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Mother's illness


The spoken word when I was growing up
Donald Hall Poet
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Much of my poetry has been elegiac and looking at loss and I grew up here so much looking at loss in the summers.  Really as soon as Connecticut school stopped I took the train and came up here and I didn't go back until school was starting again. I just loved it here, growing up in this culture of loss - full of stories. There were lots of wonderful old people. They… the great aunts and uncles who came calling. And… they were storytellers, they tended to be storytellers - more the men than the women - but my grandfather was the greatest storyteller ever, just superb, telling stories of the old times, stories of the blizzard of '88, stories of what… something funny that somebody said to somebody else. He was always talking, and I… I didn't want him ever to stop talking. And… but then when the cousins came, and the great aunts and uncles, that was entertainment. There was radio by the time I arrived here, and we listened to the news, but entertainment was telling stories to each other, and had been for a long time. When my grandfather and grandmother were young there was the South Danbury Oratorical and Debating Society. I found a membership list and so on, and this is how the young people, the teenagers and early 20s entertained themselves. I can't remember how often they met… it was only two miles from here but there were still more people living in the area.  But the young people would get together and they would have cider and doughnuts and coffee and they would entertain each other. First people would sing songs or people would play the piano, and my grandfather could never hold a tune at all, but there was something else… neither can I… but there was something else that he could do, he could speak pieces. That was the piece speaking world… I mean school was full of memorization and recitation, prize speaking day at… at the school was a big day and people would recite - well The Gettysburg address because it's easy because its short, but also the Thorn of Crowns [sic] address that William Jennings Bryan made famous - a great piece of political oratory - but they would also recite Little Boy Blue by Eugene Field, a very famous totally sentimental poem about a dying child. There was a great epidemic of poems about dying children, but of course children died a lot more often then than they do now.  But there were also funny poems and my grandfather, who was a very positive fellow, loved to laugh, and he… he memorized hundreds, literally hundreds, of story poems that were funny.  And probably the literary height of his poems was something like Casey At The Bat. He would recite that for me once or twice a year. There were also parodies of Casey At The Bat. In Casey At The Bat, Casey strikes out, that's the denouement, so it's a sort of a sad ending, sounds really sad… it's a mock, a mock heroic… but there were other ones where Casey came back 20 years later with grey in his hair, not in… revealing his name and becomes a volunteer when a player is hurt and hits a home run, and my grandfather preferred those. But there were others. There was a wonderful one which was really about racial discrimination as far as I can tell. It was called Lawyer Green that he used to recite to me. Lawyer Green was a boy who grew up just like you and me… grew up in a little town only his skin was green… his skin was green… so he was mocked in school for having green skin and he went off and became very successful and became a famous lawyer and came back to the town and they all said, 'Oh Lawyer Green, we were’, you know, ‘we were wrong about you', and so on. And every now and then when he was saying a poem to me, his voice would rise and fall a little more than it usually did and I would realize he was singing a song, it was the only way I could tell. And he had the old fashioned oratory of surprise - ahhhh! - like that, and so on. He would be milking a cow and keeping time with the meter but then he'd have to take his hands of the tits and raise them to show astonishment, or so… or whatever, and you know, I followed him around like a dog, and he loved it, I mean he adored it. He had three daughters, no sons, and now he had a grandson, and he'd talk to me about farming. I don't know… I don't think he ever had the dream that I would follow him as a farmer. He was too realistic. He knew that this kind of farm was dying out, and down the road, here Route 4, there would be farm after farm where there was one old man farming, and the kids were… after a while the older kids were off in the army - it was the war. But, they were off working in a hardware store, or trying the western plains of Vermont - not very far - and the kids did not stay behind to farm. I can't think of a single one who did. Well, I do, but there weren't very many. The… this was the culture of stories and of poems being said aloud. Nothing like the poetry I came to write - God knows - but there was a lot of language all along, in the stories… smart answers, twisting of language to make a smart answer, and so on. So that in many ways it was more of a sort of literary influence from here, certainly in topic, and in the… in the elegiac topic, but also in the concentration on language.

The 14th US Poet Laureate Donald Hall (1928-2018) was educated at Phillips Exeter Academy, then earned a bachelor's degree from Harvard in 1951 and a BLitt, from Oxford in 1953. He published many essays and anthologies of both poetry and prose including String too Short to be Saved: Recollections of Summers on a New England Farm, White Apples and the Taste of Stone, Without: Poems, and Ox-Cart Man, a children's book which won the Caldecott Medal. Hall was editor of the magazine Oxford Poetry, literary editor of Isis, editor of New Poems, and poetry editor of The Paris Review. He won many awards, including two Guggenheim Fellowships and a Robert Frost Medal. At the end of his first Oxford year, he also won the university's Newdigate Prize, awarded for his poem Exile.

Listeners: Kendel Currier

Kendel Currier started working for Donald Hall in August of 1994 as his correspondence typist. Later she took on his manuscript typing as well, and in October of 1998 moved 100 meters down the road from Donald and became his personal assistant, adding many various new tasks to her work. As well as working for Donald for the last 10 and-a-half years, Donald Hall and Kendel Currier share a set of great (or for Kendel great-great) grandparents, making them distant cousins and part of a similar New Hampshire heritage.

Tags: Connecticut, South Danbury Oratorical and Debating Society, The Gettysburg address, Crown of Thorns, Little Boy Blue, Casey At The Bat, Lawyer Green, WWII, Vermont, Route 4, William Jennings Bryan, Eugene Field

Duration: 6 minutes, 8 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008