Feb 22, 2011

Donald Hall, "Names of Horses"









Name of Horses - A poem by Donald Hall - American Poems

There's one more installment to go, probably tomorrow, on poetry conferences and M.F.A. programs. But in the visitor comments last time, K gave us a fine poem by the late Jane Kenyon. In response, I offer this one, by her surviving husband, Donald Hall. For me, it has something important in common with Robert Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays."

It's possible that Hall doesn't need every detail prior to the final line; but rhythm, music, along with timing and preparation are subtle matters. If you listen for places where his vowel sounds and meter really enhance the showing and the telling, I think you'll find some. I'm willing to pay tribute to these horses for the fairly short time Donald Hall asks of me. In the poem as a whole, I find an unusual dignity, decorum, elegance, and much of that has to do with the solemn pacing of Hall's tribute.

Besides, the last line has always given me shivers. The list of names strikes me as a daring move by Hall, but I still think it works perfectly as an elegiac conclusion. In the end, how much more praise can we offer than naming the departed? At some point, reciting a list of honors becomes a tedious show. Whatever else the guy was, he was James. Pointing out that he was summa cum laude might almost be an insult. He was not some Latin phrase; he was not Vice Present of Trinket Manipulation; he was James.

Name of Horses - A poem by Donald Hall - American Poems

I came across "Names of Horses" around 1980, which, I think, predates Donald Hall's meeting and courting of Jane Kenyon, never mind her illness and death; so those with a penchant for the biographical should not try to read the poem as a tribute to her. (For that, by the way, Hall has an entire book: The Best Day The Worst Day.)



I cannot explain away the misuse of "lay" just before the final line. It should be "laid"; there is a direct object. I cannot attribute the mistake to poetic license. License to do what? In three decades, shouldn't someone have caught it and changed it?

Tidbit: Bob Dylan's "Lay, lady, lay" is equally at fault grammatically. For reasons I'm unable to articulate, I can give Dylan the benefit of the doubt, but if we had never heard the line as we now know it, how un-musical or un-horny would it have sounded had Dylan given us "Lie, lady, lie/Lie across my big brass bed"?

Oh, I get it! Bad grammar is sexy. Without "lay" as a copulatory connotation and a demonstration that this guy is a man's man right out of the hills near Elkhorn City, Kentucky . . . without the cue of "lay," the girl might have thought he wanted her to take a nap. She might have wondered where the milk and cookies were. But no. This guy is no dreary philologist or that there girl would not be a layin' 'cross no brass bed, big, little or medium.

Gracious, one can miss so much in the pursuit of appropriate language.

Tidbit: in case someone is interested, we looked at another, very different Donald Hall poem here on November 10, 2010.

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13 comments:

Barbaro said...

Another very special poem--so understated and ordinary, yet so enchanting.

The names at the end are particularly powerful b/c of the title, which doesn't make sense until the last line, and that humans are nameless props reduced to a single anonymous "man."

Any possible sentimentality toward the end is earned through the almost obsessive fixation on work for most of the poem. Horses are not just pretty things in a pasture, or toys for thrill-rides, the poem reminds us over and over; they are lifelines.

I've tried many times to indulge in cynicism about horses, but it never takes. Over-exalted as they are, they're just too beautiful and powerful and unknowable to criticize.

altadenahiker said...

Jesus, don't make me cry first thing in the morning.

Banjo52 said...

I hear you both, loud and clear.

I now wonder if this poem was the beginning of my understanding of the power implicit in naming someone or something. In turn, I wonder if that's part of my need to know the names of birds. How close can you be to someone you can only address as "hey, you"? Why did I, at one time, want to find my own Cheers, where "everybody knows your name"? Corny, yes. True, yes.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

It's the names. When I had a horse, I kept it at a stable that ran an active rental string. Unlike our horses who were smothered with affection, protected from the elements, and beautifully named, these working horses went unrewarded. They had one syllable names like Red, Hoss, Buck and Pat. Their ending was worse. Painful, and without intervention.

"roots of pine trees pushed through the pale curves of your ribs,"

I see it / I love it (and it's not a rendering plant)

Banjo52 said...

PA, That's strong stuff. Thank you. I love those four names.

Paula said...

Maybe it's because a blogging pal just posted a photo of a litlle girl bun, mother of three small babies just days old, and who had her ears cut off for whatever reason, but I'm still kind of mentally numb from that. I keep thinking that the farmer really cared about that horse but had to do the practical thing...I hope and pray. There's so much animal cruelty.

Here are the kittens, so soft and perfect, cradled in their mother's fur:
http://theqipapers.blogspot.com/2011/02/02232011-extra-jimmies.html

bandit said...

Roscoe

Banjo52 said...

Bandit, Yep, I get it.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

Dina from Jerusalem answered a question for me on her blog when I enquired about the name of the horse Mohamad rode when he ascended to heaven from the gold mosque.

"Muhammad rode on a horse-like creature named al-Buraq. It means the lightning. In Hebrew we also say “barak” for lightning."

As in "Barak" Obama, (fascinating huh?)

Banjo52 said...

So language (as lightning) could bring people together and so could Barak, The Lightning, Obama, if both sides would just let him . . . ? Hey, I was an English major--don't fence me in. (get the horse reference? get it? get it?).

Kitty said...

Thanks for this poem, Banjo.

I love the details. And near the end, 'old toilers, soil makers'. Geez.

There is something about animals that work for humans that bring them closer to our hearts, I think. You feel that they are giving themselves to us, where in fact it's forced labor. They don't got no choice.

But any time you see or hear something about working horses or dogs, people act differently. I guess there is an inherent value to sacrifice.

Kitty said...

'It's possible that Hall doesn't need every detail prior to the final line; but rhythm, music, along with timing and preparation are subtle matters. If you listen for places where his vowel sounds and meter really enhance the showing and the telling, I think you'll find some. I'm willing to pay tribute to these horses for the fairly short time Donald Hall asks of me.'

btw, I completely agree. There is something about the pacing of the poem that makes me appreciate the detail. I didn't feel a bit of impatience, and not just because I love these animals.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

I've been putting together a post on horses. Came across a poem I wanted to attach to it - was pretty set on it, then I remembered this poem you put up. It's perfect for what I was thinking - next post

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