Donald Hall, a giant of American poetry, dies at 89


Monitor editor emeritus

Published: 06-25-2018 7:52 PM

Donald Hall, one of the last major American poets of his generation, died Saturday night at Eagle Pond Farm in Wilmot, where he hayed with his grandfather during boyhood summers and later cultivated a writer’s life. Hall was 89 years old and had been in declining health.

He was a literary dynamo, writing poetry, memoir, criticism, magazine articles, plays, short stories and children’s books.

“I worked on Christmas Day in order to be able to brag that I worked on Christmas Day,” he told one of his last interviewers. He wrote almost to the end of a career of more than 60 years.

After the publication of The Back Chamber a decade ago, he gave up poetry and turned to prose, writing the adventures and recollections of a very old man, himself. First published in magazines, this work appeared in 2014 as Essays after Eighty. A follow-up volume is about to be published.

Hall was 14 when he decided to become a poet. He met Robert Frost at 16 and published his first poetry collection, Exiles and Marriages, at 26. Although he came to dislike the book, it nearly won the Pulitzer Prize. One judge called it “the most provocative book of poetry published in 1955.” The other wrote: “If he never composed another poem, another book, his name would stand in the roster of American poets.” Only the winner, Poems by Elizabeth Bishop, beat out Exiles and Marriages.

In 1972, five years after a divorce, Hall married Jane Kenyon, his former student at the University of Michigan. They decided three years later to move to the farm, which Hall’s family had owned for more than a century. He had been a tenured English professor with many books to his credit but had wearied of teaching; Kenyon wanted a place in the country where she could pursue her poetic ambition. Although Hall considered the farm “the Eden of my childhood,” moving there forced him to earn a living as a freelancer. He took a sabbatical to try it out, but they soon decided to stay. Hall was 46, Kenyon 27.

The move transformed his poetry. With its longer lines and attention to place, his 1978 book Kicking the Leaves heralded the news. The leaves in its title poem were not exclusively New Hampshire leaves, as the poet gazed backward as well as forward, but one part began:

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This year the poems came back, when the    leaves fell.
Kicking the leaves, I heard the leaves tell stories,
remembering, and therefore looking ahead, and building
the house of dying. I looked up into the maples
and found them, the vowels of bright desire.
I thought they had gone forever

In “Stone Walls,” from the same collection, he expanded on the theme:

In September a leaf
falls singly down, then a thousand leaves whirl
in frosty air. I am wild
with joy of leaves falling, of stone walls
emerging, of return to the countryside
where I lay as a boy
in the valley of noon heat, in the village
of little sounds

The farm awakened things in him that academic life had not. He had to work to keep his writing from becoming too much like the vernacular of his neighbors, but he was always aware that he spoke to and for them.

Donald Andrew Hall Jr. was born Sept. 20, 1928, in Hamden, Conn., a suburb north of New Haven. His father ran a dairy business, his mother a household. Hall grew up during the Great Depression, but because people needed milk, hard times had little effect on his family.

Too young for World War II, he moved from Phillips Exeter Academy to Harvard, where several classmates were aspiring poets. He and Adrienne Rich once doubled with Robert Bly and his date. Fellow students also included John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara, who threw the best parties on campus. Maxine Kumin, who would one day live and write on the other side of Mount Kearsarge from Hall, was a grad student at Radcliffe.

Hall’s contemporaries included the beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, but he chose a different path from theirs. His early work followed traditional forms, as he counted his iambs and often rhymed. Even after migrating to free verse, he paid attention to rhythm and line breaks. Getting the sound right while meeting the demands of form led to an obsession with revising his poems.

After graduation, Hall spent two years at Oxford, one at Stanford and three in Harvard’s Society of Fellows. He met his first wife, Kirby Thompson, while she was at Radcliffe, and they later had a son and a daughter. By then, he had begun to spend time with his literary elders.

Like any poet with New England roots, he had to come to terms with Frost. In the summer of 1945, Hall was at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Vermont when he saw Frost coming up a hill toward him. He “appeared to be rising out of the ground,” Hall later wrote. “His face was strong and blocky, his white hair thick and rough. He looked like granite, some old carved stone.” Hall observed over time how Frost’s reputation swerved from the beloved American poet to the cruel monster of Lawrance Thompson’s postmortem biography. Hall’s opinion evolved, too. He first saw Frost as “a monument,” then as “a public fraud,” then as “something more human and complicated than either.” Their last encounter, when Frost was 88 and near death, caused another reappraisal: Frost became “a model of survival.”

