A Poet Reminisces: Essays After Eighty

ows_141652973541643I have always liked poetry and poets, in particular, because of their sensitivity to human experience.

One poet I like a lot is Donald Hall, a giant among contemporary American poets, although he’s given up the craft, or as he puts it, since “poetry abandoned him.”

Hall is now 85.

Let me assure you, while the tropes may not come as easily as before, his acuity remains vibrant in his newest book, Essays After Eighty, a slim volume of 120 pages, yet filled with reminiscence, keen observation, and sober wisdom.

I first got introduced to Hall by way of his textbook, Writing Well, which I used for a number of years in teaching college composition. The book lived up to its title, emphasizing sentence clarity and how to achieve it, with eloquence added in.

Hall has always been a diligent stylist, whether writing poetry or prose. He confesses that he’s written some individual essay drafts for Essays After Eighty upwards of eighty times to get things said right.

I used to tell my students that the name of the game in all good writing lay in revision, pointing out that scholars have come upon nearly fifty drafts of Yeat’s famed “Second Coming” poem.

I like how Hall says it: “The greatest pleasure in writing is rewriting. My early drafts are always wretched.”

I’ve always held that a good style is etched by its economy, the right words sufficing for empty fillers drowning readers in verbosity; a pleasing rhythm like waves, in and out, upon a sea shore.

Good prose, like poetry, runs lean.

And Hall is the great master.

Let me give you a sampling of Hall’s trademark writing acumen, simple, yet keen with observation, each detail chosen well, verbs especially, accumulating into a verbal, painting, reflecting the ethos of a skilled artisan:

In spring, when the feeder is down, stowed away in the toolshed until October, I watch the fat robins come back, bluejays that harass them, warblers, red-winged blackbirds, thrushes, orioles. Mourning doves crouch in the grass, nibbling seeds. A robin returns each year to refurbish her nest after the wintry ravage. She adds new straw, twigs and lint. Soon enough she lays eggs, sets on them with short excursions for food, then tends to three or four small beaks that open for her scavenging. Before long, the infants stand, spread and clench their wings, peer at their surroundings, and fly away. I cherish them….

Reminiscence weighs heavily upon these essays, not surprising for a writer in his mid-eighties. the ghosts, as it were, looming out of the past–grandparents, Mom and Dad, aunts and uncles, friends;  wife Jane Kenyon, the love of his life and fellow poet, succumbing unexpectedly to cancer at age 47.

Even the northern New Hampshire topography has yielded to change, farms giving way to rebirth of forest as the new generation migrates to the prosperous cities of southern New Hampshire.

As I read this moving collection of personal reflections on sundry topics, I made sure to highlight a number of striking passages, and some of them I’ll share with you.

On writing:

As I work on clauses and commas, I understand that rhythm and cadence have little to do with import, but they should carry the reader on a pleasurable journey.

If the essay doesn’t include contraries, however small they be, the essay fails.

Nine-tenths of the poets who win prizes and praises, who are applauded the most, who are treated everywhere like emperors–or like statues of emperors–will go unread in thirty years.

I count it an honor that in 1975 I gave up lifetime tenure, medical expenses, and a pension in exchange for forty joyous years of freelance writing.

I expect my immortality to expire five minutes after my funeral. Literature is a zero-sum game. One poet revives; another gets deader.

On aging:

When I limped into my eighties, my readings altered, as everything did.

In the past I was advised to live in the moment. Now what else can I do.?

On leisure:

Everyone who concentrates all day, in the evening needs to let the half-wit out for a walk.

On mortality:

It is sensible of me to realize that I will die one of these days. I will not pass away.

At some time in my seventies, death stopped being interesting. I no longer checked out ages in obituaries.

These days most old people die in profit-making dormitories. Their loving sons and daughters are busy and don’t want to forgo the routine of their lives.

Essays After Eighty has been a wonderful read for me with its acerbic wit, cogent wisdom, delivered in a simple, yet elegant, style, proving again that the best art conceals itself.

