Donald Hall Explication of Safe Sex

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Words: 1164 |

Pages: 3|

6 min read

Published: Mar 14, 2019

Words: 1164|Pages: 3|6 min read

Published: Mar 14, 2019

“Safe Sex” by Donald Hall discusses relationships. While the speaker seems to hail a specific type of distant disconnection between a “he and she” (1) in question as the most effective type of relationship, it is implied that this relationship is shallow and lacking in one of love’s key ingredients: passion.

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Donald Hall was born in Hamden, Connecticut to two parents who fostered his love for and fascination towards poetry and prose. Having had his first poem published at 16, Hall demonstrated a firm grasp of poetic qualities from a young age. With alma maters like Harvard, Oxford, and Stanford, Hall worked alongside fellow poets Adrienne Rich, Robert Bly, Frank O’Hara, and John Ashbery during his time there and surrounded himself with the rich literary cultures of such prestigious institutions. Eventually, he married the poet Jane Kenyon, who died of leukemia in 1994. Hall pushed on, and with his style of building surrealism with simple language and structure in his works, he earned and is still earning various honors, the most notable of which was his appointment as the 14th U.S. poet laureate in 2006. (Poetry Foundation)

In “Safe Sex,” Hall embodies the persona of a scorned lover, or perhaps just a man learned from experiencing heartbreak. This poem is aimed towards everyone, primarily those considering a stress- and drama- free romantic relationship. Just as this poem does not feature any obvious references to when or where it takes place, its themes—love and death—are universal and applicable to many people. Taking on a tone of mystic warning, reminiscent of an omniscient storyteller, Hall presents the idea of how passion is a double-edged sword in relationships. While it brings excitement to the partners involved, it also paves the way to darker times ahead.

“Safe Sex” begins by listing all the possibilities that could prevent the development of affection and attachment between a “he and she.” If they are strangers, if there is no romance, if she becomes ignorant and oblivious, if sex is their only desire, or if their relationship was formed for purposes of retribution against others, they would be safe from conflict and heartbreak. There would be no fights, no arguments, and no rash decisions (“Safe Sex”).

Hall’s choice of words in this poem allow for better expression of the poem’s message. The title itself, “Safe Sex”, contrasts against the body of the poem due to seemingly differing topics. Yet, as the phrase “safe sex” is commonly used to describe protective methods against pregnancy and sexual diseases, the same concepts of protecting oneself and the differences between relationships and sex can be found. This is echoed through Hall’s descriptions of how heartbreak and the frenzied passion that follows can be avoided.

Similarly, Hall’s illustration of the “families of entitlement and steel” (5) serves as a metaphor for arrogance and unwavering ignorance, thus bringing in references to tales like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, in which the two lovers ended up dead like the final line in this poem. The personification in “trembling days” (8) also doubles as a metaphor, forming an image of days filled with caution, sadness, and perhaps even apprehension towards someone else. Following this, the alliteration of “t” sounds in “vomit at midnight” (8) contribute to the gentle spitting pronunciation echoing the description of vomiting at midnight. This can even be interpreted as an implication of pregnancy, thus giving a nod to the poem’s title.

As for imagery, this poem is rich with compelling images that further the reader's’ impression and comprehension of the poem. For example, the repetition in “insensible skin under skin” (3) emphasizes the depth of indifference one can build, while the “hurled words on permanent humiliation” in line 7 dramatize the scarring, deprecating things that are said during an argument. The most poignant image in this poem, however, is the “repeated / apparition of a body floating face-down at the pond’s edge” (8-9), possibly alluding to yet another Shakespearean character—Ophelia, whose madness drove her to death by drowning. The choice of the word “apparition” suggests a ghostlike vision, a frequent, ominous premonition tormenting its victim until they decide to end their life.

Aside from diction and imagery, Hall also makes use of hyperbole and irony in this poem. The main train of thought this poem presents is that avoiding any form of devotion or connectivity will save us from conflict and thoughts of death, which can simply be an exaggeration of how heartbreak affects us. But, the idea that a loving relationship turned sour will result in ghostly sights involves the use of hyperbole, and greatly overstates the results of sorrow, devastating as they may be. Furthermore, there is irony in the poem’s title in relation to its contents. In keeping ourselves “safe” from the woes and pains of heartache, we certainly manage to shield ourselves from further despair, but we will also never know what it is like to fully devote ourselves to someone and for them to do the same.

This poem is written in free verse and iambic octameter, with 15 or so syllables per line. The lines are arranged in 4 sets of couplets and 1 final line, all of which involve line breaks. By doing so, Hall manages to maintain the flow of the poem despite splitting the stanzas and sentences, and forms a poetic structure that clearly presents every change that occurs within the persona’s ideas. As the poem progress, so does the main topic of the poem, slowly shifting until it reveals the persona’s innermost thoughts, which is to protect oneself against heartbreak and save ourselves from any further harm.

By listing the actions one could possibly take against impending heartaches and the results that follow, Hall presents a compelling case against the prospect of fiercely and passionately loving someone in a strongly-connected relationship. However, in doing so, he also sheds light upon what seems to be a much more optimistic message. Although it is true that the things that make us happiest bring us the most misery, these ups and downs are what keep ourselves and our relationships alive. As presented in lines 1-5, there is no connectivity or meaning in relationships without love. Through cold, calculated moves to conceal our true feelings, we find a false sense of safety. If we limit ourselves in our devotion for fear of being hurt, we won’t know what it’s truly like to live, love, and die.

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To conclude, the themes of love, safety, and heartache are very strongly depicted in Donald Hall’s poem “Safe Sex.” It appears distancing ourselves will protect us from all harm, but it does little in terms of allowing us to fully experience the joys and pains of every relationship. These conscious efforts to hide our hearts away will only further the truth of love’s labor’s lost, and therefore hold us back in our efforts to find love.

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Alex Wood

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Donald Hall Explication Of Safe Sex. (2019, March 12). GradesFixer. Retrieved February 25, 2024, from
“Donald Hall Explication Of Safe Sex.” GradesFixer, 12 Mar. 2019,
Donald Hall Explication Of Safe Sex. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 25 Feb. 2024].
Donald Hall Explication Of Safe Sex [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2019 Mar 12 [cited 2024 Feb 25]. Available from:
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