An Interview with Donald Hall

An interview with Donald Hall (b. 1928) by Susan Thornton Hobby, originally published in the Little Patuxent Review in 2010.

A potent distillation of Donald Hall’s life is squeezed, drop by drop, into his 65 years worth of verses. Baseball, depression, poetry readings, walks with his dog, the love and death of his wife and fellow poet Jane Kenyon, even the mountains outside his windows are all condensed into the lines that dot out Hall’s long life of letters.

A prodigy who attended Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference at age 16, Hall has earned his daily bread as a writer since graduating from Harvard and Oxford. He served as the fiery poetry editor of the Paris Review, a teacher in academia, a freelance writer for magazines, an editor of anthologies, a children’s book writer and through it all, a poet.

He credits horror movies full of wolfmen and vampires to inspiring him to read Edgar Allen Poe, which led him to want to write. And every summer, he spent months with his grandparents on their New Hampshire land, Eagle Pond Farm. He would work on the farm, and listen -- to his grandfather reciting poetry while he milked the Holsteins and to his family telling stories around the Glenwood range in the kitchen. A life of story further pushed him to forge poems.

Hall always gave his first, best energy to his poetry. After one to three hours, the “poetry juices” dry out, he wrote in his book of essays, LifeWork, so he’d turn to a book review or memoir.

In 1974, Hall gave up his tenured job at the University of Michigan to live with his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, in his grandparents’ home in New Hampshire, a move he has called “the bliss of return.”

The next 20 years were his happiest and most productive, Hall remembers, with writing in the morning, lunch with Kenyon and a romp on their painted bed, then sharing poems, reading and correcting in the afternoon and the Red Sox on his satellite dish at night. Hall cared for Kenyon during her long duel with leukemia, and wrote elegies for her after she died. During it all, he wrote.

His most recent memoir, Unpacking the Boxes: A Memoir of a Life in Poetry was called “enchanting,” by the New York Times. Hall’s The One Day was nominated for a Pulitzer. He’s won two Guggenheim fellowships, the Poetry Society of America’s Robert Frost Silver medal and the Ruth Lilly Prize for poetry. Hall served as the Library of Congress’ fourteenth Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry in 2006.

And still, almost every day, he writes his pages, longhand, at his desk, and corrects the typed versions that his assistant readies for him. Hall sometimes revises his poems hundreds of times; the University of New Hampshire archives all his manuscripts. His latest poem, “Meatloaf,” appeared in the July 20, 2009 issue of The New Yorker. Yes, he admits, he’s much more tired nowadays. But still he writes.

“Contentment is work so engrossing that you do not know that you are working,” Hall writes in LifeWork.

Hall answered the phone at his New Hampshire home on August 17, 2009, at 9 a.m.


Susan Thornton Hobby: A sense of place, of your home, permeates your writing. Could you describe the room where you do most of your work?

Donald Hall: This is a house that goes back for many generations. I write in two places. One is where my desk is, the room where I slept as a child. It had a bed then, now it has poetry books. I have a fine desk, totally messy, where I often begin and do the early drafts.

Then there is a chair in my living room -- every day I look at revisions -- where I often make changes to them without going to my desk. I have an assistant; I don’t have a computer. I haven’t worked on a typewriter for 100 years. I work five days a week, mostly lines at the beginning. I just had a poem in the New Yorker (July 20, 2009, “Meatloaf”). It took two years and 158 drafts. Keats wrote one of the great odes in a morning. But I work more from place to process of revision.

STH: In keeping with talking about this wonderful old home where you stayed summers at your New Hampshire home with your grandparents – you once called those months “the best idyll” -- you remember your grandfather reciting poetry while you were cutting and stacking hay. Could you talk about those summers? And do you remember some of the poetry he would recite?

DH: I don’t think I could quote anything except “Casey at the Bat.” He often did it while he was in the tie-up when he was milking the Holsteins, while his hands could do the automatic work. He would recite, I remember one called “Lawyer Blue,” I could tell you the title, but not a word of it. The highest literary value was probably “Casey at the Bat.” They were the poems he had learned as a young kid to recite in school.

But also they were the way that young people entertained each other. Right nearby there was the South Danbury … what did they call it … Debating Society, I’m not really sure. They would begin with individual performances, they would play instruments, people sang songs. My grandfather was tone deaf, so he would recite poems. He had hundreds by heart. And he hadn’t said them in a while to anybody in a long time. He hadn’t had an audience for a while, and now he had one in his grandson. And I adored it.