And yet there’s a melancholy that haunts these excursions into reminiscence, a sense that the best is over and, now, there’s just the waiting. As Hall confesses, “My problem isn’t death, but old age.”

Hall, of course, is addressing physical decline with its imposed limitations and dreaded dependency; but surely his words resonate still more–the sense of ephemerality that mocks our labors and brings to an end all that we love most dearly.

For Hall, “There are no happy endings, because if things are happy, they have not ended.”

Still, this work, perhaps his last, formulates a testimony to a life lived well.

And, very rarely, do you find such honest telling.

–rj

Reminiscence: And I could wish it were 1949 again

The other day, I had a solicitation in the mail from a magazine called Reminiscence. Apparently, a lot of folks like to engage in nostalgia. I confess I occasionally do the same, though I’m aware of how time can soften the contours of the past.

Lit Brothers
Lit Brothers

Still, I like to muse on past events that were really quite wonderful and that I wish I could relive again. After all, why are we given memory if we’re simply meant to forget? If I had to pick a year in which to indulge, it would be 1949. It was a good year for me and for America, too.

 

Collectively, it was a simpler time, relatively free from the frenetic pace, complexity and stress of today.

To be sure, segregation was still a factor in denying Blacks their portion of the American dream and women were still largely subservient to men. China had just fallen to the Communists. At the Kremlin, Stalin ruled with an iron fist and Russia had just tested the A-bomb. The Cold War was on in earnest and so we resorted to an ongoing airlift to save Berlin.

Nonetheless, we had a decisive president in Harry S. Truman, who never skirted making the hard choices like dropping the A-bomb to shorten a savage war or later dismissing a popular, but unruly general. In short, we felt safe.

Four years after World War II, we were at peace, with no protracted conflicts like Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. We weren’t saddled with mind-boggling national debt, Congressional deadlock, inflationary pressures, the loss of our manufacturing base, or economic recession.

There weren’t any urban riots, decaying cities, or the threat of climate change that imperils our existence. We could never have imagined a 9/11 or the pervasiveness of terrorism.

Here are a few economic facts that put things into perspective about 1949:

Unemployment stood at just 3.8%.

Inflation, a mind-boggling 0.95%.

You could buy a house for an average $7500.

A car for $1400.

Gas, 17 cents for regular.

Let’s put it another way: $100 in 1949 now comes to $967.01 in 2014, with an average 3.5 inflation rate annually since that remarkable year (Bureau of Labor Statistics).

Most items were still made here in America, including TVs and cars. Cars had turned into long finned gargantuans replete with white wall tires and, with pent up demand, we couldn’t make them fast enough.

We were kings in forging steel and cities like Akron, Youngstown, Pittsburgh, Bethlehem and Lehigh lit up the night sky.

In New England, the textile mills of Lawrence, Lowell and North Adams hummed on.

We were good at making shoes and my father toiled in a neighborhood leather factory.

I was then a street urchin, much like Tom Sawyer, exploring the thoroughfares of Philadelphia, curious and, sometimes, mischievous. Occasionally, I played hooky, skipping school to walk downtown and visually rummage the big, many floor stores like Gimbels, Lit Brothers and Wanamaker’s, bustling with goods and replete with escalator stairs.

Yes, American cities once possessed vibrant downtowns that provided cohesion before the onset of suburban box stores and strip malls. Downtown was the place to be–shopping, movies, eateries.

Baseball was truly our national game, with many of the contests played in the afternoons. It was the era of greats like Williams, DiMaggio, and Musial. They hadn’t lowered the mound to boost hitters. No free agency meant modest salaries. Stadiums were named for people, not corporations or banks. Franchises didn’t move. Players didn’t cheat with drugs. Sundays and holidays meant doubleheaders. What a deal!

We didn’t have playgrounds in Kensington, the ethnic blue collar stronghold, dubbed Fishtown, where I lived near the Delaware River, but that didn’t stop us from playing stick ball, smashing cut-in-half tennis balls against factory facades. You determined singles, doubles, triples and home runs by window level.

