Remembering Donald Hall

His commitment to poetry over many decades—as a poet, critic, teacher, and mentor—was without peer.
Image of the poet Donald Hall.

Donald Hall’s poetry explores the longing for a more bucolic past, reflects the poet’s abiding reverence for nature, and searches through the thoughts and feelings of deep loss. Often compared favorably with such writers as James Dickey, Robert Bly, and James Wright—poets whom Hall helped to publish at various points—Hall used simple, direct language to evoke surrealistic imagery. Over six decades, his poetry collections demonstrate a remarkable range of styles and subjects, though his work always placed particular attention on the sounds of words. Although Hall gained early success with his first collection, Exiles and Marriages (1955), later works, including Without (1998) and The One Day (1988), a book-length poem about aging that won the National Book Critics Circle Award and Los Angeles Times Book Prize, are generally regarded as the best of his career. He would publish more than 50 books, including poetry, essays, short fiction, plays, biographies, and children’s books. Poetry magazine editor Don Share wrote that Hall’s work “ran the gamut of human feeling, but he expressed emotions from joy to sorrow with a formal wit that has never been excelled, or even matched, in American poetry. In every kind of darkness he brought light, and humor, too; but even where things seemed funny, there was always a qualifying philosophical seam in his work that ran as deep as the wisdom of antiquity.”

Regarding early influences, Hall recalls discovering Edgar Allan Poe as a child, and the time he first met and listened to Robert Frost lecture and read at the Bread Loaf School, which Hall attended one summer at the precocious age of 16. He went on to attend Harvard University, where he studied with Archibald MacLeish; his classmates included John Ashbery, Frank O'Hara, Adrienne Rich, Robert Bly, and Kenneth Koch. He also sat on the board of the Harvard Advocate student journal with Ashbery, Bly, and Koch. A few years later, while studying for a second BA at Oxford University, he served as president of the Oxford Poetry Society, where he helped to establish the famed Fantasy Poets series, in which Hall would help to discover and publish the first books by Thom Gunn and Geoffrey Hill. He became drinking buddies with George Plimpton, the founding editor of the Paris Review, and would serve as poetry editor of the magazine for eight years. He would also study at Stanford University, under legendary teacher and critic Yvor Winters.

Hall's influence on American poetry—as an editor, critic, anthologist, teacher, mentor, and friend to many poets of his generation and younger ones—is perhaps his greatest legacy. Hall gave likely over 5,000 readings and lectures across the country, in order to serve as an advocate for the art of poetry. He would also devote large portion of his days writing and sending letters, estimated about 4,000 per year. To better handle Hall's substantial correspondence, the U.S. Post Office gave him his own zip code. 

Hall taught for three decades at the University of Michigan, where he met his second wife, the poet Jane Kenyon. When Hall's grandmother, who lived on the New Hampshire farm he visited in summers as a boy, passed away in 1975, Hall retired from teaching, bought the farm, and moved there with Kenyon. They would often write separately in the mornings and would read poetry to each other in the afternoons or evenings. In 1994 she was diagnosed with leukemia, and she died 15 months later. Like Thomas Hardy, one of his favorite poets whose wife also died early, this loss greatly affected Hall's poetry, and he looked to Hardy as a model to express grief. For decades later, Hall attempted to articulate that loss—and the full range of emotions that accompany it—in both poetry and prose, writing movingly about love and loss, companionship and absence, memory and pain.

Hall received many awards and honors in his lifetime of writing, including two Guggenheim fellowships, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for poetry, the 1991 Robert Frost Medal, and 1994 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize: two of the top lifetime achievement awards in American poetry. He also served as US poet laureate, and in a joint project with UK poet laureate Andrew Motion he established the Essential American Poets archival recording series. In 2010 Hall was awarded the National Medal of the Arts from President Barack Obama. His work, the White House said in a statement, “has inspired Americans and enhanced the role of poetry in our national life.”

This selection of poems, articles, and audio recordings are intended to serve as an introduction to his work.