Donald Hall & Ox Cart Man

A down-to earth reader of this blog e-mailed me recently to say that he thought a children’s book titled Ox Cart Man by Donald Hall was an exceptional story. Furthermore, he believed a whole course in economics could be taught with the book as its text.

So I did some internet sleuthing and found that before it was a book, Ox Cart Man was a poem and it was first published in The New Yorker magazine in 1977. Here is the poem by Donald Hall:
In October of the year,
he counts potatoes dug from the brown field,
counting the seed, counting
the cellar’s portion out,
and bags the rest on the cart’s floor.

He packs wool sheared in April, honey
in combs, linen, leather
tanned from deerhide,
and vinegar in a barrel
hooped by hand at the forge’s fire.

He walks by his ox’s head, ten days
to Portsmouth Market, and sells potatoes,
and the bag that carried potatoes,
flaxseed, birch brooms, maple sugar, goose
feathers, yarn.

When the cart is empty he sells the cart.
When the cart is sold he sells the ox,
harness and yoke, and walks
home, his pockets heavy
with the year’s coin for salt and taxes,

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
building the cart again.
Ox Cart Man presents ancient (pre-industrial) themes of subsistence economy with it’s focus on home-based production, self-reliance, hard physical work, creativity, diversification, thrift, productivity, and simplicity. There is also the clear understanding that all wealth originates from the earth. Yes, you certainly could learn a lot about economics from this children’s book.

Enjoying this poem as I did, I decided to take a closer look at the author, Donald Hall. I went looking for more of his poetry on the internet. I found a couple of poems that I really like. I think you will too. Here is Names of Horses:
All winter your brute shoulders strained against collars, padding
and steerhide over the ash hames, to haul
sledges of cordwood for drying through spring and summer,
for the Glenwood stove next winter, and for the simmering range.

In April you pulled cartloads of manure to spread on the fields,
dark manure of Holsteins, and knobs of your own clustered with oats.
All summer you mowed the grass in meadow and hayfield, the mowing machine
clacketing beside you, while the sun walked high in the morning;

and after noon’s heat, you pulled a clawed rake through the same acres,
gathering stacks, and dragged the wagon from stack to stack,
and the built hayrack back, uphill to the chaffy barn,
three loads of hay a day from standing grass in the morning.

Sundays you trotted the two miles to church with the light load
a leather quartertop buggy, and grazed in the sound of hymns.
Generation on generation, your neck rubbed the windowsill
of the stall, smoothing the wood as the sea smooths glass.

When you were old and lame, when your shoulders hurt bending to graze,
one October the man, who fed you and kept you, and harnessed you every morning,
led you through corn stubble to sandy ground above Eagle Pond,
and dug a hole beside you where you stood shuddering in your skin,

and lay the shotgun’s muzzle in the boneless hollow behind your ear,
and fired the slug into your brain, and felled you into your grave,
shoveling sand to cover you, setting goldenrod upright above you,
where by next summer a dent in the ground made your monument.

For a hundred and fifty years, in the Pasture of dead horses,
roots of pine trees pushed through the pale curves of your ribs,
yellow blossoms flourished above you in autumn, and in winter
frost heaved your bones in the ground - old toilers, soil makers:

O Roger, Mackerel, Riley, Ned, Nellie, Chester, Lady Ghost.
Another endearing bit of poetry from Donald Hall is this excerpt from, Kicking the Leaves:
Each fall in New Hampshire, on the farm
where my mother grew up, a girl in the country,
my grandfather and grandmother
finished the autumn work, taking the last vegetables in
from the cold fields, canning, storing roots and apples
in the cellar under the kitchen. Then my grandfather
raked leaves against the house
as the final chore of autumn.
One November I drove up from college to see them.
We pulled big rakes, as we did when we hayed in summer,
pulling the leaves against the granite foundations
around the house, on every side of the house,
and then, to keep them in place, we cut spruce boughs
and laid them across the leaves,
green on red, until the house
was tucked up, ready for snow
that would freeze the leaves in tight, like a stiff skirt.
Then we puffed through the shed door,
taking off boots and overcoats, slapping our hands,
and sat in the kitchen, rocking, and drank
black coffee my grandmother made,
three of us sitting together, silent, in gray November.

