from New Letters, Volume 78 Nos. 3 & 4 (Spring 2012)
Visits to Washington have punctuated my life. I watched a victory parade in 1945. In my old age, the WaPo suggested I might be a yeti. My last trip was the most memorable, early in March 2011, when I received the National Medal of Arts. My companion Linda and I came down a few days early to look at paintings and sculpture—mostly the National Gallery, the Hirshhorn, and the Phillips. I can't stand long, so Linda has pushed me in a wheelchair through ten-thousand museums. On the day of the medal, she wheeled me from the Willard InterContinental Hotel to the White House. Waiting at the entrance to go through security, I looked up to see Philip Roth, whom I recognized from long ago. I admired all his novels. He saw me in the wheelchair—my enormous beard and erupting hair, my body wracked with antiquity—and said, "I haven't seen you for fifty years!" How did he know me? We had met in George Plimpton's living room in the 1950s. I praised what he wrote about George in a late novel. He seemed pleased, and glanced down at me in the chair. "How are you doing?" I told him fine, ''I'm still working."
He said, "What else is there?"
* * *
In 1945, when I was sixteen, I took the train to the old Union Station, District of Columbia, where my Exeter friend Ted Lewis picked me up. The railroad station was a lofty cement cathedral, like city depots everywhere before airplanes took over. Ted drove us to the family flat in Alexandria, where I met his parents and his younger brother Jay. Ted Lewis Sr. wrote a Washington column for the New York Daily News, an old liberal serving up conservative opinions for his bosses. He was cynical, sharp, and funny. For a week my friend and I talked and drove around. He brought me to a Saturday night YMCA dance, where I flirted with a pretty girl not quite sixteen. She told me she was a Methodist. Cocky and elder, I condescended to tell her about Dr. Method and Mr. Ist, of whom she had not heard. Ted showed me the District, taking me to the Lincoln and the Jefferson memorials, and to Washington's penis on the Mall. We never looked into the National Gallery or the Library of Congress or the White House. One thing we did no one would ever do again. Ted and Jay and I stood at the edge of Pennsylvania Avenue for Eisenhower's homecoming parade. Not long after VE Day (not long before VJ Day) the general rode past us standing upright in the back of a convertible with his arms arc'd over his head in the victory sign. We cheered him, celebrating the end of a long and murderous war. None of us voted for Ike when he ran for president. None of us forgot the parade.
My next trip to the District of Columbia was twenty-four years later, November 15, 1969, in the company of my teenage son Andrew. From Ann Arbor, where I taught, we rode all night on a bus to march against the Vietnam War and President Nixon—before Watergate, before the resignation. I don't remember much of our demonstration except for the hordes alighting from buses, mostly from college campuses, to parade with honorable, noisy enthusiasm. In those days we wore long hair whether we were fifteen or forty-one.
I remember passing the Justice Department, delighting in the notion that John and Martha Mitchell were quaking above us. I saw the Lewises again. On the telephone I had told Ted what Andrew and I were doing; he and his father asked us to the Press Club for lunch. Privileged, at mid-day we edged from the multitude and entered the dining room where our friends were waiting. Just inside the door we saw two men at a table, and I was surprised to recognize one of them. It was Charles Waldo Bailey II, whom I had known at Exeter, a bright and supercilious boy who had become a journalist, Washington correspondent for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Chuck Bailey wore a suit as his tablemate did, as did the rest of the room. Andrew and I dangled pigtails, wearing T-shirts that attested to our politics—like our beads, like our rude buttons. ("Make Love Not War" was the least offensive.) When Bailey looked up from his table in response to my greeting, he was as cold as his Manhattan on the rocks. His companion glared at a bottle of ginger ale. I was annoyed at Bailey, and when we joined the Lewises I spoke of his rudeness. Ted's father squinted across the room. "He's having lunch," he told us, "with Ron Ziegler." We knew the name of Nixon's press secretary.
After Ziegler left the table, doubtless to conceal plans for bombing Cambodia, Charles Waldo Bailey II walked to our table and was cordial.
