Former U.S. Poet Laureate Donald Hall, who died Saturday at the age of 89, was a frequent voice in The Atlantic over the past 60 years. He often contributed verse, short fiction, personal essays, and literary criticism—works that were collectively distinguished by their melancholic introspection, by their eloquent reflection on the way things deteriorate, get corrupted, and come to an end. In a particularly self-aware (and self-effacing) moment, Hall asked in “Distressed Haiku,” published in our April 2000 issue:
Will Hall ever write
lines that do anything
but whine and complain?
Across decades and genres, his writing for the magazine dwelled on the degradation of beauty and happiness. Hall returned to the same scenarios to envision new tragedies: He wrote sickness and pain and betrayal into marriages, imagined and reimagined the distortion and dilution of great writing, and detailed, again and again, old age and death.
The bright moments in these works are keen and fleeting. In his first piece for The Atlantic, a poem titled “Iuvenes Dum Sumus” from January 1955, Hall described a young couple dancing:
Blinder than buffers of autumn,
Deaf but to music’s delight,
They dance like the puppets of music,
All through the night.
Forty years later, in a poem titled “The Wedding Couple,” he captured a scene of intimacy between spouses:
you need is love,” sang John and Paul:
He touched her shoulder; her eyes
caressed him like a bride’s bold eyes.
But as the stanzas progress, the couple from “Iuvenes Dum Sumus” abruptly ages into new weariness and suffering:
They slacken and stoop, they are tired,
They walk in the weather of pain.
Now wrinkles dig into their faces,
Sharp as the rain.
And the second duo, from “The Wedding Couple,” is eventually beset by old age and illness:
Fifteen years ago his heart
infarcted and he stopped smoking.
At eighty he trembled
like a birch but remained vigorous
and acute. …
For two years she dwindled
by small strokes
into a mannequin—speechless, almost, almost
unmoving, eyes open
and blinking, fitful in perception—
but a mannequin that suffered
shame when it stained the bed sheet.
In these verses, and in his other poetry and fiction, Hall explored the decay of individual characters and their families. But in his essays and literary criticism, he examined a different kind of deterioration: that of writers and their works. His March 1982 article “Robert Frost Corrupted,” for instance, censured an editor for altering the punctuation in Frost’s poetry and thus subtly changing the writer’s voice. “In his best poems Frost exemplifies again and again the miraculous wedding of speech and metrical line,” Hall praised. But, he warned:
In time, if we do nothing, sounds that are not Frost’s sounds will be the only sounds one can hear—and Frost’s own punctuation, when it turns up in an eccentric edition, will look like a misprint … A variorum Frost should re-establish Frost’s intended punctuation while a subtext records variations—including broken letters, English spellings, single or double quotes, and even [the editor’s] corruptions, for all I care. But the poet’s sentence-sounds must return to the poet’s page.
If there is an optimism in Hall’s works, it is distilled in passages like this: in the possibility that the kind of ruin he describes is not necessarily permanent or all-encompassing. After all, Hall suggested the “sentence-sounds” of Frost’s works can be restored; perhaps his “The Wedding Couple” can be read as a story of connection through the veil of disease.