Interviews October 1996

A Conversation with Donald Hall

One negative is that the criticism of poetry has gone down as precipitously as the publication of poetry has gone up. Numbers may be part of the problem: a literary editor of a magazine has twenty-five to a hundred books on his desk, and which one does he choose to be reviewed? Well, maybe none. The Atlantic used to review poetry regularly and no longer does. Harper's, too. The New York Times Book Review has never been much good, but it has certainly become worse in the reviewing of poetry. We have no reviewers. There is no regular reviewer of poetry in the United States whom I respect. Forty or fifty years ago, you might publish a book of poems and the printing would be 750 copies, whereas now it might be 7,500 copies. But back then it might be reviewed by Edmund Wilson, Malcolm Cowley, Louise Bogan, Conrad Aiken. Don't bother to tell me the names now. I don't know what's at fault; some people suggest that the people who make their living by reviewing are now all tenured professors who don't need to do it. But it is a pity. We have the poetry but we lack the discourse of poetry. One literary editor not long ago told me, "Oh, there's the poetry crowd—it's just like the sci-fi crowd." Which infuriated me, because I was afraid it might be true. I think the readers that we had fifty years ago were more apt to be not exclusively poetry readers. Now we have more camps—some read fiction, some read poetry. It's a kind of balkanization.

Baseball, which you have called "the preferred sport of American poets," has been a favorite writing topic for you—and watching the sport has been a favorite form of entertainment when you are not writing. What attracts you to baseball?

I love the game. I love the routine and ritual of it. The game has changed on its outside, and with some of its rules, but it's amazing how much the shape of it and the crucial moments of it remain the same. Thus I feel a kind of historical connection with it. I love its distance from anything else that makes a complete, coherent little world where you can observe repetitions of behavior over the decades as you get older. All sorts of people who are madly politically liberal become utterly conservative when they turn to baseball. It's a place where the conservative inside them can run loose.

I have written some poetry and two prose books about baseball, but if I had been a rich man I probably would not have written many of the magazine essays that I have had to do. But, needing to write magazine essays to support myself, I looked to things that I cared about and wanted to write about, and certainly baseball was one of them. One thing about being a freelance writer, by the way, that nobody ever talks about is that it gets you inside worlds that you would otherwise never be in. I hung around the major leagues and talked to major leaguers. Writing about baseball was one kind of writing in which the research was a tremendous amount of fun.

At fourteen, determined to be a poet, you were already sending poems to The Atlantic and The New Yorker. At sixteen you were playing softball with Robert Frost. How did you manage that—and what did meeting Frost mean to you as a young poet?

I did start early in my ambitions, but a lot of people start early in their ambitions. Oliver Wendell Holmes said that there is nothing so commonplace as the ambition to be extraordinary. I wanted to do something extraordinary (and I was a lousy athlete). I fell in love with poetry. When I was twelve I started writing poetry; when I was fourteen I got serious. I began to work a couple of hours every day on my poems. And when I finished working on a poem, I would go back to the beginning and start writing it over again—revising. Nobody told me to do this; I don't know why I did it. When I was fourteen I really wanted to do in my life what I in fact have more or less ended up doing, which is astonishing.

There were no creative writing classes in schools at that time, but there was something called Bread Loaf, one of the oldest of the writers' conferences. I heard about it, and I knew Frost was there. I got my parents to ante up a hundred bucks for the two weeks, and I got myself accepted as a contributor. This was in 1945, when all the young men were still in the war. But I was sixteen. I spent two weeks there, and I met Frost, which was thrilling, of course. I didn't talk with him about my poems, but I did talk with him about poetry, and about writing poems, and I observed him—and then played softball with him. But I can't say it was one of the great softball games in the history of athletics.

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