The Octogenarian Poet

The Back Chamber - Donald Hall

I don’t particularly like reading galley’s of poetry books because you can’t really get the format on your nook (poetry isn’t good for the e-reader, so while we kill printed books, why don’t we just kill off poetry too…bastards).  But, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt was kind enough to let me read this book pre-release, so I can’t complain.

So, to honor Donald Hall (whose name even half-rhymes), I tried to read majority of the poems in his newest book, The Back Chamber on my computer where I could see all his lines, spacing, and punctuation.  I don’t regret it, obviously.

Donald Hall poems here.

Donald Hall short, essay-style biography here.  If my life ever amounts to one of these three-paragraph biographies, I will have 1. died way too soon, too soon to write my own autobiography and 2. made it.

If you can do things at eighty – you must be one hell of a human being.   These things include, but are not limited too: winning an eating contest (preferably pies or hotdogs, with the white and red checkered bib at the State Fair), running a marathon (with fifty other twenty or thirty-somethings who ran cross-country in high school and are tired of their back-fat), still farming your land (with your hands, no John Deere bull-shit here), climbing all of the stairs in your NYC building, living through at least forty hurricanes (I’m at seven, so at eighty you have to be up there in hurricane survival…tornado’s I’m not so sure), writing a book of poetry….

Donald Hall

Donald Hall has succeeded at one of my personal, ultimate goals; to still be writing poetry that contains the word “fuck” at eighty-something years old.  He’s exactly eighty-three years old, is on his second wife, has a poet laureate spot behind him and people are still harping on him to write new work (obviously).  Unfortunately, I’m not familiar enough with his previous books that I can judge his newest book against them.  However, the man is eighty and has the ability to make me feel like I should start counting my regrets and great loves now before it’s too late.  I need to take a tip from AA and call everyone up who I ever wronged and explain away my bad behavior profusely.  Lots of sorry’s, lots of fat free chocolate chip cookies.

I don’t even want to tell you how many books of poetry (prose, letters, essays, children’s books and any other piece of something you can take a pen too) are out there by Donald Hall.  I’d be hard-pressed not to believe there’s a urinal somewhere with a Donald Hall quote and signature on it.  The man is on the sides of pig’s feeding troughs, burrowing through your beard hair, and sitting in his rocking chair watching the dawn somewhere in Virginia…possibly.  I tried really hard to place Donald Hall throughout The Back Chamber with no avail.  He’s probably avoiding stalkers like me.

With that said, Donald Hall’s book of poetry wasn’t fantastic and I wasn’t writing down quotes all over my “Phase 10” journal (I  title every journal for the moment.  This July on-wards journal is titled “Phase 10”).  His book, however, was raw, emotional, made me see my father in a new light (my father is seventy-five), made me realize the impact it truly has to lose your wife at a young age and watch your friends, peers and poets die around you by ovens, guns, cars, and anything man-made.  If we can make it with our hands, it can kill you – that’s my new lookout on life after reading Donald Hall.

A few of my favorite poems were:

  • Rick’s Progress (this poem is probably my favorite disgustingly long poem of all time.  It’s a good nine pages on my nook, so it’s probably around six on the printed page and it never. misses. a. beat.  It’s beautiful, and a story of friendship, and life all the way through.  Then again, what story isn’t about life)?
  • Creative Writing, here let me recite it for you:
    • “Translating Virgil, eighty lines a day, Keats never did pick up his MFA.”
      • Yep, that’s a poem.  A short, tells-it-all-like-it-is poem.  I love it, makes me want to jump off a tall building with my bachelor’s degree.  (With wings of course, I’m not going out with Plath).
  • I also love any poem when he talks about Jane Kenyon because I loved her, not as much as Donald Hall, but I feel like I know her from reading her poetry for so long.  Here’s the short snip-it on the documentary about their life together, that now, I must see.
This book of poetry is 96 pages.  It’s by a man that could be one of the best poets of my father’s generation, easily.  He has a beard (if you’re like Kesha and like that kind-a thing).  He’s eighty-three and produced 96 pages of poems, almost all of which deserve to be printed.  I think I can easily recommend this book.
By deserve to be printed, I mean to say that some people write extraneous short-stories or poems just to fill their book, or finish their fellowship with a bang, or take the award they already know they’ve gotten for the book … this is the political state of poetry and other literature, I think.  I just wanted to point that out.  Poets like Nancy Hechinger (especially) actually save paper by only printing poems they know are worthy and ready for a collection.  Therefore, I highly recommend her book, Letter to Leonard Cohen, which can be purchased here.
A short note about poetry book titles:  The Back Chamber makes me excited.  It makes my skin plump with tiny mole hills, the hairs perk straight like dying grass.  I think titles make a book sometimes.  The Back Chamber would totally be written by an eighty-three year old wouldn’t it?  It’s his last chamber of life (that’s pretty depressing, Sorry Donald), it’s the last room in his home where his blankets and soup are hidden in the wooden pantry.  The place he doesn’t leave anymore, while the other rooms collect dust and whine.  It’s the last bit of medication for your terminal illness.  It’s the last artery in your weakening heart.  It’s the back chamber, the last one, the only one you have left to holster.  It’s the last one with a bullet in it.  So, for the title alone, I recommend Hall.
If you personally write poetry, I recommend going to your shelf at home and just reading titles to inspire you.  Or just go to your local library and go to a random section (history is particularly good) and read the titles.
Just let the words do what they’re supposed to…speak.

11 thoughts on “The Octogenarian Poet

  1. Mac Campbell says:

    I like your blog; your passion and knowledge are clear and present.
    Since we’re talking old, good, still living poets, here’s one you may not have heard of.
    I heard of this guy from the site of a wingnut by the name of Dan Schneider. Dan’s full of it top to bottom, but he turned me onto A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which is fantastic, and the work of an obscure old Afro-American poet called James Emanuel. His work is good. *Really* good. Google the old guy and find out.

    • Cassie says:

      I plan to go straight to amazon to find this poet so I can get reading – thanks so much for the suggestion. I love suggestions, especially poetry books. Plus, who doesn’t love “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn?” You’re crazy not too.

      And thanks for all your nice comments as well.

  2. bea mannes says:

    “If we can make it with our hands, it can kill you.” I liked that line in your blog. It certainly makes you think of the possibilities and the outcomes.
    I think after reading this blog, that I like Donald Hall. I haven’t read the book yet, but I like the idea of an Eighty-something old man with a beard, still writing poetry…or just writing something, doing something, and not letting the last chamber in his life dictate his life. That is the real point of his new book and of your blog.


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