Today, Hazel Hall is an almost-forgotten poet, but in the early 20th century, she’d written for some of the biggest publications of her day: Harper’s, The New Republic, The Boston Evening Transcript, The Nation, and others. Residing in Portland, Oregon, and sickly from adolescence (reminiscent, in that sense, of Elizabeth Barrett Browning), she spent much of her life paralytically confined to room and window, watching, as she would, all else around her birr. Thus, her subjects tended towards people (or rather, their images), sewing, and moments that, had she the opportunity to experience things a little differently, might have been larger, deeper, more expansive.
But such wondering is pointless, and Hazel Hall is quite good despite it all — excellent, even, in her best poems, with the occasional great flourish that reads like a classic what-if? moment. Yes, her poems are usually too ‘small,’ both in subject and accomplishment, to ever be called visionary, in the deeper sense, but they do have a kind of small-v vision, a way of looking at the world that, when compounded over time, is uniquely Hall’s. That’s because so much of her content is, rather than mere repetition, closer to being a slightly new angle from which to view the same basic idea. Loneliness, for instance, is treated sadly, or given a sinister edge, or a hopeful one, depending on the poem; people are interesting, and living fully, or pitiful and ignorant of such, refracting Hall’s own moods; sewing needles can be weapons in one poem, or almost personified as a ‘seeker’ in another, to the point that the narrator, being a seeker, herself, implicitly casts doubt on her own knowledge of things. Thus, after reading a few dozen or so of her poems, they really get condensed by the mind into 2-3 larger ideas. You may take that as a flaw or boon, but it’s undeniable that even her lesser work has a way of insinuating into the reader, even if some of the specifics are ultimately forgotten.
Hazel Hall, then, is an example of an artist who, barred from most kinds of life experiences, still had enough of an inner life to extrapolate into the rest of the world, and richly, at that. This is both uncommon and instructive, for it sheds light on talent in a way that strips away any real context, proving that, for all the silly attempts critics often make in ‘understanding’ a writer’s life to get to the bottom of WHY the art was able to be created, in the first place, talent (and its expression, really) is a mere crap-shoot, and knows NOTHING of its entry and egress, into or from whomever ultimately gets to indulge it.
It’s also interesting that, after many decades’ time, Hazel Hall is still very much a niche poet, affecting, as she does, only the occasional women’s studies course, and other academic events. She has not entered into the public consciousness like, say, Emily Dickinson, nor permanently affected human culture in the way Sylvia Plath has. And I suspect this has as much to do with luck, vis-a-vis how much of art ascends or falls by mere taste (at least within the first century or two of its publication), her own limits as a writer, but also — and just as importantly — the direction women’s studies has taken. Sure, Sylvia Plath was a fucked up, lonely human being, and perhaps as lonely as Hall was, but Plath had a clear, easily-discerned enemy in the form of Ted Hughes. He could, correctly, be blamed for many of Plath’s ills, as part of a neat, almost ready-made narrative for her poetry (which is rarely understood, anyway, and therefore given an unnecessary biographical crutch by the ignorant).
Yet Hazel Hall had no enemy, and was, more or less, a victim of accidents, genetics, and a generally poor situation. She was therefore helpless and she was dependent — a big no-no when you’re trying to celebrate ‘resistance’ in others, for there is no oppression, no points to be scored, no battles. There’s only you, the common denominator of every failure or success. And despite what’s often thought, those in the middle of some sociopolitical ascent (Jews after World War II, women since the last couple of centuries) wish to weed out all weakness, all ideas that they are not co-equals, in every sense. Can I prove this? No, at least not in Hall’s case, but it’s been documented in so many areas, at other times, both in vast historical dramas, as well as in minor, day-to-day interactions, that it’s probable that those who aim to GAIN do not wish to deal with baggage — especially not obscure, self-needling baggage, as Hazel Hall’s work is. This is, by its nature, a rule, and exceptions, by their nature, are uncommon.
Anyway, on to the poems, and why they end up working so well:
Stitches running up a seam
Are not like feet beside a stream,
And the thread that swishes after
Is not at all like human laughter.
Yet stitches are as quick as feet,
Leaping from a rocky pleat
To seams that slip like marshy ground;
And thread-swish has a hollow sound.
Stitches that have a seam to sew
Must not forget the way they go,
While feet that find the cool earth sweet
Have forgotten they are feet,
And a laugher cares not why
His echoes have a haunted cry.
So stitches running up a seam
Are not like feet beside a stream,
And the thread that swishes after
Is not at all like echoed laughter.
At bottom, this is a very good, Classical take on loneliness, modernized by the occasional sarcastic, almost sinister jab at the narrator. Note, for instance, how the first two couplets lull the reader into a sense of complacency, only to play with these expectations at poem’s end, for there’s merely a simple rhyme, and an innocent contrast (“are not like feet”/”is not at all…”). By the middle of the first stanza, however, “Yet” signals a counterpoint: that sewing is as good as the experience on the outside (thinly veiled biography, that), but with the occasional word (“slip,” “hollow”) which signals that not everything’s alright. A good poem requires one to read it multiple times to extract its meaning, and this is an example of a subtle touch that can’t really be heard until later, when the poem’s meaning comes clear, and prior lines must ring a little differently.
