Friday, January 7, 2011
Number 31: Donald Hall "To A Waterfowl"
To A Waterfowl
Women with hats like the rear ends of pink ducks
applauded you, my poems.
These are the women whose husbands I meet on airplanes,
who close their briefcases and ask, “What are you in?”
I look in their eyes, I tell them I am in poetry,
and their eyes fill with anxiety, and with little tears.
“Oh, yeah?” they say, developing an interest in clouds.
“My wife, she likes that sort of thing? Hah-hah?
I guess maybe I’d better watch my grammar, huh?”
I leave them in airports, watching their grammar,
and take a limousine to the Women’s Goodness Club
where I drink Harvey’s Bristol Cream with their wives,
and eat chicken salad with capers, with little tomato wedges
and I read them “The Erotic Crocodile,” and “Eating You.”
Ah, when I have concluded the disbursement of sonorities,
crooning, “High on thy thigh I cry, Hi!”—and so forth—
they spank their wide hands, they smile like Jell-O,
and they say, “Hah-hah? My goodness, Mr. Hall,
but you certainly do have an imagination, huh?”
“Thank you, indeed,” I say; “it brings in the bacon.”
But now, my poems, now I have returned to the motel,
returned to l’eternel retour of the Holiday Inn,
naked, lying on the bed, watching Godzilla Sucks Mount Fuji,
addressing my poems, feeling superior, and drinking bourbon
from a flask disguised to look like a transistor radio.
And what about you? You, laughing? You, in the bluejeans,
laughing at your mother who wears hats, and at your father
who rides airplanes with a briefcase watching his grammar?
Will you ever be old and dumb, like your creepy parents?
Not you, not you, not you, not you, not you, not you.
Hap Notes: Almost everyone who reads poetry knows who Donald Hall (born 1928) is, if not from his poems from his books about writing, poetry and poets. He was diagnosed with colon cancer, went into remission, then lost his wife (a former student and poet in her own right) Jane Kenyon, to leukemia. He makes a living writing poetry, reading and lecturing and is pretty much the "grand old man" of letters when it comes to poetry. I don't suppose he'd particularly like that epithet but he, at least, is a pretty grand guy.
This poem is charming and amusing and raises some interesting things but it's much funnier, and more telling, if you know that "To a Waterfowl" is the title of a very famous (although somewhat forgotten now) poem by William Cullen Bryant. So in addition to making the poem's title about "women with hats like the rear ends of pink ducks," he's also making a couple of wry comments about poetry in general and his poetry "tour" where he stays in Holiday Inns and reads to ladies.
The Bryant poem was one that every school child had to read pre-1950 and it deals with the idea of being alone in the world, traveling alone, God's direction for our lives and faith. Bryant addresses his poem to a passing flying duck (or some kind of water fowl) and then turns introspective. It's enormously funny and telling that Hall is referencing this poem as he stares at the "duck" hats.
Remember also that he is addressing his poems, talking to them, as well as talking to himself. He is dealing with loneliness in this poem and aging and wondering about the direction that people take with their lives and the direction that poetry takes him.
The l’eternel retour is a reference to the "eternal return" which is the concept that the universe has been recurring the same way over and over and will continue to recur an infinite number of times in an infinity of time and space.
I think that's enough background info to get your wheels turning, yes?
The images in the poem are amusing like smiling like Jello and the hats that started the reverie. Don't forget the interesting device of "grammar" and briefcases.
Here's a good Donald Hall Quote: "If our goal is to write poetry, the only way we are likely to be any good is to try to be as great as the best."
You can find more Hall here: www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/donald-hall