At Eagle Pond
Two years ago, Donald Hall, the venerable author of more than a dozen books of poetry, including The Old Life (1996), Without (1998), and 2011’s The Back Chamber, published a personal essay in The New Yorker. Entitled “Out The Window,” it was a moving and clear-eyed meditation on aging. “Old age is a ceremony of losses,” he writes, “which is on the whole preferable to dying at forty-seven or fifty-two.” But still there are indignities. In the essay, Hall wrote of visiting the National Gallery of Art, where he encountered a guard after leaving the cafeteria: “He bends over to address me, wags his finger, smiles a grotesque smile, and raises his voice to ask, ‘Did we have a nice din-din?’”
But for readers of Hall’s poetry, it was the following admission in the essay that stunned: “New poems no longer come to me, with their prodigies of metaphor and assonance,” Hall writes.
This month sees the publication of Hall’s new book, Essays After Eighty, which includes “Out The Window.” Hall, who still lives on Eagle Pond, the New Hampshire farm where he has resided since 1975, is currently assembling a volume of his selected poems, to be released next year. Recently he spoke with the Poetry Foundation from his farm about his new book, his thoughts about poetry, and reflections on the life of a writer at age 86. The following is a condensed, edited version of that conversation.
“Out The Window” got a lot of attention when it was published in The New Yorker in 2012. Had you expected that?
Had I expected the response to “Out the Window”? No! First, I had no idea that The New Yorker would publish it, though I had hope. And then, the response was immediate. Terry Gross telephoned and did an interview for her program—I believe my fourth time on the air with Terry Gross. It was the last anecdote, with the museum guard, that brought a lot of attention. I had tons of mail. The response came after I realized that I would no longer write poems, so it was very encouraging—and enlivened me about writing essays.
You said that verse has left you, but reading your essays, you are still writing in an imagistic fashion. Can you conceive of a time not writing?
Yes, prose comes even when poems don’t, and of course it is encouraging. I work and work and work on syntax and on the right particular word, even more than I think of image and description. I cannot imagine a day without writing. Work—which only means writing—is the greatest pleasure in my life. I am surprised and delighted that it continues so strongly at my age.
I have always found the fact that you gave up tenure and worked as a freelance writer to be this wonderful romantic idea. The reality is less romantic, I know.
Freelancing still feels wonderful and even romantic to me. I was (and am) proud to be able to do it. During Jane's life I adored writing every day and publishing many things, and told myself it was because I needed to leave Jane money for her long widowhood. She was 19 years younger, and she had a grandmother who was 104 years old. I laughed at myself for using Jane's widowhood as an excuse, because I loved to write all day. Then when she died at 47, I thought maybe the excuse was the truth.
I worked, for the first 15 years we were here [in New Hampshire], about 10 hours a day, loving almost every minute of it. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt lists lots of books, poetry, and prose, but they don’t list 12 children’s books, and goodness knows how many textbooks, and of course not all the magazine articles I wrote. I published at least one item, from a book review to a whole book, every week of every year. Sometimes four books came out in one year. It was wonderful. After Jane died, I never wrote another children’s book. I quickly got rid of textbooks. I slowed down on reviews and magazine articles. Now, of course, I would not have had the magazine articles. Magazines die, and the living magazines pay less.
Why did you stop writing children’s books? I remember reading Ox-Cart Man when I was about five.
I tried with one children's book but couldn't quite get it right. I slowed down on all sorts of things, writing fewer magazine pieces, essays or reviews, fewer short stories—and, as it happened, no children's books at all.
You wrote in an earlier book that the poet at 15 wants to be as great as Dante; by 25 he wants to be in The New Yorker. What does the poet after 80 want?
The poet after 80 wants to keep on living and keep on writing. He has learned that no public honor or success will prove that he is as great as Dante—or that anybody will read anything he has written, five years after he dies!
One of your teachers, whom you've written about over the years, was Archibald MacLeish, who was acclaimed in his time but has fallen out of favor. Do you have a favorite poem of his or work that you're particularly fond of?
Archie was a good man and a good teacher, and I have no favorite poem of his—alas. Note earlier answer about future possible readers!
You wrote in the final essay in the book about how you've changed your opinion of Dylan Thomas's famous villanelle about his father—“Do not go gentle into that good night.” How much of that changing opinion has been rethinking the poem itself, and how much is about moving from identifying with Thomas to his father as you've aged?
I believe it was long ago that I realized that Dylan was asking for the unreasonable, that his father would retain his energy, that the son is worrying about his own energy as his father ages. [In the essay] I mention a young woman who lamented her father’s growing weakness. She was a student in Ann Arbor. The carpenter who said that his grandmother could walk up those cement steps, without railings, if she wanted to—he was in New Hampshire in 1975, i.e., I’ve known it a long time.
You’re currently assembling a selected poetry volume. What has the experience of that been like, and what kind of criteria are you using to select work?
My criteria? After all these years, what do I like best? What do I find least fault with? Also, I remember other people’s responses to particular poems. I think not only of what I prefer but of poems that other people have spoken of or praised. I do choose the poems that might possibly endure.
Reading through all of your work, do the poems feel like yours? Do you feel a distance from them now that you’re no longer writing poetry, or simply because of time?
All of the poems feel like mine. I have never forgotten them. I have done several selections, and also I have read so many of them aloud. I note that they differ from one another!
Are there poems of yours that you particularly enjoy?
Probably my best stuff is a long poem, The One Day. In this selection I print only one section of a section—because otherwise it would take up half the book. It's obvious, but it's also funny: This book has had more praise or attention from the best readers—and it has sold fewer copies than any of my other books!
I mentioned earlier that I read Ox-Cart Man when I was very young, and it’s a book that remains very vivid in my mind. It wasn’t until I looked at it again in preparation for this conversation that I saw that it could serve as a metaphor for the life of a writer.
I was always conscious that the Ox-Cart Man, the poem and children’s book, implied the annual round for poet as well as for farmer. I suppose I already knew that the round must eventually stop. Of course, I am fortunate that so far for me, it has continued its motion.
How has the landscape around your farm, Eagle Pond, changed since you started visiting the area?
When we moved to Eagle Pond, we could see one cottage down the road. That's still all there is to see. My patch of road and land has not changed. The surroundings, which were growing up from farmers’ fields to forest in the 1940s, grew up more so. In the middle of the 19th century, New Hampshire was the least forested part of the country. Now it is the most.
You’ve had this enviable career. Is there anything that you still aspire to do?
I'm continuing to write essays, recollections mostly. I doubt I will do anything else.
I’m curious if it feels as though you've lost something now that you no longer write poems. You’re still writing, but poetry was a part of your life since you were a teenager.
I’m really not feeling depressed about losing the ability to write poems. As it gradually left me, I felt frustrated or impotent. It was not fun, but several years ago I realized that the ability had left me. I started when I was 12. When I realized that I couldn't do it, I was almost 83. I should complain? Now I am 86 and extraordinarily happy to be able to write prose, with Essays After Eighty, and select from my old poems and write an essay about selecting them, and also to keep working on other prose pieces. I am so fortunate to be able to keep on working. I am infinitely more grateful than I am regretful. I did what I could do when I could do it. I am continuing to do!
Alex Dueben writes about books, art, comics, and culture for many publications including Suicidegirls and Comic Book Resources. His work has appeared in the Daily Beast, the Los Angeles Times, Mediabistro, and the Hartford Advocate. In addition to interviewing some of today's great living poets, including Seamus Heaney and Richard...