Donald Hall (1928-2018)
Years ago, I picked up a couple of issues of Poetry magazine that Donald Hall had gotten rid of. I don't remember where. A yard sale or library sale, maybe. A random table in a random shop, a random shelf in a random hallway. I have no idea. I remember, though, that I almost passed them by. But I happened to look at the address label. Donald Hall. Eagle Pond Farm. Danbury, NH. No bookish New Hampshire native would have been able to resist.
If you aren't from New Hampshire, or don't live in New Hampshire, Donald Hall's name may not mean a lot to you — maybe you know he's a poet, maybe you remember a children's book he wrote, maybe you read one of his essays in The New Yorker, maybe you heard him on NPR, maybe, maybe...
But for us New Hampshirites, Donald Hall is poetry. His death at the age of eighty-nine (a few months short of his ninetieth birthday) feels, in a literary sense, as monumental as the day the Old Man of the Mountain fell to rubble.
I didn't know Donald Hall personally, but like everyone in New Hampshire with even a vague interest in literature, I spent a lot of time with him over the years. I most frequently saw him at the Eagle Pond Authors Series at Plymouth State University, where, from 1998 until recently, Hall curated an eclectic reading series that included both up-and-coming writers and winners of every literary prize short of the Nobel. (The number of Pulitzer and National Book Award winners who have made the trek to Plymouth, New Hampshire over the last twenty years is astounding, and all because of Donald Hall.) The series has a tiny budget, yet doesn't charge admission, and was able to get world-class poets because Donald Hall could call them up and invite them, and what poet is going to say no to an invitation from Donald Hall?
Until his recent illness, Hall would introduce the readers himself. His introductions were generous, personal, and thoughtful. While Hall embraced the identity of a poet, it seems to me that his actual influence was greater as an interviewer, editor, and essayist. As an active poet, he gained legitimacy, but his personal aesthetic was not one that generally pushed against boundaries or extended the form, and it doesn't seem to have had a significantly influential effect on poetry as a field. (No crime, that. Few writers have significantly influential effects on a field.) His other work, though, had real and lasting effect. While his important role at the Paris Review gets mentioned in most biographical notes, his work as founding editor of the Poets on Poetry series for the University of Michigan Press is less well known, but very much worth attention. Hall was known for sometimes fervent declarations in favor of traditional poetics, and the Michigan series certainly skewed that way, but not entirely — see, for instance, Richard Kostelanetz's The Old Poetries and the New. The series had a vision, certainly, but that vision was broad enough to allow eclectic surprise, and I think the same can be said for Hall's approach to poetry generally. When I was an undergraduate wanting to learn more about poetry, I scanned the university's library shelves for the familiar bindings of the books in the Poets on Poetry series, and the education they provided me was at least as invigorating as that of any literature class.
Hall was born into a miracle generation of American poets, and attending Harvard put him squarely in that world. In his own (quite entertaining) Paris Review interview, he said of his early years as poetry editor of the journal,
Some old acquaintances sent me poems, including Frank O’Hara. Frank hadn’t discovered himself, quite, but he wasn’t writing rhymed iambic pentameter either. I rejected his poems and wrote a supercilious note. Stupid! Not long ago I came across Frank’s answer in which he accused me of writing second-rate Yeats, which was perfectly true. The letter is snippy, funny, outraged, but cool.
I regret I didn’t have the brains to take his poems, but I couldn’t read them then. I did do early work by Hill, Gunn, Bly, Dickey, Wright, Rich, Merwin . . . lots of people. But also I rejected a good poem by Allen Ginsberg, who wrote George Plimpton saying that I wouldn’t recognize a poem if it buggered me in broad daylight.In a 1989 interview with Liam Rector (collected in Death to the Death of Poetry), Hall said:
Because I was so rigid when I was young, I try to stay open to kinds of poetry alien to my own; of course, openness can become a mindless relativism or namby-pambyness. You have to worry: Do I just want them to like me? One thing I learned ten or twenty years ago: If you read something that upsets you, that violates every canon you ever considered...look again, look harder. It might be poetry. This notion helped me read Frank Bidart. I read the Language Poets without great success, but some please me more than others: Perelman, Palmer, Hejinian, Silliman.Age allowed a perspective unavailable to youth. Not just an openness alien to brash young writers, but also the long perspective of time, the knowledge gained from experience, the view from the sands of memory. It was that view that opened a vein of gold for Hall's work. (For a bleak example, see his 2010 poem "Closings", a memorial to Liam Rector.) He ultimately wrote best, it seems to me, when he wrote from a place of memory, mourning, and age. The inevitable losses of time became his great subject. It was not a subject he had access to when he was young.