Every summer when I got there for the first time, there would be several more that he’d remembered over the winter. And he would recite the old ones over and over again. There’s a recent poem I’ve written in which I talk about him reciting [“Pieces,” as yet unpublished]. And I say that he recited a version of “Casey at the Bat” where Casey hit a home run. He could not bear it that the mighty Casey had struck out. Nothing I have written has ever been anything like his poems.

But the house was a house of language. The radio was rare and it was, of course, before television. People would talk, mostly telling stories, occasionally jokes, more often remembering things that happened in the old days, “Remember the blizzard of 1888?” and so on. I think that people did not talk so much in the suburbs and not as wittily. I think that some of my desire to write probably came from my summers here, but more from storytelling than from hearing those poems.

STH: At the age of 46, you took a leap and quit your tenured job at University of Michigan to buy your grandmother’s house and go home to New Hampshire to write full-time. That has clearly been a good decision for you.

DH: With Jane Kenyon of course. I was the only child and had loved solitude and silence when I was a child, but then going to school and teaching school, I got into the habit of parties and so on. Moving back here was moving back to solitude. Jane loved it all the time and knew it; she hated parties. She loved this place, both the house and the landscape and the culture, and I did too. She sort of pushed me. I was really glad to give up teaching and move here. And we loved the solitude.

It was a little terrifying at first because I was freelancing to make a living, and when you’re freelancing you don’t know where the money’s going to come for your groceries. I just wrote articles for magazines, put together books, children’s books, textbooks and actually made a good living. Which was a surprise. It was very hard work, but I enjoyed every minute of it. I think the 50s, my 50s, were probably my best decade as a poet and for happiness.

STH: While your work life may seem quite different from your grandfather’s life of constant physical effort, you’ve drawn parallels between the two. I especially remember your dream of the zoo animals walking down the lane toward the farm.

DH: This was an old-fashioned multiple farm. There was very little money. You got sweetness instead of from sugar, from the honeybees and from maple syrup. They had chickens, and sheep and cows, earlier there had been pigs. The day was full of tasks and no two days were ever quite the same. In the summer, we had a standard outline of milking and cutting hay, raking it, stacking it, putting it on the hayrack, milking again.

And as a freelancer, I would always work on poems first thing in the day, then go on to a book review for a while, a children’s book for another while, a textbook for a while, some anthology I was editing, and I was entertained and energized by the variety of things I was doing in order to make a living.

When Jane and I first moved here, it was very happy, but I had some guilt, apparently, from replacing my grandparents. They had to be dead for me to be here. This came out in dreams. In one of them, not the one you’re speaking of, I heard a booming voice, sounded like an echo box or something, that said, now I can’t remember, “In the seed …” – oh goddamn -- It was saying that the act survives in the acorn, the act of birth includes the act of death.

In the dream you’re speaking of, Jane and I were living here with my grandparents, only one morning, we woke up, they were missing, and the cattle were missing too. We thought they had fallen off a roof and had died. Without great concern we looked for their bodies. We looked up and there they were coming down the dirt road. It was actually paved the year I was born. It was the old dirt road, and they were coming toward the farm, having traded their animals for zoo animals, there were ostriches and giraffes, and so on. Later I figured out, I believe, that these exotic animals instead of the practical ones, were me thinking of making poems instead of making milk for the dairy. It was a good dream.

STH: You’ve been writing now for 65 years. Your form has evolved from free verse to strict rhyming forms to more relaxed, longer line. Could you talk about that evolution?

DH: My first book was totally metrical, actually, every poem in it was metered, and almost all of them rhymed. And I have gone back to that, to that metrical form, for maybe 10 poems in the last 10 years.

There was a time after the metrical beginning that I wrote a tight, short free verse line, with a lot of long vowels and a lot of attention to sound. And often a poem that ended in fancy and surprise. Every time you get in a particular style, eventually you use it up. I spent a couple of years wandering around, doing that a little bit, and trying old forms, not writing as well as I had before.

Then one day and I don’t know why, I began to write a long line, that paid more attention to pauses within the line than it did to line breaks, and that included more objects of the world, as my earlier feverish poems had not done. Frequently the lines were long, but they often had a variety of length. That was a liberation, as earlier the movement from meter to short free verse lines was a liberation, when I first began.

