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Donald Hall is another member of the esteemed, old men of letters. For some reason I always imagine Hall sitting in a hunting lodge at a corner table covered with green plastic tablecloths where he talks to woodsmen about skinning rabbits. This is probably totally wrong. Although he grew up in New England and currently lives on a farm there and has been associated with the plainspoken, rural poetics of Robert Frost, he has also attended the world’s uppercrust institutions of higher education. While not these things are not incompatible, rabbit skinning and Oxford don’t readily go together.

Hall loves baseball and has written extensively about our favorite pastime. He has also written a number of books for children, the Ox-Cart Man being the most popular. 

Hall has survived a couple of bouts with cancer; his second wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, was not so fortunate. Their marriage and life together was documented by Bill Moyers in the PBS documentary, A Life Together.      

He has won most of the major awards for poetry and served as the 2006-07 U. S. Poet Laureate. Again, he’s esteemed.

Hall writes in free verse, syllabics and uses fixed and received forms. The poem in the October 20, 2008 issue of The New Yorker is a villanelle, a form appropriated from the French by 19th century English-speaking poets.

Villanelles are extremely difficult to pull off well and I think Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night” and Anthony Hecht’s “Prospects” are exemplary. Villanelles are nineteen lines in length and use only two rhyme schemes throughout. The first and third lines of the first stanza are something of a refrain throughout the poem (so that the first line is repeat in the last lines of the second and fourth stanzas, and the third line of the first stanza is repeated in the last line of the third and fifth stanzas, and together they comprise of the poem’s final lines). Perhaps a graphical representation is in order:

A’  
B    
A”  

A
B
A’

A
B
A”

A
B
A’

A
B
A”

A
B
A’
A”

To execute a good villanelle, you need a subject that lends itself to repetition like death and loss so that by the time the final refrain rolls around, the weight of what preceded it becomes unbearable. Dylan Thomas got this right and without any substitutions (the first and third lines are repeated exactly throughout the poem). Most poets are pretty loose with this form, partly, I think, because it is very, very difficult to find a line that can be repeated throughout. Most poets resign themselves to have a phrase repeat rather than the whole line.

Most English language villanelles appear in iambic tetrameter or iambic pentameter, which adds another layer of complexity. The poet only has so much room to work before that third line rolls around with its refrain. Eight or ten metrical feet are not a lot to work with; the poet really needs to compress his or her ideas. Conversely, poets also need to avoid padding to fill out the line. And don’t forget about the end-word rhyme restrictions. There are a lot of balls in the air.

Hall’s villanelle is pretty good; he’s pretty relaxed with the form: in most of the refrain lines he just repeats the end-words “died” and “tried”. There seems to be some metrical padding as well: in the second stanza, “numberless lethal times” sounds awkward as does “lagged however zealously” in the third. The fourth stanza flows the best though the meaning is a bit obscure. Am I reading it correctly that the nymph of fatality is literally screwing the shepherd’s brains out until he dies?

The subject matter IS odd. On the surface, the speaker of the poem (the shepherd) is dead and the shepherd envies the mymph in her many deaths and laments that he could only die but once. And then there’s that fourth stanza where he dies after having a marathon session with the nymph, covering 100 miles of terrain (in a car, on a horse, on a train, in a carriage, walking?). It’s kind of funny and I think Hall is having a bit of fun with us and the form.

What happens when you substitute “dying” or “died” with “orgasm” or “orgasmed”? Is Hall using death as a trope for orgasm; the nymph and shepherd for the sexual ease of youth and the difficulties older men might have? After all, “la petit mort” is a French phrase for sexual orgasm and the villanelle is a French form. Very clever, Mr. Hall.

Shepherd, keep on trying!

Further Reading:

Donald Hall’s Academy of American Poets mini-bio.  

Another mini-bio, this one from The Poetry Foundation.

NPR speaks with Hall prior to his 2006 appointment as U.S. Poet Laureate.

Get your fill of villanelles at Villanelle Central.

The Author

D.S. Loney is a poet and writer living in Washington, D.C.

 

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