More bad news today, really terrible news. A shut-down Elizabeth Warren; Jeff Sessions confirmed as attorney general. In my distress I find myself turning to literature: memoir, novels, and, above all, poetry. I need its slow, steady heartbeat; I thrive on its small and great pleasures. Donald Hall in particular is speaking to me though I’m still figuring out why. This is the magic of poetry: that scavenger hunt of self-discovery.
I first stumbled on Hall’s poetry and essays in The New Yorker and keep finding them finding me. Working recently on a piece about grief, I discovered The Best Day The Worst Day, a memoir about his marriage to the poet Jane Kenyon, who died of leukemia in 1995. His model of how intimacy can burnish rather than impair creativity may change my 2017; for the first time I can imagine a relationship helping rather than hurting my expansion as an artist and a decent human being. He writes: “Third things are essential to marriages–objects or practices or habits or arts or institutions or games or human beings that provide a site of joint rapture or contentment.” Of dating after Jane’s death, he writes: “Lust is grief/that turned over in bed/and looked the other way.” In Essays After Eighty, he talks of sharpening his prose after poetry leaves him: “Because of multiple drafts I have been accused of self-discipline. Really I am self-indulgent, I cherish revising so much.” I nod in happy recognition. Of concluding poems and essays, he writes: “Almost always the end goes on too long. Let the words flash a conclusion, the get out of the way.” More nodding. And finally: “Avoid the personal pronoun when you can-but not the personal.” I scribble a hasty note.
In general, Hall’s work is so gnarled and true and romantic, so clear-hearted and gently tread and sexually insistent. He writes from the lands on which his ancestors set roots—New Hampshire houses, New Hampshire soil—and in his lines I recognize that wry New England righteousness as if someone opened the door to my grandmother’s home one more time. A porchlight turns on inside me whenever I crack his books.
I’ve written before about our need for carefully curated language, about how it can wake us from this terrible American dream. What I neglected to mention is how literature shores me just as it did when I was an unhappy, untended child. My advice: Find the books that hold your hand, scratch your back, tell the story you’re in danger of forgetting or simply never knowing. Above all, find the books that open your eyes. Literature is essential to praxis. It sows the seeds of our best selves.