You can’t fire up the time machine hot enough ever fully to bring back the glory days of old—though they came close Thursday night at the Institute Library.
The occasion was a chautauqua in miniature: the reading of an essay written by a local civic figure about a famous local poet whose work has moved, perhaps even obsessed him, for 35 years.
It was the kind of evening you might have encountered at the Institute Library, a downtown New Haven treasure hidden a block from the Green upstairs at 847 Chapel St., back in its heyday. That would have been in the 1800s, when the institution was founded as a private lending library, where New Haveners of all walks of life could share in a love of books and, in the pre-TV, pre-Internet age, talk about them.
The library, after facing extinction, has come back strong in recent years. Under a dedicated new director, Will Baker, it has boosted membership from 194 to 560 in the last two years alone. It has become a site for local art exhibits and—as in days of yore—discussions about literature.
Thursday night’s was the latest such event. Will Ginsberg, whose day job is running the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, read an essayistic encomium about the life and work of Hamden-born poet Donald Hall to an appreciative audience of 35 people in the library’s comfortably old-fashioned main reading room.
In doing so he helped to revive an early tradition of the library’s founders, young working men who in 1826 formed their group as a cultural outlet and in part to read to each other their own creative compositions. Over decades they turned the library into an important cultural and democratic center that attracted the likes of Frederick Douglass and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Will Baker said Will Ginsberg’s talk was perhaps the third given by members in an evolving informal tradition that, along with the Institute’s art exhibitions poetry, and other cultural events, is taking the revived library back into the future.
Ironically, Ginsberg’s presentation centered on a man whose work bemoaned the passing of a world that will never come back: Donald Hall, a local boy who has gone on to become the country’s poet laureate and, most recently, in 2011 received the national Medal of Arts from President Obama. Hall wrote of his despair over his native town’s descent from rural paradise to suburban kitsch.
(Click on the play arrow to the video at the top of the story to watch Ginsberg recite Hall’s “Sleeping Giant.”)
Ginsberg first encountered Hall’s work in 1975 when Hall published “Kicking the Leaves,” a long poem on the op-ed page of The New York Times.
As a Trinity College student at the time, Ginsberg was drawn to “the landscape of the heart” that Hall limns in that poem and many others: the sense of loss of a pastoral, even magical childhood (captured in “Sleeping Giant”), the glistening bottles of milk on Hamden doorsteps (Hall comes from the Brock-Hall dairy family); and the palette of autumnal colors with which Hall writes.
Hall bemoans how commerce and development turned an idyllic dairy farming area into what he termed the ticky-tack suburb of the Hamden of today, Ginsberg noted.
Hall didn’t even return the pride Hamdenites displayed when they celebrated his career in September 2011 at Miller Library. Instead he celebrates life in New Hampshire, where he spent summers as a boy on a farm owned by his mother’s family. That, combined with making himself an acolyte to Robert Frost even as a young teenager writer, sealed the deal for Hall as far as Hamden was concerned.
Or as Ginsberg put it: “If New Hampshire is his muse, Hamden and the suburban surroundings”—with their like-looking housing and like-thinking people—“are his literary foil” to New Hampshire’s crusty, independent, living-still-close-to-nature folks.
Ginsberg, who unlike Hall professes deep affection for Hamden and the local area (“East Rock is to me what Mt. Kearsarge [in N. Hampshire] was to him”), used his essay to work through his problem with Hall’s message to an acceptance: He’ll share Hall’s “landscape of the heart” while he politely disagrees on issues of the “landscape of place.”
An audience member Thursday night asked Ginsberg if he were interested in sending the essay or communicating his point to Hall, now 86. The answer was no.
Did Ginsberg want to grow his essay into a longer work? No.
How about a biography of Hall? No.
Would he at least send the essay to Hall to read? Again No.
Would he consider writing poetry himself?
Thanks for the compliment, Ginsberg replied, but again ... no.
Poet Hall would most certainly have appreciated such clear, independent, know-what-you-want minded thinking. Positively New Hampshire-ish.