the trees anyway, or about the place they grow. It is about the emotion beneath the surface.

"Everything has its beginning, its middle and its ending - even a suburb, or Wal-Mart - so that process of aging and decay is commonplace and not limited to New England," Hall said.

When Hall was named poet laureate, many journalists asked him what he intended to do in this new role. He gave dutiful answers about expanding the reach of poetry through technical means about which he knows little or nothing.

I have no doubt that he will be as active a poet laureate as his body allows him to be. But Hall is not poet laureate because he will be the first troubadour of podcasts and online chats; he is poet laureate because of who he is and what he stands for.

The old poet from a cold corner of the country is telling us that poets must not waver from their appointed task. Against the ceaseless electronic buzz of the modern age, they must devote everything to finding beauty in language and conveying emotion itself. And we readers must expect nothing more, or less, of our poets.

Mike Pride, a member of the Pulitzer Prize board, is editor of the Concord Monitor, New Hampshire's capital daily newspaper. His latest book, written with Steve Raymond, is Too Dead to Die: A Memoir of Bataan and Beyond.