The task and potential greatness of mortals,” in the words of Hannah Arendt as quoted by Donald Hall at the beginning of his eleventh book of poems, The Museum of Clear Ideas, “reside in their ability to produce things which are at home in everlastingness.” Hall’s strategy for being “at home in everlastingness” organizes itself around three emphases: a seven-page elegy for a fictitious poet of our time named Bill Trout; a long, nine-part poem called “Baseball,” the sections of which are innings, written in nine-syllable lines; and the long title sequence, an omnium gatherum modeled after Horace’s odes. There is in addition a reprise of “Baseball” called “Extra Innings.”
Being a particularly trusting reader, the first time I read “Another Elegy” I missed Hall’s broad hint, delivered in the form of an epigraph from T. S. Eliot: “Both one and many; in the brown baked features/ The eyes of a familiar compound ghost …” But I’m glad I was credulous enough to read the poem at least once under the impression that Bill Trout was a real person—or at least wondering which real-life poet Hall had in mind when he was imagining the character.
Donald Hall is our finest elegist.
My credulity was not badly misplaced, because in Bill Trout, Hall has sketched a composite picture of his generation of poets. In the pastiche of a biographical sketch from “The Norton Anthology of Contemporary Verse” that Hall has appended in his notes to the book, Trout’s dates are 1927-1977: born in the same year as John Ashbery, Galway Kinnell, W. S. Merwin, and James Wright; one year later than A. R. Ammons, Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg, and Frank O’Hara; and a year before Philip Levine and Donald Hall. Trout is a poet from the heartland: “Idaho made him,” Hall writes, tongue gleefully in cheek, “Pocatello of hobos and freight- yards—/ clangor of iron, fetor of coalsmoke.” His literary beginnings are those of the homegrown American verse-maker: “When he was fifteen he stayed home from fishing to number/ feet that promenaded to a Union Pacific tune, ABAB/ pentameters.”
His excesses and troubles are those of midcentury American poets like Lowell, Schwartz, and Berryman: madness, divorce, and alcoholism. As the parody blurb puts it, “Trout led a troubled life, more like the generation of his teachers than his own generation.” The genius of the fictional portrait lies in the familiarity of the generic story: “he drank two Guggenheims and snorted/ an NEA.” Hall deftly sketches scenes that give the story its verisimilitude. The tone and the vocabulary epitomize the period. At a reunion of old friends in the Sixties, Bill, recently divorced, “paced/ muttering, smoking his Lucky Strikes. Later the rest/ divorced and paced.”
Typically, it is on the quintessentially American occasion of families gathering for a camping and fishing trip—“setting up tents, joking, frying pickerel in cool dusk”—that Trout must spoil the idyll with his bathetic animadversions on existence: “Continually sloshed, Bill proclaimed/ that life was shit, death was shit—even shit was shit.” Hall does not answer the often-posed question why the writers of our time—particularly the poets—have led lives of excess, breakdown, and despair. Finally, though, amidst the wreckage and dreck of the generic poet’s life, Hall celebrates and marvels at the irreducible calculus of hard work and dedication of a writer’s life:
Bill Trout woke up, the best mornings of his life—
of hangover, without pills or panic—to practice
at four o’clock dawn: to test words, to break
and build again, patient to construct immovable
of art by the pains of intelligent attention—
alert or awake to nightmare.
Donald Hall is our finest elegist. He has, over the years, come to a vision of life not as something that begins and then ends, but as a recurrence, a seasonal reprise: “Bill Trout is incorrigible, like the recidivist blacksnake,/ sparrow, and high water that turn and return in April’s/ versions—cycles of the same, fish making fish …”
A man of letters and jack-of-all-trades whose industry and catholicity have astounded the literary world for decades, Hall, author of—among many others—a prose book about baseball called Fathers Playing Catch with Sons, is well-known as a sports fan, specifically a baseball fan. One pictures him in his rural New Hampshire home scanning the airwaves with his satellite dish in search of games to watch:
Baseball is not my work. It is my
walk in the park, my pint of bitter,
my Agatha Christie or Zane Grey—
release of the baby animal’s
energy into the jungle gym
of a frivolous concentration.
Also I dictate letters between
pitches—as I observe the Red Sox
or whatever game’s on satellite.
(Notice the nine lines, and the nine syllables per line.)
The long poem “Baseball” is couched as an attempt to explain the game to the late German collage-artist Kurt Schwitters. Not surprisingly, collage is Hall’s approach here:
The madness method
of “Baseball” gathers bits and pieces
of ordinary things—like bleacher
ticket stubs, used Astroturf, Fenway
Frank wrappers, yearbooks, and memory—
to paste them onto the bonkers grid
of the page.
Surprisingly, the poem is not nearly so much about baseball as it is about a dozen other strands of the poet’s life: walking the dog, causeries on this and that, memories—only some of them tied to baseball. It is, not least, a frankly and enjoyably erotic poem:
Baseball, I warrant, is not the whole
occupation of the aging boy.
