Skip to content

“new to you” poetry gong, day 4

October 16, 2010

Just in case you were ever wondering who the intended victim of poetry snobbery is, I can tell you: it’s me. I am extremely self-conscious about my lack of formal study of literature and poetry. I feel unable to contribute to many discussions, and I worry that my impressions about poems have no merit. Sometimes, this is a feeling of having no information to share; and sometimes, this is a feeling that I have made something up to fill the space.

This is what happened with Donald Hall, the next poet laureate on my list. I would hear his name mentioned when people listed who they liked or admired, and I instantly felt intimidated. I had never stumbled upon anything he’d written and thought for sure he was being kept from the likes of me for good reason. He was one of those New Yorker poets. (Yikes!) I thought he must himself be a snob and would laugh and laugh with his pals and his poet wife Jane Kenyon at me trying to understand. Maybe he even held the top admission post in The Poetry Club, to which I wouldn’t dare apply. (Someday I’ll tell you the picture I get in my head with Billy Collins; it’s much funnier than this Donald Hall story.)

I had never read Hall. Where did I come up with it? I don’t know. You heard some of this same insecurity yesterday when I was writing about Charles Simic, but that was about his poems. For some reason with Hall, I attributed them to him, as a person. Even though these ideas were based on no real information, I used it as a way to avoid him.

Maybe I should rename this gong “debunking Carolee’s crazy ideas about our poets laureate.” Turns out, Donald Hall might have been able to help me deal with my emotions about my mother being sick. (He probably still can. I found this great article — The Poetry of Caregiving — which tells about Hall caring for Kenyon.)

The anger and grief and fear and longing in his poems about his wife’s illness and death are staggering. If ever I’ve heard someone writing honestly about how much that fucking sucks, it’s Donald Hall. Here are four lines from the long poem “Kill the day,” which is likely written in third person to emphasize detachment:

He envied whatever felt nothing: He envied oak
sills and the green hill rising and the boulder
by the side of the road and his dead love rotting

in her best white dress inside Vermont hardwood.

He also writes exquisitely about love. I will never forget the last five lines of his poem “Gold:”

We made in those days
tiny identical rooms inside our bodies
which the men who uncover our graves
will find in a thousand years,
shining and whole.

The introduction to his poems in the anthology describes him like this: “Frostian roots … a plainspoken, rural poet who favors concrete diction and imagery and declarative sentences.” It also says his life is “physical remove, quiet and routine.” Silly, silly Carolee. Don’t be afraid anymore. (If you think I will listen to this advice, you don’t know me very well.)

Yesterday, it was one of Simic’s images that inspired my poem. Today, I am going to write from one of Hall’s images. His poem “Ardor” (quoted in the caregiving article and provided in its entirety in the poets laureate anthology) begins,

Nursing her I felt alive
in the animal moment
scenting the predator.
Her death was the worst thing
that could happen,
and caring for her was the best.

When I read “scenting the predator,” I thought, “Yes. That’s exactly it.” People hate to hear me talk about cancer. To me, it is a creature with evil intentions, with the ability to manipulate and tease. For years, I have described to people how I fear it lurks and laughs and waits. So this image nailed it for me. In the particular case of my mother’s battle and with my particular weaknesses (I am the I-can’t-do-this-anymore person in the room), I diverge with Hall about death being the worst. Once the predator was there, once he had announced himself, I begged him to come.

And so here is my draft for today — Day 4 in the Big Tent Poetry gong (go see what everyone else is up to):



There are lots (LOTS!) I would do to this if I were taking time to revise (not sure, for example, how I get from the metaphor of the evil man waiting to the cat playing with the mouse, not sure I should even bother with the tired cliché of the cat and mouse, etc.). Oh, poetry gong! How you send me naked into the world!

  1. October 16, 2010 11:52 am


    This is a great poem.

  2. October 16, 2010 12:10 pm

    So grateful for your explanation as well as your poem. We have many things in common, Carolee… and to think I thought you were one of those “highly trained” poets compared to myself… who I refer to as “a blue color poet” consistently rating myself low on the poetry totem pole.

    I have been writing of grief also this week. I can’t think of anything significant to write except… it is important to write, grief.

    Normally I read the poems and then scan for a line that is especially resonant for me. I would need to highlight so much it hovers around ridiculous.

    With that said, I will simply finish my ramblings with Thank you.

    • October 16, 2010 6:48 pm

      wow! thanks, julie.

      i grew up in a paper mill town in northern maine. i have a bachelor’s degree in journalism from a small liberal arts college in west virginia. i have a few survey of american and world literature classes under my belt but we read way too quickly for me to really absorb the texts the way i wanted to. i took one or two creative writing classes while i was there. most of my formal training is non-fiction writing. which i don’t do at all. ha!

      i have taken a few workshops here and there since i started writing again in 2004. i attend a lot of writing groups and feedback groups, and i go to lots and lots of open mics and readings.

      i am trying to read and study on my own, too.

      i take it pretty seriously. well, as serious as once can, i guess, without actually seeking a degree, which i haven’t ruled out. i don’t know if i have the stamina for it. i know i don’t have the money for it.

      • October 16, 2010 7:12 pm

        oh! and julie, i am pleased you are enjoying my ramblings about my poets and my experience of them. i had started to feel self-conscious — shocker!! — that it was too much. 🙂

  3. October 16, 2010 12:22 pm

    Carolee you stride into words the way I only sometimes see and more rarely take. (What use are such comparisons more than a few inches from anyone’s fingertips!) (Take them to teach, not judge.) (Rebound: another better life than mine would answer that all more than me.)

    There will always be another with bigger brighter sharper teeth. Leastwise till we recognize that sweet bite is only a measure of devotion, not pride. Equally so, that short glass of modesty, just an unnecessary second fork.

    All the same, I’m glad your poems remain hungry words. (Like this one too!)

    Would a curtsy be too much? 🙂 Perhaps just a polite (foolhardy) bow instead.

    I’m sure I say too much.

  4. October 16, 2010 1:54 pm

    For me, the transition from nasty man to cat wasn’t particularly jarring! It certainly is powerful.

  5. Irene permalink
    October 16, 2010 6:13 pm

    I thought this poem is thoroughly masterful. I like these lines “we are dull to everything
    but the sharpest pains. We feel so little,
    not even anger, ” and the last bit about letting him back into our bed. Uncannily truthful.

  6. October 16, 2010 10:20 pm

    This is a really good poem, Carolee. What your are is open to creativity. Think of it as Beginner’s Mind. Who would want to be so trained that anything they write comes out stilted? You’ve taught yourself your own course of study just from writing.

    BTW, a friend on fb saw my comment to your post and said she just heard Hall read. He lives in NH, I think. You should go see him! I intend to read some of his work.

  7. October 17, 2010 9:15 am

    Again you’ve shown that it is not “formal” training in poetry but reading & paying attention to poems that matters. Beware of revising this too much, you made the leap from the man to the cat in the stanza break & the repeated words. You challenge my complacency, thank you.

  8. Kimberlee permalink
    October 17, 2010 8:10 pm

    You struck a nerve… well articulated.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: