Good morning, everyone – and welcome back. You probably find it as hard to believe as I do that this summer, the summer we barely had or barely experienced, has come to an end. The kids are back at school or off to college for the first or another time, and we may be ready to think again about what gives us pleasure. One such thing is poetry.
Our page this month was to be a tribute to Donald Hall – the living Donald Hall – but we’ve lost him at 89. Another of the great generation of American poets gone, along with a favorite and gifted student of his, Tom Clark, who died after being struck by a car in Berkeley, California.
Like all poets, Hall was concerned with love and death, and his latest book confirms this. A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety, came out in June of this year, a memoir that reads like a long conversation we might have had with him in the New Hampshire house he inherited from his family and where he lived with his wife, poet Jane Kenyon, who predeceased him and for whom he was still mourning. His Essays after Eighty, published in 2014, one critic called a memento mori. Together, the two books comprise as much of his autobiography as we have not been able to gather from his poems. What I found saddest was that he had decided he could now write only prose. Although he has always been a fine prose stylist, I missed those Donald Hall poems and wanted more.
I hope you’ll forgive me if I share one of my own, from my book, Rehearsal (IPBooks, 2018):
Letter to Donald Hall
I’ve hear you read more than once.
I have most of your books, signed.
The last time I saw you I took them
and stood on line to say, “I’ll bet you
haven’t seen this one in a long time;
would you sign it?” And you said,
“I’ll sign all of them,” – graciously –
And now you’ve unpacked your boxes
in Grandpa Wesley’s house, Jane is gone
and you say, in Essays after Eighty,
that all you can write is prose.
I’m sorry you think your poetry’s gone
and you can now govern only in prose.
You did a great job with your new Selected;
your taste hasn’t left you at all.
But what I wish you would do for us now
is push open that door, go outside and
kick the leaves again. Bring back
a bright new poem – the poem of a
ninety-year-old, in bloom.
But he didn’t. He couldn’t.
The letter was never sent, of course, and we never had another new poem from former Poet Laureate Donald Hall, whose breakthrough collection was Kicking the Leaves.
Perhaps our readers will be inspired to go to your bookstores and libraries to find that one and some of his earlier books and to see the choices he made for his Selected Poems.
But today is Labor Day here in the U.S. and many stores and public facilities are closed in observation of a day that union members themselves fought for and obtained for all of us – one of many things to remember now that unions are under assault from multiple sources.
Poets have long honored working men and woman, with everything from poems like Thomas Hood’s “The Song of the Shirt” (1843) to contemporary collections such as Philip Levine’s What Work Is (Alfred A. Knopf, 1991); the Nicholas Coles anthology, For a Living: The Poetry of Work (University of Illinois Press, 1995), and B.H. Fairchild’s Blue Buick: New and Selected Poems (W.W. Norton & Co., 2014), but not until this week did I discover a new one that ranks with the very best of them. Just published by the University of Chicago Press, it’s by David Gewanter and is called Fort Necessity. The heart of this slim volume gives us the title, which is what he refers to in lower-case as “a poem in socuments.” Indeed it is, and the documents are chilling, beginning with a chart illustrating “Select Characteristics of U.S. Iron & Steel Mill Injuries & Illnesses with Days Away from Work (2008). It goes on, with gasp-inducing quotes from “The Lords of Labor” such as Andrew Carnegie’s “The Law of Competition/ concentration of business/ in the hands of the few, is/essential to the progress of the race …” and Charles Koch, in 1989: “I want my fair share, and that’s all of it,” and Jay Gould, saying in 1886, “I can hire one half of the working class/ to kill the other half.”
So there we have a small part of it. Yes, these are poems – true poems, based on sound historical research, about who has worked, how they have worked, and for whom.
What better way to memorialize them on Labor Day than to read these poems and digest them? What barbecue can match an experience like this?