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.


Poetry Review: “The Taxi” by Amy Lowell

Amy_Lowell_TimeAmy Lowell is classified as an Imagist. Imagist poets, reacting against both Romantic and Victorian poetry represented by such contemporary giants as Longfellow and Tennyson, pushed for language and images that were more direct and precise and a poetic style that was more un-sentimental. In many ways, the Imagist movement can be seen as one of the bridges between the Victorian and Modernist movements.

Amy Lowell was first recommended to me years ago by a woman who knew I liked Marianne Moore. The recommendation was not based on the fact that she knew and liked the poetry of Marianne Moore and Amy Lowell, in fact she knew almost nothing of their poetry. She did, however, know of Lowell from some Feminist History classes she was taking. She found a used copy of Lowell’s Selected Poems and gave it to me as a gift.

“The Taxi” shows all the elements of the Imagist movement: direct language, non-traditional form, the concentration on an image… a thing itself. The first thing you will notice, however, is that even though Lowell died in 1925, everything about this poem seems contemporary. That is what most attracted me to Lowell almost 30 years ago. She seems at times like a contemporary poet.


The Taxi

When I go away from you
The world beats dead
Like a slackened drum.
I call out for you against the jutted stars
And shout into the ridges of the wind.
Streets coming fast,
One after the other,
Wedge you away from me,
And the lamps of the city prick my eyes
So that I can no longer see your face.
Why should I leave you,
To wound myself upon the sharp edges of the night?