PLAYS - more information about each play will be added in the future
The Physician (1973) -- a blank-verse play set in apartheid South Africa
The Dancing Asparas - or Captain Willard's Blues (1995) -- a prequel/sequel to the Francis Ford Coppola film Apocalypse Now
Knowing Their Names (1997) -- a one-act farce in tribute to actor/director/playwright Steven Berkoff (the complete text of the play can be found at Iain Fisher's website celebrating Berkoff; his site also includes some short remarks about my first impressions of Berkoff, along with an essay analyzing Berkoff's production of Shakespeare's Coriolanus, entitled: Like a Warrior: Laughter, Gender, and Death in Steven Berkoff's Coriolanus)
The Living and the Dead: Six Characters in Search of a Lost War (1999) -- a play about Robert McNamara's role in the Vietnam War
Ambiguity on Broadway (2001) -- a farce about playwrights and literary agents
SELECTED ESSAYS (unpublished unless noted)
My Approach to Poetry
The Bard of Avon Dethroned?
Desperate Quest - A Poet Looks at Sustainability
My Debt to Donald Hall & The Gaiety of Without
(Michigan Quarterly Review, Winter 2018)
My Approach to Poetry
Poems live in the mouth,
not on the page.
This is non-negotiable.
There are approximately
bad poems than good ones.
Poetry can’t make much
happen— but it can
make some things happen.
* * *
From early on, I wanted to write unified books of poetry, collections devoted to a central subject or theme, exploring things deeply and systematically— as opposed to collections of random poems gathered into a pile every few years. I believe poetry can also be an instrument of profound thought, a light you can shine on virtually any subject, illuminating it in ways that prose, no matter how eloquent and informed, simply cannot do. That is, poetry can be analytical.
This isn’t something I can prove; but it can’t be readily disproved either, and has guided my writing for close to half a century. It also marks me something of an out lier to most poets of my era. I don’t mind that— every poet should be as different as possible from every other poet of his time (and of earlier times), not simply for the sake of variety but because every distinct poetics is potentially a distinct vision, a clarification of reality.
* * *
I was always drawn to narrative and dramatic poetry— first in folk ballads like Sir Patrick Spens, The Highwayman, and Casey at the Bat; and later to the Iliad and Odyssey, Chaucer, Elizabethan poetic drama, the works of Milton, and the Romantic and Victorian poets, especially Browning’s incomparable The Ring and the Book. I also came to love Robinson Jeffers’ searing tales of frontier California, and Robert Frost’s stark vignettes of rural New England— this was poetry with characters, story, and structure. You can’t sustain the poetic fire of a sonnet or one of Emily Dickinson’s gems across an entire narrative, of course, but you can try—and with a little luck and a lot of hard work, the results can be something special.
At first I tried to write like Robert Frost, a fool’s errand for sure; but the effort taught me how supremely hard it is to write well in meter and rhyme. They can’t be just adornments; they must grow organically out of the poet’s mind and sensibility. A perfect rhyme or a skillful metrical effect can never be forced into being— as Keats put it, poetry “must come as the leaves to a tree, or it had better not come at all.” This is true of free verse too, of course, but in strictured poetry it is doubly true. Paste on a rhyme and dog trot your meter and you get… well, doggerel.
So where does that leave the free-verse poet? Maybe too free, frankly. If doggerel was the danger inherited from the Romantic/Victorian tradition, the constant risk for us now is the possible collapse into mere chopped-up prose— and for me the best defense against that was voiced by T.S. Eliot in his axiom that every line of free verse must have “the shadow of an iamb” behind it; that is, it must have an audible rhythmic pattern that keeps the language brisk, alive, vivid, memorable. As Pound put it: “Make it fresh.” Conforming to this standard makes free verse every bit as difficult as poetry in rhyme and meter, if not more so, since “freshness” is a very subjective thing compared to words that echo each other and the rhythm of regular beats across a line.
Most of my poems are in free verse, and I pay very close attention to sound, rhythm, stress, line length and line breaks, enjambment, stanza form, and even line spacing. These elements can add some of the intensification that rhyme and meter once did, but not as strongly— and I suspect it’s possible that in hundred years or so, the free verse experiment may have played itself out and poets will once again compose, if not in sonnets and other fixed forms, at least in rhymed and metered couplets, quatrains, etc. (as pop music has always done, at least until the late 90s). Such lyrical properties, after all, endured for millennia before the free verse revolution, which is barely two hundred years old now— a very short time in the history of language and the human impulse to bring it into song.
The Bard of Avon Dethroned?
In Sonnet 55, Shakespeare boasts:
Not marble nor the gilded monuments
Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme.
The Bard was at least partially right— he has continued to be read all over the world with a reverential fervor that at times borders on hysteria. Critic Harold Bloom, for instance, giddily credits him with “inventing” the modern concept of “the human.” And yet his reputation has long been shadowed by two controversies: a) was he anti-Semitic (The Merchant of Venice) and b) was he sexist (The Taming of the Shrew). Although I suspect he was both, I think there is room for disagreement here.
In spite of these concerns, however, Shakespeare’s psychological and dramatic powers are certainly undeniable and have led many critics and others to conclude that he was the most talented poet who ever lived. Maybe so, in terms of sheer verbal power— although that is a questionable criterion— but his world view and politics have recently come to seem repellent to me, primarily as a result of several scholarly studies arguing persuasively that he was a cheerleader for what historians have increasingly come to recognize as a brutal police state: the so-called “Golden Age” of England during the rule of Queen Elizabeth and King James.
