Thank You Thank You
April is Poetry Month, the Academy of American Poets tells us. In 2013 there were 7,427 poetry readings in April, many on a Thursday. For anyone born in 1928 who pays attention to poetry, the numerousness is astonishing. In April of 1948, there were 15 readings in the United States, 12 by Robert Frost.
So I claim. The figures are imaginary, but you get the point.
Whenever a poet comes to the end of a poetry reading, she pauses a moment, then, as a signal for applause, says "Thank you" and nods her head. Hands clap, and she says "Thank you" again, to more applause. Sometimes she says it one more time, or he does. How else does the audience know that the reading might not go on for six hours?
For better or worse, poetry is my life. After a reading, I enjoy the question period. On a tour in Nebraska I read poems to high school kids, a big auditorium. When I finished, someone wanted to know how I got started. I said how at twelve I loved horror movies, then read Edgar Allan Poe, then . . . A young man up front waved his hand. I paused in my story. He asked, "Didn't you do it to pick up chicks?"
I remembered cheerleaders at Hamden High School. "It works better," I told him, "when you get older."
It used to be that one poet in each generation performed poems in public. In the twenties it was Vachel Lindsay, who sometimes dropped to his knees in the middle of a poem. Then Robert Frost took over, and made his living largely on the road. He spoke well, his meter accommodating his natural sentences, and in between poems he made people laugh. At times onstage he played the chicken farmer, cute and countrified, eliciting coos of delight from an adoring audience. Once, after I heard him do this routine, I attended the post-reading cocktail party, where he ate deviled eggs, sipped martinis, and slaughtered the reputations of Eliot, Williams, Stevens, Moore . . .
Back then, other famous poets read aloud only two or three times a year. If they were alive now, probably they could make a better living saying their poems than they did as an editor at Faber and Faber, or an obstetrician, or an insurance company executive, or a Brooklyn librarian.
In 1952 I recited aloud the first time, booming in Oxford's Sheldonian Theatre from a bad poem that had won a prize. The London Times remarked on my "appropriately lugubrious voice." When I first did a full-length poetry reading, three years later, my arms plunged stiff from my shoulders, my voice was changeless in pitch and volume, my face rigid, expressionless, pale — as if I were a collaborator facing a firing squad.
A question period for undergraduates at a Florida college began with the usual stuff: what is the difference between poetry and prose? Then I heard a question I had never heard before: "How do you reconcile being a poet with being president of Hallmark cards?" This inquisitive student had looked on the Internet and learned that the man who runs the sentiment factory is indeed Donald Hall.
It's a common name. Once before a reading a man asked me, "Are you Donald Hall?"
"Yes," I said.
"So am I," he said.
At the end of the airport's titanium tube a man carried a sign with the poet's name. The assistant professor drove her an hour to his campus, talking nervously all the way about whether he'd get tenure from his English department. When he drove her back for her flight the next day, he asked her to write a letter of recommendation.
When my first book came out in 1955, it was praised, I did a second book, my poems appeared in magazines — but nobody asked me to speak them out loud. I taught at the University of Michigan, which sponsored no readings. To my students I recited great poems with gusto and growing confidence — Wyatt, Keats, Dickinson, Whitman, Yeats, Hardy — and worked on performance without knowing it. It was a shock when a lecture agent telephoned to offer a fee for reading my poems at a college. It happened again, and I flew off on days when I didn't teach. Michigan paid minimal salaries, and most teachers amplified their incomes by plodding to summer school. I stayed home and wrote instead of employing the Socratic method in a suffocating classroom.
As the phone kept ringing, I supposed that poetry readings were some sort of fad, like cramming into phone booths; I would enjoy it as long as it lasted.
When my generation learned to read aloud, publishing from platforms more often than in print, we heard our poems change. Sound had always been my portal to poetry, but in the beginning sound was imagined through the eye. Gradually the out-loud mouth-juice of vowels, or mouth-chunk of consonants, gave body to poems in performance. Dylan Thomas showed the way. Charles Olson said that "form is never more than an extension of content." Really, content is only an excuse for oral sex. The most erotic poem in English is Paradise Lost.
In concentrating on sound, as in anything else, there are things to beware of. Revising a poem one morning, I found myself knowing that a new phrase was a cliché or a dead metaphor, but realizing that I could intone it aloud so that it would pass. Watch out. A poem must work from the platform but it must also work on the page. My generation started when poetry was print, before it became sound. We were lucky to practice both modes at once.
Excerpted from Essays After Eighty by Donald Hall. Copyright 2014 by Donald Hall. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.