September 20, 2016
Today is the birthday of the American poet Donald Hall whose attempt to establish the canon of postwar American and British poetry with his Contemporary Poets of England and America, 1957, a collection of the best young poets of the day. In 1960 Donald Allen, however, published his anthology, The New American Poetry, which collected an entirely different set of poets. The two anthologies battled it out for much of the 1960s to see who were the real living canonical poets of the day.
Here is a poem Donald Hall wrote during the Cold War and the waning days of African colonialism.
Men with crew-cuts
are impossible, like
ice shows. In airport bars, all winter,
holding stand-by tickets,
they wait for a plane into the next territory
over the Oriental mind.
Later, they want to drop eggs on the Russians.
Later, they want
to keep violence out of the streets
by installing a machine-gun-nest on every corner.
When they talk about women, they are discussing
a subjugated race
rumored to have cached away
huge quantities of ammunition.
They lounge on the porch of the Planter’s Club,
in darkest Africa,
pith helmets over their crew-cuts, drinking pink gins,
and laughing at jokes about stupid natives,
while the tom-toms start to beat
in a million kitchens,
and the sky lightens
with a storm of Russians with hair
down to their shoulders,
as inscrutable as the Chinese,
and as merciless
Hall is one of those genteel poets of the middle 20th century who wrote in a conservative style but who could wallop you with an unexpected punch. His poem here, from the Cold War era presents a well-known philosophy and approach to life in American life over the last few decades, and Hall presents this philosophy with deliberate clichés and stereotypes. The men with crew-cuts are simply “impossible” for the speaker. Take a look and how they would keep the streets safe from violence. We’ve seen these people all around us, right? And usually these types have the same old attitude toward women and toward “natives” as in the poem. Where do we find these people? Well, Hall tells us where, and among all those these crew-cutted men most undesireable white guys are Russians or Russian wannabes with hair hanging down all over the place, unlike neat, razor-sharp crew cuts.
Happy birthday, Donald Hall, born this date in 1928.