Interview with Donald Hall

For much of his career, Donald Hall had established a reputation as the quintessential "man of letters" of his generation: a literary and cultural generalist, well-connected, highly regarded, sought after as editor, anthologist, reader, speaker and fellow, able to support himself through writing while maintaining his commitment to poetry as the center of his output. In the later stages of his career, particularly after the death of his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, he became known as one of our pre-eminent poets of grief and loss.

Hall was born 20 September 1928 in New Haven, Connecticut, and educated at Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard, where he edited the Harvard Advocate and cultivated friendships with a group of young poets who included John Ashbery, Robert Bly, Kenneth Koch, Frank O'Hara, and Adrienne Rich. He took his BA from Harvard in 1951, and a B. Litt. from Oxford University in 1953. At Oxford he edited a series of distinguished publications (including a stint as poetry editor of The Paris Review), and published the first books of Thom Gunn and Geoffrey Hill, In 1953-54 he studied at Stanford with Yvor Winters. He taught at Harvard from 1954-57, and at the University of Michigan from 1957-75.

He married Kirby Thompson in 1952, and was divorced in 1969. He married Jane Kenyon in 1972; she died of cancer in 1995.

His awards for poetry include the Newdigate Prize from Oxford University in 1952, the Lamont Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets in 1955, the Edna St. Vincent Millay Award from the Poetry Society of America in 1956, the Lenore Marshall Prize in 1987, the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1988, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in 1990, the Robert Frost Silver Medal from the Poetry Society of America in 1991, and the Ruth Lilly Prize, 1994. He has been a National Book Award nominee in 1956, 1979, and 1993, and a Pulitzer Prize nominee in 1989. The Oxford Book of Children's Verse in America, which he edited, was included in the Horn Book Honor List for 1986. His other literary awards include the Sarah Josepha Hale Award for writings about New England in 1983, and the New England Booksellers Association Award in 1993. He was awarded Guggenheim fellowships in 1963-64 and 1972-73. He was named Poet Laureate of New Hampshire in 1984-89, and again in 1995, a post he still holds as of this writing.

Hall was a youthful prodigy, publishing his first poetry at the age of 16. His first book, Exiles and Marriages, including the Newdigate-winning long poem, Exile, came out as the Lamont Poetry Selection for 1955. Hall had already centered the locus of his poetic concerns on the self--home, marriage, fatherhood. In one of the most celebrated poems in the collection, he considers mortality from the point of view of a young father ("My Son, My Executioner"). He had developed a highly skilled formal style, following in the tradition of formal masters like Robert Frost and Richard Wilbur. At the same time, he was working with Robert Pack and Louis Simpson on an anthology, New Poets of England and America. Published in 1957, with a sequel in 1962, it became one of the most influential and controversial poetry books of its day, the first salvo in what became the war between the Academics and the Beats. It was promptly answered by Donald Allen's The New American Poetry. There was no overlap between the two books, but between the two of them, they mapped the terrain of American poetry at mid-century. As all these poets moved into middle age, and key Academics like Hall and Robert Lowell began experimenting with free verse, and a younger generation came up which drew from both praeceptors, the distinctions became blurred. But the poetry wars were crackling good fun while they lasted.

His first children's book, Andrew and the Lion Farmer, came out in 1959; his first memoir, String Too Short to Be Saved: Recollections of Summers on a New England Farm, in 1961; his first book on art (Henry Moore: The Life and Work of a Great Sculptor) in 1966; his first book on baseball (Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball) in 1976. He wrote on Marianne Moore, and published numerous collections of essays on poetry and other matters.

Hall was on his way to becoming one of America's foremost men of letters. He had three of the most important prerequisites: first, a wide range of interests covering both academic and popular culture; second, a fluid, intelligent and readable style; and third, an agreeable presence and reading voice in front of an audience, at a time when public reading of poetry was becoming popular. Hall reckons that he has given as many as 10,000 public readings, and has discussed, in an interview with this author, the effect of public performance on writing: "I remember a time-it was in 1959-when I was working on a poem, and there was a key word that I knew was wrong. 'Ah,' I heard myself say, 'but in a reading I can make it sound right.' And, fortunately, I caught myself. 'Uh-oh,' I remember thinking. 'Watch your ass. This can be dangerous.'"

In 1975, he gained a fourth and most desirable prerequisite: he no longer needed to be a professional at anything else. Taking the gamble that he could succeed in the literary life, he left his teaching job at the University of Michigan, where he had been since 1975, and moved to Eagle Pond Farm, the family farm in Wilmot, New Hampshire that his great-grandfather had first settled. He set up an office in the bedroom which had been his in boyhood visits to the farm, and committed himself fulltime to writing. He was, by that time, married to the poet Jane Kenyon, who had been his student, and she encouraged him to take the risk.

