I had been thinking about Donald Hall, wondering how he was getting on. That usually means: pay attention.
Twenty years ago, I wrote a song cycle for soprano and piano based on Hall’s baseball writings. In the Country of Baseball, a title I borrowed from one of Hall’s own phrases, turned out to be a journey back to my ball-playing childhood. It also created a friendship with Carol Eikum, who was looking to harmonize her lives as singer, teacher and baseball mom. Hall wrote of taking spring training with the Pittsburgh Pirates in terms both elegiac and hilarious: “My back does not allow me to bend far enough and the ball swoops under my mitt, those are the only times without pain. I simply collect bruises, hard purple knots on my various limbs. I do not even care. I embrace my wounds. I am Saint Sebastian.“
“I’m delighted to have you use the stuff,” Hall wrote to me in 1997. When I sent him the cycle, he bounced right back: “Thank you so much! I really enjoyed your tape. Whenever I tell a musician an opinion about music I always need to say: I don’t mean that my opinion is worth anything, because I don’t pretend to any sophistication. But I liked what I heard!”
Twice I attended Hall’s readings at The Hungry Mind in St. Paul, and he signed books for me, coming up with little phrases to fix the moment: “For David Thomas and …” “…new baseball life,” “…the flowing river.” That—and three letters—was the sum of our acquaintance.
I first encountered Hall’s words not in poems but in his textbook Writing Well, a college textbook which I still regularly consult as I wander the fields of language. It’s a wise and lively book that shows through its very text how to express yourself clearly. Open it at random to find sage advice in plain words:
If we think “grass,” we probably think “green.” We move in worn tracks. If we think “snow,” we think “white.” These weary associations are not really thinking: they are automatic responses to stimuli.
Never use a big word where a little word will do. Never say domicile where you could say house. Never say individual where you could say person. Never say utilize….
In a 2006 NewsHour interview rebroadcast tonight on PBS, Hall acknowledged that poems are beautiful, like paintings, “but they’re also works of art that embody emotion and are that kind of school for feeling. They teach how to feel, and they do this by the means of their beauty of language.”
I once read “Without,” his wrenching poem on the loss of his wife Jane Kenyon, on the No. 16 bus heading home from work, weeping as we lurched from stop to stop on University Ave. The word “without” recurs relentlessly, balanced by a total absence of punctuation. This too was a lesson in feeling.
no spring no summer no autumn no winter
no rain no peony thunder no woodthrush
the book was a thousand pages without commas
Donald Hall died on Saturday, June 23, 2018. He was 89. Read his poems here.