Interviews October 1996

A Conversation with Donald Hall

Donald HallDonald Hall, author of the short story "From Willow Temple," in the October, 1996, issue of The Atlantic Monthly, is staggeringly prolific: he has produced twelve books of verse, four plays, twenty-two books of prose (including children's books, collected essays and short stories, literary criticism, textbooks, and more), and has been published regularly in such publications as The Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker. Praise for Hall's work piles up almost as fast as the work itself—he is New Hampshire's Poet Laureate, and has won, among other awards, the National Book Critics Circle Award, a Caldecott Medal, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Poetry, the Lenore Marshall Award, the Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America, and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize from the American Council for the Arts. Hall was married to the poet Jane Kenyon until her death, from leukemia, in 1995. His latest collection of poems, The Old Life, was published in June, 1996.

Hall recently spoke with The Atlantic Monthly's Allan Reeder.

In Life Work (1993) you write, "We prove ourselves worthy by the numbers of work." You certainly have "numbers of work" to prove your worth. How do you feel now when you consider the work you've done?

I feel mixed about it. When I wrote that phrase I was being somewhat ironical, but I really do enjoy quantity production. I've needed it—none of my books has made a lot of money itself. Many years I would publish four books—an anthology, a book of criticism, a new book of poems, a book of essays. Of course, I feel happier about some than about others, but I can't say there are any I feel deeply, profoundly unhappy about. Poetry has always come first, simply because I love poetry more than anything else. It's what I want to be best at, and I hope I am. Some days I feel good about my work, and sometimes I feel I've never written anything worthwhile. That's par for the course.

At ninety, your grandfather told you his secret of life: "Keep your health—and work, work, work" (or, more precisely, "woik, woik, woik"). What connection do you see between work and "keeping your health"?

Well, you can't work unless you keep your health—that's certainly one connection. To keep your health is your life. If you can, therefore, "woik, woik, woik" and become absorbed in what you do, you do the best you can with what you have. I would not want to say that you keep your health by working. It's certainly healthy for me, but I wouldn't mean to imply that people who've died young have perhaps not done the proper thing. I'm sensitive to that because my dear wife Jane Kenyon died of leukemia at forty-seven, a year and a half ago, and she would have liked to have done nothing so much as to "woik, woik, woik" until she was a very old lady.

How has Eagle Pond Farm directed and informed your writing?

I wrote about Eagle Pond Farm a lot before I lived here. I spent my summers here as a kid. My first prose book was String Too Short To Be Saved (1961), a book of reminiscences of my summers here. The poems I was publishing in tiny magazines when I was sixteen were virtually all about this place. I grew up in the suburbs of Connecticut—during the school time of year—but I preferred it in New Hampshire. I preferred the culture, the landscape, the relative solitude. I've always loved it. I wrote about it a lot when I thought I could never possibly ever live here. When Jane and I moved here in 1975, it was with the notion that living here I probably wouldn't write about it anymore. But it has certainly informed my work enormously. I cherish living in the place I love.

Jane and I preserved and protected a kind of double solitude at Eagle Pond Farm, in which we both could devote ourselves to work as much as we wanted. The culture up here has a way of praising eccentricity, and to sit at home all day on your rump writing poetry is an eccentric activity. But it is not an activity that anybody around here defers to—unlike in the academy, where people are full of ironic deference toward writers: "And how is our great poet today?" If you want to be a poet, that's your business. People can be mildly proud of you. That has been important to me during the last two decades.

Were you and your wife each other's first reader of new work?

Yes. Delighted readers. We would both hold back for a long time and then would come to each other, often with two or three things we'd been working on, and would wait with bated breath for the response. We always helped each other. Seldom did we find something perfect that the other had written, but I know we helped each other a great deal.

How do you view the future of poetry in this country?

It's very curious. When you read about poetry today, half the time you get the impression that it is fading and selling less every year. But in fact the increase has been just extraordinary—in the number of magazines, in the number of poets, and in the number of books. In comparison to forty years ago, there's a boom in poetry. Of course, most of the poetry published is no good, but that was true in 1936—and in 1836. People are always announcing that most of the poetry published is bad as if it were news. For God's sake! It's always been bad. But now there is the poetry reading, which hardly existed until the late 1950s, and a great many people now ingest poetry not only by the page but out loud. This phenomenon represents an extraordinary change—and it has taken place during my lifetime.

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