Later, I have written free verse poems, which are very close to meter, but not exactly – they’re visually close, with stanzas of the same length. Lately, I have been going back to syllabics, counting the number of syllables in the line. Right now a couple of poems I’m working on are in that form. One thing I have said many times, is that every time my style has changed, it has presented itself as a difference in sound. I think that sound for me is the gateway into poems.

STH: If you write in rhyme and obviously, if you’re counting syllables, do you know the poem will have that rhyme and number of syllables when you find its subject?

DH: It’s often the rhymes from the beginning of the poem. … Thomas Hardy is one of my favorites. What he would do, what I do, is to work out a first stanza, the lines and the rhymes, and then write a second stanza using the same rhymes, you are able to arrive at it then repeat the formula you’ve arrived at.

STH: I read that you wrote 500 drafts of “Another Elegy.” Could you describe your revision process?

DH: Yes, and at this time, I don’t think I succeeded. After I’ve worked on them for four or five months, it’s important that no one see what I’m working on. Never show an early draft to anybody. Jane and I held back on drafts of poems for a long time. Because the minute somebody else talks about it, that reaction and that voice attaches itself to that poem. And there’s a point at which you can’t decide this or that, you may feel it needs more work, but you need another eye.

Then, living in the country, I don’t have a workshop here. Jane and I would show each other poems, but I use the mails. I need other people’s eyes. I don’t take every suggestion I get, I don’t agree, but often they open me up to other ways of looking. And often they show me something stupid I’ve been doing for a year, a cliché, a dead metaphor, a terrible line break. It’s possible to deceive yourself, even when you know a lot about writing poetry. You need the eyes of somebody else. Well, I do at least.

STH: My children have loved your children’s books, like Ox-Cart Man and Old Home Day and the Lucy books. Why write children’s books?

DH: I began with having children, and reading them books and telling them stories. My first children’s book, it’s been out of print for years, is called Andrew the Lion Farmer. And my son Andrew, when he was four years old or so, said he had a good idea, but it was kind of scary. He said he was going to buy some lion seeds and he would grow lions in a place where his mother grew plants. And that was a great idea and scary. When he told me about it, he was amused, but he also meant it. Naturally, I immediately reached for my pen and started to write a children’s book; it didn’t do very much. It’s out of print. …

Then I heard the story of the ox-cart man from an old cousin, “Did you ever hear one about the fella round here who packed up his ox-cart?” I had chills up and down my spine. I wrote a poem for grown-ups out of that, it’s in my books, called “Ox-Cart Man.” But after I’d worked about 10 months on the poem, it was about finished, one day I suddenly had the idea to make it into a children’s book. I know my daughter was visiting me at that time – she was maybe 18 – I wonder if her presence had anything to do with it.

Anyway, most of my work takes forever, but I did the first draft in about 45 minutes, and then looked up particulars, what gifts would he have brought back for his kids. So it took me about two hours to write that book, which won the Caldecott and paid the mortgage. Then I had grandchildren and I took it up again, and wrote a whole bunch of them. I’ve written twelve in all.

STH: You once wrote that you published something virtually every week of the year and sent 5,000 letters and postcards a year. Do you still do that?

DH: I do probably that many letters. I don’t publish that much any more. I’m 80 years old and the imaginative energy is not so strong as it was, but it’s good to continue to write.

STH: Could you talk about the state of poetry – there seems to be …

DH: No, not really. When you’re 80, you are really detached. I have known people who in their 50s to become detached from the present scene. I think I remained close well into my 60s. But now it seems alien to me. Sometimes I read a poem and I go three or four lines and don’t go any further. That’s being 80 years old, and aging away from the present scene.

When I was 20 I was absolutely full and I knew who was good and who wasn’t. I was passionate about it. Now my generation, of course, we die off. But many of us are still hanging on. Some of the people I still correspond with are members of my generation.

STH: When you had cancer, you worked even in the hospital. Through depression, divorce, Jane’s death, you always wrote. In Lifework, you wrote “I knew in my heart that I worked against death …” Is that still the case?

DH: (Laughs) Yeah, it’s a lot closer now. In 1992, when I had had my liver out, it was probably close, but I managed to escape it. I write now about what I’m full of, which is age, and expecting not to be around very long. So it becomes more true. I have less energy with which to write about it. But when I do have the energy, I work every day, I am thinking of what I can write until I die. So it’s more true than ever.

© Susan Thornton Hobby, 2010. All rights reserved.