Of course, the debunking of Shakespeare I offer here will seem like heresy and arrogance to many lovers of poetry. All I can say is that I’m far from the only one who holds such views. Here are a few of the revisionist studies of Shakespeare that have greatly (and permanently) altered my view of him:
- Curtis C. Breight, Surveillance, Militarism and Drama in the Elizabethan Era (St. Martins Press, 1996)
- Jennalie Cook, The Privileged Playgoers of Shakespeare’s London, 1576-1642 (Princeton U Press, 1981)
- Alvin Kernan, Shakespeare, the King’s Playwright: Theater in the Stuart Court, 1603-1613 (Yale U Press, 1995)
- Nick Hazelwood, The Queen’s Slave Trader: John Hawkyns, Elizabeth, and Trafficking in Human Souls (William Morrow, 2004)
- Patricia Fumerton and Simon Hunt, editors, Renaissance Culture and the Everyday (U Penn Press, 1999) – See especially
- “Introduction: A New New Historicism, ‘To roast a Goose alive,’ ” p. 2
- John Anderson, “The Aristocracy and Their Mental World” in The Oxford History of Tudor and Stuart Britain (Oxford U Press,
- 1996), See especially the characterization of the aristocratic view of the lower classes as the “meaner sort… un-thankful,
- wayward, cruelly envious and impudent... rabble [and] fools,” which might stand as the caption to many of Shakespeare’
- scenes of lower class people. The words are actually those of a chaplain at Capel house, the ancestral estate of one of the
- elite 5% of the population controlling some 70% of the nation’s wealth in Shakespeare’s time. p. 175
If you can look closely at such studies and say they simply don’t matter for our Great Will Shakespeare, his genius as a poet/dramatist puts him above such concerns, then you and I simply are not on the same page in our valuation of poetry— or life.
Desperate Quest: A Poet Looks at Sustainability (excerpts)
Published in: J. Williams & W. Forbes (Eds), Toward a More Livable World; Social dimensions of sustainability - Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2012; pp. 83-112. The essay contains four sections: Preface: Part I, Thinking like an engineer; Part II, Thinking like a poet; Epilogue.
PREFACE – Please! Somebody Talk Me Down!
Desperation is probably not the most congenial term to introduce into a conversation on sustainability. So, with apologies to the other contributors to this volume who may have a more optimistic outlook— not to mention better credentials on the subject than mine— I must first issue a caveat: I seriously doubt that sustainability can be achieved in the “developed” countries of the world, much less in the Third World; that is, not with the speed, precision, political will, and coordination necessary to prevent massive ecological and climate disruption, and consequently a virtual collapse of the corporate “civilization” that has come to dominate the globe over the past several centuries. 
In fact, just thinking about “sustainability” for very long makes my head feel like it’s about to explode. This is not an effort to be funny— it’s a simple fact. I said as much to Dr. Jerry Williams when he invited me to contribute to this volume. Actually, the way I put it to him was more like: “The word sustainability triggers a rush of factoids in my brain that jostle each other madly for a while before dissolving into incomprehensibility.” I thought that would stop Jerry in his tracks. For reasons of his own, however, he wouldn’t take no for an answer— so he bears at least part of the responsibility for the dark, rambling nature of these remarks.
Why elaborate on such a dour vision? First, I wanted to see if I could talk myself out of my funk. As Rachel Maddow says: “Please, somebody, talk me down!” To which, my muse whispered in my ear: Fat chance— but worth a try. I suppose that’s a confession that I still harbor a few grains of hope that humanity will come to its senses at one second before midnight and pull off the greatest comeback since the day the Buffalo Bills, trailing 38-3 late in the game, beat the Houston Oilers, 41-38. It was almost a miracle. Ah yes, miracles! That is precisely what is needed in these desperate times— and, of course, precisely what we’re not about to get.
 For more hopeful views, see: Janine Benyus, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature (William Morrow & Company, 1997); Eric A. Davison, You Can’t Eat GNP: Economics as if Ecology Mattered (Perseus Publishing, 2000); Paul Hawken, Blessed Unrest - How the Largest Movement In the World Came Into Being and Why No One Saw it Coming (Viking Press, 2007) and Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution (Little Brown and Co. 1999); David Korten, Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth – A Declaration of Independence from Wall Street (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2nd edition, 2010,); Bill McKibben, Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future (St. Martins’s Griffon, 2007); Harvey Franklin Wasserman, SOLARTOPIA! Our Green-Powered Earth, A.D. 2030 (publisher unknown); Donald Worster, Nature’s Economy: the Roots of Ecology (Sierra Club Books, 1977).
from PART I. THINKING LIKE AN ENGINEER
There is a mythic bird—poised
on the edge of the day
after tomorrow. He may be
the one Wallace Stevens saw,
a creature with fire-feathers
dangling down— or he may be
an heir of the huge vultures
on the walls of Çatal Höyük.
I approach the bird slowly
offering the food called
sustainability— fresh, raw,
undigested. The large bird
treads the ground, hard,
eying me warily— but
without fear or forgiveness.
He sniffs at the offering
then turns away. He peers up
at the gathering clouds, as if
he sees something
something I cannot see.
Note - Çatal Höyük was a Neolithic village in Anatolia (Turkey), ca. 7,500 BC. Stevens’ bird is in the poem “Of Mere Being.”
EPILOGUE -- Coincidences, Confessions, Qualifications
Ironically, in the same week that I was invited to contribute to this volume, I discovered the book Can Poetry Save the Earth? – A Field Guide to Nature Poems (Yale University Press, 2009) by John Felstiner. Great, I thought— this guy has done half my work for me! The title’s half-serious, half-wistful rhetorical question locates the solace of poetry in the context of our unfolding planetary crisis—and the book did help me find some prime examples of eco-poetry, particularly in Dickinson and Snyder.
