A Carnival of Losses

Pub Date:   |   Archive Date: 10 Aug 2018

Member Reviews

My mother just celebrated her 97th birthday and she's blessed with a quick mind and good physical health. All her siblings, most classmates and best friends are gone. It reminds me of the lost of parents and realizing that 'we' are next. 

Essayist and poet Donald Hall has all the words and when he writes it gives us a transcendent view of the highs and lows of later life. His memories provide consolation and the time to see the awesomeness in nature. 

As Simon and Garfunkel once crooned., Perserve your memories, they're all that's left you."
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Donald Hall not only reveals the challenges and joys of old age, but the quirks of human interaction. He talks about the way literary professionals, professors, heads of colleges, and the public at large talk to one another. He has a particularly keen sense of the disingenuousness that seems baked into human interactions. 
This is a well worthwhile collection of thoughts and anecdotes from a brilliant man.
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Actual review begins a few paragraphs down:

Learn From a Poet Who Spent His Life Stopping Time

A prolific author, Donald Hall, wrote about life and loss with exquisite care.

Posted Aug 05, 2018 

Today I will share an interview I did some time ago with a writer who died recently. In the book Writing in Flow, I scattered my subjects' comments about their creative process under different headings, whereas here you will read a full transcript of responses to my flow-related queries.

Donald Hall, a former U.S. Poet Laureate, was the author of over 50 books, including children's literature, biography, memoir, essays, and 22 volumes of poetry. Much of his work took his rural New England location as an inspiration. He died recently at age 89. Much of his work has a melancholy air, a sense of pre-grieving the inevitable losses we all encounter in our lives.

Hall's second, and much younger, wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, died of cancer in 1995 when she was only 47. He then wrote a poignant book of poems called Without. My husband bought a copy. I saw it on his night stand, but avoided it because I knew that reading these poems would stir up my own deep fears. I did finally dip into it, and as expected, the poems were profoundly moving.
Carnival Of Losses Bookcover used with permission of the publisher.
Source: Carnival Of Losses Bookcover used with permission of the publisher.

Hall's most recent work is a prose memoir called Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety. I knew such a book by such a superb writer would bring up for me all sorts of painful feelings about dying and loss. One paragraph called "Depravity" speaks of one of Hall's most awful memories, when, trying to bypass his three-year-old son to get back to his desk, he yelled to the little fellow that he was a bad boy. Those human errors we make, the ones we can never undo and never forget, leave a special kind of pain. Hall is a master of unsentimentally describing those, and I recommend this poignant memoir without reservation. 

The Interview

My correspondence with Donald Hall took place when he was 67. I sent him a batch of questions and he responded in writing. My first question was always about whether the author had experienced what I was describing as flow. Hall began his response by disputing my central metaphor.

    I don't like the metaphor of "flow" for "the activity" that is "self-rewarding and in which time feels altered." "Flow" sounds too passive, the force is in the stream, or in gravity.

    But I know a good bit about absorbing activity. Look at a book called Life Work (1993), in which I talk about work most of the time, and use the word "absorbedness," taking it from a conversation I had with an Indian in Bombay.

    I do have moments of passive receptivity in which I don't know anything about the passage of time, but they are fairly rare. When I was younger, I received drafts of poems from the mothership, often a little group of them in one period of inspiration, hours or days or weeks, and then needed to work on the poems daily for a couple of years to get them right.

    It is the daily work that I want to talk about. I enter the page in front of me. Time stops. I am utterly absorbed in the task, in the language, in the attempt to make an art—by metaphor, by cadence, by precision of language--everything I have learned in fifty-five years of trying to write poems.

    It is also true, but less so, when I write essays or headnotes for an anthology or children's books. The common denominator is the immersion in the struggle with language.

    But it is a struggle. It is not a flowing. It is incredibly concentrated mind work.

    It is also like a place, a country I live in or a house that I enter.


    Since Jane's death, I suppose it has been the only place in which I have been comfortable. For eleven months I have written about no other subject, and it is the only thing I look forward to—the hour or two in the morning, or three, when I can work on poems out of her death, and also a prose narrative that I am writing about her illness and death. It is typical that the prose is less absorbing—because there is less to attend to, less to take care of...but also it is not so far along. I am working on the fourth version of the prose. Some of the poems are up to more than a hundred drafts.

    I work every day of my life. I suppose that is about 355 days a year. Maybe a little more. I suppose that this has been true since about 1972, and that it was true from 1949 to 1963. I went through a bad patch there. There were two years when I could not work on poems, when I was about 35. Then there were years of depression and drinking when I wrote only at intervals or only when I felt like it. Now I feel like it every morning at about six a.m..

    So, more to the questions: I have the experience every day of losing track of time, though I do not want to be represented as having agreed that it is "flow."

