Today it is January, midmonth, midday, and mid-New Hampshire. I sit in my blue armchair looking out the window. I am eighty-three, I teeter when I walk, I no longer drive, I look out the window. Snow started before I woke, and by now it looks to be ten inches; they say we might have a foot and a half. There are three windows beside me where I sit, the middle one deep and wide. Outside is a narrow porch that provides shade in the summer, in winter a barrier against drifts. I look at the barn forty yards away, which appears to heave like a frigate in a gale. I watch birds come to my feeder, hanging from clapboard in my line of sight. All winter, juncos and chickadees take nourishment here. When snow is as thick as today, the feeder bends under the weight of a dozen birds at once. They swerve from their tree perches, peck, and fly back to bare branches. Prettily they light, snap beaks into seed, and burst away: nuthatches, evening grosbeaks, American goldfinches, sparrows . . .
The feeder used to dangle from a maple branch farther away. Always when winter moved into March, bears would wake and tear the feeder down, crushing it in clumsy hunger. In spring there is still bear scat between house and barn, but the bears, shy of white clapboard and green shutters, let my feeder be.
Most days, squirrels pilfer from the birds. I’m happy to feed the squirrels—tree rats with the agility of point guards—but in fair weather they frighten my finches. They leap from snowbank to porch to feeder, and stuff their cheek pouches with chickadee feed. They hang on to a rusty horseshoe, permanently nailed to the doorjamb by my grandparents, which provides a toehold for their elongated bodies. Their weight tilts the feeder sideways, scaring away the flightier birds while the bravest continue to peck at a careening table. No squirrels today. In thick snow, they hide in tunnels under snowdrifts, and a gaggle of birds feed at the same time.
As daylight weakens, snow persists. In the twilight of 4 P.M., the birds have gone, sleeping somewhere somehow. No: a nuthatch lands for a last seed. The cow barn raises its dim shape. It was built in 1865, and I gaze at it every day of the year. A few years ago, when we had an especially snowy winter, I thought I would lose the barn. A yard of whiteness rose on the old shingles, and I could find no one to clear it off. The roof was frail and its angles dangerously steep. Finally friends came up with friends who shovelled it, despite its precariousness, and the following summer I hired a roofer to nail metal over the shingles. Shingle-colored tin disposes of snow by sliding it off. Now I look at the sharp roof of the carriage shed at the barn’s front, where a foot of snow has accumulated. The lower two-thirds has fallen onto drifts below. The snow at the shed’s metal top, irregular as the cliff of a glacier, looks ready to slide down. In the bluing air of afternoon, it is vanilla icing that tops an enormous cake. A Brobdingnagian hand will scrape it off.
Suddenly I hear a crash, as the snowplow strikes the end of my driveway. High in the cab sits my cousin Steve, who expertly backs and lurches forward, backs and lurches forward. The driveway is oval, with Route 4 flattening one end, and Steve executes the top curve with small motions of snow-budging, building great drifts back far enough from the driveway so that there’s room for cars—and for Steve to pack away more snow when he needs to. It’s his first visit for this snowstorm, and his plowing is incomplete. He will return with exact skill in the middle of the night, when the snow stops, and tidy the path among the drifts. When he thuds into the driveway at 3 A.M., I will hear him in my sleep and wake for a moment, taking pleasure from Steve’s attack on drifts in the black night.
My mother turned ninety in the Connecticut house where she had lived for almost sixty years, and spent her last decade looking out the window. (My father died at fifty-two.) For my mother’s birthday, my wife, Jane Kenyon, and I arrived at her house early, and at noon my children and grandchildren surprised Gramma Lucy with a visit. We hugged and laughed together, taking pictures, until I watched my mother’s gaiety collapse into exhaustion. I shooed the young ones away, and my mother leaned back in her familiar Barcalounger, closing her eyes until strength returned. A few months later she had one of her attacks of congestive heart failure only a week after her most recent. An ambulance took her to Yale-New Haven Hospital. Jane and I drove down from New Hampshire to care for her when she came home. She told us, “I tried not to dial 911.” She knew she could no longer live alone, her pleasure and her pride. We moved her to a nursing home not far from us in New Hampshire.