I liked venturing down to the wharves, where I could see the cargo ships unloading, waive to their crews, and study their flags to learn their origin. It was here I developed my addiction to visit far off lands.

TVs initially with 4 inch screens, were now selling madly, or at the rate of 100,000 weekly, sadly hinting at foreclosure of neighborhood enclaves where we’d gather nightly on the white marble steps of our row housing, chatting our humanity until late evening breezes whispered their coolness and launched our escape from the steamy heat of asphalt streets and we could at last renew ourselves with sleep. We never dreamed of air conditioning, though a good many of us lived in upstair flats.

Despite TV’s inroads, radio still loomed large with shows like The Shadow, Jack Benny, Suspense and the Lone Ranger. Daytime–Arthur Godfrey was all the rage.

As for TV, showslike Mama, Texaco Theater, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Life of Riley were our staples. At most, you’d be lucky to have three channels, and after the 11 pm news, stations would shut down, sometimes to the National Anthem. They gave you a test pattern to help you get your “rabbit-ear” antennas right.

The music revolution hadn’t begun. No Elvis Presley. No Beatles. No Rock n’ Roll. No heavy metal or hip hop. We had Dick Clark and American Bandstand. Not knowing anything else, we were content.

Lyrics still rhymed, making them easy to remember. No CDs. Just vinyl records that could scratch easily, but the risk worth the sound!

Sinatra and Crosby reigned along with new stars like Rosemary Clooney, Frankie Laine, the Ames Brothers, and Dinah Shore. And then there was the handsome Mario Lanza, whose baritone thunder captured women’s hearts.

In 1949, you could escape Philly’s summer heat with a day movie for only a dime or a quarter at night, and even get in on a double header that included the world news and Disney cartoons. Bogart, Gable, Wayne, Cooper, Grant–and, yes,–Bob Hope (number one) were the big draws. On Saturday afternoons, a special treat with serial showings of Superman!

Despite technicolor and Gone with the Wind, color was rare.

Comedy was big and I laughed till my sides hurt at the likes of the three stooges, and Abbott and Costello. And then there were those shoot ’em up Westerns with Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, adept in singing prowess as well as gun savvy. Why we even got to know their horses, Trigger and Champion, unlike the plods of other Westerns apart from the Lone Ranger’s Silver.

Telephones weren’t in abundance, so sometimes we resorted to a neighbor’s phone or a telephone booth to make a call. To call long distance could be expensive, even intimidating, and thus rare. Nice, however to be out of reach. Or on the streets, free of distracted drivers.

Magazines, often pictorial, like Look, Life, and Saturday Evening Post, caught your eye and provided quick reads. And they cost cents, not dollars.

Yes, many doctors still made house calls and health costs were reasonable.

We didn’t have Interstates then. That would come with Eisenhower’s mandate. Main highways were mostly two lanes giving way occasionally to a third lane for passing. Crossing the Ben Franklin for the Jersey shore and fresh fruit took you through spacious countryside with luxuriant tomato farms. Mom and Pop cabins–no motel chains–offered accommodation for $3 a night.

There were only 150 million of us then and even California had ample elbow room. Worldwide, just under 2 billion people, meaning more manageable resources, less poverty, and a cleaner environment.

More of us began to fly–on noisy propeller contraptions that is. Passenger ships still plied the ocean like their ancient predecessors.

What I really liked were the trains and, especially, the sleek new diesel locomotives. Train stations were busy, exciting places, filled with shops, much the way it still is in Europe.

On a sadder note, I miss my once teeming family–my mother and father, brother, oodles of cousins, dear aunts and uncles, and childhood friends, in 1949, luxuriating in life’s bloom. As life stretches out, we mourn our losses as well as count our gains. We learn to appreciate what we cannot keep. I am glad for memory.

I could go on, but you get the picture, or at least my view of 1949–like a fine wine, a year of superbly good vintage. A time of innocence and simplicity, where less proved more, and thus possessed its own indulgent beauty.

But we can’t be Rip Van Winkles either. Time moves on, and we with it.

–rj

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