Poet and writer Donald Hall died last June at the age of 89, making this collection of very short essays — many just a page or two in length — all the more relevant and haunting. I read A Carnival of Losses when I had a bad cold, and the aching in my bones seemed to echo Hall’s descriptions of his many ailments and diminishing physical powers. Granted, wallowing in the punishments of old age might not sound like an especially fun way to spend a day, but Hall generally maintains a light touch with his material, highlighting the comedy of his situation far more than its pathos.
Admittedly, A Carnival of Losses can be repetitive. Having to listen to someone talk on and on about his ancestors can be almost as dreary as listening to someone’s dreams, and Hall never tires of recounting the yarns he remembers from long-gone relatives. Nevertheless, even when he is once again telling the story of moving to his 1803 New Hampshire farmhouse, where his “family has lived since the Civil War,” Hall lives up to his reputation as a demanding stylist. Though the subject matter is sometimes less than scintillating, the writing is always good, and the short essay form suits Hall’s aesthetic sensibilities.
The section that will likely be most entertaining to poets — and possibly the least interesting to the average reader — is called “The Selected Poets of Donald Hall,” which consists of brief memories of bards famous and unknown. Hall has plenty of encomiums for his favorites, which include Geoffrey Hill, Richard Wilbur, and Seamus Heaney, but he is more often quite devastating, in a casual sort of way. Describing a friend whose work is now forgotten, Hall writes that his “poems continued to plod into print, patiently wrought, decorous, and dim.” Of the Irish poet Louis MacNeice, Hall notes: “He was inward; he was friendly. I cannot remember a word we said.”
Donald Hall is convinced that when most poets die, their readership and their reputations almost immediately begin to fall off. It’s too soon to say if that fate will befall Hall — he believed that it would — but for now it’s well worth delving into his final, fiercely individualistic book.