Donald Hall is not well. We were warned that this might be the last opportunity to meet the laureate, as if he is a comet or a panda on loan from Beijing.
So we rattled through a two-hour bus-ride pilgrimage, 30 journalists on fellowship—and a film about the Great Poet and his late wife, Jane Kenyon.
At Colby-Sawyer College, Hall nestled into his chair by the library fireplace and took questions. A widower of 17 years, Hall was flamboyantly morbid (his first lines at age 12 were about the visit of death). He hadn’t written a poem in years, he said, and he was relieved that there was, at last, space for prose, for silence. He might cross out a word, find a new one, kill a line. But the poetry was over.
Someone asked: Why did he stop? Where did it go? Does he miss it?
Hall, hollowed of poetry, evoked the Grand Canyon: a space where great forces collided and ripped the world apart. When the glaciers retreated, there was finally room for new life to take hold in the crevices. A fine little thought; I made a note. But Hall was contemplating testosterone.
“Poetry is utterly sexual,” he said. And at 84, he explained, his interest in sex and sonnet had waned.
The undergraduates in the back of the room twisted in their seats. The Great Poet continued, armed with the frankness of age that unnerves the young: death comes in stages, killing the desire to create with the body, with the mind, before it circles back to take what’s left.
Hall wanted to talk about the sounds of his poems, sharp ayes and extended ohs. “Let me be extravagant,” he said. “Poetry is oral sex.”
The undergraduates stared at the carpet or nodded earnest nods. An hour of that and everyone wanted more (maybe not the undergraduates), but the pilgrimage had a timetable. Into the bus, trundling into the New Hampshire hills—and there it was, the clapboard house with wasps in the eaves, glider rusting on the porch, a sugar maple listing over all. I stepped into the yard, rolled the stiffness from my shoulders, and was invited to explore the barn while waiting my turn to sit at the foot of the chair.
An old tweed hacking jacket was falling in strips from a nail. A skiff rested on its side, rope binding a pale blue sail overhead. I could smell 150 years of horses, or was it just the mice and owls? Out back, ferns grew over the softening cover of an old well. I closed my eyes and shaped a sound with my mouth: Oh.
Then I realized that I was alone. Everyone else had gone into the parlor while I swooned over an old sled.
I slid into the house, flushed. The switch plate by the kitchen door was printed with Michelangelo’s David, the toggle for the light jutting between his hips. On the refrigerator, gray-yellow snapshots of his beloved wife, Jane, laughing.
In the parlor, there was an empty packet of Pall Malls on a bookshelf, and there was the smoker, his moustache yellow, still speaking of death and desire. I was out of breath. The Great Poet talked; I couldn’t say what he told us. One forgets that some things—age; death; the crash of forces that crack the earth, bring bodies to shuddering orgasm, or make poetry—leave only the marks of their passage. They cannot be told or kept.
Yet people go to see the Grand Canyon by the millions. If it might vanish tomorrow, they would travel all night to get there, and in the end they couldn’t hold it, not the thing itself. This is why people make art, I thought—why Monet couldn’t stop with the water lilies. This was why Donald Hall wrote about death and love for 70 years, why the revisions would continue until the moment, not far away, that completed his understanding.
I went to see the Great Poet. I was there, and the moment, that moment, this moment, was already gone.
Betsy O’Donovan is an assistant professor of journalism at Western Washington University.