Posts Tagged ‘Donald Hall’

Donald Hall on old age: “an unknown, unanticipated galaxy”

Saturday, April 16th, 2016

Not funny. Donald Hall receiving the National Medal of Arts, 2011.

The endless ageism of this election cycle has been a dispiriting spectacle for quite some time. In fact, you are welcome to join me in documenting it on my Twitter hashtag #Ageism2016. While we live in a society that is fascinated with attractiveness and youth in its leaders (cough, cough, Justin Trudeau), it stands to reason that anyone with sagacity and experience for international leadership will have cycled more than a few dozen times around the sun. But politics is not the only arena where wisdom comes with years.

Remember way back when we targeted The Washington Post‘s casual (and, I suspect, unintended) dissing of poet Donald Hall when he received the National Medal of Arts in 2011? The diss involved a caption contest for a “funny” photo of the poet. We created something of a national stir with that one, with even Sarah Palin chiming in – you can read about it here and here.

I hadn’t read the 87-year-old poet’s latest collection of essays Essays After Eighty, but Maria Popova over at Brain Pickings had, and apparently a caption contest was the least of the insults he had to work with that day in Washington, D.C. From one of Hall’s essays:

“I go to Washington to receive the National Medal of Arts and arrive two days early to look at paintings. At the National Gallery of Art, Linda [Hall’s girlfriend] pushes me in a wheelchair from painting to painting. We stop by a Henry Moore carving. A museum guard, a man in his sixties with a small pepper-and-salt mustache, approaches us and helpfully tells us the name of the sculptor. I wrote a book about Moore and knew him well. Linda and I separately think of mentioning my connection but instantly suppress the notion — egotistic, and maybe embarrassing to the guard. A couple of hours later, we emerge from the cafeteria and see the same man, who asks Linda if she enjoyed her lunch. Then he bends over to address me, wags his finger, smiles a grotesque smile, and raises his voice to ask, ‘Did we have a nice din-din?’”

His forbearance is greater than mine would have been. There’s a reason little old ladies carry handbags (hint: remember Ruth Buzzi.) But the indignities of age didn’t end with the guard or the caption contest. At the ceremony, President Obama bent to whisper a few memorable sentences in his left ear. Except that Hall is completely deaf in his left ear, and never heard them.

hall-coverRelief was near at hand:

On the day of the medal, [Linda] wheeled me from the Willard InterContinental Hotel to the White House. Waiting at the entrance to go through security, I looked up to see Philip Roth, whom I recognized from long ago. I loved his novels. He saw me in the hotel’s wheelchair — my enormous beard and erupting hair, my body wracked with antiquity — and said, “I haven’t seen you for fifty years!” How did he remember me? We had met in George Plimpton’s living room in the 1950s. I praised what he wrote about George in Exit Ghost. [I wrote about the passage in Exit Ghost here – C.H.] He seemed pleased, and glanced down at me in the chair. “How are you doing?” I told him fine, “I’m still writing.”

He said, “What else is there?”

It’s litotes to point out that none of us are getting any younger, but as I travel this dark road myself, I find the journey more interesting than anyone had ever told me it would be. Donald Hall apparently feels the same way. He holds a lamp for us as we all move forward into the night, with his wry self-awareness, stoic anguish, and endless insight:

“After a life of loving the old, by natural law I turned old myself. Decades followed each other — thirty was terrifying, forty I never noticed because I was drunk, fifty was best with a total change of life, sixty began to extend the bliss of fifty — and then came my cancers, Jane’s death [i.e, his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon], and over the years I traveled to another universe. However alert we are, however much we think we know what will happen, antiquity remains an unknown, unanticipated galaxy. It is alien, and old people are a separate form of life. They have green skin, with two heads that sprout antennae. They can be pleasant, they can be annoying — in the supermarket, these old ladies won’t get out of my way — but most important they are permanently other. When we turn eighty, we understand that we are extraterrestrial. If we forget for a moment that we are old, we are reminded when we try to stand up, or when we encounter someone young, who appears to observe green skin, extra heads, and protuberances.

People’s response to our separateness can be callous, can be goodhearted, and is always condescending… At a family dinner, my children and grandchildren pay fond attention to me; I may be peripheral, but I am not invisible. A grandchild’s college roommate, encountered for the first time, pulls a chair to sit with her back directly in front of me, cutting me off from the family circle: I don’t exist.

When kindness to the old is condescending, it is aware of itself as benignity while it asserts its power. Sometimes the reaction to antiquity becomes farce.

Congratulations, once again, to Dana Gioia!

Saturday, January 25th, 2014

Dana at Stanford in 2007 (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Once again, Dana Gioia has a new honor: This time, the Sewanee Review has just announced that he will receive this year’s Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry.

Previous winners have included Richard Wilbur, Anthony Hecht, W.S. Merwin, Anne Stevenson, Donald Hall, X.J. Kennedy, and others.