The second stanza gives stitches and feet a human-like quality, revealing the poem’s first real swing at depth. Yet it’s really the line that calls up the “laugher” which changes the poem’s direction. In short, the narrator spends a long time establishing needs and responsibilities, not only for her instruments (feet, stitches), but herself, as a ruse to later expose: “And a laugher cares not why/ His echoes have a haunted cry.” It is THIS that matters most, for all else seems disconnected, while the poem’s first 4 lines, now repeated, at last, take on a wholly new meaning, contradicting the original one. It’s an inversion of classical tropes that works on aesthetic (repetition; rhyme; complacency/familiarity) and philosophical levels, for the reader expects but never gets what is expected. This is a technique that’s easily replicated by those in the know, but so poorly understood that it’s rarely done, despite the fact that the our ‘aesthetic’ portions so heavily subsist on contrasts. If only New Formalist silliness could get a clue from Hazel Hall, and take similar risks!
Needle, running in and out,
In and out, in and out,
Do you know what you’re about,
In and out, in and out?
Fingers, going to and fro,
To and fro, to and fro,
Do you know what path you go?
To and fro, to and fro?
I might tell you why you’re taking
Such good stitches: You are making
Out of linen, fine as breaking
Ocean-spray upon a bluff
Pleating for a Bishop’s cuff!
I might make you understand
That a bishop’s white, white hand,
Because of you will be more fair,
Will be raised in better prayer.
Even then would you know
Why you’re going to and fro?
Would you doubt what you’re about,
Running in and running out?
If the first poem deals with loneliness, as it relates to what the narrator can never know, then this poem deals with said knowledge (or people’s interpretation of it) whenever it’s accepted at face value. Sure, the idea’s done in a pretty light-hearted way, but the number of inverted cliches (“Do you know what you’re about,” which has an unusual number of layers; ‘holy’ whiteness literally, as opposed to figuratively, growing fairer), the rhythm — emulating the needles’ snickersnee — and, as before, the Classical repetition which, unlike most ‘formal’ poems, packs an emotive punch with just a few minor syntactical changes, the religious posture that, from all its plainness, better plays off of the final stanza’s deeper questions, thus justifying its prosaic feel. Yet it is also a poem that magnifies in power when read across Hall’s other work, for implicit here is a comment on ALL of her narrators and their concerns. In short, despite the title, the narrator addresses both needles (as if condescendingly) and fingers (thus self-deprecating), a narrative thread that’s unexpected from the opening stanza’s surety, only to later deal with the same themes that cut across Hall’s work, in general.
I have raised my hands to rain,
Raised my hands until my lifting
Fingers, like warm snow, seemed drifting
Into rain, becoming rain.
I have given all my hands.
Rain has taken them and made
Out of them a liquid shade
To lay upon a place of sands.
What stirred in my pulse now sighs
In the long sigh of the rain;
What was restlessness will rain
Against some woman’s windowpane
And make a woman close her eyes.
What my fingers had of shape
Is a curve of blowing light,
Moving in unhurried flight,
With the rain, to its escape.
Yet what have I given rain,
Who have felt the edge of rain
Fray my fingers, who have striven
To give much, what have I given
But a little moving pain?
And what have I more, what boast
Of a meaning may I keep,
Who am weary as a sheep
And slightly pleasured like a ghost?
One of Hall’s more mysterious poems, the basic thrust takes ‘rain’ as a metaphor (wisely never explained, but merely given a few possibilities) and puts it into different situations, forcing the reader to see how this metaphor might adapt. The first stanza establishes this pattern, yet also has a classic Hall touch (“warm snow”) that, with its definite, immediately understandable image, keeps it veering off to mere tangent, as such abstract starts are so often wont to do. So, the first potential problem is avoided, with still more to come. Stanza 2 starts with a wonderful little line: “I have given all my hands,” the last word being unexpected, and suffocating a cliche (‘love,’ ‘effort,’ ‘pain,’ or whatever) before it’s had the chance to birth, followed by yet another inversion via “place of sands” — calling forth the biblical image, but without the banal wording, yet being subtle enough to refer to multiple things at once. Stanza 3 veers away from the narrator’s own experience (or does it? ‘a woman,’ after all, could refer to anyone, which is why it works so well), while stanza 4’s magisterial “blowing light” offsets, interestingly, the more self-effacing “what my fingers had of shape,” with similar phrasings to come in stanzas 5 and 6. The last line, especially, is a bittersweet end, for despite the narrator’s “pleasure,” it just doesn’t add up, neither with what precedes it, nor the last word, double-edged, as it is, in its overall meaning.
Given all of the above, Hazel Hall, while clearly a ‘formalist’ poet — back when the word meant something of value! — was also unafraid to take risks, play with readers’ expectations, and strive for something deeper, in meaning and construction. It’s a shame she’s not more read, but just as with the widely misinterpreted Sylvia Plath, how much would it matter, really? One is a virtual unknown, and the other carelessly misread. Yet one fate’s better. One’s a kind of guarantee, even if the details are only rarely right.
[Hazel Hall’s Collected Poems is available via John Witte’s editorship.]