Breakfast Served Any Time All Day: Essays on Poetry New and Selected

Breakfast Served Any Time All Day: Essays on Poetry New and Selected

by Donald Hall


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Breakfast Served Any Time All Day collects forty years of writings on poetry in one essential volume by master of American letters Donald Hall.

Praise for Breakfast Served:

". . . the essays in this book are engaging, passionate, strange, and unified. Hall has been around a long time, and you can trace the concerns of a generation through the mind of this one man: questions about the diminished scope of poetry, the diminished ambitions of poets, how a poem 'means,' etc. . . . . Criticism . . . is an exercise in sanity, of which these essays are a splendid and useful example."

"A luminous and essential volume about the sensuality of language, its pleasures and sounds."

"It is in this merger of a poet's biography and a poem's body that Hall does his best work. . . . [Breakfast Served Any Time All Day] has an undeniably infectious quality to it. Finishing it, you cannot help but want to return to your bookshelf, and read-again or for the first time-the great forgotten poems of our past."
-Nathan Greenwood Thompson, Rain Taxi

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780472068524
Publisher: University of Michigan Press
Publication date: 09/15/2004
Series: Poets on Poetry Series
Pages: 232
Sales rank: 702,625
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Donald Hall, the founding editor of the Poets on Poetry series from the University of Michigan Press, is the recipient of numerous accolades, including a National Book Critics Circle Award and two Guggenheim Fellowships. He lives in New Hampshire.

Read an Excerpt

Breakfast Served Any Time All Day: Essays on Poetry New and Selected

By Donald Hall

University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2003 Donald Hall
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0472098527

The Unsayable Said

Poems are pleasure first: bodily pleasure, a deliciousness of the senses. Mostly, poems end by saying something (even the unsayable) but they start as the body's joy, like making love. Sometimes a poem provides nothing for paraphrase, but gives pleasure:

Baa, baa,

black sheep,

Have you any wool?

Yes, sir. Yes, sir.

Three bags full.
Maybe these words once referred to taxation, but we hear them now without being tempted to explanation or translation. Instead, we chew on them, taste them, and dance to them. This banquet or ballet starts in the crib, before arithmetic or thought. Everyone was once an infant who took mouth-pleasure in gurgle and shriek, accompanied by muscle-joy as small limbs clenched and unclenched. Poetry starts from the crib. A thousand years later, John Donne makes lovers into compasses, T. S. Eliot contemplates the still point of the turning world, and Elizabeth Bishop remembers sitting as a child in the dentist's waiting room; but if these poets did not retain the mouth-pleasure of a baby's autistic utterance--pleasure in vowels on the tongue, pleasure in changes of volume and pause: Baa, baa, black sheep-- we would not receive their meditations and urgencies.

The body is poetry's door; the sounds of words--thrust of legs and arms, riches in the mouth--let us into the house.

Styles of architecture: In his spiritual grammar, Walt Whitman often wrote long complex sentences: The first sentence of "Out of the Cradle" is two hundred and eight words, arranged into twenty-two lines so that its subject, verb, and object wait until the last three lines. But the same poet could make a poem both brief and simple: This is "A Farm Picture"--all of it:

Through the ample open door of the peaceful

country barn,

A sunlit pasture field with cattle and horses feeding,

And haze and vista, and the far horizon fading away.
It's merely a picture, an incomplete sentence--yet if we read it with an appropriate slow sensuous attentiveness, these lines fill us with a luminous beauty. The reader's mouth dwells in luxury on the three long ays of the last line. But pleasure does not reside only in the mouth: Feel the balance of heavy words in the first two lines--three and three, three and three--then the slight variation in the last line, with "haze and vista" and "far horizon fading away. "The mouth lolls among diphthongs like a sunbather.

Readers who enjoy this small poem don't think about its balances and variations; we feel them, the way we feel a musical theme that returns slightly altered: expectation fulfilled and denied. With this poem as with the black sheep, we don't paraphrase; we take "A Farm Picture" for what it calls itself. But if we notice that the poem first appeared as the Civil War was ending in 1865, we may find the word peaceful emphatic. We speculate; speculation does no harm when it acknowledges itself. What the reader must not do (and what the classroom often encourages): We must never assume that the poem, appearing simple, hides an intellectual statement that only professionals are equipped to explicate.

It's true: When we read poems we often feel more emotion than we can reasonably account for. If Whitman's little poem pleases us much, it pleases us more than paraphrase can explain. (To paraphrase this poem we are driven to synonyms--"Through the wide unclosed portal"--which serve only to show that synonyms do not exist.) Feeling bodily pleasure and fulfillment, feeling rightness beyond reason, feeling contentment or even bliss--we cannot account for the extremity of our satisfaction. By its art of saying the unsayable, poetry produces a response in excess of the discernible stimulus.

Pursuing the architectural analogy, I want to call this response the secret room. Friends of mine bought an old house in the country, a warren of small rooms, and after they furnished it and settled down, they became aware that their floor plan made no sense. Peeling off some wallpaper they found a door that pried open to reveal a tiny room, sealed off and hidden, goodness knows why: It was not a station on the underground railway. They found no corpses nor stolen goods. The unsayable builds a secret room, in the best poems, which shows in the excess of feeling over paraphrase. This room is not a Hidden Meaning, to be paraphrased by the intellect; it conceals itself from reasonable explanation. The secret room is something to acknowledge, accept, and honor in a silence of assent; the secret room is where the unsayable gathers, and it is poetry's uniqueness.

