June 24, 2018


Donald Hall, a giant of American poetry, dies at 89 (MIKE PRIDE, June 24, 2018, Concord Monitor)

Like any poet with New England roots, he had to come to terms with Frost. In the summer of 1945, Hall was at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference in Vermont when he saw Frost coming up a hill toward him. He "appeared to be rising out of the ground," Hall later wrote. "His face was strong and blocky, his white hair thick and rough. He looked like granite, some old carved stone." Hall observed over time how Frost's reputation swerved from the beloved American poet to the cruel monster of Lawrance Thompson's postmortem biography. Hall's opinion evolved, too. He first saw Frost as "a monument," then as "a public fraud," then as "something more human and complicated than either." Their last encounter, when Frost was 88 and near death, caused another reappraisal: Frost became "a model of survival."
Hall visited Dylan Thomas in his hometown of Laugharne, Wales, to recruit the poet to appear at Oxford. Thomas's dramatic readings influenced Hall's performance style and perhaps even his close attention to sound in his poems. Like most who knew Thomas even slightly, Hall went pub-crawling with him. When "the slow suicide of alcoholism" killed Thomas at 39, Hall was in the legion of drinking companions who could say Thomas died owing him two pounds.
A gig as poetry editor of The Paris Review gave Hall the chance to introduce young, unknown poets and interview older ones, including Ezra Pound and Marianne Moore. In 1959 he conducted the first "Art of Poetry" interview in the Review's "Writers at Work" series. His subject, T.S. Eliot, told him: "No honest poet can ever feel quite sure of the permanent value of what he has written. He may have wasted his time and messed up his life for nothing." Hall took this message to heart, as he did the words of the British sculptor Henry Moore, whom he interviewed for a book: "The secret of life is to have a task, something you devote your entire life to. . . . And the most important thing is - it must be something you cannot possibly do."
By the time Hall and Kenyon moved to New Hampshire, he was well established. Teaching had steeped him in literature and enriched his own poetry and criticism. His memoir String Too Short to Be Saved about boyhood summers at the farm had charmed thousands of readers. He had reported on the world champion 1968 Detroit Tigers in Sports Illustrated and joined the Pittsburgh Pirates for a spring training lark that would lead to Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball. 


[M]ayo Smith had problems. Ray Oyler, the Tigers' regular shortstop, hit .135 for the season. Even more troublesome was the status of Al Kaline, who had played 16 years for the Tigers without experiencing a World Series. The aging rightfielder contributed relatively little to the Tigers' pennant-winning season. When he broke his arm in May, a young outfield took over. The Boys from Syracuse, as they were called (Syracuse, N.Y., was then the home of the Tigers' Triple A farm club) were left-fielder Willie Horton, rightfielder Jim Northrup and centerfielder Stanley. Horton hit 36 home runs that year; Northrup led the team with 90 runs batted in; Stanley drove in 60 and played the best defensive centerfield in the major leagues. When Kaline returned in July, he played at first for the slumping Norm Cash; but when Cash started hitting again (.317 from July 27 to the end of the season), Kaline became little more than a utility-man. His hitting suffered--his career average was .305 but that season he fell to .287--and when he dropped a fly ball at Tiger Stadium in August, he heard boos for the first time.

Yet it was unthinkable to bench Kaline for the Series. Who would sit down? Smith gave thought to substituting Kaline for Don Wert at third base. Wert had hit a mere .200, but he was a solid defensive player. The Cardinals were a speedy club, and if Kaline played third, the Cardinals would bunt him into early retirement.

It was Cash who first suggested that Smith move Stanley from center to shortstop. Cash and his manager did not get along: First base was an open job as long as Smith managed, and Cash's opinion of Smith's brainpower was available to the public. Yet when Cash spoke about Stanley--"He can play shortstop"--Smith listened to him. It was general knowledge, as catcher Bill Freehan put it, that Stanley was "the best all-around athlete we've got." But it takes more than a talented body to play shortstop.

A few of the Detroit coaches and groundskeepers--and Cash--knew that Stanley, all season long, had been taking thousands of grounders at shortstop before batting practice. He was 26 years old, intense and nervous; every day he was the first ballplayer to arrive at the park. When someone showed up who would hit fun-goes, Stanley worked out taking grounders. He was not auditioning--Stanley loved centerfield--but burning up excess energy. When Cash, among the early birds, strolled out to first base, he watched Stanley nip grounders and felt the sting of Stanley's arm.

One week before the Series, Smith made up his mind to play Kaline in his familiar rightfield spot, put Northrup in center, bench Oyler, and move Stanley from centerfield to short. Stanley would start at shortstop the last six games of the regular season to get ready. In his first game, he made two errors. He also made a novice's mistake. Throwing to first base to complete a double play, he stood on second while Don Buford of the Orioles barreled into him. That night Stanley called at Smith's hotel room: "I asked Mayo if he was sure that this was what he wanted. I said, 'I'm not worried for me; I'm worried for the other players.' Mayo said, 'I know you can do the job; that's good enough for me.' He said, 'You are my shortstop.' "

As the Series drew closer, the buzzing over Smith's decision grew loud. No position switch so eccentric had ever been tried in a World Series, as newspaper columnists noted. It was a managerial prerogative to realign the pitching rotation, they said, but to play a novice at shortstop was bizarre.

The doubts in the press were nothing compared with the doubts inside Stanley; he was not a phlegmatic sort. The night before Game 1 in St. Louis, he borrowed a sleeping pill from his wife, Ellen; in the morning he popped a tranquilizer; then, before the game, he vomited. "I suppose." he told sportswriter Red Smith, "the first damn ball will be hit to me."

It was. 

Donald Hall, The Art of Poetry No. 43 (Interviewed by Peter A. Stitt, FALL 1991, Paris Review)


How did the baseball players accept you? As I remember, when you tried out for the Pirates you were bearded and, shall we say, a touch overweight?


I was bearded and weighed about two hundred fifty pounds when I tried out for second base with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Willie Randolph and Rennie Stennett both beat me out. (I was cut for not being able to bend over, which wasn't fair; Richie Hebner made the team at third base and he couldn't bend over either.) The players had nicknames for me, like Abraham and Poet, and they treated me like a mascot. When I took batting practice, the whole team stopped whatever it was doing to watch--the comedy act of the decade. The players looked at me as some sort of respite from their ordinary chores; they were curious, and they were kind enough as they teased me. Mostly, athletes are quick-witted and funny, with maybe a ten-second attention span.

Posted by at June 24, 2018 1:00 PM