Hall visited Dylan Thomas in his hometown of Laugharne, Wales, to recruit the poet to appear at Oxford. Thomas’s dramatic readings influenced Hall’s performance style and perhaps even his close attention to sound in his poems. Like most who knew Thomas even slightly, Hall went pub-crawling with him. When “the slow suicide of alcoholism” killed Thomas at 39, Hall was in the legion of drinking companions who could say Thomas died owing him 2 pounds.

A gig as poetry editor of The Paris Review gave Hall the chance to introduce young, unknown poets and interview older ones, including Ezra Pound and Marianne Moore. In 1959, he conducted the first “Art of Poetry” interview in the Review’s “Writers at Work” series. His subject, T.S. Eliot, told him: “No honest poet can ever feel quite sure of the permanent value of what he has written. He may have wasted his time and messed up his life for nothing.” Hall took this message to heart, as he did the words of the British sculptor Henry Moore, whom he interviewed for a book: “The secret of life is to have a task, something you devote your entire life to. ... And the most important thing is – it must be something you cannot possibly do.”

By the time Hall and Kenyon moved to New Hampshire, he was well-established. Teaching had steeped him in literature and enriched his own poetry and criticism. His memoir String Too Short to Be Saved about boyhood summers at the farm had charmed thousands of readers. He had reported on the world champion 1968 Detroit Tigers in Sports Illustrated and joined the Pittsburgh Pirates for a spring training lark that would lead to Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball. To build a life at Eagle Pond required managing his sprawling literary enterprise, joining Kenyon in “a government of two,” and embracing their new place – the farm, the community, the state – while staying in touch with the larger world.

Surrounded by books, Hall worked at his desk downstairs. Until he found his way, he took almost any assignment, including a piece for the Ford Times about Gertrude Stein’s affection for Fords. Kenyon, who cherished solitude, had her own attic office with a view of Mount Kearsarge. Her husband had such an eye for business that she called him “Perkins.” In one of many coups, he signed on as a literary scout for Harper & Row, then negotiated a deal tying his take to not just any book he recommended but to all future books by any author he recommended. Years after bringing Sylvia Plath to Harper & Row, he received a windfall when Ariel came out and another when Sylvia hit the screen.

He and Kenyon joined the South Danbury Christian Church, where Hall’s family was well-known. He read his poems at local schools and town halls, and Gov. John H. Sununu named him state poet laureate. After years of effort, Kenyon’s poetic gift blossomed. Soon they were both in demand nationally and reveled in time together as visiting poets in India.

The white farmhouse with its leaning, weathered barn became a destination for poets and writers. One regular, Wesley McNair, later Maine’s poet laureate, became a trusted literary adviser to Hall. Liam Rector and Tree Swenson married in the backyard. Galway Kinnell visited from Vermont. When Seamus Heaney came up from Cambridge, a walk along railroad tracks near the farm gave him “Iron Spike” for a series of poems on found objects. Robert Bly stopped in when he came to New Hampshire to read; as the curtain fell on one Concord event, Hall and Bly smooched at center stage.

The Hall-Kenyon literary household peaked in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Kenyon wrote two popular collections – Let Evening Come in 1990 and Constance in 1993. Hall turned his poem “The Ox-Cart Man” into a children’s book that sold well for years. His book-length poem, The One Day, won the National Book Critics Circle Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer. One juror called it a “work of great ambition, power, and accomplishment.”

The poets enjoyed a glorious moment at Wilmot Town Hall in early 1993. Bill Moyers had come to town to shoot for A Life Together, his documentary about two poets living under one roof. On a frosty night with fresh snow on the ground, the hall was packed. Hall read poems in which some in the audience recognized their neighbors. He then watched with pride as Kenyon’s soulful reading enthralled the crowd.

Not long after Moyers’s film debuted on PBS, Kenyon was diagnosed with leukemia.

The assumption in the May-December marriage had been that she would one day care for Hall in his final illness. He had already lost a third of his liver to cancer. Now, the tables turned, he devoted himself to caring for her.

