When Donald Hall died in June, we lost one of the last members of a remarkable post-war cohort of poets that Hall himself did much to define and promote, and among whom he stood as a major figure. Born in 1928, Hall came of age in the long shadow cast by modernist titans such as T. S. Eliot and W. B. Yeats. Like the rest of his generation, Hall was compelled to discover or rediscover methods that would allow him to write poetry that struck readers as new while remaining sturdy for posterity. In books of moving and amusing verse, Hall sustained the stylistic legacies of poets such as Frost and Hardy while devilishly mingling doses of Whitman and others. Though foremost a poet, Hall worked as a professional writer, sometimes publishing three books in a year to make the mortgage. He wrote children’s books, collections of essays, and innumerable reviews. He wrote about baseball for Sports Illustrated and fatherhood for Playboy. His elegiac poems are taught at prominent medical schools. He appeared in Ken Burns’s documentary on baseball and voiced Walt Whitman for The Civil War. He also published memoirs that conjured a lost age—milk delivered to porches from horse-drawn wagons, spirited boys dressed in knickers, lazy summer afternoons watching Lon Chaney, Jr. in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Part of Hall’s perennial appeal lies in his ability to share stories of his childhood and his family’s lore in a charming and poignant style. Like any gifted storyteller, he proved capable of telling some tales more than once with little loss of interest for the reader.
In his celebrated essay “Poetry and Ambition,” Hall explained that when striving to create durable poems, poets are “certain of two things: that in all likelihood we will fail, and, if we succeed, we may never know it.” His tireless ambition resulted in memorable poems of the natural world, the contours of family life, the joys of love and sex, and, perhaps most compellingly, the pains of irremediable loss. Though always determined to succeed, Hall knew to avoid the kind of ambition that proves baleful. In a 1991 Paris Review interview—accompanied by a photograph of a full-bearded Hall tilting back to pitch a baseball—he relates a story about playing softball with Robert Frost in 1945, when that particular titan was seventy-one years old: “He fought hard for his team to win and he was willing to change the rules. He had to win at everything. Including poetry.” Hall learned a lesson and handled his own career more graciously.
It was a career unusually long-lived and rewarding for a poet of any era. It is nearly impossible to overstate the profound changes that affected the discipline of poetry between 1952—when Hall’s poetry first landed in print, in an installment of Fantasy Poets at Oxford—and 2018, when A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety, his last collection of essays, appeared, not long before his death. Over that span Hall remained popular with readers and critics alike. He was a regular on radio and television, most notably Bill Moyers’s documentary A Life Together in 1993, which invited viewers into Hall’s life with his wife Jane Kenyon as they traveled to poetry festivals and spent their days writing at Eagle Pond Farm. Hall and Kenyon became the very image of the literary couple.
Hall’s ambition revealed itself early. He recalls his earliest efforts as a poet: “I walked home from high school every day and sat at the desk and got to work.” While at Harvard he became an editor at The Harvard Advocate, where he met John Ashbery, Robert Bly, Frank O’Hara, and Adrienne Rich. Later, while on break from graduate studies at Oxford University—where he received the prestigious Newdigate Prize in 1952—he traveled to Paris and was introduced to George Plimpton, who was just starting The Paris Review. He persuaded Hall to serve as the magazine’s poetry editor, a position he held until 1961. Hall energetically supported poets of his own generation from both sides of the Atlantic, including James Dickey, Thom Gunn, James Wright, and Geoffrey Hill. Hall’s influential editorial work continued when, with Robert Pack and Louis Simpson, he selected entries for New Poets of England and America, a generation-defining 1957 anthology that brought together early-career British poets such as Donald Davie, Elizabeth Jennings, and Jon Silkin with aspiring Americans like May Swenson, W. S. Merwin, and Anthony Hecht. Among his many editorial achievements, Hall was particularly fond of his eminently readable Oxford Book of American Literary Anecdotes, which combined his talents as an editor with those as a storyteller with a keen ear for telling moments and understated comedy.
In the case of Hall, it may almost be said that he stood in for an enormous span of history and a way of life that has become almost impossible. The literary realm he inhabited, and in which he toiled so hard for so long, no longer really exists.
