The Laurels

1. We liked Ted Kooser and we’re sorry to see him step aside, but LitKicks heartily approves of Donald Hall as the the new United States Poet Laureate.

Donald Hall is one of the better poets around, and certainly rises above the mediocre ranks of the established names. His lyrical style is quite sharp and straightforward, and he’s superbly economical (the white space on the page plays a big role in many Donald Hall poems). His voice is never flowery or airy, but neither does he indulge in sweaty vulgarity like many poets who fear being flowery or airy. He simply writes in a clear and level voice, and his poems often work as stories or vignettes. Like Jorie Graham (who must be wondering how long she has to wait before getting this cushy gig), he writes plain-speaking verse that’s strong and sometimes blunt. And like Allen Ginsberg (with whom he has little else in common) Hall conjures up a spiritual maelstrom with his swirling images and words.

Hall has had a long career. After experimenting with a variety of poetic approaches for several decades, including an excellent long poem called Baseball built around a formal obsession with the number nine (nine innings, nine verses, nine lines), Hall’s work took a turn for the utterly personal with his most recent and possibly most acclaimed book, Without. Hall was married to poet Jane Kenyon, and Without is the story of her death. It’s a powerful and universal tale, reminiscent of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. But Hall’s poetic treatment is exceptional for its extreme minimalism and brutal simplicity. Without is a slim wisp of a book that yields surprising detonations of emotion.

The Beiderbecke Affair has more info on this poet, who may or may not prove to be an activist Poet Laureate. Nobody’s sure what to do with the position, and we at LitKicks are disappointed that, once again, an incoming Poet Laureate does not appear to be willing to actually appear at important occasions with a crown of leaves around his head. We think this would result in great photographs and we’d all have a good laugh.

One hopes Hall will use his position to promote poetry as a popular form, and that’s why our only note of concern involves this line from the New York Times article on Donald Hall’s appointment:

“I’d like to encourage NPR to pay more attention to poetry,” he said, referring to public radio, “and the cable networks, with the possibility of HBO doing something.”

An incoming U. S. Poet Laureate really should know that HBO has already done something for poetry: it’s called Def Poetry Jam and it’s a great series, though there was not a literary journal or website in the world besides LitKicks that bothered to take it seriously. This is the kind of thing Hall should get behind. Get studying, Laureate.

2. An album of new songs by Bob Dylan, who will always be my own personal poet laureate, will be released on August 29. Some song titles have been revealed, and if “When The Deal Goes Down”, “Workingman’s Blues” and “Thunder on the Mountain” are any indication, Dylan is still pursuing the deep Americana roots vibe that dominated his last two albums. He’s also apparently still stealing ideas from the Grateful Dead (“Deal”, “Workingman’s Dead”, “Fire on the Mountain”), which is really okay with me since it tends to improve his music. A Dylanologist friend of mine also pointed out that the album’s title, Modern Times, refers to Charlie Chaplin’s famous satirical film.

The timing of this release is interesting. Dylan’s last album, Love and Theft, was released on September 11, 2001 (one of two great albums released on that day; Jay-Z’s Blueprint was the other). Modern Times appears just two weeks short of five years later.

Some people love Dylan, some people don’t, and few ever cross this line (although even many people who hate Dylan can’t resist Blood on the Tracks). I hope the new album is as good as the last two. If not there’s always 2011.

One Response

  1. Everything is a CircleI’ve
    Everything is a Circle

    I’ve noticed the word “carny” a lot lately, whenever I read about Bob Dylan. His claim of running away as a child to join the circus is apparently something he made up, but of course, he did run away to join the big scene. It’s almost like he is two different people to me. I’ve heard him sing really good and really bad. I’m pretty sure he does it on purpose. In my opinion, Bob Dylan has written some of the greatest songs ever. Subterranean Homesick Blues and Tangled Up In Blue are two of my favorites.

    I saw Dylan perform outdoors here in Jacksonville, Florida at Metropolitan Park, when he toured with Willie Nelson about a year ago, and damn if it didn’t have a carnival atmosphere. People walking around eating sausage dogs and cotton candy, fathers and mothers with little kids on their shoulders, teenagers conspiring. The music was superb. Dylan and Willie, well, you know, they have distinctive voices and we were happy to be in their presence. A couple of geezers you would love to hang out with.

    Then I remembered – it’s always at a carnival where magic happens. Ray Bradbury wrote a great story about that; you know, behind the arcane facade are the elusive mysteries – things of the imagination that turn out to be real. Or something.

    The geezers take on a profound illumination. Or something.

    The Def Poetry Jam partly carries on this tradition and partly adds something new. In the 1960’s it was unhip to admit you were trying to make money with your art. Nobody on Def Poetry is silly enough to pretend they don’t want to get paid. I know I do. But commercial does not mean superficial. When that perfect blend is achieved, when someone can reach the masses and say something meaningful and important, that is a kind of alchemy. I’m looking forward to the next season of Def Poetry and, Levi, I’m counting on you to keep us posted.

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What We're Up To ...

Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!