She died a month short of ninety-one. Her brain was still good. A week before she died, she read “My Ántonia” for the tenth time. Willa Cather had always been a favorite. Most of the time in old age she read Agatha Christie. She said that one of the advantages of being ninety was that she could read a detective story again, only two weeks after she first read it, without any notion of which character was the villain. Even so, her last months were mostly bleak. Her knees kept her to bed and chair, and the food was terrible. We visited every day until she died. A year later, Jane, at forty-seven, was dying of leukemia, and showed me poems she had been working on before she took sick. One was “In the Nursing Home,” about my mother at the end. Jane used the image of a horse running in wide circles, the circles growing smaller until they ceased.
Twenty years later, my circles narrow. Each season, my balance gets worse, and sometimes I fall. I no longer cook for myself but microwave widower food, mostly Stouffer’s. My fingers are clumsy and slow with buttons. This winter I wear warm pullover shirts; my mother spent her last decade in caftans. For years, I drove slowly and cautiously, but when I was eighty I had two accidents. I stopped driving before I killed somebody, and now when I shop or see a doctor someone has to drive me. If I fly to do a poetry reading, my dear companion Linda, who lives an hour away, must wheelchair me through airport and security. I read my poems sitting down. If I want to look at paintings, Linda wheelchairs me through museums. New poems no longer come to me, with their prodigies of metaphor and assonance. Prose endures. I feel the circles grow smaller, and old age is a ceremony of losses, which is on the whole preferable to dying at forty-seven or fifty-two. When I lament and darken over my diminishments, I accomplish nothing. It’s better to sit at the window all day, pleased to watch birds, barns, and flowers. It is a pleasure to write about what I do. [cartoon id="a16342"]
Generation after generation, my family’s old people sat at this window to watch the year. There are beds in this house where babies were born, where the same babies died eighty years later. My grandmother Kate lived to be ninety-seven. Kate’s daughter, my mother, owed her early death to two packs a day—unfiltered Chesterfields first, then filtered Kents. My mother was grateful to cigarettes; they allowed her to avoid dementia. Before senescence my grandmother looked out the window at Mt. Kearsarge, five miles to the south. As I gaze in the same direction, I see only a triangle of foothill, because softwood has grown so tall that it gets in the way. When Kate was a child here, elms blocked the foothill. They grew tall on both sides of Route 4, some of them high enough to meet over the center of the road. When she was ninety-four, she stumbled on the porch outside the window. Her fractured shin put her in the hospital—Kate, who had never taken to bed except to bear children. Her hospital stay affected her mind. Three years later, in the Peabody Home, I sat beside her listening to Cheyne-Stokes breathing. I was holding her hand when she died. After months of snow and snowbirds, I look out the window at flowers and a luxury of green leaves and always at the wooden ancient hill of the barn. For the last ten years in her house, my mother sat in her chair looking out a window, but she did not see what I see. She was born in this New Hampshire farmhouse, growing up when the barn was heavy with Holsteins, but turned old in my father’s territory, on a street corner in the suburb of Hamden. She looked not at a barn but at other six-room houses built in the twenties. Twice a day, she watched children walk by with their backpacks, ambling to school in the morning, returning in the afternoon. They attended Spring Glen Elementary School on Whitney Avenue, to which I had trudged for eight years. Midday in winter, she watched it snow, and watched the Connecticut birds, cousins to New Hampshire’s, fly to the feeder outside her window.
With arthritic knees she hobbled to the kitchen to warm up canned clam chowder. From April through September, sitting by her window at night, she listened to WTIC from Hartford, carrying Boston Red Sox games. In late middle age, she had been a substitute teacher, and she was proud that a Red Sox broadcaster had been her pupil. Her father, in New Hampshire, followed the Red Sox by reading the Boston Post, which arrived two days after the games. My mother heard baseball as it happened, from the small radio beneath her ear, next to the ashtray. (In another room, an enormous steam-powered television showed a continual blank screen; she did not want to move from her chair.) The radio games replaced her window of schoolchildren and birds. During the months between baseball seasons she spent her nights reading the Reader’s Digest, Henry David Thoreau, Time, Robert Frost—and Agatha Christie.
My summer nights are NESN and the Boston Red Sox.
