Thursday, February 19, 2009
Imagine knowing what you will do with your life before knowing how to drive. Impressive – but not nearly as remarkable as actually doing it.
“At 14, I decided to spend my life writing poetry, which is what I have done,” writes Donald Hall, U.S. poet Laureate (2006-2007), in his most recent memoir Unpacking the Boxes: A Memoir of a Life in Poetry.
Hall, who will do a reading and book signing at MPC this evening, deserves every letter of the poet laureate title. In his 80-plus years, he has edited or written more than 100 books, including children’s stories, literary essays, volumes of poetry and a reminiscence of last century’s most famous poets (Pound, Frost, Thomas and Eliot).
For MPC, Hall’s visit is a jewel – and a bit of a godsend. David Clemens, instructor of literature and composition, notes that there has been a “precipitous decline” in student reading. He helped organize the event in order to “revive student interest in literature.”
For students who loathe writing a single composition, the life of a poet may seem to border on sadomasochism. It ain’t easy: “Revising, I go through a whole manuscript over and over and over,” Hall told The Paris Review in 1991. “Some short pieces I’ve rewritten 15 or 20 times; poems get up to 300 drafts.”
“I don’t recommend it,” he said.
Hall, now 81, is known for capturing reality without the sentimentality of a confessional; his poems are deeply personal yet completely accessible. When his wife, Jane Kenyon (also a well-known poet), passed in 1995, he began writing Without, a book of poems describing her illness and the process of mourning that followed her death. The poems are bare-boned and stark, providing an unflinching look at love, death and loss. In “Last Days,” he writes:
One by one they came,
the oldest and dearest, to say goodbye
to this friend of the heart.
At first she said their names, wept, and touched;
then she smiled; then
turned one mouth-corner up. On the last day
she stared silent goodbyes
with her hands curled and her eyes stuck open.
Throughout the volume, Hall shifts from first-person narration to a distant third-person voice, which both brings the reader in as an intimate and pushes her into her own stories. As he told The Paris Review: “I don’t believe poets when they say I, and I wish people wouldn’t believe me. Poetic material starts by being personal, but the deeper we go inside, the more we become everybody.”
Hall’s most recent compilation of poems, White Apples and the Taste of Stone: Selected Poems 1946-2006, captures a lifetime of words and fills a volume of over 400 pages. Included with the book is an audio CD of Hall reading his favorite poems. As Clemens, who will introduce Hall this evening, put it, “Many of the poems he reads I have heard in audio recordings from 40 years ago. To hear a young man’s voice and then an old man’s voice reading a poem is powerful.”
Hall’s unlikely adolescent decision to be a poet and the audacity to actually do it has given readers decades of material to enjoy. Hall continues to write, but refrains from proclamations about the future.
“At 80, you don’t waste time planning 10 years in the future,” he writes in his memoir. “You learn, I suppose, to live in the moment – as you have been told to do your entire life.”
DONALD HALL will read at Lecture Forum 103, Monterey Peninsula College, 980 Fremont St., Monterey, at 7pm Thursday, Feb. 19. Tickets: $10 at the MPC Public Information Office 646-4057 or the MPC Humanities Division Office 646-4100.