In Hall’s hands, a word like memory, which could so easily be a cliché in a poem, takes on an unusual radiance. Here are the first and the final stanzas of the early poem “September Ode”:
And now September burns the careful tree
That builds each year the leaf and bark again
With solemn care and rounded certainty
That nothing lives which seasons do not mend.
The young are never robbed of innocence
But given gold of love and memory.
We live in wealth whose bounds exceed our sense,
And when we die are full of memory.
Hall’s point is that what seem to be losses—the fall, growing up—are in fact gains, since they come with the “gold” of autumn’s leaves, which is also the metaphorical wealth of accumulated memory. To make this claim, he uses some arresting contrasts: robbed/given; innocence/love; live/die. And he poses those antitheses against a pair of repeating sounds: innocence/sense; memory/memory. The unexpected way that the word memory returns, in the final line, becomes somehow more surprising, and more satisfying, than another rhyming word might have been.
American poets have often believed that ordinary varieties of speaking can address much of what matters in knowledge and in thought. Poets of the mid-20th century, like Adrienne Rich or Amiri Baraka, critically examine and revolutionize ways of thinking about gender, sexuality, and race, but their ideas are expressed in language that’s accessible to a broad readership.
Hall’s poems demand, similarly, to be understood by the reader—not to retreat from the understanding. They take the measure of the blank confusion of reality by rendering more vivid and comprehensible the terms available to understand it. It’s common for many readers to come to poetry with the wary expectation of looking for “deeper meaning.” In Hall’s poetry, the meaning is often quite obvious; it’s the surface—that constellation of sound, image, and syntax—that requires more attention.
There are lines of Hall’s poems whose music has stayed in my head for years, evidently incapable of ever being dislodged: “December, and the closing of the year”; “And now September burns the careful tree”; “Exiled by death from people we have known.” Three lines of three different poems, but with the same memorable up-and-down iambic rhythm and the same number of syllables.
This particular choice of poetic meter has helped poets to capture many different kinds of reactions to the world, providing a type of reusable container for sorting things out and arranging them together. For Hall, the two-beat iamb tolls the relentless melodies of departure from the world: a great-uncle early on; his grandfather; his father. “Poetry begins with elegy, in extremity,” he writes.
So it might be unsurprising that, when the poet Jane Kenyon, who was married to Hall for 23 years, dies of leukemia, the beat of Hall’s poetry grows a little fainter, as though heard from a little farther off. And the poems, especially in the collection Without (1998), themselves become looser, more diary-like, newly tied to the rhythms of living in grieving memory:
When it snowed one morning Jane gazed
at the darkness blurred
with flakes. They pushed the IV pump
which she called Igor
slowly past the nurses’ pods, as far
as the outside door
so that she could smell the snowy air.
In this spare finale to a poem titled simply “Her Long Illness,” the structure of the poem is muted: blurred, Igor, and door provide a rhyme that holds the stanza together with the barest murmur of resemblance. The earlier poems show a certain confidence in straining ideas about the world through a sieve of words. This poem gently sounds out what it sees, unwilling or unable to risk strong claims about its significance.