Last night at a (great) party, I had a rambling chat with a freakishly talented poet about our mutual friend, James Baker Hall. Today an old friend let me know that he’s just died.
Jim wrote poetry, at its very best in Mother on the Other Side of the World and Praeder’s Letters. He took fine art photographs. Then, back when it was all new, a little group of writers sprouted at UK, among them Jim, Wendell Berry, and Bobbie Ann Mason. Jim’s work was the most radical, and took the longest time to get recognition. He wrote from tragedy, his strange family history and his own struggle of decades to get his tongue untied, as he would say.
He taught, too. I studied with him in grad school for just one class. I was messed up then and didn’t know it, so my writing betrayed me. He called me one Saturday early to save my writer’s soul. I’d been out til 4 the last night, so I sounded like a half-comatose mess when the phone woke me. We met a couple of hours later, after he’d driven to Lexington to run on a treadmill (which I still find funny). He met me in a blue track suit with a stack of my writing. We made small talk and then he started going through it. He held up a couple of pages and swept his hand over them: “this is soo good!” He held up a stack: “But this is all shit!” Eventually we got to the stuff I didn’t know, which had nothing to do with writing.
There’s more. I haven’t seen him in years. He’s often in my head (better yet my ear).