When I was a child, I loved old people. My New Hampshire grandfather was my model human being. He wasn’t old. He was in his sixties and early seventies when I hayed with him, only seventy-seven when he died, but of course I thought he was old. He was a one-horse farmer—Riley was his horse—with an old-fashioned multiple farm. He raised cattle and sheep and chickens, with hives for bees and a sugarhouse for boiling sap into maple syrup. He worked every day all year, mostly from 5 A.M. to seven or eight at night—milking, lambing, fencing, logging, spreading manure, planting, weeding, haying, harvesting, each night locking up chickens against foxes. Summers I helped with farmwork and listened to him reminisce. All year he walked rapidly from one task to another, in his good nature smiling a private half smile as he remembered stories, or recited to himself the poems he had memorized for school.
After a life of loving the old, by natural law I turned old myself. Decades followed each other—thirty was terrifying, forty I never noticed because I was drunk, fifty was best with a total change of life, sixty extended the bliss of fifty—and then came my cancers, Jane’s death, and over the years I travelled to another universe. However alert we are, however much we think we know what will happen, antiquity remains an unknown, unanticipated galaxy. It is alien, and old people are a separate form of life. They have green skin, with two heads that sprout antennae. They can be pleasant, they can be annoying—in the supermarket, these old ladies won’t get out of my way—but most important they are permanently other. When we turn eighty, we understand that we are extraterrestrial. If we forget for a moment that we are old, we are reminded when we try to stand up, or when we encounter someone young, who appears to observe green skin, extra heads, and protuberances.
People’s response to our separateness can be callous, can be good-hearted, and is always condescending. When a woman writes to the newspaper, approving of something I have done, she calls me “a nice old gentleman.” She intends to praise me, with “nice” and “gentleman.” “Old” is true enough, and she lets us know that I am not a grumpy old fart, but “nice” and “gentleman” put me in a box where she can rub my head and hear me purr. Or maybe she would prefer me to wag my tail, lick her hand, and make ingratiating dog noises. At a family dinner, my children and grandchildren pay fond attention to me; I may be peripheral, but I am not invisible. A grandchild’s college roommate, encountered for the first time, pulls a chair to sit with her back directly in front of me, cutting me off from the family circle: I don’t exist.
When kindness to the old is condescending, it is aware of itself as benignity while it asserts its power. Sometimes, the reaction to antiquity becomes farce. I go to Washington to receive the National Medal of Arts, and arrive two days early to look at paintings. At the National Gallery of Art, Linda pushes me in a wheelchair from painting to painting. We stop by a Henry Moore carving. A museum guard, a man in his sixties with a small pepper-and-salt mustache, approaches us and helpfully tells us the name of the sculptor. I wrote a book about Moore, and knew him well. Linda and I separately think of mentioning my connection but instantly suppress the notion—egotistic, and maybe embarrassing to the guard. A couple of hours later, we emerge from the cafeteria and see the same man, who asks Linda if she enjoyed her lunch. Then he bends over to address me, wags his finger, smiles a grotesque smile, and raises his voice to ask, “Did we have a nice din-din?”
In spring when the feeder is down, stowed away in the toolshed until October, I watch the fat robins come back, blue jays that harass them, warblers, blackbirds, thrushes, orioles, redwings. Starlings strut in the grass pulling worms. A robin returns every year to refurbish her nest after the wintry ravage. She adds new straw and mud. Soon enough she lays eggs, sets on them with short excursions for food, then tends to three or four small beaks that open for her scavenging. Before long, the infants stand, spread and clench their wings, peer at their surroundings, and fly away. I cherish them, and look for farther nests, small clots in branches of oak or Norway maple visible from my window. The blackest crows peck through my grass. Most strange and wonderful are the hummingbirds that helicopter by the porch, wings blurred with incessant whirring. They enter the horns of hollyhocks, gobble some sweet, and zig off to zag back again for another lick.
Late March or April onward, depending on the year, I watch the flowers erupt and subside. Snowdrops crack the wintry earth, crocuses, and dazzling daffodils. Tulips rise in extravagant crimsons and golds, metallic fleshy shapes that ask to be filled. 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. There are lilies of the valley and, across the yard, a patch of old single roses that some years are few and some years put forth a hundred blossoms—first white ones, then pink, then red, lofting beside the road’s gutter as two centuries ago they rose beside a trail for oxen.