Dana, known for his poetry, criticism, and arts advocacy, holds the newly created Judge Widney Chair in Poetry and Public Culture at the University of Southern California.  He’s also a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, and has received a number of honors in recent years, including the Laetare Medal. We’ve written about him here and here and here and here and, oh, perhaps a zillion other places.

His most recent collection is Pity the Beautiful – we’ve written about it here, and I’ve published excerpts from the volume, also here.  Writing in Best American Poetry, David Lehman stated unequivocally:  “I have no hesitation in declaring it to be his finest to date . . . These poems in which sentiment is refined by technical prowess, and simple words combine to make music and meaning merge marvelously and memorably.”

Pity-The-BeautifulI love all the Gioias – including those I have never met (his parents, for example) – so perhaps my favorite passage from the announcement is this one:

Gioia’s poetic philosophy—particularly his belief that poetry should “touch on those things that are central to people’s lives”—can be traced back to his childhood in Los Angeles, where his Sicilian father and Mexican mother raised him. He remembers that his mother, who, he says, received no education beyond high school, recited poems to him by heart and read others from a “crumpled old book that had belonged to her mother.” Because of this, Gioia says, “I have never considered poetry an intrinsically difficult art whose mysteries can be appreciated only by a trained intellectual.”

The awards ceremony will take place February 19 at the University of the South in Sewanee.  David Mason will give a lecture on Dana’s work on the 18th.

Donald Hall laughs at death

Thursday, September 1st, 2011

Brush with fame, brush with death

Donald Hall‘s newest collection, The Back Chamber, arrived in my mailbox the other day.

I was at the University of Michigan during the years Hall was teaching, but I never crossed paths with Ann Arbor’s preeminent poet (by that time, Anne Stevenson had returned to England and was only a legend there). The small university burg is where he met and married poet Jane Kenyon.

In the postwar years, he spent a lone year at Stanford, but that was enough to fall under the spell of Yvor Winters.  Long before my day, however.

I would meet the poet finally at the West Chester Poetry conference in Pennsylvania, about a decade ago.  And a few other occasions since – even interviewed him once.

By that time, the former U.S. poet laureate had already survived metastasized colon cancer, against the odds.  As he was recovering, Kenyon succumbed to leukemia.  In his famous poem of mourning, “Kill the Day,” he wrote: “How many times will he die in his own lifetime?”

Now he’s 82 years old.  I wrote about his receiving the National Medal of Honor in Washington earlier this year.

I remembered all these brushes as I leafed through the new volume.  He defeated death once, perhaps many times, and now he mocks it in “Apple Peaches,” riffing on the jump rope rhyme:

Apples, peaches,
Pumpkin pie.
How many years
Until I die.

Here are two of his variations:

Hostess Twinkies,
Wonder Bread.
How many springs
Until I’m dead?

The New York Times,
Le Monde, Der Sturm
How many breaths
Before the worm?

Bad taste in my mouth, on the page: Donald Hall, Sarah Palin, and WaPo

Thursday, March 10th, 2011
No caption needed.

No caption needed.

Alexandra Petri of the Washington Post gives us more evidence that she is not a class act, though after her rather tasteless derision of the octogenarian poet Donald Hall receiving the National Medal of Arts last week, we really needed no further proof.  I posted about David Sanders‘s comments in “Poetry News in Review” on March 7, and the post was picked up by (among other places) the conservative Weekly Standard.

When Sarah Palin tweeted about Petri’s “caption contest,” I feared it might become a political football, and I was right. A fundamentally human issue fell into the mighty left-wing/right-wing chasm that now disfigures this country’s public discourse.

Petri grabbed the low-hanging fruit.  In her blog post, she reveals:

“My first thought on hearing that Sarah Palin had tweeted this in response to something I’d written was: ‘Oh no, she’s read the Justin Bieber coverage.’

After all, I frequently wake up in cold sweats from dreams in which I am reprimanded by Sarah Palin for writing too much about Justin Bieber — or vice versa. This is the single most shameful thing that can happen to anyone, ever, including wearing white after labor day while being Charlie Sheen.”

While I’m not a fan of the Alaskan governor, she (or whoever wrote the tweet for her) happened to be right on this one.

However, Petri appears to be one of those people who only opens her mouth to change feet.  Hence, she continues:


“Still, I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, Sarah Palin et al., but caption contests have been around for a while. They fall, like rain, on the just and the unjust alike. From the sounds of the coverage, you would think I’d gone to Mr. Hall’s home with a megaphone and read ‘Sudden Things’ in a snide voice, or that caption contests were a new invention, designed explicitly to bedevil old gentlemen with rich life experiences who wind up in amusing snapshots.”

