Donald Hall is like a cantankerous old cow chewing on its cud. To avoid any misunderstandings, let me emphasize that this is a highly poetic cow, and the cud is, of course, language. When he writes, in his wonderful new collection of essays on poetry, Breakfast Served Any Time All Day, that poetry is all about the “mouth-pleasure, the muscle-pleasure,” you can’t help but imagine his jaw turning over and over.
“Anybody knows that the word food fills no bellies,” Hall says, “but the word food is for chewing on all the same: ef that sets lip to tooth, ou that rounds the lips as if for kissing, deh that smacks tongue onto mouth-top. The word carries no calories but in a receptive mouth the juices flow.”
Poetry, in other words, is not sound, but the making of sound. It’s not love; it’s sex. (And writing is like orgasm, moans the 76-year-old Hall at one point—only it takes longer.)
This is a refreshing if not a revolutionary place to start, but it forces the New Hampshire poet into pasture with the lazy and the anti-intellectual, with folks like Felix Dennis, the British moneybags behind the lad mag Maxim. Last month, The Wall Street Journal reported on its front page that Dennis, author of the forthcomingA Glass Half Full, has launched a “crusade to challenge the obscurity of modern poetry, by reclaiming old-fashioned values of rhyme and meter.” And what fights obscurity better than 1) a reading tour featuring young women in tight T-shirts tempting attendees with free wine; and 2) poems about dogs?
The incompetence of Dennis’ verse can hardly be overstated, but one or two of the aesthetic principles behind it might actually find a home on Hall’s farm. On page 1 ofBreakfast he defends the specific ecstasies of “Baa, baa, black sheep” (dullards force ideas onto poems, Hall says, while the rest of us “chew on them, taste them, anddance to them”), and later he observes, with characteristic impatience, that we “still encounter among some Americans, of less than acute intelligence, the notion that it is politically reactionary to write in meter.”
Hall’s got something to say about modern poetry, too. In an essay on Maine poet Edwin Arlington Robinson, he rails against his idol’s mistreatment at the hands of critics: “If we are old enough, we grew up learning that modern poetry has to be difficult; therefore, ‘Mr. Flood’s Party’ cannot be modern poetry, or maybe (by idiotic extension) poetry at all.”
E. E. Cummings is partly to blame on this point. Innovative poetry needn’t be flashy or funny-looking, Hall grumbles: “If we take a cliché—‘basic assumption,’ for example, or ‘Yankees clash with archrival Red Sox,’ or ‘mud wonderful’—and print it in red ink on blue paper in Germanic script with perfume on it and project it from four projectors on four walls at once, with four people speaking it at four levels of pitch and volume—we still use a cliché; as well, we may have a nice party going.”
“It is possible,” Hall admits much later, “that I am a crank about dead metaphors.” This is code for, “Don’t get me started about phrases like ‘a glass half full.’” On the other hand, if you do get him started, you’ll be left a better, more alert reader and writer.
There’s a recurring tension in Breakfast Served Any Time All Day between Donald Hall the democrat—who continually reassures us that we needn’t be professionals to handle poetry—and Donald Hall the scold. I much prefer the latter, even though it’s me he’s yelling about when he explodes, “Abolish the M.F.A.!” When he’s angry he’s more fun, less of a showoff (too many of those chewy, tasty, rhythmic sentences get in the way), and more relevant.
Case in point: Hall complains that “contemporary American poetry is afflicted by modesty of ambition—modesty, alas, well earned.”
Now here’s something to chew on.
In his estimation, too many poets are writing too damn many poems. To pluck a Hallsian phrase out of another context: “Piss on that.”
“I see no reason to spend your life writing poems,” he says, “unless your goal is to write great poems.”
He recalls Horace’s advice that young poets keep their poems to themselves for 10 years. Do this not out of modesty, Hall says, but out of respect for revision. (“Revision moves me from the raw, formless suffering of the poem’s impetus to the expressed suffering of the poem.” In other words, the pain resides in the first draft, the poem in the revision.) Pope cut those 10 years down to five. “By this time, I would be grateful—and published poetry would be better—if people kept their poems home for eighteen months,” Hall sighs. “Poems have become as instant as coffee or onion soup mix.”
Meanwhile, there are always blowhards among us announcing the death of poetry. “Poets love to parade as victims; we love the romance of alienation and insult,” Hall argues. But what they ought to do is get down to the dirty business of writing and reading well. For this purpose, one could hardly recommend a more exhilarating book than Breakfast Served Any Time All Day.
Breakfast Served Any Time All Day by Donald Hall (University of Michigan, 220 pages)
Concord (NH) Monitor, June 2004