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A Poet Laureate Sends News From the End of Life

Hall lived in T-shirts and sweatpants because other clothes became too hard to button, zip and pull over the head. Sweats weren’t so bad, he reasoned; they reminded him of baseball pants. To the end he smoked, or rather vaped. When he couldn’t sleep he woke up, sipped water, relieved himself into a bottle and read a paragraph in The Economist. This is an insomnia-banishing trick one might have to try.

When a dog came into the house, Hall barricaded himself, so as not to get bumped and break a hip. He ate “widower food,” Stouffer’s and Lean Cuisine. He sensed his agent was about to become his executor. He could barely read or write. “Striving to pay the mortgage in the late 1970s and ’80s, some years I published four books,” he says. “Now it takes me a month to finish 700 words. Here they are.”

He watched MSNBC when Boston Red Sox games weren’t on. He reports a dark moment in a hospital where the TV did not get MSNBC. He writes: “I got my news by processing Fox News backward.” He was mischievous, politically. When the Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown moved to New Hampshire in order to run for Senate in 2014, Hall published, in a local newspaper, the final poem of his career. It read in its entirety:

Get out of town,
You featherheaded carpetbagging Wall St. clown,
Scott Brown!

Not one for the ages, perhaps, but The Boston Globe reprinted it. Hall adds: “Somebody put it on the internet and it went bacterial.”

The poet James Merrill said that if poems are chopsticks and radishes and sashimi on a plate, prose is fish guts and cleavers. Hall does not, in “A Carnival of Losses,” wield much of a cleaver. He does not clamor for the last word in old disputes. He delivers short remembrances of writers he’s known, including Theodore Roethke, Seamus Heaney and Richard Wilbur.

His one-paragraph take on Kenneth Rexroth is typical. “I kept on admiring his poems as he kept on being nasty about me and my eastern gang,” Hall writes. “I thought of a happy revenge.” What was Hall’s idea of revenge? He wrote an essay celebrating Rexroth’s poetry in The New York Times Book Review.

It’s not as if he went to his grave a pushover. Hall was proud of his full, curling beard. When, during one of his final hospital stays, a nurse came into his room with electric clippers and tried to cut it, he reports, “I bit his hand.”

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