If those three poems were all I knew of Donald Hall’s work, I would rank him among the greatest of American poets. But, sad to say, I found some of Hall’s other poetry, which diverged from agrarian themes, to be confusing, bizarre and, in the case of one poem, downright vulgar. Such poetry is not the kind I want to read again. Fact is, I wish I’d never read some of it in the first place. My opinion of Hall as a great poet was tempered significantly by those poems of his that, frankly speaking, stink.

That is, of course, just my opinion. Others will disagree. I’ll be the first to admit that I am a simple bumpkin when it comes to understanding much of what those in the know consider to be good or worthy poetry. But I know what I like when I see it.

If there is any redeeming value in Donald Hall’s “lesser poetry,” it is found in the contrast, and this is a main point I want to make here...

When Hall’s poetry (or anyone else’s poetry, for that matter) is rooted in agrarian themes of creation (the natural world), working the land, rural community, faith, fidelity, family, and tradition, I see light and beauty (even in the midst of overshadowing darkness)—and beauty is always endearing. But when Hall uproots his poetry from the agrarian wellspring, it withers on the vine; it is good only for the compost heap.

To my way of thinking, It is that contrast, that antithesis between beauty and the lack thereof, that separates good poetry from bad. I am attracted to the beauty. That is the poetry I want to read and know.

This distinction holds a clear lesson for us as individuals and as a culture. Modernism (the separation from agrarianism) in it’s many forms (poetry being but one example) is just not beautiful.


Anonymous said...


Thank you for introducing us to these poems of Donald Hall. He is certainly good at painting a word picture.


Ralph&K.C. Armstrong said...

Thank you far sharing these beautiful poems. Even if some of his other work is lacking, these are surely wonderful alone.

The poem "Names of Horses" is especially poignant for me as I have reached the "October Time" with an old partner and friend. Together we earned money, shard experiences and learned about life. Although I understand the ciclical nature of life, that the end of his life will help to foster new ones, I still dread the inevitable walk "through the corn stubble to sandy ground."

Theresa said...

I used the book The Ox-Cart Man with my son while homeschooling. We both loved that book! It was nice to read about it on your blog.

Thanks for sharing some of Mr Hall's other agrarian work. I enjoyed it very much.

mark said...

that story about the horses, reminded me of Grampas 3 horses. One was so old, that grampa put him out to pasture, but didn't have the heart to dispose of him. the other two fellows, according to my father, used to try to race each other, when he would hook them to the wagon. Daddy says he would get really upset at them. Which is funny, since I must have heard Grampa say about 10 words while I was growing up. He was a rather gentle, quiet man i find hard to believe would yell at his horses. Have you ever heard of cowboy poet, Baxter Black? He lives in Cochise County, Arizona, where i grew up. He has been featered on NPR, and other national outlets. He was once a large animal vet, and his humor about rural life in the West, is quite funny.

Judy said...


I have much the same feelings about the paintings of Harvey Dunn. He painted beautiful scenes of homesteading on the prairie - "Stormfront", "The Prairie is My Garden", "Fixing Fence" - I just wish he hadn't painted nudes.


Clint said...

Taking your advice, I won't look up his other work. But thank you for presenting the poems.

My one year old recieved this book as a gift three weeks ago. When speaking of agrarian economics, I now sometimes refer to "Ox-Cart Man Economics" to be more specific. It is becomming somewhat of a thinking model and economic/independence goal for our family.

Anonymous said...

I have thoroughly enjoyed your blog, but "Ox-Cart Man" is my grandfather, so it's particularly special to me. I'll have to email you a picture of the handmade yoke I still have to remember him by. There's more of a story to my heritage that you might enjoy.


Mrs. G said...

I blogged about that book a while ago, I'm glad you like it too!