Sunday, February 28, 2016

Donald Hall: Essays After Eighty

Donald Hall visited my college for a reading when he was in his seventies, just before he became the U.S. Poet Laureate. I didn't take to his poetry, but own the collected poems of his late wife, Jane Kenyon, who died of leukemia at the age of 47.

Last month, when I was looking for some new essays to read, I came across a skinny book called Essays After Eighty, and bought it. The front cover has a close-up of his hirsute face, wrinkled and pitted. And the essays are great.


He mentions going out without combing his hair (not sure he combed it for the cover photo, either). The essays are full of personal detail, insightful reflections, and the kind of storytelling that makes me read essays in the first place.

The essays are less great when he is talking about all the famous people he's met (I suppose it's unfair of me to see it as bragging - at 87, he can boast impressive accomplishments). His essay on a trip through Greece ("One Road") is dull until the last two paragraphs, and I disliked "A Yeti in the District."

Still, this book proved well worth the cost of purchase. The essay "Out the Window" is one of my favorites in this collection.

The legacy of any poet is an uncertain one, as Hall acknowledges in "On Rejection and Resurrection." It may take centuries for a poet to be acknowledged as great. Poetry is difficult to judge in any era. But I hope that these essays last as part of Hall's legacy, and plan to explore his other works as well.

In June, peonies bloom at the edge of my porch, a column of them, as their buds swell green until they burst into white and feathery soccer balls - and then a thunderstorm shatters the blossoms. ("Out the Window")
In my life I have grown three beards, covering many of my adult faces. My present hairiness is monumental, and I intend to carry it into the grave. ("Three Beards")
If a person lives into old age, there's a moment when he or she becomes eldest in the family, perched on top of a hill as night rises. ("Death")

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