Recently, I got in a conversation with a friend about Donald Hall’s life and long career. This occurred after I blurbed her forthcoming book and drew some resemblance to her collection and Hall’s poetry, at least in her treatment of everyday subject matter and rural scenes. My friend then noted that Donald Hall, now 86, has stopped writing poetry and is only writing prose. In fact, his latest book is a prose collection, Essays After 80.
I had already known that Hall stopped writing poetry. Prior to the release of his latest book, he gave a lengthy interview in Poets & Writers in which he confessedthat he has stopped writing poetry and joked that it’s because he no loner has enough testosterone. Hall, a former U.S. Poet Laureate, did admit, however, that he keeps revising old poems. I still wonder to what end.
In an interview with NPR, Hall was more specific regarding his inability to write new poems. He confessed, “Prose is not so dependent on sound. The line of poetry, with the breaking of the line — to me sound is the kind of doorway into poetry. And my sense of sound, or my ability to control it, lapsed or grew less. I still use it in prose, but the unit is the paragraph.”
My writing process is similar, in that, for me, poetry often begins with sound and rhythm. I may have an image, but the structure of the poem is dependent on sound, especially the breaking of the line and the progression of the image or extended metaphor. I write and rewrite to stretch the language of a line and to play words off of each other for rhythmic effects.
In the same interview, however, Hall admits that he didn’t see the essays coming, but they did come. We can hope that new poems will come, too, but his statements regarding his inability to write new poems raises questions about what composes a poem and what is needed. Is it possible to still compose once the senses start to dull? Poetry is so dependent upon the senses and the structure is so reliant on sound that it seems inevitable the process will become more difficult with old age.