Felstiner’s survey of more than fifty poets is fresh and nuanced, celebrating in a meticulous prose both their craft and their insights on our current ecological crisis. He ends the book with this query: “Can Poetry Save the Earth? For sure, person by person, our earthly challenge hangs on the sense and spirit that poems can awaken.” That strikes an appropriate note of humility in addressing such a vast subject— poetry’s influence is finite, its blessings a necessary but not sufficient element in any reconstitution of a sane and sustainable world.
I began my writing life trying to take up W. H. Auden’s challenge to poets, in his elegy for W.B. Yeats:
Follow poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice.
Today, the bottom of the night seems darker than I ever imagined— and it has become much harder for me to persuade myself to rejoice, much less to persuade anyone else. So, no, I haven’t talked myself down. To the contrary, I still fear, as a friend put it recently, that we are probably “an evolutionary dead-end species.”
And yet, I also fervently believe with Keats that the poetry of earth is never dead, with Stafford that the earth “speaks everything to us,” and with C.D. Wright that there is a sanctuary in the mind made of poetry and music and laughter. There are consolations, very real ones, in what Robinson Jeffers called “the honey of peace in old poems. “
I further believe that the ethos of sustainability found at the heart of the greatest poems of the English language can contribute to a wide range of redemptive environmental efforts. As Paul Hawken points out, there are literally millions of such projects underway now, large and small, around the globe, and I could just as well have begun this essay with a catalogue of them. I say hail and godspeed to everyone involved in such endeavors— with the hope that the labors of the community of poets will increasingly reinforce their efforts.
I feel obligated to say that I find nothing in poetry, not in mine, nor that of any other poet, living or dead, in any language— nothing that seems to embody a truly “digested,” sustainable, ecological consciousness that even remotely approximates the sensibility of preindustrial indigenous populations and some of their present-day heirs— from the Hopi and Tohono O’odham of the desert Southwest, to the Australian aboriginals, the Pumé of Venezuela, the pygmy people of Africa, and the Yanomami of South America.
Of course, we must guard against idealizing or trivializing the complex ethnographies of these cultures, and so I acknowledge that some of the ancient, tribal cultures around the world have participated in the on-going “Holocene Extinction” as well as intra tribal violence. But we can still look to the tribal peoples who have historically demonstrated a graceful, instinctive grasp of Gaia’s intentions, habits, and (above all) needs that have been lost to modernity. Taking that look in a serious way is one of the last, best hopes for us as a species of learning again how to say:
In our minds, so be it.
 The book is enhanced by a unique selection of color photographs, from Blake’s Creation, which depicts the madly abstract Urizen (Blake’s version of Jehovah) attempting to geometrically measure the cosmos, to a child’s two-part, colored-chalk picture heart-breakingly called Yucky Pollution, Shiny Pretty.
 See Frank Waters, The Book of the Hopi (Viking Press, 1963); Gary Paul Nabhan, A Naturalist in Papago Indian [Tohono O’odham] Territory (North Point Press,1982); Harvey Arden, Dreamkeepers: A Spirit-Journey into Aboriginal Australia (HarperCollins Perennial, 1994); Pei lin Yu, Hungry Lightning: Notes of a Woman Anthropologist in Venezuela (University of New Mexico Press, 1997); Jean-Pierre Hallet, Congo Kitabu ( Random House, 1964); Louis Sarno, Songs from the Forest – My Life Among the Ba-Benjelle Pygmies (Penguin Books, 1993) and the CD Echoes of the Forest – Music of the Central African Pygmies (Ellipsis Arts, 1995); Colin Turnbull, The Forest People (Simon & Schuster, 1961); Dennison Berwick, Savages: The Life and Killing of the Yanomami [Kindle Edition] (Voyage Press, 2009); Kenneth Good and David Chanoff, Into The Heart: One Man's Pursuit of Love and Knowledge Among the Yanomami (Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1997).
My Debt to Donald Hall and The Gaiety of Without
Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.
- W.B. Yeats
You will never be any good as a poet unless you
arrange your life by the desire to write great poems.
- Donald Hall
Once upon a time, I studied poetry at UM with Donald Hall, and it was a defining experience for me, but my first debt to him has nothing to do with poetry per se. For it was in Don’s writing seminar that I met my wife Judy— my muse, critic, best friend, neuroscientist, poet, and wife of 50 years. (1)
The first time I saw Judy, in the fall of 1965, she was sitting just to Don’s left in a classroom in Angell Hall. The name of the building aside, Judy did look heavenly in a peony-pink blouse against her dark tan. I was in love in two seconds flat. The problem was, since only first names were used in class, I couldn’t look up her phone number to call for a date. So I went to Don’s office and gave him a lame story about wanting to know my fellow classmates better, to respond to their work— blah, blah, blah. Could he give me last names? He pulled out a class roster, leaned back in his swivel chair, squinted at me for a second or two, stroking his sandy-red, bushy beard, and said: “The one with the tan, right?” Thus Donald Hall became godfather to our marriage.
My second debt to Don is entangled not just in the craft and culture of poetry, but also in ancillary issues, like gender, politics, moral courage, aging, and memory. I had come to Ann Arbor on the recommendation of an undergrad poetry teacher who told me: “Go to Michigan, study with Donald Hall, and win a Hopwood.” But when I arrived that fall, the Vietnam War was heating up, and UM was at the center of some fierce national soul-searching. I had resigned from the Naval Academy two years earlier, in large part because of qualms about the war (which were vastly enhanced when we were lectured on how easy it was to wash radioactive fallout off ships).
In any case, that summer I had turned my back on the war, only to have it flare up on the UM campus in the form of teach-ins and protests. Police vans unloaded riot-geared cops in the twilight outside my garret window as I sat reading Yeats for the first time, finding him about as historically relevant as could be (“the centre cannot hold,” “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed”) and scribbling lines of my own (many about my new girlfriend). I also wondered if I was a coward for being in Ann Arbor instead of Da Nang. My father’s generation had to go to war, so why shouldn’t I?
