Photograph by Bea Garth
Bard Under The Radar
Remembering Greg Hall, 1946–2009
By Stephen Kessler
WHEN SOMEONE close to you dies, it's always strange, even if they were old and in poor health, and you knew it was coming. When the deceased is a longtime friend, an exact contemporary and a peer in your shared obscure line of work, someone you spoke with over the phone the day before and who was no drunker than usual and otherwise in good health as far as you knew—when he is suddenly found dead in his San Jose cottage, apparently of a heart attack, at 62, your grief and disbelief are of a different order of magnitude.
Greg Hall, at one time one of the most prodigiously gifted poets in this area, unexpectedly left this world last Tuesday, June 23. He had phoned me Monday, and we'd spoken for maybe a half hour about everything and nothing—that is, mostly about poetry in one manifestation or another, about the small miracle that we and a few friends were still doing it after all this time, about the curious consolation it is to devote one's life to such a marginal yet essential mode of creation.
In the 1970s, Hall was a star, alternately inspiring and exasperating fellow poets with his brilliant imagination, his gentleness, his humility and his wit. I was certainly one who wondered, in the competitive way of poets, how I might ever write poems so brimming with reality and a seemingly effortless way of making the wildest connections and juxtapositions—as in "Juan Marichal's left foot sinks over the Golden Gate," an image of the high-kicking delivery of the great Giants pitcher as an event as cosmic as the setting sun—seem completely natural and inevitable.
Working in those days on a series of manual portable typewriters, later on one computer or another, Hall went through periods of self-doubt or spiritual conversion often enough to discard writings that he no longer believed in, and surely threw away more excellent original poems than most poets write in a lifetime. He was not attached to the material world, his own works included. He was constantly recycling his books and music, living in tiny cottages in Santa Cruz or spare apartments in San Jose or Campbell, working in hospitals or nursing homes as an orderly, a technician, an administrator, and on his own time constantly reading a vast range of books—poetry, history, philosophy, fiction, biography—and writing, writing, writing.
He was one of those rare poets not only totally authentic in his devotion to the art but, even rarer, utterly indifferent to public recognition. He had no ambition to publish. In 40 years he put out just two small collections from small presses (Flame People from Santa Cruz's Green Horse Press and Inamorata from Tollbooth Press in Redwood City) and hardly ever appeared in magazines (exceptions include Silicon Valley's Montserrat Review and my own Redwood Coast Review and Alcatraz). His only ambition was to serve his muses: poetry, music, art, alcohol and cigarettes.
That he lived as long as he did under the circumstances is an accomplishment in itself.
That he lived uncorrupted by the culture of publishing yet generously and successfully shared his work with a diverse circle of friends and colleagues, and that the work itself sustained over four decades, through all its changes and variations, a uniquely integral expression of his mystery-smitten spirit, is even more worthy of admiration.
Poetry has lost one of its truest souls, and hardly anyone will ever know.
There is another me a mystery me watching myself live and die —Greg Hall
San Jose poet Greg Hall will be remembered in a memorial Sunday, July 19, at 6pm at WORKS/San Jose Gallery, 451 S. First St., San Jose.
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