Trust-busting Not Exactly At Its Word

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Richard Watson Gilder by Floyd Campbell

 

President And Poet

by Donald Hall

Granted that what we summon is absurd:
Mustaches and the stick, the New York fake
In cowboy costume grinning for the sake
Of cameras that always just occurred;
Granted that his Rough Riders fought a third-
Rate army badly general’d, to make
Headlines for Mr. Hearst: that one can take
Trust-busting not exactly at its word:

Robinson, alcoholic and unread,
Received a letter with a White House frank.
To court the Muse, you’d think T. R.’d’ve killed her
And had her stuffed, and yet this mountebank
Chose to belaurel Robinson instead
of famous men like Richard Watson Gilder.


Of the more than 200 poems included in Donald Hall’s self compiled anthology published in 1990 titled Old and New Poems, this is the lone sonnet.  It is so out of place in terms of Hall’s body of work and so obscure, that the only thing I can make of it is that Donald was hoping we would all get the joke and laugh along with him.  There is a long history of using sonnets either as a vehicle to honor or insult a specific literary or political figure.  Miguel de Cervantes wrote a series of sonnets that were so clever in delivering their barbed critique that his insults seemed more like good-natured advice and remarkably made their way through the sensors of his day.

So what is going on in this sonnet?  Hall is skewering both Teddy Roosevelt and Edwin Arlington Robinson. History has not been kind to Robinson’s legacy as a poet.  Although the recipient of three Pulitzer prizes, largely because of the notoriety Roosevelt created by promoting Robinson as a poet, most of Robinson’s writing is dismissed by modern poets and critics as weak and worse, uninteresting. Robinson may have been a significant American poet in his day, who willingly paid the price in poverty and obscurity at the beginning of his career. But his success rested on Roosevelt’s patronage,  securing for him a government position, giving him a steady source of income and increased his literary stature through his personal praise. As for his work, his once-popular Arthurian trilogy has fallen out of favor and considered mediocre at best.

And how has Richard Watson Gilder faired in terms of history?  Well obviously Hall feels he should have been treated better. Despite being a prolific and popular poet, who was skilled at rhyme and meter, Gilder’s work has faded into obscurity as well. Gilder was the editor of the Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, one of the nation’s most esteemed periodicals in the late 19th century. As such Gilder was a person of influence in American letters during this period. None of his sonnets would make my top 100 list.   But, as the punch line to Hall’s riddle, he is certainly worthy of a little investigating.


Sonnet

By Richard Watson Gilder

What is a sonnet? ‘Tis the pearly shell
That murmurs of the far-off murmuring sea;
A precious jewel carved most curiously:
It is a little picture painted well.
What is a sonnet? ‘Tis the tear that fell
From a great poet’s hidden ecstasy;
A two-edged sword, a star, a song–ah me!
Sometimes a heavy-tolling funeral bell.
This was the flame that shook with Dante’s breath;
The solemn organ whereon Milton played,
And the clear glass where Shakespeare’s shadow falls:
A sea this is–beware who ventureth!
For like a fjord the narrow floor is laid
Mid-ocean deep to the sheer mountain walls.

 

Even When We Are Young

 

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Donald Hall

Twilight After Haying

by Jane Kenyon (1947 – 1995)

Yes, long shadows go out
from the bales; and yes, the soul
must part from the body:
what else could it do?

The men sprawl near the baler,
too tired to leave the field.
They talk and smoke,
and the tips of their cigarettes
blaze like small roses
in the night air.  (It arrived
and settled among them
before they were aware.)

The moon comes
to count the bales,
and the dispossessed–
Whip-poor-will, Whip-poor-will
–sings from the dusty stubble.

These things happen. . . . the soul’s bliss
and suffering are bound together
like the grasses. . .

The last, sweet exhalations
of timothy and vetch
go out with the song of the bird;
the ravaged field
grows wet with dew.


Few poets wrote as much as about death as Donald Hall.   He made a career of death, he  had plenty of experience from which to draw upon, writing very personally about the loss of his wife Jane Kenyon to cancer.   Does a lifetime of writing about death prepare you for your own?

Hall passed away last weekend at the age of 89.  He was by his own admission pleased by his ability to earn a living as a writer, calling himself a “bandit” for having such good fortune.   Hall was awarded nearly every award and recognition a poet could receive and was by all accounts a writer who wrote hard, nearly every day.

If work is not antidote to death, nor a denial of it, death is a powerful stimulus to work.  Get done what you can.

Donald Hall

 


Affirmation

by Donald Hall (1928 – 2018)

To grow old is to lose everything.
Aging, everybody knows it.
Even when we are young,
we glimpse it sometimes, and nod our heads
when a grandfather dies.
Then we row for years on the midsummer
pond, ignorant and content. But a marriage,
that began without harm, scatters
into debris on the shore,
and a friend from school drops
cold on a rocky strand.
If a new love carries us
past middle age, our wife will die
at her strongest and most beautiful.
New women come and go. All go.
The pretty lover who announces
that she is temporary
is temporary. The bold woman,
middle-aged against our old age,
sinks under an anxiety she cannot withstand.
Another friend of decades estranges himself
in words that pollute thirty years.
Let us stifle under mud at the pond’s edge
and affirm that it is fitting
and delicious to lose everything.