In short, though I felt in my bones by this time that poetry was a glorious thing, I wasn’t otherwise much different from a lot of young men of the time— randy, angry, confused, and much in need of a new model of manhood and civic aspiration. Don, with his all-or-nothing, strive-to-be-great-in-order-to-be-good devotion to poetry, gave me such a model.
Becoming a poet, he insisted, was a kind of war: a war for words, for vision, for moral and aesthetic truth. It too demanded sacrifice and endurance. It demanded, in fact, your entire life: Vita brevis, ars longa est. Donald Hall was the incarnation of that truth for me, not just in Ann Arbor, but more importantly later when he left academia, moved to Eagle Pond, and wrote, wrote, wrote. There, he exhorted: “Abolish the MFA! “Ban the McPoem!” “Iowa delenda est.” (How brave to say such things in the era of deconstructionism, mega-mergers, and psychobabble.)
Don’s early gifts to me included astute, patient criticism of my poems and (thrill of thrills for apprentices) an occasional glimpse at what the master was working on. (I once dared to suggest a minor change or two in a draft of “The Man in the Dead Machine,” which he incorporated into the published version in The Alligator Bride.) I also soon cherished his two volumes of New Poets of England and America (co-edited with Louis Simpson and Robert Pack) and his Contemporary American Poetry. These collections enlarged my sense of the possibilities for poetry in general and for my own. (One beef: Don’s sense of a poet’s best work was so unerring that after reading what he had anthologized, you could be sadly disappointed when confronted with a writer’s less accomplished things.)
His early service as a critic and editor was balanced by his much later Their Ancient Glittering Eyes: Remembering Poets and More Poets, which recalls his encounters with some of the great figures of modernist poetry (Frost, Eliot, Thomas, Moore, Pound, and others). The book casts a critical eye on their work in ways that make the personal stories all the more interesting. This is an important work, providing more illumination of its subjects than some of the huge, mercilessly detailed biographies now in fashion.
Their Ancient Glittering Eyes is about more than poets as people, however. It’s about the way poetry is memory at its best (and worst), the way language and only language can “tell us who we are.” Reading the book, though, you may come to wonder if there’s any sense in worrying about greatness in the arts— only to be left with an intractable paradox: though we can never fully define greatness, we still must strive for it, over and over, most of us doomed never to succeed in the struggle to achieve it. “Arrange your life” for this quest, Hall advises.
* * *
After I won my Hopwood, in the spring of 1966, Judy and I left Ann Arbor and didn’t see Don again for more than three decades— not until just after the publication of Without, the book recounting the terrible, premature death of his wife, Jane Kenyon. Before I address the book, however, I have a confession: I agree with Don when he says he is not a great poet. I know that, as a friend, Don will forgive me for saying this, though his poet’s ego is no doubt damning me all to hell. But he knows what I mean.
If Hall isn’t great in the grand sense, his life has definitely been guided, he says, “by the desire to write great poems.” And I’m convinced that he has written great poems— “The One Day” and “Prophecy” come to mind, among others. It seems to me that Without, on its surface a horribly grim elegy, not only contains some of his best work, but also achieves a kind of greatness of precisely the kind intimated in Their Ancient Glittering Eyes. It is dominated by an aching emptiness (a beloved wife lost) that is simultaneously suffused with a vital abundance (the poet’s loving memory of her, even as she was suffering a prolonged, painful death). This strange, difficult kind of fullness generates what I’m calling gaiety.
Hall himself is fully aware of the contradictory elements in the book. As self-therapy, the writing of it was essential in alleviating the immediate onslaughts of grief, as he noted after a poetry reading at the University of Pennsylvania in 2007: “When I was writing Without it was the only part of the day when I felt joy. For maybe two hours every morning, I was overjoyed, and when I ran out of steam, I was in for 22 hours of the misery of missing [Jane] and weeping and screaming…” (2)
Without often has the translucent clarity of a Vermeer painting: everything seen precisely, almost microscopically— but also screened through memory and forgetfulness. Such a description might sound as if Hall’s grieving was sedate, but nothing could be further from the truth. Like Dylan Thomas’s elegy for his father urging him (and us) to “rage, rage against the dying of the light,” Without includes some very harrowing moments, particularly in the title poem— a tour de force that dispenses with punctuation and grammar, banished as if they were unnatural intrusions. Here are the opening lines of the title poem:
we lived in a small island stone nation
without color under gray clouds and wind
distant the unlimited ocean acute
lymphoblastic leukemia without seagulls
or palm trees without vegetation
or animal life only barnacles and lead
colored moss that darkened when months did
hours days weeks months weeks days hours
the year endured without punctuation
The metaphor of “punctuation” is painful, almost stopping the poem in its tracks; but it plunges ahead for seven more astounding stanzas. The sense of a suffocating, timeless suffering registered here is replicated in other poems more briefly, but in a no less searing way, as in “Air Shatters the Car’s Small Room,” with its understated yet surreal conclusion:
driving the Honda
with its windows closed
in beginning autumn
from the low motel
to Jane’s bed, I scream
and keep on screaming.
“Without” is the book’s inevitable title poem, however, not only because it announces the elegiac theme so powerfully, but also because it holds the book together emotionally and dramatically— and thereby controls the book’s aesthetics. Take it out, and other poems might seem banal or trivial, minute catalogues of medications and medical terminology for leukemia’s awful progress. Take it out, and Without might border on self-indulgence (in the way that grief must in real life: “It is Margaret you mourn for,” says Hopkins, making just this point).
