Turning Time Around: A Profile of Donald Hall

John Freeman
From the November/December 2014 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Old age sits in a chair,” Donald Hall writes in his new book, Essays After Eighty, “writing a little and diminishing.” And so it’s not a surprise on a late August afternoon to find the former U.S. poet laureate and author of more than fifty books, including twenty-two poetry collections, perched by a window of his New Hampshire home like a rare bird, resplendent with beard feathers, pecking at a manuscript. It’s a hot, still day, and the poet who once barnstormed the country stumping for poetry, speaking out against the Vietnam War, is a few weeks shy of eighty-six—his once-notable height a rumor. Hall responds to a knock slowly, rising deliberately and moving to the door with a walker, like a man who has learned the hard way just how unreliable feet can be as they approach ninety.

Photo by David Mendelsohn

He waves me through an immaculate New England kitchen into the living room, where it is easily ten degrees cooler. “It’s the wonder of a porch,” Hall says, and begins telling a story about his great-grandparents, who bought the house in 1865, and his grandparents, who ran its farm when he was a child. Those days have long passed, though, along with so much else. The chair Hall once burrowed into later burned when he dropped a cigarette. He sits down in its replacement. There’s no car outside either; driving is something he’s had to give up too. These forfeitures, and the fact that we are in a town without a store, lends the room a hermetic, plush silence. Andy Warhol prints surround us. There is a portrait with President Obama, who awarded Hall the 2010 National Medal of Arts. I wonder if I should have taken Hall’s response to my interview request at face value—that he was “old as hell,” that he would get tired.

But over the next few hours something remarkable happens. Hall turns time around. His face brightens, his voice deepens—he expands. Arms waving, eyes flashing with a performer’s glee, he unleashes energetic and startlingly pitch-perfect impressions—of his longtime friend Robert Bly, of the sonorous-voiced Geoffrey Hill. Tale by tale the room peoples with ghosts. Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot, and Adrienne Rich parade through his stories and recede. A different era of poetry, when anthologies could lead to fistfights, is briefly resurrected, a time when one could live by one’s wits rather than on an adjunct’s crumbs.

In many ways we have Robert Graves to thank for these hours of narrative fireworks. Half a century ago, Graves visited the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where Hall was then teaching, and encouraged the young poet to make a go of freelance writing. All it took, Graves instructed, was a twenty-minute nap and a bit of mercenary energy. All that was required, Graves said, was for the poet to use everything he had. Almost immediately after Graves departed Michigan, Hall began his first prose book—String Too Short to Be Saved: Recollections of Summers on a New England Farm (David R. Godine, 1961), about the very house and farm where we now sit—setting up his eventual move to New Hampshire in 1975, with his second wife, the poet Jane Kenyon. This farm was to be their retirement.

Next year will mark the fortieth anniversary of that flight, and twenty years have passed since Kenyon died of leukemia at the terribly young age of forty-seven. A three-time survivor of cancer, Hall did not expect to be here either, certainly not alone. “I was given a 30 percent chance of living five years in 1992,” the poet says. “I think, like a lot of people, I always thought I would die young,” he adds. “Instead, Jane died.” Hall’s father, who worked in the family dairy business, died at fifty-two. His mother, however, lived to be ninety and met all of her great-grandchildren, something Hall hopes to do as well. (He has two children from his first marriage and five grandchildren.)

In the interim, he has followed Graves’s advice and used everything. So now he brings forth his view on the territory before him in Essays After Eighty, forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in December, in which he ruminates playfully and hilariously on the subtractions of old age: driving, drinking, sex, smoking, and physical vanity. It is a shockingly funny book, sometimes an irreverent one. He thumbs his nose at death, the very thing that in many ways made him a poet. “When I was nine or ten, a whole bunch of aunts and uncles died right in a row,” Hall remembers. “I sat in bed, at ten years old, saying to myself, ‘Death has become a reality.’ That was my language at ten.” He laughs.

His first love as a writer was Poe. As Hall wrote in Unpacking the Boxes: A Memoir of a Life in Poetry (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008), he composed his first poem, “The End of It All,” in the writer’s shadow. “Have you ever thought / Of the nearness of death to you?” the poem goes. He wonders at this precocious portentousness now, and then grows serious again. “I used to dread it. I don’t think about it much now, at eighty-five.”

Then, as now, he looked forward. He was in a hurry to grow up and leave Hamden, Connecticut, befriending students at nearby Yale in his teens, leaving home for his final two years of high school at Phillips Exeter. Hall’s mother and father met at Bates College, but the elder Hall always felt he had missed out on a life of the mind. He was determined the same would not happen to his only child. Donald was going to go to Harvard, and he did, arriving in the late 1940s amid a swell of enrollments from the GI Bill, and joining one of the greatest concentrations of poetic talent ever to be seen in one place. John Ashbery, Adrienne Rich, Kenneth Koch, Frank O’Hara, John Hollander, and Robert Bly were all students there at the time. Richard Wilbur was a fellow.

