All Our Work Holds Good

Rereading the poet Donald Hall’s beautiful children’s book Ox-Cart Man in a time of turmoil.

An image from the Ox-Cart Man.
Barbara Cooney

The celebrated poet Donald Hall died on June 23. Perhaps Hall’s most famous poem—certainly the one that reaches far beyond poetry’s usual readership—is the text of Ox-Cart Man, the children’s book illustrated by Barbara Cooney that won a Caldecott Medal in 1980. Ox-Cart Man tells the story of an early-19th-century farmer who takes his ox cart full of goods grown, gathered, and made by his family to Portsmouth Market, where he sells everything he’s brought—even the cart and ox. With the money, he buys a needle, a knife, a kettle, and two pounds of wintergreen peppermint candy, and walks back home to his farm. The book centers on the 10 autumn days it takes to walk to the market and the 10 days’ walk home, flashing back to the spring and summer months of shearing sheep, spinning yarn, weaving, knitting, planting, and harvesting, and then, upon his return to the farm, forward to the fall and winter work of carving a new ox yoke, making candles, boiling maple sap down, and then shearing, spinning, weaving, knitting, and planting all over again.

I study and teach 20th-century American poetry, and Ox-Cart Man was perhaps the first poem I ever read. Or rather, it was the first poem that was read to me. And Ox-Cart Man is still the poem that I read most frequently, because I read it to my own young daughter several times a week as one of her three going-to-bed books. Even before Hall’s death, I’d recently been crying as I read it aloud, without quite knowing why this book feels particularly apt, or sharp, right now.

Hall is often described as a poet of rural life and New Hampshire’s natural world, or, better, as the plain-spoken chronicler of daily life and its blisses and heartbreaks. (He lived for decades, before and after the death of his wife, poet Jane Kenyon, in the 1803 New Hampshire farmhouse that had been Hall’s grandfather’s home.) Ox-Cart Man could be dismissed as patriarchal, capitalist, and nationalist in its celebration of a New England yeoman farmer—Hall is not usually thought of as a political or particularly progressive poet—but instead, this book assures me that all our work holds good, even if we can’t see the long-term effects from here.

The text of Ox-Cart Man was first published as a poem of the same title in the New Yorker in 1977; Hall, in an essay titled “Perennials,” recalls his cousin Paul Fenton telling him the story that became the poem that became the children’s book. Paul says he heard it himself as a boy, when “an old man told him this one, and the old man told Paul that he had heard it from an old man when he was a boy.” That evening, Hall dreams of his grandfather, “who divested himself of everything he could gather, in his stewardship carrying all the past through winter darkness into present light. I understand: this duty is my duty also.” Between the first version of the poem and the children’s book that it becomes, the duty of stewardship through the winter changes from what one has to do to ensure one’s own survival to how we pass along that work—and our world—to our children and grandchildren.

The children’s book begins:

In October, he backed his ox into his cart

and he and his family filled it up

with everything they made or grew all year long

that was left over.

He packs a shawl his wife wove, the mittens his daughter knit, the birch brooms his son whittled with a borrowed kitchen knife, and shingles he split himself. He packs turnips and cabbages, honey and honeycombs. The children collect feathers from the barnyard geese to sell, and he sells the potatoes that his family dug together, the candles they made together, and the maple sugar that they boiled down together. While at the market, the father of Ox-Cart Man buys a Barlow knife for his son, an embroidery needle for his daughter, an iron kettle for his wife, and “for the whole family he bought two pounds of/ wintergreen peppermint candies.”

When the father arrives home after three weeks away, “his family was waiting for him.” His daughter “took her needle and began stitching,/ and his son took his Barlow knife and started whittling,/ and they cooked dinner in their new kettle,/ and afterward everyone ate a wintergreen peppermint candy.” The needle he buys his daughter and the Barlow knife he buys his son will allow them to make more goods to sell at the next year’s market, but the kettle and the two pounds of candy are to improve the quality of their own lives in the short term (the candy) and the long term (the kettle).

In the original poem, though, the man is alone. There is no mention of a family. He packs wool but not mittens or shawls, and no brooms, potatoes, or maple sugar, only honey, linen, leather “tanned from deerhide,” and vinegar “in a barrel/ hooped by hand at the forge’s fire.” There is yarn that he must have spun himself and goose feathers that he must have gathered alone. Like the father of the children’s book, he walks to Portsmouth Market to sell what he’s made and grown, including the cart and the ox. In the children’s book, the father kisses his ox goodbye on the nose when he sells it, but not the man of the original poem. And in the original poem, the man walks home not with gifts and goods but with “his pockets heavy/ with the year’s coin for salt and taxes.”

