Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
160 Pages; Print, $22.00
Full disclosure: it is exceedingly difficult to review a book like The Selected Poems of Donald Hall. What is there left to say about Hall, whose work so many writers are intimately familiar with, who was the Poet Laureate of the United States from 2006 to 2007, who has written more than fifty books of poetry and prose, including biography, memoir, and children’s books? And yet, The Selected Poems of Donald Hall manages something very few selected collections manage: despite being composed entirely of previously published poems, including some of Hall’s most famous, it reads as its own fully realized book.
Selected books can tend towards tome, overwhelming compilations weighed down by the author’s desire to include all of his best work. Indeed, Hall’s 2006 White Apples and the Taste of Stone stands at almost 450 pages. His new selected barely reaches 150 pages, and this streamlining allows for the development of a narrative arc. Poems build on one another as seasons change, characters die, and landscapes are altered by loss and nature. Hall’s careful compilation also showcases his play with form, his love of nature and landscape, his life with Jane Kenyon, and his life after Kenyon’s death.
As he writes in The Selected’s Postscriptum, “The last time I did a selection it was huge. This time I am more selective, using a third as many poems. Less is more. I choose the poems I judge best.” Hall also chooses not to organize poems by the book in which they originally appear or by year of publication, which allows The Selected Poems to be read as its own entity, its own fully-formed book. And in that, it also reads like a last collection: a sense of finality simmers beneath the surface of these poems. Nothing is constant, Hall reminds us, not life, not even the art of poetry itself.
Readers familiar with Hall’s work will recognize many of their favorite poems in The Selected, as well as Hall’s recurring themes: New Hampshire, Eagle Pond Farm, Mount Kearsarge, baseball, love, death. But they may be pleasantly surprised to see how differently Hall has written about these themes throughout his career, from variations in form and language to changes in perspective and tone. Take, for example, Hall’s famous poem, “Christmas Eve in Whitneyville,” originally published in The Kenyon Review in 1958, and the poem “White Apples,” published thirteen years later. “Christmas Eve in Whitneyville” is written in fourteen iambic pentameter quatrains rhymed abab. Consider the final stanza:
The lights go out and it is Christmas Day.The stones are white, the grass is black and deep.I will go back and leave you here to stayWhere the dark houses harden into sleep.
This is the type of writing readers might most remember of Hall, whose poetry’s scope and interest has been compared to that of Frost or Whitman. The stanza above is pastoral, lovely, traditional in many ways.
“White Apples,” included just four pages later, demonstrates a remarkably different style, with broken lines, no capitalization, and no punctuation. Here it is in its entirety:
when my father had been dead a weekI wokewith his voice in my ear I sat up in bedand held my breathand stared at the pale closed door
white apples and the taste of stone
if he called againI would put on my coat and galoshes
While the subject of both poems concerns the death of Hall’s father, the formal changes are startling and made more evident by the poems’ close proximity, highlighting the breadth of Hall’s continual invention and renewal as a writer.
Indeed, even in The Selected, Hall continues revising, endeavoring to write the strongest possible poetry. For example, a five-part series of haiku titled “Distressed Haiku” and originally published in The Painted Bed (2002) is reordered in The Selected, stripped to just two haiku, and retitled “After Three Years.” This is a...