Adam Ash

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Thursday, June 15, 2006

Bookplanet: the new US poet laureate

1. Outspoken New Englander Is New Poet Laureate -- by DINITIA SMITH

The head of the Library of Congress is to name Donald Hall, a writer whose deceptively simple language builds on images of the New England landscape, as the nation's 14th poet laureate today.

Mr. Hall, a poet in the distinctive American tradition of Robert Frost, has also been a harsh critic of the religious right's influence on government arts policy. And as a member of the advisory council of the National Endowment for the Arts during the administration of George H. W. Bush , he referred to those he thought were interfering with arts grants as "bullies and art bashers."

He will succeed Ted Kooser, the Nebraskan who has been the poet laureate since 2004.

The announcement of Mr. Hall's appointment is to be made by James H. Billington, the Librarian of Congress. Mr. Billington said that he chose Mr. Hall because of "the sustained quality of his poetry, the reach and variety of things he talks about." Like Mr. Kooser, Mr. Billington said, Mr. Hall "evokes a sense of place."

Mr. Billington said that he was not aware of Mr. Hall's bluntness as a member of the national endowment's advisory council, but added that the laureates "are chosen for their poetry, not chosen to make a statement about anything else."

Mr. Hall, 77, lives in a white clapboard farmhouse in Wilmot, N.H., that has been in his family for generations. He said in a telephone interview that he didn't see the poet laureateship as a bully pulpit. "But it's a pulpit anyway," he said. "If I see First Amendment violations, I will speak up."

As for the rest of the job, "I have a terrible miscellany of thoughts," he said.

The library deliberately avoids attaching specific duties to the post so that the poet can do his or her own writing. But in recent years holders of the title have used the platform to enlarge the presence of poetry in the culture. Mr. Hall said that he would like to follow in the tradition of Mr. Kooser and other laureates who have tried to expand poetry's reach. "I'd like to encourage NPR to pay more attention to poetry," he said, referring to public radio, "and the cable networks, with the possibility of HBO doing something."

As poet laureate, Mr. Kooser has had a syndicated weekly newspaper column sponsored jointly by the Poetry Foundation and the Library of Congress that is offered free to newspapers around the country. The column includes a poem chosen by him, along with a commentary.

"If Ted Kooser doesn't continue with his column, I might pick it up," Mr. Hall said. But, "I would like to include more poetry of the 17th century."

Mr. Hall is an extremely productive writer who has published about 18 books of poetry, 20 books of prose and 12 children's books. He has won many awards, including a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1989 for "The One Day," a collection.

In recent years much of his poetry has been preoccupied with the death of his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, in 1995. In "Without," he wrote about the period of her illness:

we lived in a small island stone nation
without color under gray clouds and wind
distant the unlimited ocean acute
lymphoblastic leukemia without seagulls
or palm trees without vegetation
or animal life only barnacles and lead
colored moss that darkened when months did.

The critic William Pritchard said that Mr. Hall "doesn't fit neatly into a category" as a poet. The poems about Ms. Kenyon are raw and direct, he said, adding that "Without," for instance, "has none of the formal organizing means poets make use of, yet, line by line, has a rhythmic force to it that saves it from flaccidity and formlessness."

Nonetheless, Mr. Pritchard noted, one of Mr. Hall's best-known poems, "Baseball," is structured like the nine-inning game and written in a highly formal style, carefully comprising nine sections of nine verses each, with each verse having nine lines. Mr. Hall says in the poem:

Well, there are nine players on a baseball team, so to speak, and
there are nine innings, with trivial
exceptions like extra-inning games
and games shortened by rain or darkness,
by riot, hurricane, earthquake...

Robert Pinsky, who was poet laureate from 1997 to 2000, said he welcomed Mr. Hall's appointment, especially in light of his previous outspokenness about politics and the arts. "There is something nicely symbolic, and maybe surprising," Mr. Pinsky said, "that they have selected someone who has taken a stand for freedom."

The position carries an award of $35,000 and a $5,000 travel allowance. It usually lasts a year, though poets are sometimes reappointed.

2. Donald Hall, Poet Laureate -- by VERLYN KLINKENBORG

The question, What is poetry for? has a corollary: What is everything that is not poetry for? That's what I found myself wondering as I reread Donald Hall's poem "The One Day" after hearing the good news that he will be the next poet laureate of the United States. The question has a circular, elliptical answer. In the life of a poet, what is not poetry is for the making of poems. It is the raw stuff, like "a bad patch of middle-life," as Mr. Hall puts it in his note on "The One Day." It took 17 years to make that 60-page poem, and 17 years for a poem of that magnitude is a decent rate of exchange.

