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  • The Selected Poems of Donald Hall by Donald Hall
  • Ernest Hilbert (bio)
Donald Hall, The Selected Poems of Donald Hall (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015) 160 pp.

“To write something as good as the poems that originally brought you to love the art. It’s the only sensible reason for writing poems,” Donald Hall declared in his early sixties in a Paris Review interview (he served as the magazine’s first poetry editor in the 1950s). Now in his eighties, Hall has assembled what he feels is his very best work in the newly published Selected Poems of Donald Hall. By his own reckoning, the new Selected is less than a third the length of its predecessor, White Apples and the Taste of Stone: Selected Poems 1946–2006 (indeed, the 2007 volume runs to a door-stopping 448 pages, bound with a compact disc of Hall reading the poems). The concision is worth noting, given that the vastly prolific Hall has published no fewer than twenty volumes of poetry, including two previous Selected volumes. The slender volume contains a mere 140 pages of poems, not many more than a typical debut collection of poetry. We can’t help but feel that much depends on this final selection, because, as Hall admits in the post scriptum, he will “make no more poems.” Hall chose not to include chapter headings, which would have indicated the books in which the poems originally appeared. This unfenced approach allows his selection to read seamlessly, like the book every young poet dreams of writing.

Selected and Collected poems can be structured in a number of ways. The Collected Poetry of W. H. Auden, published in 1945, was arranged in alphabetical order by first lines, placing “Musée des Beaux Arts” at the beginning with its opening line “About suffering they were never wrong” (some credit the poem’s popularity to this placement). Frederick Seidel’s massive Poems 1959–2009 runs in reverse chronological order from Evening Man (2008) back to his controversial first book, Final Solutions (1963). Hall’s ordering of earliest to most recent suits his brand of poetry, which maps the poet’s many personal observations and experiences, from the remarkable exuberance of youth to the toughened perceptions of age.

When asked, What do you write about? Hall typically answers “love, death, and New Hampshire” and, of course, “always Eagle Pond Farm,” his “ancestral family place.” These are in abundance in these pages, and much else besides. The book begins with a poem of birth, though one complicated by thoughts of the poet’s own mortality. “My Son My Executioner” is composed in buoyant ballad stanzas intended to echo nursery rhymes: [End Page 601]

Sweet death, small son, our instrumentOf immortality,Your cries and hungers documentOur bodily decay.

A poem on the occasion of his father’s death, just a few pages on, is more indirect and haunted, symbol-laden, fashioned in free verse, and less at ease than the earlier stanzas.

when my father had been dead a weekI wokewith his voice in my earI sat up in bedand held my breathand stared at the pale closed door

white apples and the taste of stone

Hall has described the last line quoted above as “syntactically” and “spatially disconnected” because it came to him from nowhere one day after he dreamt his father had called to him. He admits that he doesn’t understand entirely what the white apple is—an “apple made of stone,” a “snowball,” without “nutrition,” “frightening.”

In the mid-1960s, Hall interviewed the English modernist sculptor Henry Moore for a New Yorker profile, an assignment that led to Hall’s first full-length biography, Henry Moore: the Life and Work of a Great Sculptor, published by Gollancz in 1966. Moore’s signature form is a monumental reclining human figure in bronze, which Hall reimagines in the short poem “Reclining Figure,” stimulated by the semi-abstract style of the sculpture itself.

Then the knee of the waveturned to stone.

By the cliff of her flankI anchored,

in the darkness of harborslaid-by.

Hall has always been stylistically adventurous and wide...