“Without” avoids such natural weaknesses, which are perfectly forgivable in life but not in art. The poem condenses the ragged emotions of the rest of the book into something hard and clean. It does not go gentle into that good night. It fights, it claws, it roars. Hall loves life’s sensuous obstinacy— and that fact is registered in the poem’s quirky, almost shocking, but strangely comforting closing lines: without dog or semicolon or village square / without hyena or lily without garlic.
The way these final, grammatically jumbled phrases communicate both grief and a kind of latent joie d’vivre in the face of death would take a separate essay to unpack, but it’s certain by this point that, love it as he may, Hall refuses to pretend that life is not sometimes ghastly, searing. With Jane dead, “Remembered happiness is agony” for him— and “so too is remembered agony.” But the rich tang of life is not utterly expunged. It still resides in the poet’s awareness of animal, flower, and spice. (What a gutsy poetic flare to end an elegy with the word garlic.)
It’s also of note that Hall’s title poem, with its language-splintering rhetoric, comes at virtually the mid-point of the book, forming a fulcrum to what comes before and after, a spine to the body of the work. I will return to the book’s architecture later, but for now I’ll only add that until you have read “Without,” you are not really in Hall’s experience of mourning. After you have read it, you can’t get out. Maybe this alone constitutes a measure of poetic greatness— but I have something else in mind as well.
At the book’s spatial center, then, “Without” records rage and grief in the most eccentric language imaginable. But rage and grief are not at the visionary center of this book: gaiety is— of precisely the kind Yeats had in mind in “Lapis Lazuli.” When Yeats’ ancient mandarins watch their city burn to the ground yet again the poem says: “Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.”
Hall borrowed the title of his earlier prose book about poets from this line, and the wife he mourns was herself a poet. These facts are not merely coincidental, but rather underscore my point: how shall a poet best remember his deceased wife if she too was a poet? As already suggested, he will transmute his grief into gaiety.
What a formidable task Without undertakes, calling for emotional openness and candor on the one hand, and relentless self-scrutiny and technical finesse on the other. How much material was cut out of the final draft of the book? I would guess a lot— given that one of the slogans Don imparted in his seminars was: “When in doubt, cut it out.” For a serious poet, these words are more than just a cute rhyme. They are a professional ethic: revise, revise, revise. So in the rest of my analysis it’s important to remember that whatever else is going on in Without, the elegist was also engaged in a lot of plain, hard work-- something that means a great deal in Hall’s poetics. (See his prose collection Life Work.)
In the abstract, all this might sound cold or callous, like Yeats’ smiling mandarins in their fatalistic resignation; but in both cases, the impression is false. Like Yeats, Hall is exploring something far beyond resignation; he is seeking what was once called transcendence-- or what Wordsworth describes (too casually perhaps) as “the philosophic mind that sees through death,” and Shakespeare, in King Lear, calls simply “ripeness.” This is what Yeats’ gaiety is and what Hall seeks in Without.
* * *
How then are the gaiety and fullness of the book achieved? Here is the end of one of the darkest (and most erotic) poems in the book, a snapshot of a dying woman looking at herself in the mirror and seeing her now-wasted beauty, her head hairless from chemotherapy:
she looked at her bald head and at/
her face swollen
with prednisone: “I am Telly Savalas.”
Several things happen here. First, we get a good, healthy laugh— comic relief. But the joke also conveys the notion that, actually, it’s not funny (prednisone is no laughing matter). More importantly, we get a glimpse here into the soul of a woman with caustic wit (no one but Jane could have cracked wise in this way without seeming cruel). At the time, for these two people, the laughter must have cut like a knife. Hall has just told us in a superb trope, Jane once had “thickwater hair,” a special part of her beauty as a woman. Now the hair and the beauty are leaving and unlikely ever to return. So the joke was an act of courage and defiance, even as it also signals (as all comic insight does) an acceptance of limits and mortality. This is the laughter of gaiety.
Another example occurs in a later poem, one whose bawdiness may strike some readers as crude. In “Letter With No Address,” Hall writes to his departed wife that he misses their love life so badly that he has a Freudian vision of it being enacted between his car and hers:
Sometimes, coming back home
to our circular driveway,
I imagine you’ve returned
before me, bags full of groceries upright
in the back seat of the Saab,
its trunk lid delicately raised
as if proposing an encounter
dog-fashion, with the Honda.
I was reluctant to quote these lines, thinking that in isolation they might cheapen the impression the book makes, since this time the joke is “dirty,” and the puritans among us might ask: “How can Hall grieve for his wife by telling off-color stories about her!” That response is precluded by the use of the gentle, shrewdly placed adverb delicately, and the phrasing that follows: “proposing” an encounter (not propositioning or soliciting or suggesting, but proposing-- as in proposing marriage).
This careful control of diction turns the bawdiness away (destroys it, I’d say) and elicits instead a tender, old-fashioned air of courtship via a friendly haunting. It’s as if the car contains Jane’s spirit. We can laugh at the moment’s cartoonish incongruity, while we wince at its deeper intimations (an effect found in Shakespeare’s comedies and Donne’s love poems.) Here the gaiety is grinning, to be sure, but it is poised in such finely calibrated language that we realize the joke is really a fond message to Jane: if you were here, you would have laughed at this with me! Bawdiness has been transformed into a moment of healing.
Sexual longing grows more intense and bitter later in the book; but with an aura of gaiety already in place, the erotic reveries never seem one-dimensional. They in fact become agents of recovery for both mind and spirit. For example, the longest poem in Without, “Letter in the New Year,” initially seems to arrive at a lessening of grief and a more serene remembrance, full of domestic comforts: Hall baby-sitting his granddaughters; watching the light on the mountains near Eagle Pond Farm; “eating bagels in the morning / watching basket-ball by night;” returning to the reading circuit (“Poetry Man / is suiting up!” he tells his dog Gus); digging in Jane’s old peony garden. But in the poem’s concluding lines, this domestic ease is eroded, as the poet imagines his wife’s life if he had preceded her in death:
I want to hear you laugh again,
your throaty whoop. Every day
I imagine you widowed
in this house of purposeful quiet.