In this country there is no job description for the poet laureate. And yet the title, which carries a stipend and a travel grant, is not entirely honorific. It's assumed that the laureate will try to advance the cause of poetry — especially the public awareness of poetry — in a manner somehow separate from the writing of poems. To speak on behalf of poetry sounds like a natural task for a poet, and for some poets it certainly is. I don't know whether Donald Hall will turn out to be that kind of laureate, and, in a way, I hope he doesn't. So much of his poetry has emerged from the rigor of his privacy — from what appears in his verse to be a deep, unsettling sense of what's possible in one's life. There's always the temptation for the laureate to find some anodyne ground to stand on. But these are not anodyne times.

To many readers, Donald Hall has lived what appears to be an eminently poetical life — in an ancient farmhouse in New Hampshire. The setting is pastoral, and yet there is a ferocity in Mr. Hall's voice that undoes the pastoral, which is always waiting to be undone. As Mr. Hall once wrote in an essay about the withering of the National Endowment for the Arts, "the mathematics of poetry's formal resolution does not preclude moral thought, or satisfaction in honest naming, or the consolation of shared feeling." I'm looking forward to the mathematics and the morality of this new laureate. After all, it doesn't matter where you watch life from if your gaze takes in the whole world.

3. Name That Candidate -- by CALVIN TRILLIN

MY excitement at the news that Senator Chris Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut, is considering a bid for president in 2008 is easy to explain: his name has enormous rhyming potential. We all have our own issues.

Rhyme is not my only one; I am also intensely interested in meter. I happen to be a deadline poet, responsible for commenting on the events of the day in verse. Someone in my position tends to see Ross Perot and John McCain as two peas in a pod — blessedly iambic candidates with nearly unlimited rhyming possibilities. During my 16 years in the deadline poetry game, though, we've had nobody with a name like Ross Perot or John McCain in the White House. I've had to deal with presidents whose names are an affront to rhyme and meter. Given the rhyming difficulties of Bill Clinton's name, in fact, I believe future historians will think of him as the "orange" of American presidents.

It's not as if a deadline poet has an easy lot to begin with. Obviously there are those constant deadlines. Without wanting to knock the competition, I might just point out that, say, the romantic poets — Wordsworth and that crowd — could mosey along the countryside for days without feeling any pressure at all to come up with a sunset they considered worth writing about.

Also, the pay is limited. Two years ago, it was revealed that National Review was paying its deadline poet, William H. von Dreele, precisely the same per poem as The Nation magazine pays me — $100. I was shaken by that news.

For years, I've referred to the editor who retained my services for the Nation as "the wily and parsimonious Victor S. Navasky," but I'd always thought that National Review's William F. Buckley Jr. was, whatever our political differences, a considerate and generous-hearted man. I could only conclude that society as a whole undervalues deadline poets. Given those burdens, the last thing we deserved was a second president whose name rhymes with almost nothing beyond "push" and "tush."

I don't want to appear unappreciative. At times George W. Bush has seemed interested in making my life easier. He must have known before the appointments were made, for instance, that Condoleezza Rice's name fits exactly into the meter of "The March of the Siamese Children" from "The King and I" ("Condoleezza Rice, who is cold as ice, is precise with her advice") and that Alberto Gonzales rhymes with "loyal über alles."

Still, as the names of potential 2008 presidential candidates begin to get tossed around, you can't blame us for looking forward to having someone in the Oval Office who is more compatible with our needs. That is why I groan every time the eminently rhymable Bill Frist shoots himself in the foot. That is why I keep trying to reassure myself that the Republican base would never permit the nomination of Rudolph Giuliani. That is why, in a conversation about the possibility that the governor of Massachusetts could enter the race, I might burst out, "To me, Romney is just another Clinton."

Reading about the renewed interest lately in Al Gore, whom I once referred to in a poem as "a man-like object," I have to admit that his name rhymes with more than "bore" and "snore." My worries about the Democrats go beyond the growing sense that their leading candidate is literally another Clinton. They have a tendency to thrust forward candidates whose names we can't even imagine at this point in the process; witness Jimmy Carter and Howard Dean.

In my more pessimistic contemplations of the 2008 campaign, I see myself telling some political operative that I've made my peace with the possibility that the Democrats, desperate for some charisma, could turn to Barack Obama — a man whose rhymes I long ago used up in trying to deal with Osama bin Laden.

"But Obama's not the only Illinois contender," the operative says. "There's also the governor."

"The governor?"

"The governor," he repeats. "Rod Blagojevich."

(Calvin Trillin is the author, most recently, of "A Heckuva Job: More of the Bush Administration in Rhyme.”)


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