The original poem is austere, with five stanzas of five lines each, and essentially no imagery. It’s as if Robert Frost’s speaker in “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” didn’t allow himself to stop at all and only thought of the miles to go. The New York Times, in its obituary of Hall, describes the poem as “an ode to persistence and practicality.” That’s not entirely wrong: The man, returned from selling his goods, ox, and cart in Portsmouth, begins to saw the planks for a new cart and stitch new harness for “next year’s ox in the barn.” The original poem’s last word is again. But describing the original poem as an ode to persistence and practicality is also not entirely right. It plays down the grinding recurrence of the ox-cart man’s endless labor, his apparently joyless life in which the only things that change are the seasons and the work they require.

Book cover of Ox-Cart Man.

In Hall’s rewriting, the children’s book is also about endlessness, but in a completely different way. Ox-Cart Man, the book, is about a family, and how the small daily work of this family accumulatively makes their lives better. The addition of the family changes the poem from one man’s annual toil to a story about what we hope to do for the people we love, and how we hope to alter the future, just a little, for good. The book is endless because it imagines a future unrolling endlessly, each year just a small improvement upon the one before, built on the things we make with the people dear to us.

With that hope comes a new richness of imagery, even warmth. Compare the end of the children’s book and the original poem.

These lines end the children’s book, accompanied by lovely illustrations of the family at work together:

that night the ox-cart man sat in front

of the fire stitching new harness for the young ox

in the barn and he carved a new yoke and sawed

planks for a new cart and split shingles all

winter, while his wife made flax into linen all

winter, and his daughter embroidered linen all

winter, and his son carved Indian brooms from

birch all winter, and everybody made candles,

and in March they tapped the sugar maple trees

and boiled the sap down, and in April they

sheared the sheep, spun yarn, and wove and

knitted, and in May they planted potatoes,

turnips, and cabbages, while apple blossoms

bloomed and fell, while bees woke up, starting to

make new honey, and geese squawked in the

barnyard, dropping feathers as soft as clouds.

That last line, that simile between feathers and clouds, is the only moment of figurative language in either version of the poem.

Contrast that vision with the final stanza of Hall’s original poem:

and at home by fire’s light in November cold

stitches new harness

for next year’s ox in the barn,

and carves the yoke, and saws planks

for building the cart again. 

The cart is built again—it must always be built again—but it’s so much different to do so in the November cold for oneself alone than to do so over the winter alongside those he’s doing it with, and for, anticipating those cloudlike feathers in the spring. The family’s love, which is not separate from duty or labor but part of both, is transformative. It transforms yarn into mittens and shawls, wood into brooms, seeds into food, and feathers into clouds. The original poem of “Ox-Cart Man” denies that anything will ever change and asserts its recurrence. The children’s book shows how just the opposite can be true.

Among Donald Hall’s poetic abilities is a kind of bifocal perspective where he lets a detail’s richness expand in meaning and also, simultaneously, keeps it in a broad and long perspective. His poetry models a way to care and value that which is close without becoming myopic. That’s why I’ve been crying while reading Ox-Cart Man to my daughter. In a summer whose daily outrages threaten to send me into either vain rage or incinerated distance, a farsightedness that does not give up attachments strikes me as something like the wisdom that I need.

Donald Hall in a chair with a cat on his lap.
Donald Hall in his home in Wilmot, New Hampshire. Aram Boghosian for the Boston Globe via Getty Images

Hall grew up, raised his own children, and wrote his poetry in his grandparents’ house. It’s a literal version of what we all do: We are all living in our grandparents’ houses and doing our daily work there, knowing that our children inherit our effects. I don’t have a farm, just little garden beds in the yard, but they are full of perennials: daylilies and irises, asparagus and strawberries. They’re recently planted, and in the future, they will be bigger and stronger. My family is also recently planted, and in these darker days, I’ll buy my daughter a needle and a Barlow knife, welcome her into the work we do together to make next year better than this one, and do my own duty of making sure we have enough food in the cellar to last until spring.

Ox-Cart Man by Donald Hall, illustrated by Barbara Cooney. Puffin.

Read all the pieces in the Slate Book Review.