Book Review: Poetry and Ambition by Donald Hall

This is the first book review in the series “Poets on Poetry.”

The best way to learn about poetry is to read poetry… and to read poets talking about it. With that in mind, over the next few weeks,MontanaWriter will be highlighting a number of books that feature poets talking about poetry, beginning with Poetry and Ambition: Essays 1982-88by Donald Hall.

The greatest challenge in reviewing a collection of essays written for different occasions, audiences, and publications is trying to say a few things in general about a number of potentially mutually exclusive particulars. Do you highlight each individual essay? Do you group them thematically and talk about them that way? Or do you go a different route altogether? Regular readers of MontanaWriter will no doubt be less than surprised to find that I am choosing the last option.

I first read, Poetry and Ambition (according to my note on the inside front cover) in the summer of 1996. In the summer of 1996, I was an at-home dad with a one and a three-year-old. During the days I would have been doing the parenting thing and during naps editing and writing bible studies and training materials. In the evenings then I had a part-time telemarketing job I went to a few nights of the week.

I would have been reading these essays then… during breaks at work, and in my  cubicle waiting for calls to come in. Donald Hall was helping me to keep my sanity. Poetry has always been that for me.

Picking the volume off the shelf, I look now at lines I underlined and highlighted 15 years ago:

“I see no reason to spend you life writing poems unless your goal is to write great poems.”(cf. the title essay, “Poetry and Ambition”)

“…you have to realize, the countryside is full of people who who do what they want to do. The suburbs are full of people doing what they hate to do, because they need to in order to maintain their debts.” (cf. part of Hall’s response to question in “An Interview with Donald Hamilton”)

“No excellent poem is immediately receivable, even in silent reading.” (cf. essay “Public Performance/Private Art”)

“Sometimes when people praise the sound of verse, they are dismissed as anti-intellectual.”(cf. essay “Naming the Skin.”)

“The writer of genius is the writer who fails most at what he or she tries hardest to accomplish.” (cf. essay “Theory X Theory”)

“…what a wonderful autobiography [Phillip] Larkin could write, about a life in which nothing has happened: always the most interesting biography.” (cf. essay “Deprivation’s Laureate”)

“‘Poetry is the supreme result of the entire language,’ says Joseph Brodsky. Poetry is what language is for, what language exists to move toward.” (cf. essay “The way to Say Pleasure”)

There are 19 essays in Poetry and Ambition.  Read together they flush out Hall’s substantial understanding of the creative process, poetry and poetic language, the role of poetry in society, and the contributions of individual poets. Included are essays on William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, and Philip Larkin and on modern Irish poetry. The excellent title essay is inspiring. The essay “Public Performance/Private Art” is a wonderful treatise on the business-end of writing and performing poetry.

My favorite essay, though, is the one entitled “About ‘Names of Horses.’” In it he provides background to his poem called “Names of Horses.” But more than that, he provides background into the creative process and an entre into reading and appreciating one particular poem. A poem that is now one of my favorite Hall poem’s.

I could easily add many dozen more lines to those I highlighted above… or a dozen notes I made in margins and in the back of the book on blank pages. Hall is that good a writer and this is that good a book.


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