“It was that American century,” Hall says now, “which lasted from 1944 to 1963. There was a great sense of looseness and power, that anything could happen.” Entering Harvard Yard, Hall recalls, one would be hawked a copy of the Daily Worker, the 1920s Communist newspaper, by a Brahmin student; same-sex couples held hands. “Frank O’Hara threw the best parties,” Hall remembers. “I knew him then as a fiction writer, but he was already writing all those poems on the side.” What Hall didn’t learn on campus he gleaned by lurking around the famous Grolier Poetry Book Shop. “I met Bob Creeley, who was a chicken farmer in New Hampshire. I met him in Grolier’s—that’s where you met everybody. We talked, I thought he was terrific, he was smart, and so I looked up his poems and they were terrible. Later I loved his poems; it took a while.”

Hall’s most important friendship, however, was with Bly, who had entered college after service in the army, but had seen no action. He’d had rheumatic fever. “He was like a dean and never smiled and didn’t open his mouth much. He wore a three-piece suit,” Hall remembers. “He’d come from western Minnesota to Harvard. For a while he was looking like a Harvard man, but a year later it was lumberjack shirts. We started talking about Robert Lowell—this was two years after Lord Weary’s Castle—and Richard Wilbur’s The Beautiful Changes. We were courting each other and so on; I thought he was a bright guy and he obviously [thought I was], too.”

Their friendship has lasted sixty-five years. Every poem Hall has published has been shown to Bly, and, Hall says, probably vice versa. They began writing to each other as soon as Hall left for England after graduation, and now their correspondence stretches to more than twenty thousand letters, most of which are archived at the University of New Hampshire. “I just got a letter from him the other day,” Hall says, “but it was handwritten, not typed, just six lines.” Bly is now eighty-seven years old but remains, Hall says, his optimistic self. “He always says he looks forward to seeing me soon again.”

Every single member of the generation with whom Hall entered Harvard, except for Ashbery, has now died, along with so many of his friends and contemporaries—Louis Simpson, James Wright, Maxine Kumin, Allen Ginsberg—and Hall takes seriously the task of remembering them and their time. The manuscript he was working on when I interrupted him will be a kind of update to his classic 1978 book, Remembering Poets: Reminiscences and Opinions (Harper & Row), which spun a series of keen-eyed portraits of the great poets Hall had met, from Robert Frost, whom Hall first encountered at age sixteen as a young enrollee at Bread Loaf, to T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, whom Hall interviewed for the Paris Review when he was serving as its first poetry editor, from 1953 to 1961.

Many of the new portraits will involve people Hall befriended when he moved to England to study literature at Oxford University in the early 1950s: Thom Gunn and Geoffrey Hill, both of whom he published at the very beginning of their careers, along with Ted Hughes and others. Sixty years after his first arrival in England, Hall remembers the time well and fondly, in spite of its deprivations. “Rationing ended during my first year at Oxford. Clothing was utility. You could not get Stilton cheese. It was all for export. You got Danish Blue, which was horrible. I had my ration card to hand in at the college. But I loved it.”

Hall met Hill for the first time in 1952, when the English poet was just twenty. “The poetry society had its final cocktail party, which meant South African sherry,” Hall remembers. “I invited him to it because I had read his poem in [the Oxford University student magazine] the Isis. I remember meeting Geoffrey and talking to him in the corner, and he talked to me in this most astonishing way, as if he were tipping his cap. I thought he was making fun of me; I thought he was making fun of me for being working class. No way. His father was a constable in a village in Worcestershire. That was the end of my first year. In the second year I saw Geoffrey almost every day. We went to pubs, talked poetry.”

Hall returned to the United States in 1954 with a manuscript in his back pocket that eventually became Exiles and Marriages (Viking), his debut volume, a finalist for the 1956 National Book Award alongside books by William Carlos Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, and his old teacher from Harvard, John Ciardi. W. H. Auden would win that year for The Shield of Achilles (Random House). Hall had received his acceptance letter from Viking on the day that he learned his father would die of cancer. He read reviews of the book to his father on his deathbed. “My cup…runneth over,” Hall remembers him saying.

Like so many poets of his time, from W. S. Merwin to Rich to Galway Kinnell, Hall began his career as a formalist, only to immediately feel the inadequacy of the forms in conveying, as he has written, the “crucial area of feeling.” He sorted out this anxiety by editing, with Louis Simpson and Robert Pack, an anthology called New Poets of England and America (Meridian Books, 1957), which formed a kind of footbridge between Britain and the United States. With an introduction by Robert Frost, it was as notable for whom it included at the beginnings of their careers—Gunn, Hill, Rich, and Merwin—as for whom it left out: Creeley, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov, Charles Olson, Gary Snyder, and others. It was not meant as an exclusionary gesture, Hall says now. “When Simpson and Pack and I made that anthology, we weren’t trying to champion one kind of poetry over another. We were just publishing what we thought were the best poems.” Poet Ron Padgett echoes the sense that perhaps the ensuing brouhaha over the anthology—and Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry: 1945–1960 (Grove Press, 1960)—was overrated. “Anthologies don’t create divisions or reinforce them,” he wrote in an e-mail, “except in the minds of people who want to think about such things instead of about specific poems.”