One day, I look out the window to see great machines at work. A farmer neighbor comes to harvest the grass that has grown dark and thick in my fields. The first contraption cuts the hay. Another rakes it, and another shapes it into huge circular bales, which a last machine lifts with great clamps onto a truck that replaces the old hayrack. My neighbor collects for his cows in winter, and returns a second time and a third as new grass rises. I watch out the window. These are the fields where my grandfather and I, seventy years ago, cut hay with a horse-drawn mower, trimmed the shaggy edges by hand with scythes, pitched it onto a horse-drawn hayrack, and stacked it in high lofts of the barn. Cow manure, spread on the fields in April, fed the grass for a century and a half. Decades after my grandfather died, the goodness wore out, exposing New Hampshire’s sandy soil. My neighbor spreads lime late in spring.
Flowers by turn rise and fall all summer—foxglove, sweet alyssum, bee balm. I watch two wild turkeys gobble as they strut stiffly up the slope toward the barn. Behind them four small offspring hurry to keep up. Daylilies ascend the hill beyond them, the same bright-orange wildflowers that grow in ditches and in clearings beside cellar holes. Indian paintbrush raise late flags. Cornflowers bloom, and leaves of swamp maples flare the first reds of autumn.
Whatever the season, I watch the barn. I see it through this snow in January, and in August I will gaze at trailing vines of roses on a trellis against the vertical boards. I watch at the height of summer and when darkness comes early in November. From my chair I look at the west side, a gorgeous amber laved by the setting sun, as rich to the eyes as the darkening sweet of bees’ honey. The unpainted boards are dark at the bottom, and rise toward the top in a brownish yellow that holds light the longest. At barn’s end is the horse’s window, where Riley stuck out his head to count the pickups and Fords on Route 4. I study the angles of roof, a geometry of tilting, symmetrical and importantly asymmetrical, endlessly losing and recapturing itself. Over eighty years, it has changed from a working barn to a barn for looking at. Down the road, I see the ghosts of elm trees, which met overhead when Route 4 was the Grafton Turnpike. A hundred and fifty years transformed them from green shoots to blighted bark. Out the window, I watch a white landscape that turns pale green, dark green, yellow and red, brown under bare branches, until snow falls again. ♦
April is Poetry Month, the Academy of American Poets tells us. In 2012, there were seven thousand four hundred and twenty-seven 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 fifteen readings in the United States, twelve 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 that 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 metre accommodating his natural sentences, and in between poems he made people laugh. At times, he played the chicken farmer, cute and countrified, eliciting coos of delight from an adoring audience. Once I heard him do this routine, then 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 for the first time, booming in Oxford’s Sheldonian Theatre from a bad poem that had won a prize. I was twenty-three. 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 that 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.
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, late in the decade, 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 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 repellent, but realized it would pass if I intoned it out loud. 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.
A chairman of English warned a friend of mine about her approaching audience. “They’re required to attend,” he said. “They don’t listen to anything. Sometimes in class I ask them to open a window, or to close it, just to see if they’re alive.” He sighed a deep sigh, as ponderous as tenure. “I don’t know what I’d do if The New Yorker didn’t come on Thursdays.”
It’s alleged that Homer said his poems aloud, though perhaps it was more like improv over centuries. Somewhat later, we learn, Tennyson read his poems to Queen Victoria, but we don’t know much more. In the nineteen-thirties, William Butler Yeats travelled by train from east coast to west, but the master of poetic noise didn’t speak his verses. At universities, to butter his bread, he read the typescript of a lecture called “Three Great Irishmen.” Maybe poets used to be paid not to say their poems?
By chance, I had been an undergraduate at the one college in America with an endowed meagre series of poetry readings. Eliot was good, but most performances were insufferable—superb poems spoken as if they were lines from the telephone book. William Carlos Williams read too quickly in a high-pitched voice, but seemed to enjoy himself. Wallace Stevens appeared to loathe his beautiful work, making it flat and half-audible. (Maybe he thought of how the boys in the office would tease him.) Marianne Moore’s tuneless drone was as eccentric as her inimitable art. When she spoke between poems, she mumbled in the identical monotone. Since she frequently revised or cut her things, a listener had to concentrate, to distinguish poems from talk. After twenty minutes, she looked distressed, and said, “Thank you.” When Dylan Thomas read, I hovered above my auditorium seat as I heard him say Yeats’s “Lapis Lazuli.” He read his own poems afterward, fabricated for his rich and succulent Welsh organ. I found myself floating again. In four American visits, from 1950 to 1954, when he died in New York, Thomas read his poems many times at many places, from New York’s Poetry Center through dozens of western colleges. Frost’s eminence among poetry readers disappeared for a time.