As with Auden, age gave him a great poetic face. He let his hair and beard grow until, in his eighties, he came to resemble a mountain troll. Embodying the role of the grizzled old man was important to him. In the essay "Three Beards", he writes: "My present hairiness is monumental, and I intend to carry it to the grave." He did.
Hall's own poetry was sometimes excellent, but as a poet he was forever in the shadow of the more consequential poets he'd lived and worked with, the poets he celebrated but whom he could never quite equal in the world's eyes. We mustn't miss the undeniable wonders in his oeuvre, though, particularly his great poem in memory of his wife Jane Kenyon, "Without". Certainly, that poem deserves to last a long time.
There is much to be learned from Hall's career, much to be learned about just doing the work, letting reputation fall where it may, while also trying to hold yourself to the highest standards — not the standards of whatever happens to be popular at the moment, the fads of the litchatters and their twitterated hottakes, but the standards of something more enduring and, thus, meaningful. Hall laid this out in his Paris Review interview:
When I was in my twenties, I wanted to write many poems. I had goals; when I reached them, they turned out to be not worth reaching. When you begin, you think that if you could just publish a few poems, you’d reach your desire; then if you could publish in a good magazine; then if you could publish a book; then... When you’ve done these things you haven’t done anything. The desire must be, not to write another dozen poems, but to write something as good as the poems that originally brought you to love the art. It’s the only sensible reason for writing poems. You’ve got to keep your eye on what you care about: to write a poem that stands up with Walt Whitman or Andrew Marvell.It's not that you will necessarily achieve something on the level of genius, which you almost certainly won't, but that you will keep your priorities clear, you will remember why you ever wanted to write in the first place — all the while knowing that you will probably be quickly forgotten. Talking to NPR about Essays After Eighty, Hall said, "At some point in this book I said that I expect my immortality to cease about seven minutes after my funeral. I have seen so many poets who were famous, who won all sorts of prizes, disappear with their deaths."
I'm sure there were difficult days, especially in his youth, where Hall felt envy as he was surrounded by writers lauded and rewarded, while his own poetry garnered a bit of notice, yes, but not much more. His work as editor, interviewer, reviewer, and teacher helped his peers' poetic success more than his own. He admits he had dry spells, and I would guess at least part of that came from seeing everyone you started out with outpacing you. But as Hall said so many times as he grew older, writing isn't a race. You do your work, you try to remind yourself of what matters most to you in that work, and you do your best not to obsess over what you can't control. It may turn out, as it did for Donald Hall, that all your life was preparation for the great work of your old age. Without the countless hours of working when he was young at what probably often seemed futile, and certainly frustrating, Donald Hall would not have been able to give us the profound work of his later years.
In both his prose and poetry, he aged into his greatest subject. (I hope we soon get a big volume of his selected essays. I hope, too, that we get multiple big volumes of his selected letters, as he was a famously prolific correspondent.) Mike Pride's lovely obituary for the Concord Monitor calls him an "elegist by trade", and that gets to the heart of what made so much of Hall's work affecting, and why so much of the best of it was done late in life. He was a master rememberer. (Even when he wrote about the present, it felt to me like he was writing about the past.) Because he achieved a position of prominence when he was quite young, in old age he became a living connection to lost worlds, both the world of old New Hampshire and a world of poetry that feels to someone of my age (or younger) like an era of myth and legend. Again and again I reminded myself whenever I saw him: This is a man who could chat about chatting with T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Dylan Thomas, Ezra Pound, and Marianne Moore. Among so many others. He helped keep alive the memory of those writers as human beings, not icons.
After Jane Kenyon's death, Hall's writing became even more fully memoiristic and elegiacal. He worked hard to keep Kenyon's name known and reputation strong. (I expect he would be much sadder if Kenyon's poetry were forgotten before his own.) The role of the rememberer, of the one who goes on while carrying the memory of another, gave new gravity and focus to his work. Much to his surprise, he also became a kind of witness: a witness to aging. He hadn't expected to outlive his wife, nor had he expected to live so long. (Kenyon died at 47; his father died at 52.) But live he did, and outlive, and against that melancholy he did what he'd always done, now with new purpose: he wrote.
In the first of his Essays After Eighty, he wrote:
New poems no longer come to me, with their prodigies of metaphor and assonance. Prose endures. I feel the circles grow smaller, and old age is a ceremony of losses, which is on the whole preferable to dying at forty-seven or fifty-two. When I lament and darken over my diminishments, I accomplish nothing. It's better to sit at the window all day, pleased to watch birds, barns, and flowers. It is a pleasure to write about what I do.It was a pleasure for us to read his writings, to see him around town, to benefit from his extraordinary wealth of experience and his many generosities. The world has changed so much since Donald Hall was born that I do not expect I'll live to know anyone like him again. In the end, one of his great legacies was his uniqueness. Generosity and uniqueness are, to me, legacies at least as great as literary fame, and far more meaningful.