James Baker Hall's loved ones said he probably would have laughed through the memorial service held for him Saturday.
Hundreds of people packed the Carnegie Center in Lexington's Gratz Park for Hall, who died June 25 at age 74, after a long illness. They listened again to his stories and poetry, looked anew at his photographs and shared memories of the generation of writing students whom he taught at the University of Kentucky.
At the lectern, Hall's family and friends read from his books as they talked about him. They described a man driven to rise at 4 a.m. every day not just to make art but to teach young Kentuckians that they, too, have a universal responsibility to bring art into the world.
Not that Hall, a former Kentucky poet laureate, took everything seriously, they said.
He loved his native Lexington, loved cheering for the UK Wildcats men's basketball team from his nosebleed seat in Rupp Arena's row JJ. But he also liked to poke fun at his city for its basketball mania, its dependence on tawdry coal fortunes and its remorseless razing of its handsome old buildings.
One of Hall's friends, poet Maurice Manning, made the sniffling crowd burst into laughter by reading Hall's irreverent poem The Old Athens of the West Is Now a Bluegrass Tour, which includes these lines:
Lexington, dear heart, you old whore
You didn't know you were for sale 'til you'd been bought
Rowdy, low-rent, coal money named J.W. in town on weekends for the game
Tossing big bills and quarters at your best fast-dance band
Then passing out on the table.
A graduate of Henry Clay High School and UK, Hall made sure to live in Paris, France, as a young man, and then on both coasts of the United States, before he returned to teach at UK in 1973. He retired from UK in 2003 but kept writing until three weeks before he died, said his wife, novelist Mary Ann Taylor-Hall.
Hall once told an interviewer that his own writing professor at UK urged students to go out and see the world before they tried to write about it.
"The one thing that Robert Hazel insisted upon that had an immediate and lasting effect on us all was that we get out of Kentucky," Hall told Kentucky Educational Television in 2001. "We had to leave in order to escape the provincialism of our heritage."
In a recorded reading played for Saturday's service, Hall said he was teaching photography at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1970 when he became a poet more or less by accident.
MIT had created a poetry class that needed a teacher, he said. Hall desired the extra money, and the fact that he had never written a poem in his life seemed like no great obstacle. He immediately started to style his stanzas.
"I started writing poetry to get paid," Hall said. "I wanted to keep the students from going to the dean."
Former students told about Hall's best lectures, which came outside of the classroom, at bars and greasy-spoon diners around the UK campus. He usually carried in his pocket a Xeroxed copy of the latest poem by someone else that he was trying to memorize, which he would read to his students to provoke debate and discussion.
Wendell Berry, Hall's lifelong friend and himself a celebrated Kentucky author and poet, said Hall obviously was in pain during his final months. Hall had been struggling with rheumatoid arthritis, which led to a respiratory infection. But he did not pity himself, Berry said. He made it clear that he appreciated the time that he had.
"He had gone beyond admirable. He was exemplary," Berry said.
Hall's sons — he had three — told about a fiercely independent man who drove across the country and slept on a thin foam pad in the back of his truck to save money on airfare and hotels.
Once, on a visit to Yosemite National Park, Hall insisted on practicing his morning yoga routine — stripped down to his underwear, in a field, which eventually drew a crowd of gawking tourists, said Michael Hall.
Another son, Matthew Hall, said his father delighted in the 1970s whenever people mistakenly called him while trying to reach UK basketball Coach Joe B. Hall, no relation.
"They'd say, 'Coach, I just want to thank you for that game last night,' " Matthew Hall said. " 'You're welcome,' Daddy would say."
"And he liked to imagine an alternate reality," the son added, "in which Coach Joe B. Hall was getting mistaken calls intended for him, thanking him for his poetry."