You would have confided in Gus...
with friends in New London,
climbed [Mt.] Kearsarge, wept,
written poems, and lain unmoving,
eyes open, in bed all morning.
You would have found
a lover, but not right away.
I want to fuck you
in Paradise. “The sexual
intercourse of angels,” Yeats
in his old age wrote his old
love, “is a conflagration
of the whole being.”
This is exquisite and daring. It renders a perfect fusion of the quotidian with the longing for transcendence. How mysterious and yet comforting is that image of Jane alone in her bed, in a house filled with “purposeful quiet.” How authentic the sense of recovery seems even as it explodes into some of the most painful longing in the book.
And how much would have been lost if Hall had written: “I want to make love to you / in Paradise” or “sleep with you,” or any other soft euphemism for sex. He chose instead the rough Anglo Saxon, and it rocks our expectation wonderfully. This choice also again links Hall to Yeats, whose famous “Lapis Lazuli” speaks of how “nymphs and satyrs / Copulate in the foam.” This wording was actually an expurgated version of the alliteration Yeats wanted: “fuck in the foam.” So Yeats would have admired Without, though it rarely employs the densely marbled language which was his métier. “Letter in the New Year” evokes a churning sense of fullness, culminating in the final phrase: whole being.
And what does the poem say, if not that the transcendent and the material world are one, that “paradise” is fucking, and that the most dreadful human loss is endurable? Only angels experience “conflagration of the whole being.” We humans are not burned up by love. We lose it, go on without it, perhaps find it again with another, or don’t. Accepting such truths, Hall intimates, is a form of gaiety.
Another mode of gaiety is located in the architecture of Without. I mentioned earlier that the title poem is the nucleus of the narrative: an uncontrollable explosion of grief immediately after the death, the biological truth that underlies all human aspiration, including mated love, the irrational force that social convention and human fantasy would deny.
But before getting to the title poem, Hall weaves the story of Jane’s battle with leukemia into several poems recording other deaths. The poet had just turned 70 when Jane died, and his mother Lucy died two months after Jane was diagnosed with the leukemia. Then their cat Bluebeard died. Jane’s mother died. All these losses are presented in poems that are stately and sad but not morbid— they are vibrant memories celebrating what they mourn.
Taken together, such poems constitute a kind of family photo album of lives lived, relished, suffered, lost, and now remembered. The collective portrait, though studded with anguish, is ultimately gay. One of the most moving poems in the book, “Song for Lucy,” recalls a time before Jane’s death when she and Hall went to sort out his mother’s belongings just after her death. (Ah, that task, we murmur, knowing we all must do it one day, and have it done for us.) The final lines of the poem, which might have turned maudlin, are rendered in an understatement no paraphrase can capture: “Jane felt strong that day / as we emptied Lucy’s room / and ate a leftover cookie.” Is this bathos? I don’t think so. For just a moment, appetite stamps out depression.
* * *
After “Without,” the second half of the book consists mostly of “letters” to Jane— a form of communion with its own poignancy, since Hall, though a Christian, is not necessarily convinced there is an afterlife. In the first letter, he writes to the departed Jane: “You know now / whether the soul survives death. / Or you don’t.” He knows these letters are really sent only to himself (and us); but the fiction of Jane’s hearing the words he writes is powerful. There’s a sense, I suspect, in which everyone believes in ghosts: Hall once thinks he sees Jane in a convenience store, and he visits her grave repeatedly (where he overhears someone saying: “Can you hear me, Jane?”).
He also has countless dreams and memories of her in their life together before leukemia (they were married for nearly 20 years). These “letters,” in other words, are plainly a way for Hall to cling to his beloved a while longer, until his grief subsides. Maybe everyone does something of the sort after losing a spouse; but Hall does it in intensely crafted poems that never drift into sentimentality. In avoiding that, he honors the poet Jane Kenyon as she would have most wanted.
The book’s structure is straightforward: illness, death, grief, and recovery— a descent to darkness followed by a return to light. Part of gaiety is the simple, animal hope that we can “get over it,” no matter how spirit-shattering our losses. The entire genre of elegy conforms to that model, and Without enacts it as well. If it didn’t, it would not only be unbearable to read, but be a kind of betrayal of elegy. After the poetry reading in 2007 noted earlier, Hall said of himself: “I've really been elegiac all my life as a poet, not just on the occasion of Jane's death.”
Consequently, the latter half of the book has a steady pulse of recovery beating in almost every poem. But just when you thought it was safe to get back in the water, here’s another great white— and Hall’s last letter-poem is an astonishing blend of serenity, acceptance and wry humor, mixed with terror, denial, and despair. When he thinks he hears Jane under her gravestone saying “Where the hell / are you?” he answers: “In hell.” This reversal of recovery is not less disturbing because it follows this droll report:
There’s one good thing
about April. Every day Gus and I
take a walk to the graveyard.
I’m the one who doesn’t
piss on your stone.
Like the “doggy-sex” joke earlier, the gaiety of the story here modifies both the lows and the highs that come after it— and come they do, with more force than ever. First the low:
I daydreamed burning the house:
kerosene in pie plates
with a candle lit in the middle.
I locked myself in your study...
with Gus, Ada [the cat], and the rifle
my father gave me at twelve.
I killed our cat and dog.
I swallowed a bottle of pills,
knowing that if I woke on fire
I had the gun.
