National Poetry Month 2017, Week Three: Donald Hall’s “Ox Cart Man”
April 21, 2017
I began to write poems with some seriousness in my teens. During that time, I consumed as much poetry as I could get my hands on, devouring books like a beast impossible to satiate.
My high school English teachers, Richard Taddeo and Jack Langerak, fed that beast too. They paid attention to what I was reading, asked me questions, and suggested other books and poets in a kind of personal curation that predated Amazon’s algorithm by almost 30 years. (Taddeo also published my first poem to appear in print, a short couplet of little note, in the school literary magazine.)
It was Taddeo who gave me Donald Hall’s Kicking the Leaves, shortly after it came out in 1978. Hall’s poems in that book spoke to me. As a native New Englander, the landscape was familiar – Hall’s hardscrabble New Hampshire a good match to Frost’s flinty Vermont, where I’d summered as a child.
Donald Hall’s example in Kicking the Leaves – and hearing Elizabeth Bishop read her work later that fall — showed me a different path: I wanted to become a poet. A decade later, after I met Hall at one of George Plimpton’s Paris Review parties at the latter’s Sutton Place apartment, we began a correspondence.
I sent him poems. He wrote back, postcards mostly, which I knew from one of his essays were recorded by Dictaphone while watching Red Sox games from his blue chair in the same farmhouse described in Kicking the Leaves. He hated everything I sent him and told me so. This was good. Tough love was just what I needed. He helped me improve, revise, and be hard on my own work.
In the late 90s I gave a craft talk at the University of Alaska Anchorage as part of their Writing Rendezvous conference. In the lecture, which I called “Making Poems Better: The Process of Revision,” I examined many drafts of Hall’s poem “Ox Cart Man,” including the version that appears in Kicking the Leaves, and my own “Black Angus, Winter,” which was part of a group of poems that won the Nebraska Review Award in 1997. You can read it here.
Hall’s book – his 7th book of poems — came out when he was about to turn 50. My book, Fallow Field, came out as I turned 50, and includes “Black Angus, Winter” and several poems that Hall hated in earlier versions, all of which were improved by his terse, meaningful criticism.
You can find Donald Hall’s “Ox Cart Man” here (permission restrictions prevent me from publishing the poem in its entirety and an excerpt won’t do it justice) or better yet, buy his Selected Poems. And here is a recording of Donald Hall reading “Ox Cart Man.”