In a question period I launched into my familiar rant about dead metaphors, asserting that when “I am glued to the chair” equals “I am anchored to the spot,” we claim that a tugboat is Elmer’s glue. This afternoon, I was obsessed with dead metaphors of disability: the crippled economy, blind ambition, deaf to entreaties, the paralysis of industry, and…
At the end I summed up my argument. Guileless, I said, “All these metaphors are lame.”
Why was everyone laughing?
Late in the fifties, poetry readings erupted in the United States suddenly and numerously. Probably it was because of Dylan Thomas’s readings, though there was a gap before the volcano exploded. His popularity was not only on account of his voice or his verse. Thomas was a star, and most people came to his readings because of the Tales of Master Dylan—vast drunkenness, creative obscenity at parties, botched seductions, nightly comas—but if people attended because of his celebrity, at least they were going to a poetry reading. Maybe the explosion of readings was also because of a cultural change. Songs were no longer Tin Pan Alley, and the lyrics were worth heeding. When everyone listened to Bob Dylan, they heard lines that resembled poetry. When people heard memorable language sung from platforms, they became able to hear poems recited in auditoriums. The University of Michigan began to schedule poetry readings every Tuesday at 4 P.M. A gathering of students, sometimes three hundred, attended each week, and absorbed what they listened to. A few days after one reading, I met Sarah, a friend of my daughter’s. She recited a stanza from Tuesday’s poet. “You’ve been reading her books!” I said. “Oh, no,” she said. Sarah remembered the words.
Once, after a circuit reading, my driver left me at a house for a party. I would spend the night there, while he went to a motel to get some sleep, and he would pick me up the next morning at six. The party was good; the party was long. These were the days when people drank liquor. Our host drooped asleep on the sofa at 4 A.M., which was apparently his daily wont. I didn’t notice, because I was flirting with a pretty woman, whose husband stood dazed beside her, until he emerged into consciousness to attack me. His fist aimed at my jaw, but moved so slowly that I was able to duck. Three minutes later, we became friends forever, and at 6 A.M. I stood on the sidewalk, waiting for my escort to drive me to the next reading, the next party.
Poets love to tell stories about readings. After a woman friend performed in Mississippi one winter, a man handed her a heavy box of typewriter paper, saying, “I want to share my poems with you.” When she glanced through “Verses of a Sergeant Major, Ret.,” she found it unreadable. Telling me about it, she asserted that share has become a verb of assault disguised as magnanimity. “Unless you read my poems, I will gouge your eyeballs out.”
Bert Hornback ran the Tuesday readings in Ann Arbor, supplementing the English department’s pittance by appealing to university administrators for discretionary funds. After ten years of weekly readings, he burned out, and watched as the feckless department drooped to holding a reading a year. He decided to see what he could do by himself. On a January day in the eighties, he borrowed the university’s Rackham Auditorium, sold tickets for a joint poetry reading—five-fifty each, fifty cents for Ticketmaster—and invited some friends to do a joint reading: Wendell Berry, Galway Kinnell, and Seamus Heaney. On a Friday night—against a basketball home game, against the Chicago Symphony—Bert filled eleven hundred seats with paying poetry fans. The Fire Department permitted a hundred standing-room-only tickets, which sold out, and Bert added further S.R.O.s when the Fire Department wasn’t looking. Unexpected vanloads arrived from Cleveland, Chicago, Milwaukee, and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Each poet read for forty minutes, and after a break did ten minutes more. Outside, the crowd without tickets sulked and grumbled. It was said that scalpers charged as much as fifty dollars.
A Dodge festival in New Jersey was massive with poets, schoolteachers, and school kids. Each poet did panels, question periods, and readings. The first night, all twenty-five poets read, a few minutes each, to a crowd of three thousand. Nobody sitting at the back of the tent could have seen a poet’s face if the festival had not enlarged each visage on a screen like the Dallas Cowboys’. For closeups, the Dodge employed a black, jointed steel arm, a foot thick and fifty feet long, which curled and lurched its camera back and forth, grabbing each facial detail in its metallic tentacles. It looked as if it were searching for a source of protein.