    My pre-writing rituals are waking up, reading the paper, drinking coffee, and having breakfast.

    I become absorbed the moment I look at the first manuscript, typed up from its revision the day before.

    I look forward eagerly when I go to bed at night to waking up in the morning and getting back to the desk.


    Sometimes when I am looking at a manuscript for the fiftieth day in a row, say, I become very excited when I see a way to make a good change, when I notice that I need another image or movement there and have a notion of what it might be—it is no greater absorption but it is a greater excitement. A feeling of elation, perhaps mania. In writing prose, sometimes I can scratch away on dutiful filling out of the narrative for a while and then feel suddenly that I am hot—this is the closest thing to "flow"—and then write with greater speed and greater excitement for a while. Usually, these passages—passages written under this condition—need more cutting (mania?) but less rewriting for color. (Much of my prose is gray and gradually acquires color during revision.)

    The audience is always implicit. I write for the possible other. When I revise (which is every day) I need to think of what can possibly get through to another human being and what cannot possibly get through. I need to think of another human being when I remove repetition. I don't want to be boring—and the concept of being boring involves a potential reader. Everything does.

    I write longhand. I dictate the results and get something back that looks typed and neat, and then I mess it up. I dictate the changes, et cetera. Day after day.

    I don't have writing blocks. Sometimes I need to get up at four o'clock in order to take a seven o'clock airplane and thus I do not sit at the desk at six a.m. I usually scribble a bit in the airport or on the airplane. I hate a day without work.

(c) 1996, 2018 by Susan K. Perry
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My thanks to NetGalley for the opportunity to read and review this book. I expected more reflection, on the process and peculiarities of aging. I expected humor aka David Sedaris. I am at a loss to review A Carnival of,Losses except to, say I am most definitely in the minority with my dislike and disappointment of it and, therefore, will refrain from delineating my criticisms of this compilation  of notes and essays from the highly respected and praised respected and  Poet Laureate, Donald Hall.
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People call me an old soul. I’m not sure what I think of such a label, but I do know one thing- to be in the presence of individuals with depth, wisdom, and a wide range of life experiences makes my soul sing for days. I gravitate towards people who are real, genuine, and bold- people who teach me and challenge me simply through the gift of their time. It is with them that I feel most at home, where real conversations can begin.

A friend of mine recently discussed the importance of diversity in friendships and specifically focused on age. She shared that wisdom is real and younger people benefit from spending time with those older than themselves. In addition, older people benefit by soaking up the enthusiasm, joy, and freedom infused into the souls of young people.  I quite agree.

Don Hall’s newest book of essays, published only weeks after his death, shares beautiful insight into growing old.  He discusses feelings of invisibility, that people stop seeing, really seeing you as you age. His language throughout is beautiful as he explores lying “back in the generous comfort of solitude” and articulates the differences between loneliness and solitude. Reading his book was like sitting down with a good friend and I enjoyed every single moment.
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I’m getting to the age that I read things about getting old. Not the advice that AARP sends out but essays by writers who are comfortably ahead of me on the march to 100. Donald Hall, the former poet laureate, delivered two such volumes of late, Essays After Eighty and A Carnival of Losses (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018), the latter written as he was nearing 90. (Hall died last month, on June 23.)

Essays After Eighty addressed old age more expansively, and humorously, than A Carnival of Losses. The new book has qualities of leftover stew: warmed-up reminiscences and bits and pieces that were probably in the literary root cellar, such as his recollections of poets. It’s still a delightful read, but if I were to recommend only a single title, it would be Essays After Eighty.
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Donald Hall shows the rest of us what talent, tenacity and thought can produce from a treasured US poet laureate, now in his nineties. He mines his memory to reflect upon events and people in a way that is often poignant and funny. Slyly, he includes a section on poets that he has admired who may not have received the accolades they deserved when alive. Slyly, because, I will go and seek out their works – just as Mr. Hall intended! As always, his descriptions of people, his homes and even his daily routines makes one want to visit him…. which may make him feel flattered and threatened! So do the next best thing, enjoy his writing and his outlook on life.
Highly recommended (as is all his prior work, most recently Essays after Eighty.)
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Hall’s late wife, Jane Kenyon, is one of my favorite contemporary poets, so I have a soft spot for Hall anyway, but when I read his essay “Between Solitude and Loneliness” in The New Yorker a couple of years ago I was brought to my knees. This essay is now a chapter in A Carnival of Losses, and it’s a pretty great example of what you will find in this book, which is basically one part grieving love story, one part reflection on things past, one part shaking his fist at God, and one part Andy Rooney curmudgeonliness. It’s also a book about aging and continuing to write as one does. Simply put: It’s a heartbreaking beauty of a book.
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Nothing new here, but I'll always enjoy reading Hall's musings.
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