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New Poet Laureate Receives Impossible Advice

Donald Hall writes remarkable poems about loss, solitude, nature, and baseball. What will he do as America’s poet laureate?
When Donald Hall was appointed poet laureate, a friend sent him 85 things he could do in the job, “most of them impossible.” Writer Arthur Allen profiles Hall and talks to him about his new role as leader of the free world of poetry.

Solitude, ritual, and a work ethic that matches the granite of his New Hampshire home. These are the elements that frame the poetics of Donald Hall, who was named the 14th poet laureate of the United States on Wednesday, June 14, 2006.

The position has existed since 1937, from 1937 to 1985 as “Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress,” and from 1986 on as “Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry.” Poets appointed by the librarian of Congress have included Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Bishop, Conrad Aiken, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Penn Warren, Richard Wilbur, and Joseph Brodsky.

Some of the poets published journals or organized poetry festivals during their tenures, but the job description has become more flexible, each laureate deciding how to use the position to celebrate and amplify poetry.

In an interview with PoetryFoundation.org, Hall said he is excited about the appointment. He is scheduled to attend the Library of Congress National Book Festival in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 30 and to give a reading at the Library of Congress shortly after taking up his official duties on Oct. 1. Already casting about for ideas to raise the appreciation of reading and writing poetry in the nation, Hall mentioned that his friend the poet Liam Rector has sent him 85 ideas, “most of which are impossible.”

Hall said he would do the types of things his predecessors have done to broaden poetry’s audience. He hopes to use television and radio to bring poets to the public and will be talking about his notions with National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting Service as well as to subscription satellite radio services. Hall noted that satellite radio “does not exist for the arts as far as I can tell, but they are looking for content. Perhaps a poet could read his or her work for 30 minutes on one of the satellite channels each day.

“The sound of poetry is ultimately important . . . the breaks and concentrations of sound. It can be shown, not talked about very well,” Hall said. “You can show it with a reading, and that’s why I think of radio and television. The aesthetic unit of a poem is a sequence of sounds. The only way to get it is to hear it. Once you’ve got it, then you can hear it yourself when you read silently.”

Hall has published 18 books of verse as well as memoirs, criticism, plays, essays, children’s books, and a book about baseball. This year, Houghton Mifflin published White Apples and the Taste of Stone, a collection that spans 60 years of Hall’s poetry. Billy Collins, a former poet laureate, wrote in a Washington Post review of White Apples that Hall “has long been placed in the Frostian tradition of the plainspoken rural poet. His reliance on simple, concrete diction and the no-nonsense sequence of the declarative sentence gives his poems steadiness and imbues them with a tone of sincere authority.”

William Burroughs once claimed that “a flawless poet is fit only to be a poet laureate, officially dead and imperfectly embalmed.” Hall’s work is imperfect, with a wandering style and the occasionally glib metaphor. He writes about the usual things—sex, lust, divorce, cancer, baseball. Love. Death. And from them, he has created beautiful poems, works of passion, surprise, and inventiveness.

Hall is often considered a nature poet, but his eyes have seen much more than the ducks on Eagle Pond (his personal Walden). For example, the pain of a divorce in “Shrubs Burned Away”:
My daughter curled in my lap, wailing and red,
six years old. My fifteen-year-old son’s long legs,
writhed from a chair as tears fell on his spectacles.
Their mother was leaving them . . . I
was leaving them. Their muscles contracted
knees to chin, as I watched from my distance.
And their limbs twitched and jerked in the velvet room.
Esteemed rock critic Greil Marcus chose Hall’s 1988 poem “The One Day” for his Top 10 list of rock ’n’ roll moments:
Your children will wander looting the shopping malls
for forty years, suffering for your idleness
until the last dwarf body rots in a parking lot.
Hall’s poems are frequented by surrealistic elements, and politics make an occasional wistful appearance, as in “Stone Walls,” in which the “Shah of Iran’s opponents wake to discover nails driven through their kneecaps” yet
Each morning we watch stone walls
emerge on Kearsarge and on Ragged Mountain;
I love these mountains which do not change.
The screams persist. I continue my life.
Hall was brought up in a suburb of New Haven, Connecticut. His father, who kept the books for his family’s milk-delivery business, was unhappy with his job and pledged to support Donald in his chosen career, even when at a young age it was clear that Donald’s choice would be poetry (the national laureate of which earns only $35,000 a year). During the summers, Hall would live at Eagle Pond Farm, his grandparents’ New Hampshire home, which has been in the family since 1865. For Hall, the farm has always been a cauldron of nature and relationships, human and animal, and with the past, and a “place of poetry.”

As a student at Phillips Exeter Academy, Hall was a furious writer—short stories, plays, poems. At age 16, he attended the Breadloaf Writers’ Conference, where he met Robert Frost. He spent his undergraduate years at Harvard, where his education and social life put him in close contact with poetry: he studied under Archibald MacLeish, and among his friends were Adrienne Rich, John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, and Robert Bly, with whom he served on the editorial board of the Harvard Advocate. He later attended Oxford and Stanford and became a professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

In 1975, Hall cast off his tenured professorship to return to the New Hampshire farm where he had first embraced his vocation. Accompanying him was his second wife, the poet Jane Kenyon. They lived there for 20 years, and “with rare exceptions,” Hall once wrote, “we remained aware of each other’s feelings.”

In the early 1990s, Hall was diagnosed with liver cancer. The cancer had just gone into remission when Kenyon was diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukemia. She died in 1995, at the age of 47. In many of his poems since then Hall has shared the scalding pain of that loss. This poetry is so intimate and detailed that it makes one realize that the vulgar thing about “Dr. Phil”-style television is not what it reveals, but how unrevealing of the heart it really is.
When the infusions
are infused entirely, bone
marrow restored and lymphoblasts
remitted, I will take my wife,
bald as Michael Jordan,
back to our dog and day.
Eagle Pond Farm is a 45-minute drive from Concord, New Hampshire. As a boy, Hall cared for the chickens and helped harvest the hay on the farm. His grandfather, who knew hundreds of poems by heart, would share them with Hall while he milked the cows. Family farmers have been fleeing the rocky, sandy soils of the area for more than a century, first to work in the mills, and, then, when the mill towns crumbled, to other places. But the place hasn’t changed much. “Right where I live, it hasn’t changed at all,” Hall commented. “From here I can see only one other house, and it was built in 1880.”

Hall doesn’t farm. But rural simplicity and the careful tending of the mind are very much the bedrock of his poetic contribution. Nature in Hall’s poems is timeless, not threatened or threatening as it is, say, in the poetry of Gary Snyder or the prose of Bill McKibben. “I don’t write poems about global warming. I write about the enduringness of nature. I celebrate what is,” he said.

In “Affirmation,” one of dozens of poems written to or about his late wife, Hall mourns her disappearance, abandons her garden, yet cannot help but finish with cosmic distance,
Let us stifle under mud at the pond’s edge
and affirm that it is fitting
and delicious to lose everything.
Gone, too, is Gus, the dog of the marriage and of much poetry that followed. “I’m too old for a dog,” said Hall. “I have two cats. Those are my animals.”

Hall continues to lead the disciplined life, writing in the morning, sometimes taking in a Red Sox game via satellite on a summer’s evening. “We have a new infield this year, and I just admire them. But I take my baseball lightly,” Hall said. “I don’t get depressed when we lose and am only mildly euphoric when we win. We are leading the East in the American League. I know that much.”



New Poet Laureate Receives Impossible Advice

Donald Hall writes remarkable poems about loss, solitude, nature, and baseball. What will he do as America’s poet laureate?


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