Poets are literal-minded, and poetry depends, even when it names marvelous and impossible things, on a literal mind. On the other hand, the conventional intellect wants to translate particulars into abstractions, as if images were allegorical; such translation is the grave error of the philosophers. The unsayable speaks only through the untranslated image and its noises. When we read Blake's "O Rose, thou art sick!" it is useless to ask, "What does 'Rose' mean? What does 'sick' mean?" Good readers imagine a rose and entertain notions of illness, possibly beginning with a plant canker and continuing to a blossom on a breathing tube, or--more historically--petals bled by leeches. When Emily Dickinson writes that "Death . . . kindly stopped for me," we listen to a story in which a horse and carriage-- the figure of mortality holding the reins--pause to pick up a walker. We must see the figure. Thomas Hardy, wandering as an old man in a graveyard, speculates on the vegetation growing from graves: Parts of a yew tree must be somebody his grandfather knew, because the yew grows from the burial place. Wandering further he sees a bush by the grave of a girl he knew when he was a young man:

And the fair girl long ago

Whom I vainly tried to know

May be entering this rose.
Here we have two kinds of literalness: Hardy speculates on molecular survival, particles of the girl's body turned into botanical nutrients; but take the lines into the imagination, and we watch her molecules enter the rose as a living woman walks through the portals of a church, or as a penis enters a vagina. The poetry, saying the unsayable, resides in the two ways of seeing or understanding brought (impossibly) together.

Anything that can be thoroughly said in prose might as well be said in prose. The everyday intellect remains satisfied with abstraction and explanation in prose; the poetic mentality wants more. In narrative poems, the poetry adds the secret (unsayable) room of feeling and tone to the sayable story. Philosophy in its more logical incarnations strives to eliminate powers of association because they are subjective and uncontrollable. Poetry, on the other hand, wants to address the whole matter of the human-- including fact and logic, but also the body with its senses, and above all the harsh and soft complexities of emotion. Our senses, excited by sound and picture, assimilate records of feeling that are also passages to feeling. Poems tell stories; poems recount ideas; but poems embody feeling. Because emotion is illogical--in logic opposites cannot both be true; in the life of feeling, we love and hate together--the poem exists to say the unsayable. Contradictory reality, embodied in language, depends on distinctions and associations. If Hardy told us that the fair girl "Might be marching into this cactus," his associations would have failed him--and we would not read his poem. Marianne Moore finds poetry in definition: "Nor was he insincere in saying, 'Make my house your inn.' / Inns are not residences." Sometimes definitions, plain in talk, combine logical impossibility with ironic witness, as in Geoffrey Hill:

this is a raging solitude of desire,

this is the chorus of obscene consent,

this is a single voice of perfect praise.
Poems embody the coexistence of opposites that together form an identity; the Roman poet Catullus wrote, "odi et amo": I hate and I love.

We come to poetry for the pleasure of its body, but also for the accuracy and confirmation of its feeling. When we grieve we go to poems that grieve; but mostly we read poetry for the love of it, not in search of consolation. In the act of reading, we exercise or practice emotion, griefs and joys, erotic transport and the anguish of loss--as if poems were academies of feeling, as if in reading poems we practiced emotion and understandings of emotion. Poetry by its bodily, mental, and emotional complex educates the sensibility, thinking and feeling appropriately melded together.

Words are to poems as stone to the stone-carving sculptor. When we say that we are parking the car we use the material of poetry; we are not speaking poetry, any more than the contractor, using granite for a pediment, makes sculpture. Poetry is the only art that uses as its material something that everyone uses--and this commonness is both a strength of poetry and an impediment to reading it. Poetry is not talk. It sounds like talk. At least from Wordsworth on, or even from Dante, it has been a commonplace that speech is our material--but poetry is talk altered into art, speech slowed down and attended to, words arranged for the reader who contracts to read them for their own whole heft of noises and associations. If we try reading poetry with our eyes, as we learn to read newspapers, we miss its bodiliness as well as the history bodied into its words. Reading with care, so that a wholeness of language engages a wholeness of reading body and reading mind, we absorb poetry not with our eyes only, nor with our ears. We read with our mouths that cherish vowel and consonant; we read with our limbed muscles that enact the dance of the poem's rhythm; we read alert to the history and context of words. Robert Creeley's poem ends:

Be for me, like rain,

the getting out

of the tiredness, the fatuousness, the semi-

lust of intentional indifference.

Be wet

with a decent happiness.
When we read these lines with the slow attention we give to Whitman or to Hill, this rain sinks in.

All of us can ask directions or remark that it looks like snow. When we wish to embody in language a complex of feelings or sensations or ideas, we fall into inarticulateness; attempting to speak, in the heat of love or argument, we say nothing or we say what we do not intend. Poets encounter inarticulateness as much as anybody, or maybe more: They are aware of the word's inadequacy because they spend their lives struggling to say the unsayable. From time to time, in decades of devotion to their art, poets succeed in defeating the enemies of ignorance, deceit, and ugliness. The poets we honor most are those who--by studious imagination, by continuous connection to the sensuous body, and by spirit steeped in the practice and learning of language--say the unsayable.


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