What Donald Hall Understood About Death

In the pieces he wrote for The Atlantic, the late poet embraced the inevitability of aging and decline.

The late poet Donald Hall at age 77
Donald Hall—at age 77, before he became the U.S. poet laureate—posing in 2006 in the barn of the 200-year-old Wilmot farm that had been in his family for four generations (Jim Cole / AP)

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.

Sometimes, Hall wrote about how the dead might find their way back to the world, as he did in the meditative conclusion of his July 1984 poem “The Baseball Players.” The opening stanzas offer another rare respite from sadness, as the eponymous athletes go through the motions of a game. But a note of Hall’s familiar heartache creeps into the final lines as a stillness settles over the figures and a phantom makes an appearance:

they pause: wary,
exact, suspended—
while abiding moonrise
lightens the angel
of the overgrown
garden, and Walter Blake
Adams, who died
at fourteen, waits
under the footbridge.

This memento mori is an intrusion of tragedy into an otherwise deathless space, but the ghost is also a hopeful sort of figure who somehow manages to elude oblivion.

Hall conjured a similar fantasy of resurrection in the ending of “Distressed Haiku,” briefly departing from dread and grief to offer a litany of joyful impossibilities (notably, written before the Red Sox secured their first World Series victory in more than 80 years):

The Boston Red Sox win
a hundred straight games.
The mouse rips
the throat of the lion
and the dead return.

The expressive mournfulness of Hall’s pieces for The Atlantic makes them appropriate reading in the aftermath of his passing. The hope they capture that mortality can in some way be shaken off, even temporarily—that a buried body might stand again, that a poet’s voice could live on a page—may provide some sweetness in a bitter moment.