A week after the readings and lectures of the festival, a recent Pulitzer poet received a thick letter from a woman in South Carolina who had fallen in love. The envelope was heavy with amorous poems, and she told him that there were ninety-five more, but she didn’t have the stamps. She attached a photograph of a mature woman in front of a ranch house, and implored him to fly down immediately. She sent an airline ticket with blank dates.
It’s O.K. to be pleased when an audience loves you, or treat you as deathless, but you must not believe them. If a poet is any good, how would the listeners know? Poets have no notion of their own durability or distinction. When poets announce that their poems are immortal, they are depressed or lying or psychotic. Interviewing T. S. Eliot, I saved my cheekiest question for last. “Do you know if you’re any good?” His revised and printed response was formal, but in person he was abrupt: “Heavens no! Do you? Nobody intelligent knows if he’s any good.” No honor, no publication proves anything. Look at an issue of the Atlantic in 1906; look at a Poetry from 1931. A Nobel Prize means nothing. Look in an almanac at the list of poets who have won a Pulitzer Prize; look at the sad parade of Poets Laureate.
Sometimes an audience is not three thousand. A friend of mine arrived at a hall to find that his listener was singular. They went out for a beer. I heard of another poet who showed up for a crowd of two. Gamefully, she did a full reading from the podium, and afterward descended to shake the hands of her crowd. One was dead.
When I was young, I could project, and now without a microphone I can’t be heard in the tenth row. It’s not only the debility of age. One’s range is diminished by habitual use of microphones. (When stage actors spend twenty years making movies, they are inaudible when they return to Broadway or the West End.) But there are advantages to artificial enhancement. There’s a poem in which I moo like a cow. Cows’ lungs are bigger than ours. I approach the microphone intimately, and softly but audibly moo as long as a cow moos. Proximity to the microphone saves my wind as I croon, mm-mmm-mmmmm-mmmmmmmm-ugghwanchhh. My friends say it’s the best line I’ve ever written.
After the group-talk of the question period comes the one-on-one. People line up for signatures. Sometimes the seeker dictates a dedication. “Say, ‘With love to Billy and his adorable wife, Sheila, who makes a great pound cake.’ ” The signer should demur, or at least edit. Everyone in line must spell a name, or “Felicia” turns out to be “Phylysha.” (Once, at a prep school, a boy asked me to write, “For Mom and Dad.” I told him my parents were dead, and we worked things out.) If there are just a few in line, the poet can speak with them as if they were people. If the line is long, it becomes impossible to distinguish one petitioner from another. At the end stands the host—the man who invited the poet to the campus, who picked her up at the airport, with whom she had lengthy conversation, who will give her the check, who hands her a book to sign—and she has no idea of his name.
Some readings prove memorable for a single eccentricity. On an occasion in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, an orchestra was finishing rehearsal in the auditorium as the poetry reading was due to begin. The introducer and the poet carried music stands into the wings. In London, a reading was to begin at 6 P.M. in the ancient Church of St. Giles in the Fields. Evensong prevailed. Another time, in the state of Chiapas, in Mexico, eight writers sat onstage waiting hours for the governor to arrive. A large audience had departed by the time he walked in, surrounded by bodyguards with machine guns. In fatigue, we each read to the governor for five minutes. “Gracias,” we said. “Gracias.”
As I limped into my eighties, my readings altered, as everything did. Performance held up, but not body; I had to read sitting down. When an introduction slogged to its end, I lurched from backstage, hobbled, and carefully aimed my ass into a chair. For a while, I began each reading with a short poem I was trying out, which spoke of being twelve and watching my grandfather milk his Holsteins. In the poem I asked, in effect, how my grandfather would respond if he saw me now. When I finished saying the poem, there was always a grave pause, long enough to drive a hayrack through, followed by a standing ovation. I had never received a standing O after a first poem; now it happened again and again, from Pennsylvania to Minnesota to California, and I thought I had written an uncannily moving poem. When I mailed copies to friends for praise, they politely expressed their dismay. I was puzzled and distressed until I finally figured it out. The audience had just seen me stagger, wavering with a cane, and labor to sit down, wheezing. They imagined my grandfather horrified, seeing a cadaver gifted with speech. They stood and applauded because they knew they would never see me again.
Donald Hall published his final book of poems, “The Back Chamber,” last autumn. This November, he will publish “Christmas at Eagle Pond,” about New Hampshire in 1940. He may be reached via e-mail.
Illustration by Victor Kerlow.