Nice to see you googled Donald Hall to read one of his works, Ms. Petri – not his best effort, but I don’t expect you’d know the difference, given the cultural interests you’ve cited.  In any case, we’d prefer you’d stuck to Justin Bieber and Charlie Sheen.  Caption contests don’t fall “like rain,” they are developed by writers, approved by editors, and then read by the public.  This isn’t a big issue – and I certainly didn’t expect a moment of conscience from you – but it’s worth noting, which is why I took time to write about it.  I had hoped for better from your editors.

“Maybe this is a good time to explain the concept.

“A caption contest presents you with a photo. (Sarah, a photo is basically like a TLC series about you, but sometimes it can show you in an unflattering light.) Then, the people who see this photo attempt to write something called a caption, the goal of which is to provoke laughter in the people who read it with the photo.”

Donald Hall receives honor from Pres. Obama

Yes, Ms. Petri, we gathered that was the point.  That’s why many people wrote about their dismay and your lack of respect for people who are clearly your betters.  We were appalled by the low cultural level your writing represents for a once-great national newspaper.  We were repelled by the ageism you encouraged in the comments. When you offered, in today’s post, your own picture, for more funny captions, we are puzzled by your lack of self-respect as well.  But it explains a lot.  Really.

“I’ve written more than a dozen pieces about Palin herself, who is like cocaine except that there are rare occasions when cocaine might make your writing better.”

Whatever it takes, Alex.  Whatever it takes.

Postscript: Mark Bauerlein at The Chronicle of Higher Education weighs in: “It must be read to be believed.”  Read more here.

Postscript #2:  Frank Wilson at Books Inq throws in his 2 cents:

[Petri] certainly appears either incapable or unwilling to grasp that the problem was not with her having a caption contest, but with her choice of photo, which was of a person deserving respect, not derision. So let’s help: You were making fun of a frail old man, Alex, for no other reason than that he looked frail and old. Most people regard doing such as in terrible taste. Don’t hide behind Sarah Palin. Go take a course in remedial manners.

Donald Hall and the Washington Post — not a pretty site

Monday, March 7th, 2011

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).

[Update on 3/10:  Petri’s definitely not a class act.  She defends her ridicule of Donald Hall by attacking Sarah Palin 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.

“I was as surprised as I was pleased”: Rampersad receives National Humanities Medal

Thursday, March 3rd, 2011

“I was as surprised as I was pleased,” said Arnold Rampersad, who received the National Humanities Medal yesterday.  He didn’t stay in Washington long — he headed back to his native Trinidad, where he’ll be till mid-month.  I had emailed him on another matter, and my message crossed with the happy announcement he had received one of the highest awards a scholar in America can get.

Rampersad was cited for his work as a biographer and literary critic. His award-winning books have profiled W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Jackie Robinson, and Ralph Ellison. He has also edited critical editions of the works of Richard Wright and Langston Hughes.

“Growing up as a schoolboy in Trinidad, I received an education in literature that some people might dismiss as ‘colonial,’” he recalls. “It nevertheless served me well in dealing with the complexities of American biography.”

According to the NEH’s online profile:

Ralph Ellison [2007] was published in an era when, according to Rampersad, “the life of the African-American writer has changed dramatically. In part through holding positions at programs in creative writing and departments of English at universities, the black writer has gained a solid presence on the literary scene that has replaced the fugitive nature of expression and publication forced on blacks over the centuries, especially in the slave narratives but continuing into the twentieth century. That presence does not guarantee fine writing but it has led, in my opinion, to an assurance that bodes well for the future. Black literature was described a long time ago as a ‘literature of necessity’ rather than one of leisure. That element of necessity still exists but it does not dominate as it once did. Black American literature as a cultural phenomenon has reached a level of stability and maturity that the circumstances of American life once routinely denied it.”

He joins authors Wendell E. Berry, Joyce Carol Oates, and Philip Roth; historians Bernard Bailyn and Gordon S. Wood; literary scholars Daniel Aaron, Roberto González Echevarría, and Arnold Rampersad; cultural historian Jacques Barzun; and legal historian and higher education policy expert Stanley Nider Katz.

The National Medal of Arts was awarded the same day, to former U.S. Poet Laureate Donald Hall [yayyyyyy! — ED.] actress Meryl Streep, musicians Sonny Rollins, Quincy Jones, James Taylor and Van Cliburn, painter Mark di Suvero, theater champion Robert Brustein and an organization, Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival.

“One of the people that we honor today, Joyce Carol Oates, has said, ‘Ours is the nation, so rare in human history, of self-determination; a theoretical experiment in newness, exploration, discovery.’ That’s what we do,” President Obama said before presenting the medals.

He also said that works of art, literature and history speak to the human condition and “affirm our desire for something more and something better.”

“Time and again, the tools of change, and of progress, of revolution, of ferment — they’re not just pickaxes and hammers and screens and software, but they’ve also been brushes and pens and cameras and guitars.”

The whole shebang below: