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.

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.