Books, "Book Talk," Grand Rapids...and Wendell Berry

Reading The New Yorker is both pleasure and pain for me. The pleasure comes from the stimulating content, including excellent commentary, criticism, fiction and poetry. The pain comes from the fact that I actually work through "Goings On About Town" each week--the pages and pages of fine print summaries and highlights of all the concerts, plays, exhibits, and films on offer in New York City. Reading about the cultural riches of NYC from afar usually deepens a sense of cultural exile here in the so-called heartland, in podunk Grand Rapids, Michigan.

But on other days, I'm reminded that we have our own little intellectual province here in Grand Rapids. This past Saturday, for instance, I took a stroll to one of our local used book shops, Redux Books. There I bumped into one of the sales executives of one of our local publishing houses, and along with the proprietor, we enjoyed a lovely conversation about publishing, books, and theology. I then made my way down into some of the far recesses of the basement holdings and emerged with a book of poems by Marianne Moore, the third edition of Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren's Understanding Poetry, and a first edition of Donald Hall's Remembering Poets. That's a pretty delightful Saturday morning in any city.

Then this past Wednesday night was another wonderful "literary" experience. My friends Matt Bonzo and Michael Stevens, both professors at another local Christian university, have just published a wonderful new book, Wendell Berry and the Cultivation of Life: A Reader's Guide (Brazos--another one of our local publishers). The book launch was Wednesday night, at one of my favorite spaces in Grand Rapids: the Ryerson Auditorium in the Grand Rapids Public Library downtown. The reception was hosted by the Vanderveen Center for the Book and was an evening of interesting, provocative conversation--on top of the fact that Bonzo and Stevens have also written a great book (which I'm now reading).

When I daydream (and night dream) about being a "writer," New York looms in my imagination like Nashville does for the young country musician, or the way Los Angeles tempts the aspiring actress. And the desire to make the pilgrimmage can make "small town" Grand Rapids feel cramped and provincial. But on other days, like these, I'm grateful for this little corner of the midwest in which are buried our own little cultural treasures.

NYC, of course, would also come with its price (as do Nashville and Los Angeles!). Not a few writers (especially southern writers like Faulkner and Walker Percy) found distance from the Eastern seaboard to be a necessary space for their work. Perhaps instead of pining for Manhattan or, in turn, resenting it, we should be working on fostering a literary and cultural regionalism. The Podunks of middle America can be home to "small, good things," too.


Unpacking the Boxes: More Donald Hall

I recently noted the poetry of Donald Hall which has nourished me over the last few months. I think his verse has a cunning simplicity about it. In that earlier post I perhaps gave the mistaken impression that Hall was (just) a "nature" poet--the next Robert Frost or something like that. Such an impression would be misleading. While he hymns New Hampshire and Eagle Pond, he also pens verse about urinals and baseball. (He has suggested that "Love, Death, and New Hampshire" would be a good title for his collected poems.)

Given this immersion and appreciation, I couldn't resist reading his new memoir, Unpacking the Boxes: A Memoir of a Life in Poetry. The prose of poets is often both curt and intense. Hall's prose exhibits this in flashes, with passages that have the density of poetry, making you wonder whether the paragraphs began with line breaks and pauses. But other long sections are conversational. Hall lacks pretention, even though such would be warranted. This little volume tracks his childhood and his early love of poetry (both reading and writing), through his college years, time in Oxford and at Stanford, and then his longish tenure teaching at the University of Michigan. It then follows him to New Hampshire (though omitting the long illness and death of his wife, Jane Kenyon, which he's addressed elsewhere). Perhaps most poignant, even jarring, is the final chapter on "The Planet Antiquity"--the poet's honest chronicling of what it means to grow old, the body's cricks and creeks and general stubborness resisting desire. It is an account that gives pause to (relatively) young folks like me who continue to think of themselves as invincible.

As the subtitle promises, this memoir focuses on his life as a poet, with reminiscences of poet-friends (including life-long friendships with Robert Bly and Adrienne Rich) and experiences with some of the greats like Dylan Thomas and Robert Graves. (Just this past Saturday at Redux Books, our little treasure here in Eastown, I picked up a first edition of an earlier book of recollections by Hall, Remembering Poets.) Describing his experience as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, I could picture all his haunts and movements (he was a fellow at Christ Church) and was once again beset by nostalgia for England.

But Hall also recounts the work of poetry, the disciplines and regimens of a poet (every morning, for two hours--a Herculean feat), including the life-giving regimen of the 20-minute nap ("I have practiced the twenty-minute nap for half a century"). And the wrestlings of the poet with language, including the "spaces" of language--not just the words, but their arrangement and rhythm, the gaps and silences. Consider this reflection on a transitional phase, where he's grappling with form and meter and resisting the temptation to think of poems as "messages":
With my immersion in form, I found myself writing a kind of poem. It wasn't meter's fault; metrical poems can go anywhere and do anything. For me, these forms came to imply a reasonable poem. It sounds crazy now, but at that time I needed to understand what the poem was going to say before I began it. The better poems I wrote in my twenties--like "My Son My Executioner" and "The Sleeping Giant"--concealed a content I was not aware of. [...] As I was finishing the late poems of Exiles, something in me began to feel stifled, dumb, inarticulate. My grand language failed to express or reveal crucial areas of feeling. I flailed about, looking for other ways to make a noise. I had admired Marianne Moore's syllabics--keeping a syllable count, avoiding metrical feet. Holding on to the count of syllables as to a guardrail, I wrote a poem called "Je Suis Une Table." I thought it was a poem of wit exploiting a language error--tables can't talk--but it wasn't; it was an outcry, complaining of habitual limitation or inhibition. This poem began a journey. Eventually, I no longer demanded that my poems explain themselves before they got written; I learned to trust the impetus, to ride the wave. The wave was feeling, expressed largely in long vowels. I worked by accepting an image compelled by rhythm and sound--without requiring that it explain its purpose (pp. 120-121).

For thirteen years Hall taught English at the University of Michigan (he started when he was 28; finished in his early 4os). While he never saw this as his primary vocation, he did see it as a meaningful and passable way to fund what he really wanted to do, which was write. But one has the sense that, despite his ambivalence, Hall was a master teacher. As he rightly notes, the trick is to teach what you don't know. And to live for those glimpses where teaching and learning hit their stride.
Answering questions was the best part. Everyone who loves teaching has the same experience: Someone asks a question; it's something you never thought of, but the moment you hear the question, you know the answer. Ninety percent of what you say is something you didn't know until you said it.
(These are my favorite moments of teaching, too: when something emerges in the conversation, in wrestling together with texts and ideas. On the best days, in response to good questions, I can venture into new territory. Chalk flies, and sometimes, on a good day, we all learn something. I then stay in the classroom, after the students have filed out, and take down my own notes, recording what I've just figured out on the board for the first time.)

Mostly what shines through is a love of poetry and the poetic life (and Jane, and New Hampshire), with all its friendships and disappointments and anxities and depressions, with no small number of joys and delights. Here is poetic ambition: "the poet at fifteen wants to be as great as Dante; by twenty-five he wants to be in The New Yorker."