We last saw David Halberstam, who died yesterday in a car crash in Menlo Park, California, two weeks ago at Alice Tully Hall. It was the annual Poetry & the Creative Mind benefit, which raises money for National Poetry Month, and Halberstam was one of the celebrity readers. He talked to New York about his introduction to poetry via the Kennedys, the “national tragedy” of the Bush administration, and his desire for a baseball stadium on the West Side of Manhattan, so he could easily “wander out to a good meal” after the game.
Do you write poetry?
I’m a journalist. I am by nature clunky. But I can still remember certain poems you were not only told to read but made to memorize. “This is the forest primeval, the murmuring pines and the hemlock.” “I must down to the seas again.” “A humble and a contrite heart.” In my age poetry was something that, if you went to a public school, was forced upon. It was not something you did gladly.
I came to it gradually as an adult when I found that people I respected — Bobby Kennedy, whom I covered as a young man — loved poetry. I mean, really. He quoted it naturally. He found comfort in poetry, and that was important to me. I think I grew interested in it largely because I grew up. In 1960, when I was a young man, I covered Jack Kennedy, and it was very moving: a slim, attractive young man who ended every speech with, “But I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep. And miles to go before I sleep.” It was very seductive, the mood, his attractiveness.
What do you think about President Bush?
Very simply, it’s a national tragedy. It’s not just a tragedy for him, that he will have gone down as such a failure. It’s a great national tragedy to have at that moment somebody who has been so deeply, so much in over his head. It’s so sad for us, as a country, for him. It’s really dark out there. And we have a year and a half to go. This will be seen as a tragic moment in American life. I think there are some interesting people out there, candidates with considerable talent. But some have the capacity to raise our spirits. I’m not going to go into specifics yet.
And about baseball, now that the new season is here?
I’m too old for that. I go to a couple of games a year, if possible. I go to Fenway and Yankee Stadium. I like day games, not night games. And I watch them on television. They can change the stadiums, but they’ll still be filled with people who love the game and remember the old ones. All I care about is getting home earlier. If I had it my way, I’d start the games at five o’clock so I could be home at eight o’clock. I’d build a ballpark right on the West Side of Manhattan so you could come out of a game at ten o’clock and wander out to a good meal.