Curtains On the Wall: The Poetry of Hazel Hall

A stylized photo of Hazel Hall

“All art is political.” Oh, yawn. Not again with the politics. Why are people occasioned to state this? Would it be any different to claim that all art is religious? That where one sees politics another sees Jesus? What would be the difference? Allow me to explain. Not about politics or religion, as that is a different essay. But rather, I immediately was reminded of Hazel Hall, a poet who has been largely overlooked, but my hope is that future readership will alter this.

Hall was not a political poet. (Nor was she particularly religious for that matter.) In fact, her poems are, on surface, easy to overlook. Many involve her love of stitching or the sound of footfalls, or even watching others walk. She is, in fact, anti-political. Why? Because she remains outside the regular clamor and din of political chatter. Spending much her life within a wheelchair, Hazel Hall is the utmost poet of observation. She sat and looked and reflected, and then wrote about it later. Who knew her? Who looked up into that window that housed this not so silent woman? Many compare her to Emily Dickinson, and there are indeed some similarities. Both engaged in reclusive lifestyles. Both wrote in a somewhat rhyming form (which you will see later), and neither longed to engage much past their private windows. Hall perhaps had more opportunity to engage others, but with so little known of her, readers can’t be sure.

Born in 1886 in St. Paul, Minnesota, this is indeed where I found her. In a Minnesota bookstore one summer, I stumbled across The Collected Poems of Hazel Hall, which is divided into three sections. 1) Curtains, 2) Walkers and 3) Cry of Time. At the time of my purchase, I knew nothing of her. I pulled her book from the shelf only to read it later. Hall isn’t a poet that is often ‘gotten’ upon first encounter. And I say this as someone who admittedly (and shamefully) didn’t quite notice her intricacy upon primary examination. Did I read too quickly? Or was my mind too dismissive? Ultimately, her rhyming verse can be mistaken for something much simpler than what it really is. As example, I share with you her poem “Footsteps”:

They pass so close, the people on the street;
Footfall, footfall;
I know them from their footsteps’ pulsing beat;
Footfall, footfall;
The tripping, lingering and the heavy feet;
I hear them call:

I am the dance of youth, and life is fair!
Footfall, footfall;
I am a dream, divinely unaware!
Footfall, footfall;
I am the burden of an old despair!

In Hazel Hall’s world, hands are always stitching and mending, while feet are always falling. Children are lost and the wind is loud. And those around her are always in search of something that she herself finds ungraspable. Footfalls—she hears them clamoring around her and so she feels compelled to comment. In the above poem, footsteps overtake in their ritual, as though they have a magic cast to them, perhaps. This dreamy, divine quality, this ability with which she cannot share—and she does so at a distance, from her window or from her wheelchair.

Take this poem titled “Pedestrian”:

Do you have a yesterday—
Do you look for a tomorrow?
Curious, you exist for me
Only in the infectious sorrow
Of your passing. Unyesterdayed,
Untomorrowed, you pass by,
And in the lingering tragedy
Of a moment, live and die.

This is a profoundly insightful poem. Here, we are given Hall’s perspective with regards to a random pedestrian—and we do not know any age or description. Hence, the effective title resides in the nebulous. Instead, this individual is seen at a distance, and not just a physical distance, but as something ephemeral. It is as though this pedestrian only lives and will only ever live within her observant eye. Without past or future—the individual exists within the present only—her present, until of course the only ‘lingering’ therein is the single moment of life and death at once. (Imagine when one has stopped at a rest stop while on a road trip, and there are strangers there that one sees and will never see again. Hazel Hall is expressing a similar sentiment.)

Yet, Hall continually returns to these themes—ideas of loneliness, isolation, feeling lost, and her own sense of distance as a sort of presence. As example, consider her poem, “A Child Is Lost”:

Perhaps the night wind will be tender
And will minister to her,
And the moon will come to send her
Light to see a twisted fir.
(The clouds are thick and do not stir.)
Stars may strew the black road over,
Tinting it bit by darling bit,
(The skies are low and still unlit.)
And the wild dark may but love her
Who knows no ill of it.

Once again, we are given a wonderful work of verse that could be easily overlooked upon first glance. The rhymes are simple, yet they work in succession and ideas that otherwise could easily drift into cliché by a lesser poet are avoided. Here, it is almost as though the ‘wild dark’ takes on a life and a comfort of its own, guiding the child tenderly back to safety. Just as Hall is often compared to Emily Dickinson, she is a vastly different poet in her own right. While not as daring as Dickinson overall, Hall manages to avoid some of the lesser moments that at times accompany Dickinson’s. This poem is simple without being simplistic. In fact, it is more complex than one might realize.

And the moon will come to send her
Light to see a twisted fir.