Far from it: There are cats and roses;
there is her water body. She fills
the skin of her legs up, like water;
under her blouse, water assembles,
swelling lukewarm; her mouth is water,
her cheekbones cool water; water flows
in her rapid hair …
Listening to a baseball game on the radio a few days ago, I had a little epiphany about this poem. Then a piece in The New York Times Book Review by Robert Pinsky on Phil Rizzuto’s O Holy Cow! gave words to my insight. The reason “Baseball” dwells so little on the actual game is that our involvement with the game, like Phil Rizzuto’s commentary on Yankees games, “embodies,” in Pinsky’s words, “the divided, sometimes wandering attention, the ebbing and flowing alertness, the genial state of all-but-suspended consciousness that have made the sound of broadcast baseball a beloved national pacifier.”
Donald Hall is interested in the generic life. Not every poet is.
Hall’s “Museum of Clear Ideas” gives us a taste of what our moment in time looks like through the eyes, not—as it is often presented to us—of the TV-sitcom writer or the newspaper columnist, but of the sharp and even bitter satirist this poet can be. One gets a sense of how a contemporary Horace, who calls himself after a Disney character, Horace Horsecollar, would have approached our follies: the sequence is loosely modeled on Horace’s odes—so loosely, in fact, that a comparison with the originals yields very little. Stanza 1 of the twenty-second of Horace’s first book of odes,
Integer vitae scelerisque purus
non eget Mauris iaculis neque arcu
nec venenatis gravida sagittis,
Fusce, pharetra …
(in Burton Raffel’s version, “Fuscus, an honest man,/ A man without guilt,/ Needs no Moorish spears,/ No poisoned arrows …”), goes like this in Hall’s rendering:
Flaccus, drive up from Providence to see us.
I’ll buy some bargain Scotch at a New
liquor store and we’ll celebrate your new book
and that good review
in the New York Times …
In short, the Horatian Odes simply suggest an attitude toward, and provide occasions for commentary on, the life Hall sees going on around him. For readers familiar with the Odes, though, there are a few in-jokes. Hall has fun with I, 10, which Raffel translates
Mercury, Atlantis’ eloquent grandson,
You who civilized savage man with language,
Whose wisdom created the sandy wrestling-
And gave men that gift,
by celebrating a different brand of Mercury:
Mercury, descendant of Henry Ford’s five-
dollar-a-day Model-T factory line,
you educated us and provided means
of exploration …
The automobile becomes “messenger of adult pleasures” and also awaits us at the end of our life’s journey: “Oh, surely your transport will return again/ in the procession of motors following/ a sable Lincoln.”
Donald Hall is interested in the generic life. Not every poet is. Reading lines like “When the young husband picked up his friend’s pretty wife/ in the taxi one block from her townhouse for their/ first lunch together, in a hotel dining room,” one may be reminded of a fiction writer like John Updike or John Cheever. Whitman’s enumerations, though, give us a similar sense of the generic American life in his time:
The pure contralto sings in the organ loft,
The carpenter dresses his plank …
The duck-shooter walks by cautious and silent
The deacons are ordain’d with cross’d hands
at the altar …
The connoisseur peers along the exhibition-
gallery with half-shut eyes bent sideways …
The prostitute draggles her shawl, her bonnet
bobs on her tipsy and pimpled neck… .
The President holding a cabinet council is
surrounded by the great secretaries.
Returning to “the young husband,” Hall can sound quite the severe moralist:
kiss with open mouths, nakedness, swoon,
endorphins followed by endearments; a brief
another fit; restoration
of clothes, arrangements for another
the taxi back, and the furtive kiss of goodbye.
Then, by turn: tears, treachery, anger,
marriages and houses destroyed …
Horsecollar has another string to his bow, however. Following almost all his odes are rejoinders which a note tells us “lack an Horatian provenance.” These strike a cynical attitude that undercuts the pathos of the odes themselves: “Or say, Why this whining? You liked/ your nooky well enough, back when/ you had your teeth.”
Do you croon guilt’s anthem now
—after twenty years of diligence
and a gold watch—because your bald
agent retires from the company?
At one time seemingly lost in the crowd of gifted American poets from the celebrated “generation of ’27,” Donald Hall has persisted and persevered, with the result that his poetry, rather than standing among, now stands out. Having resigned a professorship at the University of Michigan in 1975, he has provided an example of the poet as man of letters: essayist, editor, literary journalist, sports writer, author of children’s books, critic, Dutch uncle to a generation of poets, and surely the most prolific letter-writer of his time. The remarkable thing is that, distinguished a figure as he is, Hall has managed to avoid making himself into a monument. The Museum of Clear Ideas is as original, idiosyncratic, and un-museumlike a poetic work as we are likely to see for a long time to come.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 11 Number 10, on page 84
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