Donald Hall and the Washington Post – not a pretty site


No, I’m not talking about Donald Hall‘s appearance in this headline – rather, I’m talking about the ugliness of the Washington Post‘s online derision of him, following his acceptance of the National Medal of Arts last Wednesday (we posted about the awards here – and there’s a nice March 2 article about Donald here).

In the column, which is determined to be unflaggingly perkyAlexandra Petri commented on the 82-year-old poet, “who is not, in fact, a yeti.” She invited us to think of a funny caption for the photo – but the suggestions in the comments section make clear the mean-spiritedness of the whole, largely ageist, enterprise.  If the comments aren’t enough, you can read a discussion of the submissions on the chat here.

“What does this photo say to you, other than: ‘Help! I’m a talking photo!'” Petri asked.  David Sanders in his emailed newsletter, Poetry News in Review, responded more graciously than I could:

A better question might be what does a photo caption competition say about you. I wish I can articulate exactly why this bothers me. I suspect it has something to do with my own inclination to poke fun at the perceived deficits of others without regard to whether they are self-created, congenital, or accidental, as if that mattered. It’s not a side of me that is attractive, but mockery is easy and instantly gratifying.

In this case: Donald Hall, a white, male, octogenarian, successful poet, with an unkempt mane and beard, appearing with our dashing president to accept a prestigious award. So which of these things is open to ridicule and mockery at the behest of our utterly charming Washington Post columnists? All of them.

Of course, this bothers me particularly because I know who Donald Hall is, what he’s achieved, and admire his body of work. I’ve met him only once and that was in passing a couple of years ago, but he seemed to be content with himself. So I assume that this little cleverness from our well-tailored friends at the Post would not bother him, if he even knew about it. And he doesn’t need me to defend him. So I won’t. But I will be embarrassed for the rest of us.

Thank you, David.

(You can subscribe to David’s Poetry News in Review here.)

Postscript on 3/8Philip Terzian writes:  “One of the embarrassments of the nation’s capital is that the dominant newspaper in Washington is relentlessly philistine, and routinely second-rate in its cultural coverage. Its free-standing book section was discontinued last year, and its coverage of music, art, dance, theatre, and film is either nonexistent or seemingly aimed at the lowest common denominator in its readership. The jeering, juvenile tone of this Petri joke at the expense of Donald Hall is, sadly, all too typical.”

Postscript on 3/9: After Terzian wrote about this kerfuffle in The Weekly Standard following my post, Sarah Palin picked up the banner on Twitter.  From there to the world.  (Ted Gioia posted my post on his Facebook page, where Terzian found it and commented – the evolution of a tweet.) This is a bipartisan issue – or rather, a totally apolitical one – so I hate to see it become a political football of one side or ‘tother.  David Sanders‘s judicious and humane comment speaks for itself.  I think his remarks are still the best reflection on this whole situation.

Postscript on 3/10:  Petri’s definitely not a class act.  She defends her ridicule of Donald Hall by attacking Sarah Palin – and the sight isn’t pretty.  More here.

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7 Responses to “Donald Hall and the Washington Post – not a pretty site”

  1. Jeff Sypeck Says:

    I’ve lived in D.C. for 16 years, so this doesn’t surprise me. Washingtonians demonstratively genuflect to “the arts,” lest they be seen as the Wrong Kind of Person, but when it comes right down to it, most people here don’t see the point of anything that doesn’t give them additional clout in their hierarchy of choice. And so the paper continues to cast everything in terms of politics and popular culture, veteran reporters snark like eighth-grade girls (“OMG yeti beard!”) and people who love to read seek their news elsewhere…

  2. Helen Pinkerton Trimpi Says:

    Cynthia, I support David Sanders view completely. What kind of a “journalist” would respond as the Washington Post columnist has in ridiculing an old, tired, sick man. My husband and I knew Don Hall and his first wife, Kirby Thompson Hall, very well in the 1950s, shared happy evenings and excursions with their children and ours in New England, visited again with them in England in the 1960s, where Don generously shared his experience of English poets with us, including Geoffrey Hill. Later, after their divorce, I saw less of Don, but visited often with Kirby in Ann Arbor and in New Hampshire. Though never a great admirer of his poetry, I respected his diligence and constancy to the art in his own terms. Perhaps he should not have attended the ceremony, but how could he not? I should add the words disgusting and cruel to “ugly.”

  3. Doris Gagne Says:

    Two years ago or so I went to a reading by Donald Hall at a Concord NH bookstore. He read from a recent prose book. He was marvelous. He appeared very much the same as he does in the photo. At first you wonder, but then when you listen and read his work you come to respect him, very much. He is an accomplished, creative person.
    I am not sure Ms. Petri has spoken to Donald Hall or sat and listened to a reading. People’s reactions to others are always about ‘them’. So we are left with, ‘what does this say about Ms. Petri’??

  4. The Poet Gets Slammed - Brainstorm - The Chronicle of Higher Education Says:

    […] There is more to the story, too.  Even Sarah Palin weighed in (and Petri shot back).  Read more here. This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the […]

  5. susan childress Says:

    It’s surprising this got by the Post editors, considering the precarious state of newspapers in general. And if this is an attempt by Alexandra Petri to kick her writing up a notch by making it more bloggish, it doesn’t work. There’s got to be thinking involved. Here’s an old fashioned strategy for newspaper writers who want to survive: go deeper into yourselves and your subject. Stay interested and slightly reverent. It may feel a little conventional and restrictive, but it’s still what it takes. The world is not entirely given over to schlock.

  6. Cynthia Haven Says:

    You share my sense of wonder, Susan. And thumbs up for your recommendations.

  7. Dorothy Keniston Kushious Says:

    To comment on a mere picture without a thorough knowledge of one’s body of work is most unprofessional and unfair. If Alexandra Petri had read all of Donald Hall’s poems
    and prose and had a literary criticism of such, one might feel it was her legitimate right. To make a rather juvenile, prejudiced comment about one of our national treasures
    in the arts is simply inexcusable! It is most gratifying to know that we have a President who takes note of the worthiness of the arts, be it music, poetry. drama, or visual arts,
    for these are the food of our souls in this United States of America.