The Man is There ... in the Tape
Donald Hall: Okay yeah, well the microphone is one person. I know that. I did about 50 programs for BBC actually, years ago. Third program.
Curtis Fox: This is Poetry Off The Shelf from The Poetry Foundation. I’m Curtis Fox. This week, The Man is There … in the Tape. A few weeks ago, Donald Hall died. He was 89 years old, and he left behind many books, some great, great poems, and a lot of recordings.
Donald Hall: In 1943 the clenched hand of a pilot drives it here, where no one has ever been.
Curtis Fox: When he was a young man, Donald Hall spent some time listening to poetry recordings at Harvard’s Woodberry poetry room, which has one of the best archives of audio poetry in the country. Many years later, 10 years ago in fact, I had the chance to ask him, what do you get from listening to a poem as opposed to just reading it on the page?
Donald Hall: I think you get a great deal. The sound of poetry is really enter poetry. I was 12 years when I first found out that there was a sound. I also think that it is important to hear it in the poet’s own voice. Some poets are very good readers, some are rather poor. I would always want to hear them at some point or other in their own voices. It’s a sort of help, like helping somebody across the street, to hear the voice, the quality of the voice, the tone of it, the stress of it.
Curtis Fox: Can you think of anybody who’s reading really surprised you? Some poet who totally changed your idea of what his poetry or her poetry was about?
Donald Hall: I remember being shocked and educated by hearing Ezra Pound say his own poems.
Curtis Fox: “The thought what America would be like if the classics had a wide circulation troubles my sleep”
Donald Hall: The quality of the sound is poor, but the voice is there, the man is there. And the emphasis of his voice was emotional but connected me with the poems, which of course I already knew, in a different way. And allowed me to read them, take them in in an altered way.
Curtis Fox: He almost sang his poetry. And his accent, it was just unplaceable. I’ve never heard an American accent or any accent actually quite like Ezra Pounds.
Donald Hall: It’s as eclectic as his places of residence.
Curtis Fox: I was interviewing Donald Hall because The Poetry Foundation had just launched “Essential American Poets”, an audio archive of 100 poets reading their own work. Hall himself had selected these 100 poets, along with the UK’s poet laureate of the time, Andrew Motion. Here’s a bit more from that interview.
Curtis Fox: Do you think poetry in the 20th century may have strayed too far into the page and away from the sounds of poetry? And do you think, maybe with these new technologies like mp3s and stuff like that, that it’s coming back around to it’s original state as an oral art?
Donald Hall: It’s a complicated answer, which will be too long for you -
Curtis Fox: Give it a shot.
Donald Hall: W.B. Yeats crossed the United States in 1935 to make his living, and he never once read his poems out loud. He lectured, that’s what people wanted. They didn’t want poetry from poets, they wanted ideas or history. Therefore, poets rarely read their work aloud until say late in the 1950s, and the poets who had no practice in it, did not by and large know how to do it. Poets who are younger, even as old as I am, had a great deal of practice reading their poems out loud. And they have become better at it.
Curtis Fox: What caused that change back in the 1950s that you mentioned?
Donald Hall: I’ve wondered and wondered. One day, I was staying at home in the place where I was living then, and the telephone rang, and it was a lecture agent asking if he could sell me as a reader. At first, I thought it was a fad, it would go away. But of course, it has only increased and increased.
Curtis Fox: In fact, it has. This podcast exists in part because of the stature that audio poetry has taken on over the years. That wasn’t the only time I interviewed Donald Hall for Poetry Off The Shelf. He was something of a regular. And in some important way, with his belief in the value of the poet’s physical voice, he was kind of a patron saint of this podcast. To mark his passing, and to honor his life and work, I thought it would be a good moment to hear him read a few of his own poems. He was an excellent reader, as well as a good introducer of his own poems. Here’s what he had to say about his poem, “White Apples”.
Donald Hall: “White Apples” is a poem I began to write a few months after my father died. I had a dream in which I knew that he was at the front door in a snow storm, and I wrote this poem. I wrote it over and over again, changing little things for about 15 years or so, until I finally came up with the word or phrase “white apples and the taste of stone”. These are images somehow of dissatisfaction and loss I think.
When my father had been dead a week
with his voice in my ear
i sat up in bed
and held my breath
and stared at the pale closed door
white apples and the taste of stone
if he called again
I would put on my coat and galoshes
Curtis Fox: That was Donald Hall reading “White Apples”. He used a line from that poem for the title of his selected poems, White Apples and The States of Stone, which is probably the best place to start if you want to go deeper into his poetry. The hardcover edition used to be sold with a cd of Hall reading many of the poems; such was his commitment to audio poetry. Here’s another introduction to a poem we recorded him reading many years ago.
Donald Hall: I wrote a poem not many years ago, when I was feeling depressed about being old and depressed about living in general.
Curtis Fox: The poem is a kind of timeline of the losses the speaker has suffered in the course of his life. It’s called “Affirmation”.
Donald Hall: And the title as I originally put it down was ironic, because I was just affirming negativity. But some glow of affirmation really does come through it. It’s about getting old, and the sadness of that.
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.
Curtis Fox: That was Donald Hall. He died on June 23rd, 2018. He may have lost everything, and so will we one day, but in the mean time, his poems and his voice live on. Let us know what you think of this podcast, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or write a review in Apple podcasts and please link to this episode on social media. The theme music for this program comes from the Claudia Quintet. For Poetry Off The Shelf, I’m Curtis Fox. Thanks for listening.