June 26, 2018

Donald Hall

Donald Hall, a former poet laureate of the United States, died on June 23, 2018. He was 89 and had lived much of his life at the old farm called Eagle Pond, his family’s ancestral homestead, in Wilmot, New hampshire.

He had been diagnosed with cancer in 1989 and beat his own odds of survival.

He began writing at age 12, and over his career wrote more than 40 books, with half of them being poetry.

He wrote often about apples, ox carts and the ordinary folk of his rural New England, along with using his childhood, baseball, and his time with and the death of his second wife, poet Jane Kenyon.

Donald & Jane
I heard him read his poetry along with Jane at one of the Dodge Poetry Festivals at Waterloo Village in New Jersey. They read together in the small church and talked about their shared life in poetry.

Hall was married to Jane Kenyon for 23 years. She died in 1995. He wrote about her and their marriage in the collections Without (1998) and The Painted Bed (2002).

I recorded Donald Hall when he read and talked about two of his poems. "Old Roses"
& "Weeds and Peonies", at a teachers' conference in Boston (2009) along with Robert Bly.

After Jane's passing, Hall with his wild hair and beard might have been taken on the streets to be a homeless man or an eccentric professor. But he was still the poet, changed by his life experiences, but still believing that "Poetry offers works of art that are beautiful, like paintings, but there are also works of art that embody emotion and that are kind of school for feeling."


To grow old is to lose everything.
Aging, everybody knows it.
Even when we are young,
we glimpse it sometimes, and nod our heads
when a grandfather dies.
Then we row for years on the midsummer
pond, ignorant and content. But a marriage,
that began without harm, scatters
into debris on the shore,
and a friend from school drops
cold on a rocky strand.
If a new love carries us
past middle age, our wife will die
at her strongest and most beautiful.
New women come and go. All go.
The pretty lover who announces
that she is temporary
is temporary. The bold woman,
middle-aged against our old age,
sinks under an anxiety she cannot withstand.
Another friend of decades estranges himself
in words that pollute thirty years.
Let us stifle under mud at the pond's edge
and affirm that it is fitting
and delicious to lose everything.

      Donald Hall




June 16, 2018

Stopping by Woods on a June Morning

It was a warm June morning in 1922 in Shaftsbury, Vermont when Robert Frost sat down at his dining room table and wrote "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." It became one of his most famous poems.

The house was surrounded by seven acres of land, old stone walls, a barn and some heirloom apple trees that would all figure into Frost's poems.

"I have moved a good part of the way to a stone cottage on a hill at South Shaftsbury in southern Vermont on the New York side near the historic town of Bennington where if I have any money left after repairing the roof in the spring I mean to plant a new Garden of Eden with a thousand apple trees of some unforbidden variety." 
Frost's letter to a friend on Oct. 23, 1920 - from Robert Frost A Life

Frost's Dutch Colonial stone house was built in 1769. After leaving his teaching post at Amherst College, he moved his family there with plans to be an apple farmer - a profession that he found better suited to writing.

It must have worked as the family lived there for 9 years, and he won the first of his four Pulitzer Prizes during that time.

I think it is interesting that it was a June day and not a snowy, winter night, when Frost sat down to write "Whose woods these are I think I know." He was probably recalling a ride through those snowy woods. Maybe the apple blossoms were falling like snow as he walked his property. He said that the poem came to him like a "hallucination."

His poem has been analyzed (and over-analyzed) for almost 100 years. I still recall a high school English teacher telling us "it's really about suicide and death." I doubted that interpretation then, and I still question its validity. But that final repeated line, "And miles to go before I sleep" may be one of the best-known lines in poetry for the average American.

On this early June day, perhaps you should sit down under some blossoms and think about what happened to you this past winter and write that poem.

Frost's little house is now a museum. He gave the house to his son and moved to a farm across the road. His son struggled with depression and took his own life at the house in 1940. The house stayed in the family and later was privately owned, but opened as a museum in 2002, and Bennington College acquired the house from the nonprofit Friends of Robert Frost in 2017.   bennington.edu/robert-frost-stone-house-museum

June 9, 2018

Prompt: The Dance

I am, like Emily Dickinson, not a dancer. We certainly are not like the trained ballet dancers in the Impressionist paintings of Degas or Matisse's dancers.

As Emily wrote:

I cannot dance upon my Toes
No Man instructed me—
But oftentimes, among my mind,
A Glee possesseth me,

That had I Ballet knowledge—
Would put itself abroad
In Pirouette to blanch a Troupe—
Or lay a Prima, mad...

Perhaps, Emily and I are more like the dancer in "Danse Russe" by William Carlos Williams. who waits until his household is asleep

and the sun is a flame-white disc
in silken mists
above shining trees,-
if I in my north room
dance naked, grotesquely
before my mirror
waving my shirt round my head
and singing softly to myself

I can't quite imagine Emily dancing naked around her room, though I hope she did sometimes, but even non-dancers sometimes get lost in "the dance."

Was Williams thinking about the Ballets Russes, an avante-garde dance company of the time and its principal dancer, Vaslav Nijinsky? Nijinsky did not follow traditional ballet technique and often danced half-naked. In his Faun costume for the dance he created to Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune he was known to make gestures of orgasm to a scarf and it was a scandal on several continents.

The poem is, for me, a simple dance of freedom and joy that one can have in the privacy of one's own place. (That doesn't mean the poem hasn't been interpreted quite differently by others - check out this post.)

Pierre-Auguste Renoir's Dance at Bougival
But "the dance" does not even have to be about dancing.

We use the verb dance to mean "to leap or skip in excitement or joy." We sometimes describe animals or even objects as dancing, as with the mating dances of birds or a toy sailboats dancing on the water.

Figuratively, when we put off or don't address something directly, it might be said that we  "dance around an issue." To use another dance term, it might be said that in that situation we "sidestep" an issue.

The noun "dance" is an important part of many rituals and ceremonies from proms to weddings.

The American NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament is called "The Big Dance."

The Dance of the Planets is a phrase used sometimes in this late spring season when Jupiter, Venus, and Mercury all appear to be right next to each other in the evening sky. Over a period of time, they seem to rotate and change positions, like dancers, with each other.

In "The Dance by Wendell Berry, I think the poet combines the literal and figurative dances.

He begins with the literal:

I would have each couple turn,
join and unjoin, be lost
in the greater turning
of other couples, woven
in the circle of a dance,
the song of long time flowing

but then turns figuratively to asking

What is fidelity? To what
does it hold? The point
of departure, or the turning road
that is departure and absence
and the way home? What we are
and what we were once

Our writing prompt this month is simply "the dance" in any of its literal or figurative or verb or noun forms.

New to our site? Check our submission guidelines.

Submission Deadline: June 30, 2018