It’s like something out of Poe (the writer, Hall says elsewhere, who first propelled him into poetry). But even this violent despair is not without an undertow of self-parodying gaiety. How carefully plotted this macabre little melodrama, how primly arranged! Hall is tidying up before the ultimate Bye-Bye. So why doesn’t he just skip the damn candles and kerosene, grab the gun, and get on with it? Answers: 1) This is a dream of dark temptation which gaiety must overcome, and 2) no temptation, no overcoming. Hall’s nightmare, in other words, is a self-test (“Do I want to live?”) and the parody helps generate the answer. ‘Since my suicide looks a little goofy and scripted, I might as well live.’ (Somewhere just off-stage, Dorothy Parker nods her approval). Put differently, the poem implies that spiritual health is not a mathematical thing, but an organism that often like a crab goes backward— and sure enough, the despair is soon followed by a reconnection with life’s endless renewal and beauty, which are now represented as being not death’s antithesis but interwoven with it, just as time is interwoven in the seasons:
Last week the goldfinches
flew back for a second spring.
Again I witnessed snowdrops
worry from dead leaves
into air. Now your hillside
daffodils edge up and today
it’s a year since we set you down
at the border of the graveyard
on a breezy April day.
Is this happy or sad? Such categories are reductive. It is both— which is to say, it has gaiety (in the certainty of the cycle: endless change, fluctuation, yin and yang). In these radical fluctuations, all inside one poem, Hall is admitting he can never simply “get over it.” With Jane gone, a part of him will always be in hell, even though his memories of her can transport him to moments of bliss: “When I dream / sometimes your hair is long / and we make love as we used to.”
* * *
One of the most powerful expressions of gaiety in Without comes in a short, deceptively prosaic piece showing Hall caring for an infant granddaughter’s bodily needs and cherishing her warmly, but with the eye of an aging man. The poem merits complete quotation, both on its own terms and because it functions as a counterpoint to the rhetorical loudness so frequent in “Without.”
POSTCARD: JANUARY 22ND
I grow heavy through summer and autumn
and now I bear your death. I feed her,
bathe her, rock her, and change her diapers.
She lifts her small skull, trembling
and tentative. She smiles, spits up, shits
in a toilet, learns to read and multiply.
I watch her grow, prosper, thrive.
She is the darling of her mother’s old age.
As comforting as this is on the surface, it has disturbing depths. As the poem progresses, we realize that the baby’s helpless dependence mirrors Jane’s debilitation before death. Then the present-tense moment before us begins to slide seamlessly into years, and the child’s dependence becomes learning, maturation, prospering, even as her mother simultaneously slides into old age. Somewhere behind the poem is Shakespeare’s “Seven Ages of Man” speech— and this may be the one point in the book where we can imagine Hall’s own eyes “glittering.”
The final poem in the book maintains and enlarges all these themes in fluid, quasi-blank-verse and in a manner I believe worthy not only of Yeats but of his predecessors, Wordsworth and Milton. Although the poem still addresses Jane, it is no longer offered as a “letter” but simply as “Weeds and Peonies,” a more self-effacing title. The poem is such a seamless whole, it defies partial quotation; but I will violate its unity just to show how gorgeous and “full” the writing in it is. Here is the first stanza:
Your peonies burst out, white as snow squalls,
with red flecks at their baggy centers
in your border of prodigies by the porch.
I carry one magnanimous blossom indoors
and float it in a glass bowl, as you used to do.
This is another instance, perhaps the best in the book, of the Vermeer-like clarity mentioned earlier. Technically and emotionally, as a culmination of the elegy in both literal and figurative ways, “Weeds and Peonies” is flawless. (Show me a more skillful stanza written in the past fifty years, and I’ll eat it.) Like the flowers, the language itself is bursting with an animating abundance: squalls, flecks, baggy, prodigies, magnanimous. The “magnanimous blossom” is too eloquent as a symbol to need any explication. And please go back and say the lines out loud. You’ll miss half their force if you don’t hear them.
The rest of the poem lives up to this fine beginning and ends with an abrupt two-word anti-climax which I submit is one of the finest stylistic triumphs in modern verse, one which I won’t spoil by quoting here, but I urge readers to experience in the proper way: as the last words in the last poem of a remarkable book.
I have slightly dodged my original question. Is this a “great” book? I say yes— and not just because I would like it to be, simply because I love and revere Donald Hall. Without is great, I submit, because it invents a new kind of elegy. For a long time I couldn’t quite say how. Don told me he thinks it may be new too, but that although it sold well, the book wasn’t reviewed very widely. He thinks this may be because some people hate it for its subject matter (but won’t say so) while others “don’t know quite what to make of it.”
What, then, is so disturbing about Without, and what makes it new? A quick look at some of the great elegies in the canon, makes the answer pretty evident. First, we can rule out formal pastoral elegy from Virgil to Milton—there are no sheep, doleful shepherds, or beatific shepherdesses in Without, no set pieces singing of “immortal” love. Hall’s book, like most modern poetry on the subject of death, is an anti-elegy in this sense. And compared to the great patriarch of the modern elegy, Tennyson, we can see big differences, not the least of which are stylistic. In his long elegy, In Memoriam, Tennyson worked in uniformly cadenced, rhymed stanzas, while Hall’s elegy rarely uses end-rhyme and employs a wide range of stanza forms and line lengths. Not surprisingly, several poems in Without are written in syllabics, a form in which Hall has been one of our premier practitioners.