I did not return until my wife, Jane Kenyon, and I flew to Jimmy Carter's poetry do, in January of 1980. The president himself had not yet published his book of poems, but it was known that he liked the stuff. A year before Reagan took over, the Carters decided to honor American poets. Jane and I circled the White House in a taxi looking for our entrance, and passed a bunch of tourists waiting outside to pass through security. "Look at the poets," I laughed, "trying to get in." When the taxi followed our directions, we joined the poets trying to get in.
The poetic crowd was huge. There must have been sixty poets and each brought a guest. The line budged slowly toward its destination. I seemed to recognize the face in front of me, surely from a book jacket. Then I realized that he was the best-selling poet of the era, Rod McKuen, who wrote Listen to the Warm. In every generation there is one poet whom high school boys read to high school girls in order to get into their pants. In my day, it was Walter Benton, whose This Is My Beloved was endorsed by the anthologist Louis Untermeyer in publishers' ads ("I certainly do not find these poems pornographic"), which swept a teenage mob into bookstores. Rod McKuen's poems didn't approach pornography—but didn't approach Hallmark either. The White House had asked the National Endowment for the Arts to list poets for invitation, and the original list did not include McKuen. Pressure crashed on the NEA—from furious agents and publicists, and from Congress, which controls the budget. Rod McKuen stood in line.
A dozen poets read their poems, in groups of three. Jane and I were not among the readers, so we listened to Phil Levine and his gang. Afterward we gathered to mingle, chatting and drinking white wine. I had not seen John Ashbery or Adrienne Rich for years; they had been my classmates at Harvard. We talked to my old friend Jim Wright who walked with a cane. (Soon I saw him at Mount Sinai, then at a hospice in the Bronx where he died.) There were Anne Sexton, Robert Hayden, Bob Creeley, and De Snodgrass. We shook the president's hand. He greeted us all, looking in our eyes, asking where we came from. Of course he expected everybody to be a professor, but by that time I had resigned from Michigan and moved to an old family house. When I told him "New Hampshire" he said, "Dartmouth?" with a little nod of his head. I was flustered and named my hometown, "Wilmot." He said, "Oh," almost as if he remembered Wilmot State. There is not even a store in Wilmot.
* * *
The National Endowment for the Arts was established by Congress in 1965, when Lyndon Johnson was president. It gives grants to artists and to arts institutions: painters and museums, writers and publishers. Late in the 1980s, I returned to Washington for NEA panels, once to support poets with fellowships, another time to fund literary organizations. Then in 1991 I became an NEA councilor. (I took the job in order to defend obscene art from congressional attack.) I spent boring sessions in the NEA quarters at the Old Post Office, and attended the 1991 White House ceremony for the National Medal of Arts. I sat in an auditorium to observe Bush the First bestow the medals. (I had seen him before, in 1948, when I was a Harvard freshman, and the WWII veteran played first base for Yale.) As Bush stood on a raised platform, I watched a Marine help the country singer Roy Acuff climb two steps for the bestowal. I do not remember some of the honorees, but others included the painter Richard Diebenkorn, the dancer Pearl Primus, and the violinist Isaac Stern. The president said a word or two—this oilman from Texas with a desiccated Ivy League accent—and put a bemedaled ribbon around each neck. In the receiving line, I shook Bush's hand. (Jane wouldn't touch my hand for a week.) We repaired to another room for lunch. The president made mild introductory remarks, and lunch was exemplary. During coffee, Bush rose, rapping on his water glass with a spoon. "Well," he said, "I don't know about you artists, but I have work to do." We murmured the required laugh. "You're all heroes of the arts," Bush continued. "But there are other heroes, too. Fifty years ago Joe DiMaggio hit in fifty-six straight games, and Ted Williams batted .406." He swept his arm toward the end of the room, and we turned to see Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams standing in the doorway smiling. The artist-heroes leapt in a standing ovation. Isaac Stern, short and plump and old, thundered his palms with gusto—while the tall men in the doorway disappeared as swiftly as they had arrived.
In time the word spread. That afternoon the president's work would fly him with Williams and DiMaggio to the All-Star Game in Toronto.