He had a speaking date at the New Hampshire Historical Society shortly after her diagnosis. His mother had just died, but on his wife’s orders, Hall left Kenyon’s bedside in the hospital to give his talk.

The crowd was so large the event had to be moved to Representatives Hall. Hall noted that his grandfather had preceded him into the chamber as a state representative. Wesley Wells was “a fanatical Democrat” in a Republican state, he said, but perhaps his neighbors knew him better as the neighbor they ran into at the corner store.

“My mother instilled New Hampshire in me,” he said. “I was created to love New Hampshire.”

Yet he never forgot he was not a native.

“Many who write out of a strong sense of place are not natives. Instead they choose the place they write about,” he said.

During his long absence from the state, Hall said, he had worried that the art of storytelling was dying. Back at Eagle Pond, he realized “the boring, silent people of the ’40s had become the old salty storytellers of the ’70s.” The current generation, he predicted, would do the same. “I see them now and I think, ‘They’re listening.’ ”

Despite a marrow transplant and the hope that came with it, Kenyon died in 1995. She was 47.

Hall’s grief ran long and deep. An elegist by trade, he struggled to write through his loss. He shepherded Otherwise, a new and selected collection of Kenyon’s poems, to publication. He appeared at events celebrating her life and work. He wrote a book of poems (Without, 1999) and a memoir (The Best Day The Worst Day, 2006) about losing Kenyon. Twenty years later, he still teared up talking about her.

The librarian of Congress appointed Hall U.S. poet laureate in 2006. Though honored, he was ill, decided he was wrong for the job and left after a year. The year he was appointed, he published White Apples and the Taste of Stone, a thick collection of selected poems. It drew a hostile review in the New York Times. The poet and critic Dan Chiasson belittled Hall’s move to Eagle Pond as a trip to “elegy land” and found him out of touch with what modern readers wanted.

By contrast, many ordinary people in New Hampshire and beyond gathered to listen to Hall’s poems and honor his work over the years. Gov. Steve Merrill named him a Lotte Jacobi Living Treasure. He won Newport’s Sarah Josepha Hale Award and the Robert Frost Award, presented by the alumni of Plymouth State College, where Frost once taught. Money raised after Kenyon’s death now finances the Hall-Kenyon poetry prize, which has brought many fine poets to the state over the years. New Hampshire Public Radio oversees it.

President Barack Obama awarded Hall the National Medal of the Arts at the White House in 2010. Author Philip Roth, another honoree, saw him there in his wheelchair.

“I haven’t seen you for 50 years,” he said.

“I’m still working,” Hall told him.

“What else is there?” Roth replied.

Yes, working, but also traveling and enjoying life with his longtime companion Linda Kunhardt. Hall was a man of passions. He loved Paris. He savored osso buco, liverwurst sandwiches, deviled eggs and hot dogs with spicy mustard and onions. He hated his false teeth and lamented the failing of his taste buds. He adored fine art. Once a tall man, he came to appreciate seeing favorite paintings from a different angle in his wheelchair.

Even in his final years, Hall maintained a lifelong letter-writing habit. It diminished only because so many old friends had died. He dictated letters (later emails) into a recorder, and Kendel Currier, his trusty assistant, typed them. He never used a computer. Hundreds of thousands of his letters, and Kenyon’s papers, now reside at the University of New Hampshire.

UNH’s Milne Special Collections put on an exhibit of some of its many books from Hall’s personal library last November. Three robust men had to lift the poet and his wheelchair onto the podium for an event to promote the exhibit. It was one of Hall’s last public readings.

Hall’s survivors include Andrew Hall and Natalie Olsen; Philippa and Gerald Smith; Emily, Ariana and Peter Hall; Abigail Smith; and Allison and William Castelot. While in hospice care at his home last month, Hall saw photos of his first great-grandchild, Claire Castelot.

No poet heeded the passing of generations as Donald Hall did. “Old Home Day,” a much-revised and -reduced early poem, introduced this theme in his work and now seems a fitting end to this account of his life:

Old man remembers to old man
How bat struck ball upon this plain
Seventy years ago, before
The batter’s box washed out in rain.

(Donald Hall suggested that in lieu of flowers, donations in his memory be made to the Donald Hall-Jane Kenyon Poetry Prize fund at New Hampshire Public Radio.)