For several years, Hall taught at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where he met Jane. They married in 1972 and not long after moved to Eagle Pond Farm, Hall’s ancestral home, to pursue life as full-time writers. His poems set at the farm brim with the joys of the contentment he knew while married to Kenyon—mornings spent writing on the lower floor while Jane wrote in her own office upstairs, sharing their poems at midday before napping, quiet evening meals, swimming in Eagle Pond, days deeply mourned in his poems after Jane’s untimely death at age forty-seven. He once told an interviewer, “everything important always begins from something trivial.”
In June’s high light she stood at the sink
With a glass of wine,
And listened for the bobolink
And crushed garlic in late sunshine.
I watched her cooking, from my chair.
She pressed her lips
Together, reached for kitchenware,
And tasted sauce from her fingertips.
“It’s ready now. Come on,” she said
“You light the candle.”
We ate, and talked, and went to bed,
And slept. It was a miracle.
Poems depicting such simple, domestic scenes, laden with sorrow in recollection, are among his most beloved. His mourning continued for years in unassuming poems that recounted days when profound serenity advanced from modest routines.
Ordinary days were the best,
when we worked over poems
in our separate rooms.
I remember watching you gaze
out the January window
into the garden of snow
and ice, your face rapt
as you imagined burgundy lilies.
Your presence in this house
is almost as enormous
and painful as your absence.
Hall’s 2015 Selected Poems, his third overall, served as a distillation of a life’s work, winnowing a shelf’s worth of volumes down to just more than one hundred pages of finely tuned verse. Elsewhere I have remarked that “Names of Horses,” the centerpiece of that volume, deserves to be thought of as one of Hall’s best poems, combining his imaginative recreation of the past with observation of the endless renewal and richness of the world, at once lamentation and celebration:
For a hundred and fifty years, in the pasture of dead horses,
roots of pine trees pushed through the pale curves of your ribs.
yellow blossoms flourished above you in autumn, and in winter
frost heaved your bones in the ground—old toilers, soil makers:
O Roger, Mackerel, Riley, Ned, Nellie, Chester, Lady Ghost.
Hall admitted with sadness that after turning eighty he lacked the “testosterone” to write poems, though he continued to turn out entertaining and poignant essays, some of which would undergo innumerable revisions to find their final form. (Throughout his life, Hall urged young writers to revise, mercilessly and often. He also commanded, “for God’s sake read the old poets.”) The melancholy of his final book of essays is leavened by his usual soft-spoken humor, as when he recounts an obsequious letter from a rare book librarian hoping to acquire the papers of “David Hall” in the form of a donation (a letter he discovers has been sent to many other writers as well), or the occasion on which the Harvard biologist Stephen Jay Gould mistakenly addressed a letter to him at “Ego Pond Farm.”
A few weeks before he died, Hall sent me the fruits of one of his final projects—an album, Mortality Mansions: Songs of Love and Loss After 60, on which Hall recites poems to the music of the composer Herschel Garfein alongside settings for tenor and soprano. I had intended to listen and write to thank him. I foolishly believed I had time. When I read through my decade of lively correspondence with Hall (almost entirely by post and only in the last year by electronic mail), I am struck by his generosity, forthrightness, wisdom, and humor—traits abundant in his poems as well. He wrote to me about his library, literature, and fatherhood. It is a commonplace to claim that we will not see the like of one poet or another again. In the case of Hall, it may almost be said that he stood in for an enormous span of history and a way of life that has become almost impossible. The literary realm he inhabited, and in which he toiled so hard for so long, no longer really exists.
In what amounts almost to an aside, Hall observed in one of his last essays that “anyone ambitious, who lives to be old or even old, endures the inevitable loss of ambition’s fulfillment.” As a young man, Hall learned about patience and the art of happiness from the English modernist sculptor Henry Moore, whom he interviewed for a New Yorker profile, later published as a book. Moore instructed that “the most important thing about . . . desire is that it must be incapable of fulfillment.” Hall adds to this advice that “life should be lived toward moments when you lose yourself in what you are doing. You have to have something you really want to do.” Hall showed us how a life may be fulfilled when devoted to the work one loves, even as one strives always to improve, and when spent with those one loves, even knowing they will one day be lost. His philosophy may be summed in a further remark he made about the sculptor—that he would wake each day “with the same ambition in his mind, with total absorbedness. Always beginning again. Always knowing he’d fail. Always beginning again. Amen.”
1A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety, by Donald Hall; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 224 pages, $25.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 37 Number 1, on page 78
Copyright © 2020 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com