Donald Hall on the Ambition of Poets
A Critical Look at Contemporary Poetry
In his essay, "Poetry and Ambition," former poet laureate, Donald Hall, offers sixteen points about the appropriateness of ambition in the lives of poets. As he focuses on this issue, he levels some important criticism at contemporary poets and poetry. Hall's first point claims, "I see no reason to spend your life writing poems unless your goal is to write great poems." In recommending "ambition" for poets, he defines the term to filter out the negative connotations that render the meaning to be more akin to "over-ambition."
Hall says, "True ambition in a poet seeks fame in the old sense, to make words that live forever." He argues that poets need to focus more on the poems than on themselves. Hall decries the ubiquity of poetry writing workshops that turn out poems like an assembly line; he calls these poems "McPoems." And Hall is most emphatic about this point as he nearly rages, "Abolish the M.F.A.! What a ringing slogan for a new Cato: Iowa delenda est!" He seems to be attempting to eviscerate the well-known Iowa Writers' Workshop with his sharp quip. Hall then emphasizes the advice from Horace's "Ars Poetica":
. . . but let them not come forth
Till the ninth ripening year mature their worth.
You may correct what in your closet lies:
If published, it irrevocably flies.
The poet then asserts that poets must not put out their works until they have spent 10 years working on them! He mentions Alexander Pope, who composing seventeen centuries later managed to cut the time to a short five years instead of ten. Hall would now pare that time down to at least eighteen months before publishing. He is convinced that the value of a poem can only be vetted with proper time and nurture.
Hall supports this claim with an idea from Robert Frost, asserting that poets should give more attention to each poem than to be concerned about how many poems they have published. Frost has admonished: "It's only when you get far enough away from your work to begin to be critical of it yourself that anyone else's criticism can be tolerable." Frost insisted that students should bring to class only their old pieces, which have lost the false golden patina that impairs the vision of the would-be poet to detect the flaws of his piece.
It is this fact of the necessity of time that makes impossible the efficacy of "workshopping." While attending the workshop, the participants have to compose immediately for assignments. Because writers get their models mostly from the examples they have read, "it is essential for poets, all the time, to read and reread the great ones." For the teachers of the workshops, this task becomes difficult because they are always busy reading the work of immature writers—their students.
For students, they are too busy trying to garner peer praise, that they lose their ambition to make great poems, in favor of pleasing other immature writers. Hall praises poets who "stay outside the circle of peers," pointing to Whitman, who did not attend Harvard, and Dickinson who lived a cloistered life, and Robert Frost, "who dropped out of two colleges to make his own way."
Lone Wolf vs Poet Companions
The Robert Frost reference is especially useful because Frost referred to himself as a lone wolf, as Hall calls these independent minded poets. Yet Hall does contradict himself slightly when he claims that most poets need the companionship of other poets. Hall points to Wordsworth and Coleridge, Williams, H.D, and Pound, himself, Robert Bly, Adrienne Rich, and John Ashbery as examples of poets who thrived because they had poet friends.
Considering the names of the last three, one might be tempted to adhere more to the lone wolf status: with friends like the poetasters Bly, Rich, and Ashbery—who could tolerate enemies! Still the main point Hall makes in this essay is a valid one, when he admonishes poets to make the poem more important than fame and vast quantities of publications. Hall's assignment for poet is, "Be as good a poet as George Herbert. Take as long as you wish."
Introduction to Donald Hall
© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes