Tuesday, June 30, 2009

R.I.P.: James Baker Hall (also Some Bad Excuses and a Plotness Story)

So I thought I was going to write another blog post last week, but both my internet and my brain went down (electrical problems and a bad flu/cold). If I wanted to sound really pathetic, I would add that the dishwasher also went out, but it's not as a good an excuse.

Over the weekend, I found out that former Kentucky Poet Laureate James Baker Hall passed away.

Besides being Poet Laureate of his home state, he won numerous awards, including a Pushcart Prize, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and an O. Henry Prize. Hall wrote fiction, poetry, and was a professional photographer. He was married to novelist Mary Ann Taylor-Hall.

I know that among the many people who will feel Hall's loss are his students. I never studied under him, but I was fortunate enough to hear Hall read at my local library when he was making his Poet Laureate circuit. And that, by itself, was an education.

On the way to the reading, I ran into an older woman from my poetry group. She asked me what I thought about James Baker Hall. I made some innocuous remark about liking his work (I didn't mention the poems I couldn't understand), and she replied, "Well, I think he's a fox. A silver fox." I swear, if she knew how to growl, she would have.

I must have stepped back because she added, "That's something you'll understand when you reach my age."

It was a good reading. I wish my memory of it was clearer. I'm horrible at describing voices, but I know Hall's was distinctive, sort of deep and wry and gravelly. His head was round and balding, but his eyebrows were bushy and expressive and accented the sharp brightness of his eyes.

Most of the audience was silver-headed. Afterwards, when I asked Hall to sign my copy of Mother on the Other Side of the World, he squinted at me and said, "Do you write poetry?" At the time, I thought this was some kind of shaman-like poet's intuition. (Now I realize that I had been so young and eager that this was the obvious question to ask.)

"Yes," I confessed.

"Is it any good?" He raised one of those expressive eyebrows.

"I don't know. Maybe." (How do you answer a question like that?)

Then he smiled and signed my book and that was the end of that. I had thought I would be able attend another reading by Hall some time in the future, buy another book, get it signed as well, and maybe by that point I would have published enough poetry to have answered his question.

Obviously, that's not going to happen now.

Even by relative strangers in the dusty corners of poetry-writing, you are missed, Mr. Hall. You Silver Fox.

(Image from the University of Kentucky.)

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