Posted by: jeannineatkins | January 29, 2015

What I’m Reading: Essays after Eighty

Out the Window starts off Donald Hall’s Essays After Eighty, with observations on birds, daffodils, and snow as he draws subtle parallels between his childhood vision of old people with the way he sees himself now, and memories of his mother’s aging with his own. There’s beauty, insight, self-mockery, and some mockery of others who seem deserving, such as museum guard who spoke baby talk to the poet when he was escorted in wheelchair through the National Gallery. Later in the book, he notes his gratitude for the incident, for its harshness lent a necessary counterpoint to the chronicles of pleasure in birds. He notes that good writing depends on contrast.

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Donald Hall says that he’s leaving behind poetry in this decade, though his prose is elegant and sharp, carrying me through subjects not my usual fare such as smoking, baseball, beards, and testosterone. I love the remembered presence of his former wife, poet Jane Kenyon, whose death he wrote about movingly in The Best Day the Worst Day. Donald Hall doesn’t have a website, or even a computer, though he’s always had and has someone to transcribe his writing. He’s fond of revision, which ”takes time, a pleasing long process. Some of these essays took more than eighty drafts, some as few as thirty.” He recalls working with legendary New Yorker editor William Shawn, “who is well remembered for his fastidious scrutiny of sentences, his polite and fierce insistence on repair.” In On Rejection and Resurrection, he writes of starting to send out poetry at fourteen and coming home from high school to his mother cheerfully greeting him: “Another rejection today, Donnie.” He became inured enough to keep on, though not so thick-skinned that he couldn’t deeply sympathize with, and help, a talented friend so pained she could no longer submit work.

Donald Hall became an editor of The Paris Review while in his twenties. He admits his mistakes and celebrates what he learned by being on the other side of the transom. “When people send poems to a small magazine and wait a year for rejection, did the editor read over the poem seventeen thousand times? Or did he wait until chagrin overcame boredom?” He speaks honestly – he is always honest, and often humorous – about praise and its flip side, glory and its shadow, and how such always comes in pairs.

At NPR, you can read some excerpts of Essays after Eighty, a slim and powerful collection which ends not with windows, but A House without a Door. That last essay echoes the first with more thoughts on aging, but still a view of animals coming and going and Eagle Pond.

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Responses

  1. Lovely, Jeannine. Thank you.

  2. Thanks for this post.. Donald Hall is one of my favorite poets, especially Ox Cart Man.

    • He’s amazingly versatile, always careful with words and sentences in essays, poems, and picture books. I love the picture books Lucy’s Summer and Lucy’s Christmas.

  3. I have to put it on my list.

    • You will be agog or aflutter or .. well you will tell me the right word.

  4. I love his take on the revision process, and appreciate that he offers a view from both sides of the transom. Those topics alone would make it worth the read, but birds…ah, I’m sold.

    • His attention to revision was inspiring — you do read and want to dwell on a sentence, then another… and kind of nice to know that all took a lot of thoughts and changes. He’s very thoughtful about the changes, for both good and not so much, over the decades re publishing. And yes, he is devoted to the birds in his yard. It’s truly a lovely read.

  5. I’m on the list for this at my library! Quite a few holds on it.

    • I’m glad to hear this slim profound book is attracting lots of readers. I love library reserve, but this is one I’m glad I bought as I know I’ll go back to it. I’ll be interested in what you think!

  6. And you write so thoughtfully and elegantly about his work. Adding this to my TBR list! Thanks for the lovely words, Jeannine.

    • Thank you, Jama. There’s much to startle and poke in this book. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.


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