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Donald Hall, former U.S. Poet Laureate, reflects on writing in his 89th year

  • Former U.S. Poet Laureate Donald Hall, 89, looks out his window in the chair where he spends most of his time, surrounded by books, magazines and newspapers. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Donald Hall sits in his blue chair in his living room surrounded by his books, magazines and newspapers. Hall, 89, a former U.S. Poet Laureate, has a book of notes and essays, “A Carnival of Losses,” coming out in July. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Donald Hall sits in his chair in his living room surrounded by the books he loves. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff



Monitor staff
Saturday, November 04, 2017

Donald Hall can’t help but smile when he thinks about “Mount Kearsarge,” the poem he wrote decades ago about his grandparents’ Wilmot farmhouse.

“I will not rock on this porch when I am old,” the former U.S. Poet Laureate wrote, then middle-aged, about the place he often visited as a boy.

“But, I’m still here,” he said recently.

At 89, Hall spends much of his time looking out his living room window.

He sits in his favorite, blue-faded armchair in sweatpants and oxfords, observing as juncos and chickadees gather at the bird feeder on his porch.

He drinks black coffee, and writes a few hours a day while his tabby cat, Louise, suns herself on the room’s red and gold patterned carpet.

At his age, Hall gets around slowly, and his niece, who lives down the street, manages all of his correspondence. Every day, he wakes up around 7 a.m., and his assistant comes by the house with the Boston Globe and a sandwich.

This could seem limiting to a man who has lived such an extraordinary life – Hall has written 15 books of poetry, received a National Medal of Arts from former president Barack Obama, and survived liver cancer – but Hall says he doesn’t mind the quiet.

“I could be discontent if I wanted to be, but I don’t want to be,” he said.

For Hall, the farmhouse that his family has lived in since 1865 is filled with ghosts – ghosts of his grandfather, the master storyteller who would recite poems from memory beside a burning wood stove, and with whom, Hall would spend days haying with the family’s one horse. And his wife, famed poet Jane Kenyon, who died there of leukemia in 1995.

But Hall says he welcomes those memories.

Hall likes to remember Kenyon napping on the yellow, velvet couch across from his blue chair, his granddaughter Allison, then a baby, sleeping on Kenyon’s stomach. He recalls how Kenyon would leave poems she had written on his office chair and how she would call him “Perkins” – a beloved pet name.

He and Kenyon moved to the house in 1975 from Michigan, where he was a professor and Kenyon a student.

Kenyon, who grew up in rural Michigan, fell in love with New Hampshire right away.

“She saw this place, and she never wanted to leave. She told me after a few months she was not going to go back to Michigan – she would chain herself to the root cellar,” Hall remembered.

Over time, Hall says, he’s been asked if it’s difficult to continue to live in the house after so many he loved who once lived there are gone. He says he tried to leave once, after Kenyon died.

Hall said he went to stay in Vermont, but ended up driving back to Wilmot at 4 a.m.

“I couldn’t bear to go away,” he said.

After all these years, Hall says he is used to people coming and going in his life, and he has accepted the fact that many of the people he has known and loved in his life are dead. He said he knows he is getting old, and nearing death himself.

But Hall does not shy away from these truths. Instead, he leans into them.

Much of his writing these days is about loss. Hall stopped writing poetry years ago, when he “lost the taste,” but he still writes prose.

He has been freelancing for The New Yorker, and has a book of notes and essays, A Carnival of Losses, coming out in July.

Carnival of Losses is comprised of four or five essays, and 85 notes of varying lengths. Some “notes” are half a page, others, three or four pages.

Hall says the stories pivot between his dealing with the onset of old age, and reminiscing from his youth. Many are humorous; Hall says humor is the best tool to deal with loss.

Hall says he spends three to four hours a day writing prose by hand. As a boy, his handwriting was never good, but has only gotten worse, he says. His niece types letters and essays from his written notes on the computer, a machine Hall says he’s never touched – and never will.

He says it takes 20 to 30 drafts of a piece before he feels it is done. One of his favorite parts of the writing process is toying with words until he finds the right fit.

“You have a word, like, ‘limp,’ for example, and you realize that’s a word that anyone could use, but it’s possible that there’s a word that’s a little more particular, possibly witty, and it takes me forever to get it right, but I love doing it,” Hall said. “No complaints.”

Hall doesn’t leave the house except for twice a week, when his girlfriend, Linda, picks him up to take a drive to New London. He can’t take outings or visits for more than an hour, he said.

But he still gets visitors. Like author Richard Ford and his wife, who drive five hours to and from Maine to see Hall for an hour. And Mary Bly, the daughter of Hall’s friend, poet Robert Bly, now a romance novelist living in New York.

When he’s gone, Hall wants the house to stay in the family and has left it to his grandaughter Allison, now 29, who grew up in Bow.

“That pleases me enormously,” he said.

Hall said it was at a birthday party a few years ago that Allison approached him and told him she would move into the house when he died. She didn’t ask if she could – she just told him.

“It was absolutely thrilling to me,” he said. “I didn’t think all the time about the house being emptied out, but I knew that it would be and that did not please me. I thought about most of the house going to the dump.”

Hall’s house is filled with relics of his career. Above his blue chair are two Andy Warhol paintings, photos of him and Jane, a photo of him accepting the National Medal of Arts from Obama and “thousands of feet of bookcases.”

Hall doesn’t do many readings of his work anymore. He says he used to do dozens of hours-long readings across the country.

He will however, be doing his first major reading in years at the University of New Hampshire on Thursday.

He’s not yet sure what he’ll read – but he certainly has a lot to choose from.

(Leah Willingham can be reached at 369-3322, lwillingham@cmonitor.com.)