Hazel Hall uses ‘light’ and ‘dark’ as factual details rather than as something more nebulous or awe inspiring. The dark is not representing badness or evil as is done in cliché, and the light is not implying anything of grandeur. Rather, both merely are and act as nothing more than a guide, perhaps? A comfort? (And not in the clichéd ‘guided by the light’ way.) Moreover, that the child is on the receiving end—she ‘knows no ill of it.’ And the reason poems as these are easy to overlook is due to the rather simple nature of the subject, coupled with the gentle rhyme. But in looking further, one can see how complex Hall’s work is, proving that one not need write some political screed in order to get some point across. Rather, Hall manages to successfully capture childhood vulnerability and innocence within 10 short lines.

Hall is the observational poet, which admittedly sounds redundant, as all poets are observational in their own self. Yet with Hall, those around her appear moving while she is seated still. From the passers by on the street, to the shadows upon the hills, the ever-moving feet—even her hands seem to move more than she. Consider her poem “Blue Hills”:

There were eyes before mine
That lifted to the hills,
And drank from their blue distance
The quiet that fulfills.

You who found appeasement
In the hills’ deep blue,
Has the final darkness
Brought wiser rest to you?

This poem instantly brought to mind Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” (albeit much shorter) wherein Whitman is looking to the future, while Hall is looking to the past. Here, Hall recognizes ‘There were eyes before mine’ and once again she avoids cliché by using the much fresher modifier ‘final’ before ‘darkness’, immediately following the mention of the hills’ ‘deep blue’. The line can be read as both a metaphorical reference to death but also the literal darkness upon the hills due to the setting sun. Hall is acknowledging those who, having lived before her, have witnessed the very same hills as she, just as Whitman is acknowledging those who will live generations hence and will witness the same river or sky as he.

All writing is dependent upon craft in order to succeed. Neither politics nor sentiment can save it in the long term if the craft is absent. Hazel Hall demonstrates herself as an important poet that illustrates this point. Topics that would otherwise be dismissed as ‘simple’ or ‘commonplace’ or ‘ordinary’ are subverted and redeemed by her deft wordplay and her clever rhyme. As example, her rhyming of the words ‘blue’ and ‘you’ would otherwise be predictable if done by a lesser poet. But her last line of ‘Brought wiser rest to you’ inverts the predictability. One can only wonder if she’d been encouraged throughout her life, if she would have grown more daring with time.

Consider the following poem with a rather banal title:


Sometimes when I am long alone
I wonder what is loneliness—
This silence like a deep bell’s tone
These moments, motionless?

This hush above the nervous street?
Removed as is the tree that stands,
Hill-high, with burrowing root-feet
And boughs like reaching hands.

As in my blood I feel life press,
Like sap into the frailest bough,
I think if such is loneliness
Then I am lonely now.

The first part of the poem begins rather factually and then:

This silence like a deep bell’s tone
These moments, motionless?

How many inferior writers would have reached for the cliché—the ‘silent echo’ or the ‘dark shadow’ or aloneness ‘entrapping me in darkness’? How many variations of those paltry phrases have you seen by lesser writers? Such is practically a prerequisite for all bad teenage poetry ever written and yet, Hall subverts these moments that could have easily veered into cliché, for she redeems them with fresh modifiers such as ‘nervous street’ and ‘reaching hands’ (as opposed to a cliché such as ‘quivering lips’). Readers must understand that a cliché is an idea or a phrase or trope that has been not only done to death (cliché! Haha!) but also one that attempts to evoke emotion when there is none. Clichés are the result of a lazy writer who 1) can’t think of her own original metaphors so she relies on what has already been done many times before and 2) the writer lacks the means to convey pathos in any meaningful way, and so then is forced to use banal phrases in some poor attempt to counteract this.

Invariably, this title, while rather banal in itself, works well for this poem due to Hazel Hall’s skill and fresh approach. 99,999 times if I saw a poem with this title I would likely not bother to read it, but then Hall is the lone exception. This proves the first rule of writing or any art—that there is no rule. To apply formula is to fail. Once again, in gleaning over her simple use of rhyme and marveling just how well she works it, one can see Hall is not only an excellent poet in her own right, but a must read for all new and young poets. Why?

1) Her work is short, thus no daunting narratives that one becomes lost in.

2)  She composes simple moments and themes and utilizes them to her own complexity.

3) Her modifiers are fresh and she shows how one can subvert cliché and lastly–

4) Her good use of music.

However, it is unfortunate that Hall was unable to live a longer, more productive life. With having died at only 38, one must wonder where her poems might have taken her. Perhaps she could have expanded into longer narrative or more philosophical themes? Depth certainly did not evade her. As is, Hazel Hall is an important poet for one’s literary growth and understanding. Greatly underrated, she deserves more readership—and mindfully so. I encourage all to engage her Collected Poems. Or would such prove to be too political?

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