But the crucial difference between Without and In Memoriam is not merely in technique (or length). Tennyson doesn’t just grieve and memorialize. He meditates, he expounds, he takes positions, he educates (his lyrics on evolution and geology, for instance, have probably never been equaled). He wrote in the high rhetoric of the classical tradition now lost in living speech, but which in Tennyson’s time was still a major resource for poets. It’s easy to sneer at this tradition today, perhaps; but read Tennyson closely and you will be awed not only by his seemingly infinite lyric strength but by the range of uses he puts it to. (Try, sometime, to read the poem’s nearly 3,000 lines straight through, as many Victorians did, but which few readers attempt today. That will render a far different experience— and a better one, I believe— than reading it in pieces.)
But although In Memoriam fully deserves its place in the canon, don’t expect to learn much about Arthur Hallam from the poem. He’s barely there. We never see him or hear him speak. We don’t learn his place in the poet’s public or private life. He is a totally invisible occasion for grief and a stimulus for poetry, not a “living” presence in the poem that the reader can share. In Memoriam, with its sweeping canvas of 19th-century civilization, history, and geology, is filled with many things, but curiously “without” Arthur Hallam. Recall that the poem’s full title is In Memoriam A.H.H. – the initials being the only direct register of an actual man so absent from the poem itself.
Hall’s elegy, in contrast, is sharply focused on a highly visible woman, her death, his grief and recovery. Kenyon is very much in this book, from start to finish. She is what “fills” Without. She is what gives it its sense of life and emotional abundance. And yet Jane is not (as the subjects of many prior elegies almost always are) an idealized exemplar of humanity (as Hallam was for Tennyson). She is simply a beloved wife, prematurely dead, and crushingly missed. That’s the whole story, the whole theme. Hall does not even give us (and it must have been a real temptation) a sense of Jane being “special” because she was a poet. (‘She ain’t just my old lady, she’s a famous writer!’)
What he shows instead is a woman smelling the snowy air, shopping for groceries, making bread, kidding Hall about his beard, mulching her roses, filling the bird-feeder with sunflower seed, walking the dog, nursing her husband during his cancer, helping him sort out his dead mother’s things, kissing him when he gives her a ring after her diagnosis (which she immediately names the “Please Don’t Die” ring), making love for the last time (in a Seattle clinic room!), briefly recovering after a bone-marrow transplant, and then— in spite of everything high-tech medicine can do— rapidly succumbing (though not before she and Hall pick out her burial dress and work on poems together one last afternoon).
This catalogue of Jane’s presence in the book isn’t complete— all are taken from the book’s first half, before the “letters” even begin. Her portrait (and the case for mourning her) continues in the second half, built one word, one poem at a time, with the workman-like premise that she is new to the reader, to whom she will only be as alive as these poems make her. This austerity, a distinct aesthetic distance from Jane as a subject in a poem, may be what some readers find disturbing about the book. But Hall’s stance is the only one possible for someone who loves his art as much as his lost wife. Such integrity in and of itself may not exactly be greatness in poetry, but it is a step toward it.
The risk Hall ran in writing Without was not only in the possibility that the poems might turn out to be mediocre or sentimental (thus betraying Jane and ruining all elegiac communion with the reader) but worse (given today’s book market): that the book might be mistaken for some kind of self-help tract. At a book signing for Without I attended with Don, I saw one or two people who were clearly recently bereaved, who seemed to be buying the book with the expectation that it would make them feel better, would offer “words of wisdom,” would be a poetic “I’m OK, you’re OK” on death. I don’t mean to be scornful. Lord knows we must take our comfort where we can— but I can’t help wondering what such readers would feel when they hit lines like these in the title poem:
pain vomit neuropathy morphine nightmare
confusion the rack terror the vise
vincristine ara-c cytoxan vp-16
loss of memory loss of language losses
pneumocystis carinii pneumonia bactrim
foamless unmitigated sea without sea
delirium whipmarks of petechiae
multiple blisters of herpes zoster
and how are you doing today ...
This catalogue comprises some of the things that “fill” Without, things that, in my mind, make it a great work. And who knows, maybe, in time, the widows, widowers, and others who come to the book simply for solace may learn to love these lines as much as I do for their factual truth, their lyric mastery, and their dark satire on our current conceptions of what life, death and dignity are. If readers do move in that direction, then Donald Hall will have helped redefine the genre of elegy.
What shall we call Hall’s innovation, then? — the “Erotic-Medical Elegy,” the “Elegy of Gaiety,” or (my choice) simply the “Elegy of Common Life”? Those who know Hall’s work will recognize the last suggestion as a permutation of what he might have called it himself, as implied in his poem the “Elegy of the One Day.” But all such nomenclature games are trivializing, and they distort both Hall’s idiosyncratic gaiety and the grief that informs it. I suspect Don would prefer that his elegy for Jane Kenyon be left (in the final gaiety he offers us) “without” any labels at all.
I first scratched out a draft of this essay some 20 years ago, soon after Without was published, when I was 55 and Don was approaching 70. He and I had only recently been reunited in person after decades of no direct contact and very sporadic communication (mostly Christmas cards). I was not very inclined to publish the essay then because Jane had died only a few years before, and commenting on it felt like an intrusion into an intimate realm which only the closest of friends were entitled to enter.
Since that time, however, we have corresponded more regularly, and now, with me half-way though my eighth decade and Don about to turn 90, my affection for him and appreciation of his work have only deepened, and I offer this essay as a farewell tribute. Thanks for everything, Don. You have been a great mentor and a fine model of what every poet should aspire to become.
1 - A senior English major in the UM Honors College when I met her, Judy had already won a couple of Hopwood poetry awards. After some 30 years in neuroscience, she returned to poetry in 2012 and has subsequently published ten collections, eight of which are haiku accompanied by her own photographs. See JudithLauter.com and Judith-Lauter.amazon.com.
2 See https://media.sas.upenn.edu/pennsound/authors/Hall/4-17-07/Hall-Donald_06_on-elegy_Discussion_04-17-07.mp3
Copyright Ken Lauter 2018