Posts Tagged ‘Jane Kenyon’

Hilbert remembers Donald Hall: “Always beginning again. Always knowing he’d fail. Always beginning again.”

Thursday, September 20th, 2018
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Sometimes the best comes last. A lyrical and moving retrospective of the poet Donald Hall, who died last June, by his friend and fellow poet Ernest Hilbert, writing in the pages of The New Criterion: “It is a commonplace to claim that we will not see the like of one poet or another again. In the case of Hall, it may almost be said that he stood in for an enormous span of history and a way of life that has become almost impossible. The literary realm he inhabited, and in which he toiled so hard for so long, no longer really exists.”

Hilbert writes of America’s eloquent bard of old age, scouting out the territory for the rest of us:

In his celebrated essay “Poetry and Ambition,” Hall explained that when striving to create durable poems, poets are “certain of two things: that in all likelihood we will fail, and, if we succeed, we may never know it.” His tireless ambition resulted in memorable poems of the natural world, the contours of family life, the joys of love and sex, and, perhaps most compellingly, the pains of irremediable loss. Though always determined to succeed, Hall knew to avoid the kind of ambition that proves baleful. In a 1991 Paris Review interview—accompanied by a photograph of a full-bearded Hall tilting back to pitch a baseball—he relates a story about playing softball with Robert Frost in 1945, when that particular titan was seventy-one years old: “He fought hard for his team to win and he was willing to change the rules. He had to win at everything. Including poetry.” Hall learned a lesson and handled his own career more graciously.

It was a career unusually long-lived and rewarding for a poet of any era. It is nearly impossible to overstate the profound changes that affected the discipline of poetry between 1952—when Hall’s poetry first landed in print, in an installment of Fantasy Poets at Oxford—and 2018, when A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety, his last collection of essays, appeared, not long before his death. Over that span Hall remained popular with readers and critics alike. He was a regular on radio and television, most notably Bill Moyers’s documentary A Life Together in 1993, which invited viewers into Hall’s life with his wife Jane Kenyon as they traveled to poetry festivals and spent their days writing at Eagle Pond Farm.

He concludes with some very sage advice – indispensable, really:

Friend and fellow poet Hilbert

In what amounts almost to an aside, Hall observed in one of his last essays that “anyone ambitious, who lives to be old or even old, endures the inevitable loss of ambition’s fulfillment.” As a young man, Hall learned about patience and the art of happiness from the English modernist sculptor Henry Moore, whom he interviewed for a New Yorker profile, later published as a book. Moore instructed that “the most important thing about . . . desire is that it must be incapable of fulfillment.” Hall adds to this advice that “life should be lived toward moments when you lose yourself in what you are doing. You have to have something you really want to do.” Hall showed us how a life may be fulfilled when devoted to the work one loves, even as one strives always to improve, and when spent with those one loves, even knowing they will one day be lost. His philosophy may be summed in a further remark he made about the sculptor—that he would wake each day “with the same ambition in his mind, with total absorbedness. Always beginning again. Always knowing he’d fail. Always beginning again. Amen.”

Read the whole thing here.

The Hopwood Awards: still giving hope (and bucks) to young writers after 84 years

Saturday, October 3rd, 2015
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Presiding deity of the Hopwood Room, Andrea Beauchamp (Photo: Humble Moi)

In my day, the University of Michigan’s Avery Hopwood Award was considered a major prize for young writers. It is even more so today – what with students winning multiple awards (two awards was once uncommon), and with supplemental bonuses that resulted in one lucky student bagging $33,000 earlier this year. Those kinds of sums defray an awful lot of tuition costs. It also pays for a lot of tea and cookies, which the Hopwood Room still dispenses regularly during the fall and winter quarters on Thursdays.

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Living it up: Hopwood with Spanish dancer Rose Rolanda, 1924.

I used to feel a little glow of pride when I entered the Hopwood Room. It was my room, after all! But would it still be in the same place decades later? I was happy that I recognized Angell Hall immediately (one of the few buildings I recognized), walked up the front stairs to the door, and up stairs inside, and instinctively turned to the right. There it was, a few steps away a on the left side of the hall. And it looked … exactly the same. “Welcome to the time warp,” announced Andrea Beauchamp, assistant director and ongoing presence of the Hopwood program.

She said the room has been deliberately kept that way. She fought off attempts to replace the worn carpet “with Oreos crushed into it” with a drab new carpet that had a “standard dentist’s office” look about it. She wanted to keep the charm, books, and dark-wood ambiance, and she succeeded. Even the big round table covered with every literary journal imaginable still dominated the room – including some journals I have contributed to over the years since I left town, the Virginia Quarterly Review, the Kenyon Review, the Georgia Review among them.

Arthur Miller and I won two Hopwoods, award-winning Anglo-American poet Anne Stevenson (I’ve written about her here and here) won an astonishing three. According to the website:

The program was endowed by Avery Hopwood, a popular American dramatist and member of the Michigan Class of 1905. Mr. Hopwood bequeathed one-fifth of his considerable estate to the University of Michigan with the stipulation that it be used to encourage creative writing among students. During the years that have passed since the first Hopwood Awards were made in 1931, we have been able to award a cumulative total of well over $3,000,000 to more than 3,200 gifted writers. Former winners include Arthur Miller, John Ciardi, Mary Gaitskill, Robert Hayden, Lawrence Kasdan, Jane Kenyon, Frank O’Hara, Marge Piercy, Edmund White, and Nancy Willard. …

For former director Nicholas Delbanco’s remarks on the history of the program and the legacy of Avery Hopwood, written for the New York Times in 1998, see this PDF.

I had stayed in touch with Andrea over the years, feeding tidbits to the Hopwood newsletter. I had kept up with her for so long that I rather expected her to be a wizened old lady of a zillion years rather than the smart and vibrant woman in the photo above. I had apparently conflated her with her predecessor, “Sister Hilda,” a nun who had a PhD in English and arrived from an obscure and dwindling order to manage the program. Had I read the Hopwood newsletter more faithfully, I would have known that the beloved sister died in 2004, at 92, and served enthusiastically and tenaciously from 1971-1981. I would also have known she did her dissertation on that much-married diehard Puritan John Milton. She must have had quite a kick to her, which I hadn’t suspected as a student.

But the Hopwood program has kept up with Stanford, too. Andrea warmly recalled recent visits from our newest National Medal of the Arts winner Tobias Wolff and Irish poet Eavan Boland. Well, you can read excerpts from Eavan’s inspiring talk at the Hopwood Awards ceremony last spring here.

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Donald Hall laughs at death

Thursday, September 1st, 2011
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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?