Tuesday, June 26, 2018


Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon

Ian Haight

Tony Hoagland

Robert Pinsky

Wyn Cooper

There are certain people, the mere fact of their being alive, that gives you reason for hope.  Donald Hall was one such person for me, and while his passing on June 23 was unsurprising--he'd been in ill health--the world feels a little emptier without him sitting on his front porch in Wilmot, watching the haze gather on Blue Mountain.  I loved the Bill Moyers tribute to Hall and Jane Kenyon back in 1993, and I enjoyed Hall's periodic cameos on NPR, Garrison Keillor without the fake folksiness, and I've read just about every one of the many books he produced from the time he and Jane left Ann Arbor in 1975 right up to his Essays After Eighty.

The obits have him as kin to Robert Frost, but this is wrong: Hall was far more versatile, much funnier, and deeply humane.  Hall wasn't "just" a poet of rural New England, not even close.  My favorite of his many books is Museum of Clear Ideas (1993). I love its witty "Nine Innings" on baseball, written to explain America's game to Kurt Schwitters, "Merz-poet and artist," the surrealist who is imagined sitting with Red-Sox-loving Donald  in the Fenway bleachers. A notable collection of historical figures--Rilke, Alexander the Great, Zane Grey, Moses and Dwight Evans--are brought together with love and wit to plumb the depths of the game Hall pondered and adored throughout his life.

Here's one for Donald, from his wife, Jane Kenyon, both now gone, and missed:

Heavy Summer Rain

The grasses in the field have toppled,
and in places it seems that a large, now
absent, animal must have passed the night.
The hay will right itself if the day

turns dry. I miss you steadily, painfully.
None of your blustering entrances
or exits, doors swinging wildly
on their hinges, or your huge unconscious
sighs when you read something sad,
like Henry Adams’s letters from Japan,
where he traveled after Clover died.

Everything blooming bows down in the rain:
white irises, red peonies; and the poppies
with their black and secret centers
lie shattered on the lawn.


Ian Haight is a poet I came to know through his translations of Korean poetry, done for, among others, the White Pine Korean Voices series. Haight has won numerous awards for his translations, but I had no knowledge of his own poems until I received a copy of his collection, Celadon, published in 2017 by Unicorn Press of Greensboro, N.C.   Celadon pottery, often a jade-green ceramic form that originated in China but spread to Korea and Japan, is characterized by a particular type of glazing and often features "tiny cracks" or imperfections (according to Chinese Celadon Wares by Godfrey St. George Montague).  I don't doubt that Haight, a poet of intelligence and wit, had the idea of slight imperfections in mind as he crafted the poems in his prize-winning collection, many of which employ deft ventriloquism in order to uncover lives that are otherwise closed to us.  It is the "slight cracking" in lives that Haight explores. Here's "Diary of a Korean Farmer," a poem representative of Haight's stripped-down diction, terse lines, and mode of evoking rather than describing feeling--

I used black tape
to hold my daughter's faded picture
on the truck's front.

I thought it best
to start the funeral
at her school.

I drove in a long
circle on the playground.
Some mothers stood
under a tree, next to cars.

I saw a cloud
near a peak.

The tide was low
at the riverside.
The water pulled away,
I smelled the river's mud-earth.

A mourner's car parked
by the river,

Mountains circled
the valley.
I wondered
if she might be
at the top of one

I knelt by the box
while the shaman chanted.

When I looked out
over the water,
my arms grew tight.

I remembered I hit my daughter
when I drank too much,

how she called
to me from a nightmare.

I remembered my wife
bathing her
in our warmed room.

I thought of the money
I didn't have,
how next year
the only people buying
our rice
would be from the government.

I thought of the little water
left in the river,

I could open the box then
spread her ashes
and be happy.

There's Li Po and Tu Fu in these stripped-down stanzas, each articulating a complex feeling in simple declarative statements.  Whether he's in Korea or Detroit or Florida, Haight approaches his subjects with the same clear-eyed intensity--"I could open the box then/spread her ashes/and be happy."  Rural sadness, the tribulations of the poor--these are a given. The use of the conditional makes the point visceral: there is something I might do that would bring me happiness, a happiness dependent on the worst of long list of troubles.

Haight also deals in negatives, perhaps with the Zen-mind of a translator of Korean poetry:

"I don't want to live next to you/in the house by the river" ("Farmers Hunt Turkeys"

"I don't miss the day/he cursed our children" ("The Neighbor's Son")

"Rice doesn't grow/in the gravelly/mountains..." ("A Chinese Migrant")

One sees the beauty of the outside of the bowl and the emptiness within, waiting to be filled.


Summer is the season for long, boring games of baseball (Bryce Harper, that traitor, wants to shorten games to seven innings!), long outdoor dinners watching the sun set,  long novels that meander toward nowhere, and long afternoons reading poems--the ultimate slap in the face delivered to the pragmatists and efficiency experts. People of my acquaintance are fond of reminding me that "no one" reads poetry any more. Good.  When no one else does something, then I am certain that it is worth doing.


Tony Hoagland is one of my go-to summer poets. The witty melancholy of his collection Application for Release from the Dream is a tonic for our dishonest age. He's a wag, un-PC, "inappropriate," likely to give offense, a tweaker of noses. Everything he writes is worth reading--about how many poets can we assert this?  Here's one of my favorites:

Reading Moby-Dick at 30,000 Feet
At this height, Kansas
is just a concept,
a checkerboard design of wheat and corn

no larger than the foldout section
of my neighbor's travel magazine.
At this stage of the journey

I would estimate the distance
between myself and my own feelings
is roughly the same as the mileage

from Seattle to New York,
so I can lean back into the upholstered interval
between Muzak and lunch,

a little bored, a little old and strange.
I remember, as a dreamy
backyard kind of kid,

tilting up my head to watch
those planes engrave the sky
in lines so steady and so straight

they implied the enormous concentration
of good men,
but now my eyes flicker

from the in-flight movie
to the stewardess's pantyline,
then back into my book,

where men throw harpoons at something
much bigger and probably
better than themselves,

wanting to kill it,
wanting to see great clouds of blood erupt
to prove that they exist.

Imagine being born and growing up,
rushing through the world for sixty years
at unimaginable speeds.

Imagine a century like a room so large,
a corridor so long
you could travel for a lifetime

and never find the door,
until you had forgotten
that such a thing as doors exist.

Better to be on board the Pequod,
with a mad one-legged captain
living for revenge.

Better to feel the salt wind
spitting in your face,
to hold your sharpened weapon high,

to see the glisten
of the beast beneath the waves.
What a relief it would be

to hear someone in the crew
cry out like a gull,
Oh Captain, Captain!
Where are we going now? 

Hoagland also writes incisive criticism; his most recent book, Twenty Poems that Could Save America and Other Essays is one of the two best books I have ever read on the craft of poetry, the other being Robert Pinsky's Singing School. Hoagland's essays on Robert Bly and Dean Young are full of intelligent insights, and his suggestions in regard to poetic form, style, and voicing are better than you'll find in any "how-to" book (plus funnier).


I've been reading Wyn Cooper's Mars Poetica for the past week. Cooper is new to me, and I am happy I found him. He's published four books prior to this one. There's nothing better than finding a new poet and discovering yet another way to say the things that poets say--new forms and vocabularies and tones of voice and attitudes. Cooper comes right at you; he's open and honest and straightforward.

Here's the title poem:

Imagine you’re on Mars, looking at earth,
a swirl of colors in the distance.
Tell us what you miss most, or least.

Let your feelings rise to the surface.
Skim that surface with a tiny net.
Now you’re getting the hang of it.

Tell us your story slantwise,
streetwise, in the disguise
of an astronaut in his suit.

Tell us something we didn’t know
before: how words mean things
we didn’t know we knew.

I hope you'll find some new poets this summer, and reread some of your old favorites.

George Ovitt (6/26/2018)



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