Donald Hall, a Poet Laureate of the Rural Life, Is Dead at 89
Posted June 24, 2018 6:40 p.m. EDT
Donald Hall, a former poet laureate of the United States who found a universe of meaning in the apples, ox carts and ordinary folk of his beloved rural New England, died Saturday at his home in Wilmot, New Hampshire. He was 89.
His death was announced by his literary agent, Wendy Strothman. He had overcome cancer, first diagnosed in 1989, beating the very odds of survival he had given himself years ago.
Hall was one of the leading poets of his generation, frequently mentioned in the company of Robert Bly, James Wright and Galway Kinnell. In evoking a bucolic New England past and expressing a deep veneration of nature, he used simple and direct language, though often to surreal effect.
“Hall has long been placed in the Frostian tradition of the plain-spoken rural poet,” Billy Collins, another American poet laureate, wrote in The Washington Post in April 2006, two months before Hall himself was given the post.
Since 1975, Hall had lived on a New Hampshire farm that had been in his family for generations. Growing up in suburban Hamden, Connecticut, he had spent his childhood summers at the homestead and written his first poems there, and he described his return as both a homecoming and a “coming home to the place of language.”
Hall’s poems often evoke not only place but also an almost geologic sense of time. In “Names of Horses,” he writes:
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.
He was a staggeringly prolific writer who chose freelance work over teaching — a decision, as Collins put it, “to detach himself from academic life, with its slow but steady intravenous drip of a salary.”
Hall was a memoirist, an essayist and the author of textbooks and children’s books. A lifelong Boston Red Sox fan, he wrote two books about baseball, including “Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball” (1976), a lyrical portrait of both the game and the subject that was written with Ellis, a flamboyant former pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates and New York Yankees. (“In the country of baseball,” Hall wrote, “time is the air we breathe, and the wind swirls us backward and forward, until we seem so reckoned in time and seasons that all time and all seasons become the same.”)
For 23 years Hall was married to poet Jane Kenyon, who died in 1995, and he paid moving tribute to her and their marriage in the collections “Without” (1998) and “The Painted Bed” (2002).
But the bulk of his poetry over a 60-year career emphasizes the cycle of life as it plays out in the natural world and those who live in it, though often in a way with which urban readers could identify. In his 1977 poem “Ox Cart Man,” an ode to persistence and practicality, Hall describes how a farmer loads his potatoes into a cart and walks beside his ox to market, where he sells the potatoes.
When the cart is empty he sells the cart.
When the cart is sold he sells the ox,
harness and yoke, and walks
home, his pockets heavy
with the year’s coin for salt and taxes,
and at home by fire’s light in November cold
stitches new harness
for next year’s ox in the barn,
and carves the yoke, and saws planks
building the cart again.
Hall came of age as a poet in the late 1940s and early ‘50s, when the dominant poetic trend was toward a combination of formal structures and a sophisticated yet conversational style. Its leading proponent was W.H. Auden, who had come to the United States in 1939 and was naturalized in 1946. Auden returned to England in the late 1950s, but his influence on his American contemporaries as well as the younger poets of his day, like Hall, was incalculable.
Hall’s first collection, the tightly structured “Exiles and Marriages” (1955), is grounded in strict rhymes and meters. As he assembled the book, though, he also took up arms as an editor in the “War of the Anthologies,” in which two influential poetry compilations were at total odds with each other.
Hall’s anthology, “The New Poets of England and America” (1957), edited with poets Robert Pack and Louis Simpson, solidified and furthered the Audenesque mode. It embodies the best of the Academic Poets, so called because many of them held teaching posts at colleges and universities but, more important, because of the button-down formalism of their verse.
The work of the academics — among them Anthony Hecht, John Hollander, Donald Justice, May Swenson and Richard Wilbur — varies greatly, but it shares an allegiance to the standards of the traditional well-made poem as championed by T.S. Eliot and John Crowe Ransom.
Across the divide was a second anthology published three years later, Donald Allen’s “The New American Poetry, 1945-1960,” showcasing experimental and avant-garde poets like John Ashbery, Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg and Amiri Baraka (formerly known as LeRoi Jones).
Each of these radically different books pretended, as their titles suggest, to speak for an entire generation. Notably, neither shared a single poet. And the chasm between them has defined the dominant schools of American poetry ever since.
Hall met Kenyon while teaching at the University of Michigan, and they married in 1972. Three years later they moved to Eagle Pond Farm, his grandparents’ former home in Wilmot, in south-central New Hampshire. The house was built in 1803 and bought in 1865 by Hall’s great-grandfather, and Hall continued to write there in the same first-floor room in which he slept and first began writing poems as a boy.
