In Studio 360 this week, I talk with Kurt about three of the artists I write about in Spark who look squarely at tragedy, and create work that weaves the world back together after it has been shattered. One is the poet Donald Hall, who, after the death of his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, wrote poems that sear the heart, but also help to heal it. In his book Without, Hall describes her illness and death, and the terrible mourning afterward. And he also talks about how poetry saved him.
“In Without, at one point, I talk to my dog before I sit down in the morning to work on my poems, and I say to him in a manic glee, ‘Poetryman is suiting up!’ And that’s how I felt. For that first year after Janey died, I could work on the poems for a couple of hours perhaps, and then I had twenty-two miserable hours to wait until I could get back to them, because I can’t work on poetry all day. But the two hours were the only hours of happiness at that time.”
Donald Hall often chooses these poems of death and mourning when he gives readings around the country.
“Again and again, people will say to me in a question period or a reception afterwards, ‘How can you read them aloud?’ I have no problem; I have no difficulty reading them aloud. They have become poems. They start out as screams of pain, and the first drafts are terrible. But all my first drafts always are, whatever the subject. I work over them and over them and over them, and I love working over them. I don’t write, I rewrite. As I work on them they will come to be something outside of me . . .It’s as if I were hacking away the piece of stone to make sculpture, or modeling, or trying to paint, adding a dash here and there. So that they become works of art. They become a work of art in the art that I love and I’ve tried to practice since I was twelve years old. Then, they are then objectified. They start from the pain, they start from the anguish, these poems do, and then they become something that needs to be in itself as language, as sound, as imagery, objects of pleasure, objects that give pleasure. So they have—and this is true of so many poems—one of the paradoxes of poetry. I’m talking about poetry for four thousand years, the subject is so often defeat, death, and loss. Even with triumph, there are aspects of loss always, and yet the material itself is beautiful and gives pleasure. The process of working out of the raw material of this grief and loss and the raw material of the scream is to try to make it into something that does not change the death that is spoken of, does not alter things. But it does use that material in a way that is in itself to be an object of beauty.”
You can find Donald Hall's books The Painted Bed and Without here. It is powerful to hear Donald Hall’s voice, still strong into his 80’s, and here you can listen to him read a poem called “Her Garden:”