Hall's embrace of the life of letters was made no less of a gamble by the fact that his foremost commitment was always to poetry. He had produced five volumes of poetry before moving to Eagle Pond, and his reputation had been growing, but many people--including Hall himself--find his mature work from the Eagle Pond period to be his most satisfying. His 1975 poem, "Kicking the Leaves," which became the title poem of his first New Hampshire collection, originally appeared in the New York Times, over an author comment which said the poet was taking a sabbatical from Michigan. It proved to be a lifelong sabbatical. The poem, written in the careful free verse that had become his style, takes him walking home from a Michigan football game, kicking leaves which turn over to reveal the colors of present, future and especially the past of his family heritage: "My grandfather died at seventy-seven, in March/When the sap was running.../I think of my father again, dead twenty years/Coughing himself to death, at fifty-two, in the house/In the suburbs." The death of his father, marking time in a job he hated, waiting for a retirement that never came, provided a powerful impetus for Hall to make his move.

The transplant was successful; Hall and Kenyon made a life at Eagle Pond Farm, and his full-length next poetry collection, The Happy Man (1986) was very much poetry of place, with the bucolic contentment of nature and farm life balanced against the predation of foxes, fishers and coy-dogs. It was also the poetry of perspective: as Hall told interviewer Stephen Ratiner, "this landscape, these people, this place has been a vantage point from which to look at the place itself and at the rest of the world that I have known (16)." The vantage point was of a man, he said, living in the present moment for the first time.

In 1988, his book-length poem, The One Day, in which sexuality, history, mortality and spiritual fulfillment are brought together in one bed, in rage, satire and acceptance, won him the National Book Critics Circle Award. The fierce immediacy of Hall's language brought him out of the sphere of poetry and belles letters, and to the attention of rock and roll journalist Greil Marcus, who included an excerpt from the poem in his "Real Life Rock Top Ten," comparing Hall to rockers Bob Dylan and Johnny Rotten.

From the first, mortality had been a major theme in Hall's poetry, but it struck home with a vengeance in 1989, when he was diagnosed with colon cancer. He seemed to be in remission when the cancer metastasized to his liver in 1992. He was given scant hope of surviving, and in his 1993 volume, The Museum of Clear Ideas, death is a close enough companion that he is able treat it with grim humor, in his series of elegies to a fictional poet, and his baseball cycle ironically addressed to the late Dadaist Kurt Schwitters. Hall and Kenyon began to prepare for her life without him; one of her most celebrated poems, "Otherwise," is about the expected loss of her husband. But then, in 1994, as it began to appear that he would pull through, she was diagnosed with leukemia. Her cancer spread quickly, and in 15 months she was dead.

The loss was devastating to Hall, especially since he and Kenyon had shared an unusual amount of their lives, even for a married couple: their rural seclusion in New Hampshire, their writing, reading tours together. During her 15-month illness, Hall devoted himself to her. After her death, he took solace in poetry. For a long time, he found himself unable to write anything else. His next book, The Old Life (1996), was dominated by the title poem, a tight and complex 97-page memoir in verse, which begins with his early childhood and heads inexorably toward death, though it encompasses marriage and friendship as well as loss. The book also contains the poem "Without," which was Hall's first sustained attempt to deal with the loss of Kenyon.

"Without" became the title poem of his 1998 collection of poems about Kenyon's illness, the hospital days, her death, and the experience of living without her. Written in a plain style ("A sharp, almost sweet/smell began to rise from her open mouth./He watched her chest go still./With his thumb he closed her round brown eyes"), he charts the minutiae and the large feelings of loss and absence. While not considered by many critics to be his best work, it found a receptive audience. It became his best selling collection, and established his reputation as an elegist--a reputation not altogether unfitting, since although Without is in many ways not representative of his generally more craftsmanly work, he has always had an elegiac strain running through his work.

In his next collection, The Painted Bed, Hall both did and did not turn a corner, and the ambivalence seemed deliberate. He began with an epigraph from the Urdu poet Faiz: "The true subject of poetry is the loss of the beloved," but in the book's first poem, "Kill the Day," he says "There is nothing so selfish as misery nor so boring,/ and depression is devoted only to its own practice." The book followed both leads, containing poems of loss and grief, as well as poems of a fierce joy, including sexual joy, in the last part of life. In 2002, he published a prose memoir of Kenyon' s last days, The Best Day the Worst Day: Life With Jane Kenyon.

Hall will be remembered for a wide range of poems and poetic voices, but probably mostly for the late elegies. And perhaps this will be, in the end, his preferred legacy. "I know that in the poems I've written since her death," he told this author, "I've incorporated her into me, both consciously and unconsciously. I address her, and I write about things I know she'd want to know about-the weather, the grandchildren. And she may be in the poems, too--my poems may sound more like her now. When a couple has been together for a long time, and they're close, the one that's left does tend to acquire the characteristics of the one that's gone."