Friday, March 23, 2007

Our Current Poet Laureate

In The Musk Ox, Donald Hall’s poetry is based on conversation. He uses a familiar tone to try and get past most peoples defenses and deliver his poetry to a more spiritual level. But most of his poems don’t get any deeper than what he says superficially. He says things pretty. He has nothing unique or revolutionary to say – he says nothing, but he says that nothing beautifully. The poems are easy to read, hard to remember. The one poem here that I liked very much, “The Poem,” is indicative of his voice:

It discovers by night
what the day hid from it.
Sometimes it turns itself
into an animal.
In summer it takes long walks
by itself where meadows
fold back from ditches.
Once it stood still
in a quiet row of machines.
Who knows
what it is thinking?

I can really latch onto the idea of the poem as a creature of night. But I think most of his poems are not of darkness. Furthermore, it seems that to become a Poet Laureate one’s poems must be creatures of the day – Louise Glück and Rita Dove being prime exceptions. Hall’s ars poetica here is fun, but not much more. He doesn’t offer insight into his writing style and he doesn’t add anything to the ars poetic tradition.

His poems often feel like rough drafts, like he deliberately tries to leave words in so he doesn’t take the energy out. But in “Stump,” this creates a dead phrase, “The exhaust of a gasoline saw / was blue in the branches.” This phrase serves only to set up a phrase two stanzas down, “I loved the guttural saw.” The second phrase is gorgeous, but the first is boring. Anybody who’s worked with a saw has seen blue smoke in the branches. Hall does not take risks. That is why I don't like him. At least this book.

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