In 1995 Jane died of leukemia. I grieved, I mourned, I wrote about her. I read her poems and mine at colleges and conferences. For a year I was poet laureate, which allowed me more of Washington's museums. The Library of Congress was welcoming and helpful, but I was not a productive PLOTUS, and resigned after one year. I returned to the District with Linda for an interview with Diane Rehm. I returned for my daughter Philippa's fiftieth birthday party. I finished my last book of poems.
Then, in February 2011, came a telephone call from the current director of the NEA. President Obama would award me a National Medal of Arts on March 2nd. I would go back to the District of Columbia, to be adorned as twenty years earlier I had watched Bush the First do the deed. Recipients in 2011 included several musical sorts—Van Cliburn, James Taylor, Sonny Rollins—as well as directors and biographers and institutions. Meryl Streep could not attend because she was being Margaret Thatcher in London. Ella Baff received an arts medal on behalf of Jacob's Pillow and its dancers. The National Endowment for the Humanities honored its recipients on the same occasion, and somehow included three novelists. Philip Roth had already received the arts medal, during the Clinton administration, and I delighted to find two other literary friends—Joyce Carol Oates and Wendell Berry. I asked a humanities administrator why novelists belonged to humanities not to art, and she told me that no one had any idea.
The night before the awards, the two endowments sponsored a huge, fatuous, black-tie dinner, I suppose an annual perk for ill-paid staffers. The high point of the evening was the Indian filmmaker Mira Nair, with her elegant keynote address. All of us were splendidly outfitted. It was shocking to see Wendell in an immaculate rented tuxedo instead of his usual overalls. Linda had bought a long and fancy dress with a sparkly top, which cost her $37.45 at a consignment shop. My formalwear was a fifty-year-old acrylic tux, a plain white shirt, and a clip-on tie.
Next afternoon, we arrived at the White House an hour before the ceremony. Men and women in uniform gave us a brief tour of decorative rooms, then took us to the empty East Room, where we would receive our medals. Each of us sat in a proscribed chair, and we rehearsed protocol—how we would climb to the platform, how we would turn toward the president, how we would return to our seats. A small Marine practiced saying our names aloud. Van Cliburn corrected a vowel. Mark di Suvero gave detailed instruction. My name was no problem. Most of us wore dark suits. Sonny Rollins wore a flowing red silk shirt and Mark di Suvero a bright red jacket. Ella Baff's shoes were equally red. I had planned to use my one remaining suit, blue silk bought in Bombay in 1993, but the pants no longer fit. My poet laureate outfit and my gray flannels had been perforated by moths. I wore khakis, and found a black jacket which would cover my white shirt from the night before. I added a cherished red silk necktie.
We waited next door while the guests arrived and took their seats. Then we marched in order down the center aisle to take our seats up front. The band stopped, and we were applauded. Michelle Obama sat in the front row wearing a shiny green dress. The president in a grave suit entered past a table heaped with medals. He declared that this occasion was more pleasing than most of his work. He praised the centrality of art and literature, and talked of Robert Frost's visit to Russia, and of Portnoy's Complaint. Mostly, all I could hear was my heartbeat. When he stopped, the Marine summoned us each by name, and identified me as a former Lorit. A military man took my arm to help me step up two stairs, as I had seen another do for Roy Acuff. I told the president how much I admired him. He hugged my shoulder and bent speaking several sentences into my left ear, which is totally deaf. When my friends watched on the net, seeing the president address me, they asked what he had said. I told them that he said either, "Your work is immeasurably great," or "All your stuff is disgusting crap," but I couldn't make out which.
He draped a purple ribbon around my neck from which hung a heavy, gold-colored medal, and the soldier helped me step down. When all of us had been honored, we returned up the aisle we had descended. I gave Nancy Pelosi a thumbs-up. We returned to the room next door and the First Lady joined us. We lined up to be photographed, first all together, then singly between our host and hostess. Each of us posed for two seconds and was replaced by the next medalist. It was a few weeks before I received the ten-by-twelve signed (as it were) by Barack and Michelle Obama. "Thank you for years of inspiring work!" One Size Fits All. In the picture they both grin gorgeously—while I am perpetually unable to smile when posing for a photograph. I look as sour as Dick Cheney, sinking between two tall, elegant figures.
