U.S. Poetry's New Chief: Donald Hall

Donald Hall

The work of Donald Hall is distinguished by a plainspoken style and themes reflecting his love of the farms and rural areas of his native New Hampshire. Steven Ratiner hide caption

itoggle caption Steven Ratiner

Newly announced Poet Laureate Donald Hall says he will work to improve poetry's standing in the United States, seeking to provide new inspiration to the medium.

Hall has lived for years on the New Hampshire farm that his grandparents used to own, and he writes in the room that he slept in as a boy.

Robert Siegel talks with Hall, who was appointed poet laureate on Wednesday by the Library of Congress.

The new poet laureate also reads from three of his poems: "Old Roses," "Man in the Dead Machine," and "Weeds and Peonies," which is about his late wife, the poet Jane Kenyon.

Selected Poems by Donald Hall

The following poems appear in White Apples and the Taste of Stone: Selected Poems, 1946-2006.

Old Roses

White roses, tiny and old, flare among thorns

by the barn door.

                        For a hundred years

under the June elm, under the gaze

of seven generations,

                             they lived briefly

like this, in the month of roses,

                                         by the fields

stout with corn, or with clover and timothy

making thick hay,

                        grown over, now,

with milkweed, sumac, paintbrush.

                                              Old

roses survive

winter drifts, the melt in April, August

parch,

         and men and women

who sniffed roses in spring and called them pretty

as we call them now,

                             walking beside the barn

on a day that perishes.

Weeds and Peonies

Your peonies burst out, white as snow squalls,

with red flecks at their shaggy centers

in your border of prodigies by the porch.

I carry one magnanimous blossom indoors

and float it in a glass bowl, as you used to do.

 

Ordinary pleasures, contentment recollected,

blow like snow into the abandoned garden,

overcoming the daisies. Your blue coat

vanishes down Pond Road into imagined snowflakes

with Gus at your side, his great tail swinging,

 

but you will not reappear, tired and satisfied,

and grief's repeated particles suffuse the air —

like the dog yipping through the entire night,

or the cat stretching awake, then curling

as if to dream of her mother's milky nipples.

 

A raccoon dislodged a geranium from its pot.

Flowers, roots, and dirt lay upended

in the back garden where lilies begin

their daily excursion above stone walls

in the season of old roses. I pace beside weeds

 

and snowy peonies, staring at Mount Kearsarge

where you climbed wearing purple hiking boots.

"Hurry back. Be careful, climbing down."

Your peonies lean their vast heads westward

as if they might topple. Some topple.

The Man in the Dead Machine

High on a slope in New Guinea

the Grumman Hellcat

lodges among bright vines

as thick as arms. In nineteen forty-three,

the clenched hand of a pilot

glided it here

where no one has ever been.

 

In the cockpit the helmeted

skeleton sits

upright, held

by dry sinews at neck

and shoulder, and by webbing

that straps the pelvic cross

to the cracked

leather of the seat, and the breastbone

to the canvas cover

of the parachute.

 

Or say that the shrapnel

missed me, I flew

back to the carrier, and every morning

take the train, my pale

hands on a black case, and sit

upright, held

by the firm webbing.

Gold

 

Pale gold of the walls, gold

of the centers of daisies, yellow roses

pressing from a clear bowl. All day

we lay on the bed, my hand

stroking the deep

gold of your thighs and your back.

We slept and woke

entering the golden room together,

lay down in it breathing

quickly, then

slowly again,

caressing and dozing, your hand sleepily

touching my hair now.

 

We made in those days

tiny identical rooms inside our bodies

which the men who uncover graves

will find in a thousand years,

shining and whole.

Names of Horses

 

All winter your brute shoulders strained against collars, padding

and steerhide over the ash hames, to haul

sledges of cordwood for drying through spring and summer,

for the Glenwood stove next winter, and for the simmering range.

 

In April you pulled cartloads of manure to spread on the fields,

dark manure of Holsteins, and knobs of your own clustered with

       oats.

All summer you mowed the grass in meadow and hayfield, the

       mowing machine

clacketing beside you, while the sun walked high in the morning;

and after noon's heat, you pulled a clawed rake through the same

       acres,

gathering stacks, and dragged the wagon from stack to stack,

and the built hayrack back, up hill to the chaffy barn,

three loads of hay a day, hanging wide from the hayrack.

 

Sundays you trotted the two miles to church with the light load

of a leather quartertop buggy, and grazed in the sound of hymns.

Generation on generation, your neck rubbed the window sill

of the stall, smoothing the wood as the sea smooths glass.

 

When you were old and lame, when your shoulders hurt bending

       to graze,

one October the man who fed you and kept you, and harnessed

       you every morning,

led you through corn stubble to sandy ground above Eagle Pond,

and dug a hole beside you where you stood shuddering in your

       skin,

 

and laid the shotgun's muzzle in the boneless hollow behind your

       ear,

and fired the slug into your brain, and felled you into your grave,

shoveling sand to cover you, setting goldenrod upright above

       you,

where by next summer a dent in the ground made your

       monument.

 

For a hundred and fifty years, in the pasture of dead horses,

roots of pine trees pushed through the pale curves of your ribs,

yellow blossoms flourished above you in autumn, and in winter

frost heaved your bones in the ground — old toilers, soil makers:

 

O Roger, Mackerel, Riley, Ned, Nellie, Chester, Lady Ghost.

Mount Kearsarge Shines

 

Mount Kearsarge shines with ice: from hemlock branches

snow slides onto snow; no stream, creek, or river

                            budges but remains still. Tonight

                                                        we carry armloads of logs.

 

from woodshed to Glenwood and build up the fire

that keeps the coldest night outside our windows.

                            Sit by the woodstove, Camilla.

                                                        while I bring glasses of white.

 

and we'll talk, passing the time, about weather

without pretending that we can alter it:

                            Storms stop when they stop, no sooner,

                                                        leaving the birches glossy

 

with ice and bent glittering to rimy ground.

We'll avoid the programmed weatherman grinning

                            from the box, cheerful with tempest,

                                                        and take the day as it comes,

one day at a time, the way everyone says.

These hours are the best because we hold them close

                            in our uxorious nation.

                                                        Soon we'll walk — when days turn fair

 

and frost stays off — over old roads, listening

for peepers as spring comes on, never to miss

                            the day's offering of pleasure

                                                        for the government of two.

These poems appear in White Apples and the Taste of Stone: Selected Poems, 1946-2006 by Donald Hall. Copyright (c) 2006 by Donald Hall. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

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