Oct. 2, 2007

The Hunkering

by Donald Hall

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Poem: "The Hunkering" by Donald Hall, from White Apples and the Taste of Stone: Selected Poems 1946-2006. © Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The Hunkering

In October the red leaves going brown heap and
over hayfield and dirt road, over garden and circular

and rise in a curl of wind disheveled as
at recess, school just starting and summer done,

white quiet beginning in ice on the windshield, in
hard frost
that only blue asters survive, and in the long houses
that once

more tighten themselves for darkness and
hunker down.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of comedian Groucho Marx, born in New York City (1890), who said, "I don't care to belong to any club that will have me as a member."

It's the birthday of writer Graham Greene, (books by this author) born in Hertfordshire, England (1904), who said he was an agnostic, but he converted to Catholicism in order to marry his wife, and after publishing a series of lightweight thrillers, he began to work Catholic themes into his books. In 1938, he went to Mexico to cover the persecution of Catholics by socialist revolutionaries. He saw religious icons being destroyed and priests being assassinated, and that inspired his first great novel, The Power and the Glory (1940), about a fallen, alcoholic priest, who once fathered a child with a parishioner, but who risks his life going to from village to village to hear confessions and give baptisms. His novel The End of the Affair (1951) is about a devoutly Catholic man having an adulterous affair in the middle of the London Blitz. Greene based the novel on his own life. He should have been killed during the London Blitz when a bomb fell directly on his house, but he was visiting his mistress at the time, saved by his own infidelity.

Graham Greene realized early in his writing career that if he wrote just 500 words a day, he would have written several million words in just a few decades. So he developed a routine of writing for exactly two hours every day, and he was so strict about stopping after exactly two hours that he often stopped writing in the middle of a sentence. And at that pace, he managed to publish 26 novels, as well as numerous short stories, plays, screenplays, memoirs, and travel books. He said, "We are all of us resigned to death: it's life we aren't resigned to."

It's the birthday of poet Wallace Stevens, (books by this author) born in Reading, Pennsylvania (1879), who worked for years as an executive at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, before he ever published any poetry. He woke up early every day and read for a few hours and then composed his poems in his head while walking to work. Almost no one at his office knew that he was a poet, but he occasionally wrote down an obscure word on a piece of paper and asked someone to go look it up in the biggest dictionary they could find and copy out every single definition. No one ever asked him why.

Stevens published his first book of poems Harmonium in 1923 when he was 45 years old. The book got almost no attention at the time, but many of the poems have become classics, including "Sunday Morning," "Disillusionment of Ten O'clock," "Peter Quince at the Clavier," and "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird."

We don't know much about Stevens's personal life because his wife destroyed most of his letters and journals after his death. But literary critics interviewed a lot of the people who knew Stevens, including his company chauffeur, who said that Stevens often got big shipments of gramophone records from Europe, he liked to go to greenhouses to look at exotic flowers, and he rarely spoke. The chauffeur said, "He was just looking around all the time — the scenery and stuff like that."

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