Friday, June 10, 2005

The Best Day The Worst Day: Living & Dying With Poets

I have just finished poet Donald Hall's memoir of his life with Jane Kenyon--THE BEST DAY THE WORST DAY (Houghton Mifflin: 2005)--alternating with chapters of their last few years wrangling with her leukemia until she died in 1995 at the age of 47. Both accomplished poets (he was her writing professor at University of Michigan/Ann Arbor), they returned to his maternal grandparents' Danbury, New Hampshire farm in 1975 (where he had many happy childhood memories--read also his memoir about that farm, written well before he would return to live there, STRING TOO SHORT TO BE SAVED). What began as a sabbatical from university life became a decision to stay, prompted by Kenyon's falling in love with the place and reinforced by Hall's own legacy there. For over two decades they spent the days of their marriage mostly writing, reading, gardening, and tending the farmhouse they both loved, and involving themselves in their rural community. Sometimes they would travel, alone or apart, but usually they were together. Kenyon was about 20 years Hall's junior and eventually developed her own strong presence in American poetry.

Donald Hall writes with great ease and effortlessness but often I had the guilt of a voyeur, perhaps the underlying reason for reading a memoir in the first place. Few details are spared of their physical life--at least it would seem so in his descriptions of some of their intimate moments, and improvements upon, in several descriptive passages--or the physical deterioration that accompanies a chronic illness. [My own husband, who is understandably private about the recent non-elective surgery to his nether regions said, "He wrote about that!"] I also wonder if I would want the details of my cancer battle so plainly spoken after my death. [Poignantly, Kenyon could not look upon the many bouquets of flowers that arrived near the end, nor listen to the music that she had so loved in life. She could not bare to take in the beauty of what she would soon lose.] Hall also details to some degree Kenyon's continual battle with bipolar illness but there seems to be a levity that sustains them, despite what must have been a difficult climate at times. Yet beyond the elements of mental illness and the cancer that overshadowed their last years together--a year or so after Hall's own bout with cancer that, ironically, they thought would be fatal--I found myself envious of their lives together. They seemed to have led the lives that poets Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes could have had if they had been able to fuse in a way that transcended their mutual demons and temptations. Hall proves that it is possible to blend two creative and literary minds in the same household, including the unseen but jarring presence of bipolar disorder (once more commonly referred to as manic-depression) harbored within one of them.

Hall has also written several marvelous children's books, including the Caldecott-winning OX-CART MAN, illustrated by Barbara Cooney, a rewrite of one his poems. My children have always loved that book: how the farmer loaded up the oxcart with knitted mittens, handmade tools, crops grown on their New Hampshire hill farm and other things to trade, and then walks all the way to Portsmouth and sells everything, including the cart and the ox, whom he kisses goodbye and for luck. Then he walks home again. There is a rhythmic quality to the book and an easy plot: the bustle of family work and activity leading up to the farmer's journey and framed by the round of the year on their self-sufficient farm. He also wrote LUCY's CHRISTMAS and LUCY's SUMMER, both illustrated by the same person whose name I can't recall but they seem to be woodcuts. Both books talk about events in his grandmother's life, growing up at Eagle Pond Farm in Danbury. Like my grandparents' New Hampshire farm where I grew up, the place has infused Hall's being to the core, even when he makes it his own and perpetuates the legacy of building and memory.

So between their poetry, and his children's books, and their poetry readings (which seem to be the bread and butter of a poet's existence--that and teaching), and their translations or editing of other works (Hall also wrote an excellent student textbook called simply ON WRITING for which he receives annual royalty checks--I still have my college edition of twenty five years ago), they were able to make a go of it. They had no children to support (his two children from his first marriage were in college when they did marry) and could live a life uncomplicated by the many demands of growing children and soccer games and saving for college tuition. They also "fought" over who would make dinner--you have to like that in a man. In their last few years together they enjoyed several grandchildren from Hall's children and always there was the presence of several cats and a beloved dog.

Hall also wrote about "the third thing"--that otherness in marriage which often keeps it glued, a commonality of purpose and interest that is shared. Their found church life together, for example, and gardening, their love of India and extensive travels there, and a preference for certain writers, even their pets. These are all "third things" and, one realizes in the objective sense, important for the life of any marriage or coupledom. Sadly, so were Kenyon's bipolar illness and their mutual struggles with cancer "third things". But what could have driven them apart brought them even closer.

The book leaves the reader with the sense, despite the candor about the physical aspects of dying, of the real purpose of living: to embrace every day, to find the rhythm and special moments in those days, and if we're lucky, to find the person with whom we are truly meant to spend them. Fortunately for published writers and poets, and people of letters, like Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon, their commitment to their craft in their long purposeful days has left a legacy of words that few attain. They also had a marriage and true kinship that few are fortunate to ever know. I'm glad to know of theirs.

6 comments:

Mike Wise said...

Cathy, I really appreciate your writing style and topics. You are very easy to read and grasp in a limited time span (yes, I'm doing that running after kids and soccer and working for tuition, etc.!!). Thanks for taking the time...

Btw, the concept of the 'third thing' was my favorite part of the story.

Blessings...

Anonymous said...

Catherine -- I just read Donald Hall's book too but I didn't like it much and I expected to. It was too much information without enough perspective, it seemed to me. But I also read the same week "Losing the Garden" which is the memoir of her marriage toGuy Waterman (or is it Watersomething else) the alpinist who committed suicide in the White Mountains several years ago. I really liked it -- I think because she was using the writing as a way of making sense of that death and her life. Also a lovely evocation of an ordered, private life in a very particular place. Ivy

Anonymous said...

Catherine -- I just read Donald Hall's book too but I didn't like it much and I expected to. It was too much information without enough perspective, it seemed to me. But I also read the same week "Losing the Garden" which is the memoir of her marriage toGuy Waterman (or is it Watersomething else) the alpinist who committed suicide in the White Mountains several years ago. I really liked it -- I think because she was using the writing as a way of making sense of that death and her life. Also a lovely evocation of an ordered, private life in a very particular place. Ivy

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