We exited into an area where we met the rest of the world. I hugged Linda, and Allison my granddaughter, who had studied English at Vassar. I saw friends I didn't expect, and mingled with the medal-wearers. We had been silent and shy. We drank some nonalcoholic liquid, and after ten minutes it was as if we had drained a dozen martinis. Everyone became loud, friendly, and jolly. I told James Taylor that we once sat on a platform together, not aware of each other's line of work. I chatted with Joyce Carol Oates, and happily greeted Wendell Berry. Mark di Suvero, Ella Baff, and Van Cliburn bubbled. Sonny Rollins was quiet and the best to talk with. My son had attended his 9/11 concert, so I brought him my son's gratitude. Linda sat chatting with him about politics and literature for half an hour; they exchanged addresses and later letters. Allison moved among writers and musicians she had read and listened to. Everybody took photographs of everybody standing with everybody.
Gradually we diminished. Our exhausted party returned to the Willard. My agents took us out for dinner with the Berrys. Allison at twenty-three was carded for her glass of wine. Wendell, who insisted on being carded also, sat opposite my beautiful granddaughter, and chatted with us all. His laugh makes the best sound in the universe. After dinner, when a taxi took my family back to the Willard, I completed my crowded day with customary aplomb. Stone sober, I fell down as I stepped out of the taxi, and a bellhop caught me mid-air.
When I left Washington this time, more than sixty years after Eisenhower's parade, it was doubtless my final departure. I cherish my visits over the decades—marching against another war, Jimmy Carter's party, defending unacceptable art, honors for Isaac Stern, the apparition of baseball heroes, President Obama's embrace—but nothing in human life is unmixed, and honors inevitably bring on self-doubt. Everyone knows that all medals are rubber. During his victory parade, did Eisenhower consider that Omar Bradley was possibly the better general? My daughter enjoyed her birthday party, but of course she thought of aging. A friend who won the Pulitzer told me that if she also won the National Book Award, she would know that her work was unredeemable. In 2011 the District of Columbia sent me home feeling not only worthless but ecstatic.
The next day I got back to writing. What else was there? Well, there was anticlimax. When Linda and I returned to my house, we found a stack of five Concord Monitors, the local paper. Top of the first page was a photograph of the president looming over me, hanging the medal around my neck. My mouth is open in life's widest smile as I confront the neatly dressed Obama in my sports coat and khakis, with my frizzy hair and reckless beard. I thought it was the best photograph of my life. It must have been Alexandra Petri's favorite, too, who blogs for the Washington Post. She graduated from Harvard in 2010, fifty-nine years after I did. Posting the joyous picture, she identified me, called me a poet, and assured her audience that I was not a yeti. She announced a contest for a caption. Entry upon entry rolled in, uniformly gormless and gleeful with ridicule. Then there were reactions. I was defended as a poet, and flattered despite my appearance. People had met me; people had heard me say my poems. Philip Terzian wrote a kind essay in The Weekly Standard—but attacked the Washington Post as liberal. An Alaskan eye picked it up, and Sarah Palin blogged to defend a nameless "eighty-two-year-old cancer survivor" against the WaPo. Of course I enjoyed the attention, an extra scoop on my ice cream cone.
With our increasing longevity, Ms. Petri should live to be a hundred. May she grow a beard.
* * *
About the Author
Donald Hall served as U.S. poet laureate in 2006. He has published numerous books of poetry and prose, most recently White Apples and the Taste of Stone: Selected Poems 1946-2006 (Houghton Mifflin, 2006) and The Painted Bed (Houghton Mifflin, 2002). His book The One Day (Ticknor & Fields, 1988) won the National Book Critics Circle Award and a Pulitzer Prize nomination. He lives in Wilmot, New Hampshire.
University of Missouri - Kansas City
Editor: Robert Stewart
Administrative Director: Betsy Beasley
Editorial Assistant: Ashley Kaine