Hall and Kenyon were profiled and interviewed at the house by Bill Moyers in an Emmy Award-winning PBS documentary, “Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon: A Life Together,” broadcast in 1993. By then Hall was being treated for cancer; it had been discovered in his colon in 1989, and by 1992 it had spread to his liver.
At the time of the documentary the cancer had gone into remission, but Hall was fatalistic in the film, saying the odds were against his living another 10 years. A year later, in 1994, Kenyon learned she had leukemia.
Hall made her illness and death at 47 the subject of “Without,” a collection of poems published in 1998. A second volume dedicated to Kenyon, “The Painted Bed,” appeared in 2002. In “Last Days,” a poem in “Without,” Hall describes how he and Kenyon chose the poems for “Otherwise,” her posthumous collection. Then,
... he saw how weak she felt,
and said maybe not now; maybe
later. Jane shook her head. “Now,” she said.
“We have to finish it now.”
Later, as she slid exhausted into sleep,
she said, “Wasn’t that fun? To work together? Wasn’t that fun?” Donald Andrew Hall Jr. was born on Sept. 20, 1928, in New Haven, Connecticut, the only child of Donald and Lucy (Wells) Hall. Hall wrote in his memoir, “Unpacking the Boxes,” that his father had been desperately unhappy in the family dairy business and had insisted that his son follow his own desires. Thus, he wrote, “at fourteen I decided to spend my life writing poetry.”
His talent was soon recognized, and at 16 he was accepted to pursue poetry at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Vermont while attending Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. Afterward he enrolled at Harvard, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1951, graduating magna cum laude.
In a 1983 essay, “Poetry and Ambition,” Hall began it by saying, “I see no reason to spend your life writing poems unless your goal is to write great poems.” He went on to assail much of the poetry world, finding mediocrity there, or what he calls the “McPoem.”
“We write and publish the McPoem — ten billion served — which becomes our contribution to the history of literature.”
And every year, Hall wrote, “Ronald McDonald takes the Pulitzer.”
Hall never did win that prize, though he was a finalist for it in 1989, for the book-length poem “The One Day,” which received the National Book Critics Circle Award. Hall’s poetic ambition can be seen in his diligent revisions; even after his reputation had been thoroughly established, he would send a manuscript to 10 other poets and then rework it according to their suggestions. Robert Bly said he and Hall observed “the 48-hour rule”: If one sent a poem, the other would have to write back within 48 hours.
In addition to his selected poems, Hall’s notable collections include “Exiles and Marriages” (1955), which earned the Academy of American Poets Lamont Poetry Selection, and “The Happy Man (1986), winner of the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize.
He also wrote a critical biography of sculptor Henry Moore and a study of poet Marianne Moore. Of his many children’s books, “Ox-Cart Man” (1979), illustrated by Barbara Cooney, won the prestigious Caldecott Medal.
He was also the author of short stories, plays and memoirs, including “The Best Day the Worst Day: Life with Jane Kenyon” (2005), “Their Ancient Glittering Eyes” (1992) and “Life Work” (1993). He served as poetry editor of The Paris Review from 1953 to 1962.
Baseball remained a passion. In an introduction to an anthology edited by Peter H. Gordon, “Diamonds Are Forever” (1989), Hall wrote: “It is by baseball, and not by other American sports, that our memories bronze themselves. By baseball we join hands with the long line of forefathers and with the dead.”
His other honors include two Guggenheim fellowships, the Poetry Society of America’s Robert Frost Silver medal and the Ruth Lilly Prize for poetry. He was the United States poet laureate for 2006-07.
In 2011, he received a National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama in a White House ceremony. It is the highest award given to artists and art patrons by the U.S. government.
Hall’s first marriage, to the former Kirby Thompson, ended in divorce in 1969. His survivors include two children from that marriage, Philippa Smith and Andrew Hall; five grandchildren; and one great-grandchild. Hall confronted mortality in both prose and poetry. In the memoir “Life Work” he wrote with urgency and passion about his surgery for liver cancer and how the words “life” and “work” and “love” had become interchangeable in his mind.
And in “Affirmation,” the final poem in “The Painted Bed,” his collection dedicated to Kenyon, Hall catalogs life’s insults yet concludes:
If a new love carries us
past middle age, our wife will die
at her strongest and most beautiful.
New women come and go. All go.
The pretty lover who announces
that she is temporary
is temporary. The bold woman,
middle-aged against our old age,
sinks under an anxiety she cannot withstand.
Another friend of decades estranges himself
in words that pollute thirty years.
Let us stifle under mud at the pond’s edge
and affirm that it is fitting
and delicious to lose everything.