INTERVIEW: Donald Hall, author of Essays After Eighty
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Donald Hall has been at the forefront of American poetry for more than half a century. He has produced countless books of poetry since the publication of his first in 1952, as well as numerous books of essays, fiction, drama, and memoir. He has lived through a career in academia followed by a life of freelance writing while living at the New Hampshire farm that has been in his family for generations. He was the first poetry editor of The Paris Review in 1953 and was the Poet Laureate in 2006. Cancer afflicted him but he survived, though shortly after, his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, died after being diagnosed with leukemia.
I came to the poetry of Donald Hall with The Painted Bed, a quietly unrelenting account of his life after Kenyon’s death. I then worked my way back through his decades of work with the collection White Apples and The Taste Of Stone. At the age of 86, Hall no longer writes poetry, but continues to write essays. His newest collection, Essays After Eighty, takes the different motifs of his life in work, love, and grief and uses them as landmarks to draw a coherent line through his vast swath of time. Hall’s voice is lucid and knowing, though never condescending, and always imbued with characteristic wit and candor.
Aaron Calvin: In your essay “Out The Window,” you describe old age as “alien, and old people are a separate form of life” and as being “permanently other.” Do you think it’s possible to communicate through the veil of this otherness to someone on the far side of it, someone in their twenties?
Donald Hall: When I wrote “Out the Window” I was trying to communicate to younger folks. When I was younger, I’m sure I regarded the very elderly as “permanently other,” so maybe there’s no hope. I tried to overcome it by prose, style, and by wit.
AC: Essays After Eighty does seem to read almost like a map through a life in literature and poetry. If there’s one thing you wish someone had told you as a young poet, what would it be?
DH: I think that my essay is mildly instructive, defining what “a nice old gentleman” is.
AC: You talk about a specific incident in the essay that garnered a lot of attention when it was first published, when a security guard at a museum treated you very condescendingly. Do you find the disconnect you feel between your own cognizant mind and your physical limitations frustrates you in other ways? Are you able to take that and do something constructive with it?
DH: Of course the museum guard was an idiot. I was grateful to him for giving me a counter motion in that essay. If it had been all “out the window” and landscape and weather and birds, it would have been flat. I’ve seen a tendency in some other people to suspect dementia. I have a younger girlfriend with whom I have flown everywhere. Sometimes she and I have approached a counter in an airport, her pushing me in a wheelchair, and I have approached the clerk behind the counter and she has ignored me and talked to my lady, who’s almost thirty years younger. I put up with it.
AC: In “Three Beards” you address the relationships that have shaped your life directly, but they often appear in other essays throughout the collection. After all you’ve been through, what do you think has been important for a successful relationship in your life?
DH: I think in the book that one “relationship” stands out in particular. It certainly does in my life! I keep returning to it in the essays. I had a first wife who was a good human being, and others that have been quite wonderful, in sex or in kindness or both, and Linda is my dear if irregular (two nights a week?) companion now. She was the one in the airports. We would not do 24/7, but we love each other and she’s a great help to me.
AC: Do you find that it’s been important in your life to consistently have a companion, to have that kind of relationship in your life?
DH: I was lucky. Most marriages are no good. It happened that I had a superb one. Of course competition was in the air around us, but we had the brains to admit it, to avoid controversy. When we began and Jane had not published much, we were subject to English Professor idiots who told Jane that it was cute that she also wrote poetry. When her best stuff began to be known, the same idiot Professors or interviewers let us know how funny it was that the younger was actually better than the elder. We did not let it bother us. Earlier, I was an only child, and liked solitude. In Jane’s absence, I have largely had solitude. I do have a sweetheart, but I’m not sure that she leads me to more work. Of course she’s helpful reading over my stuff.
AC: You’re around the age Robert Frost was the last time you saw him and you talk about his concern for his image, despite his age. Did that incident influence your somewhat relaxed view of your legacy?
DH: I knew him (beginning when I was sixteen) and saw him from time to time. I certainly admired him. The last time I saw him he was in the last year of his life, approximately my age, and he did something I can’t do. As I drove away from his cottage, I looked up to see him trotting after me!
AC: Despite your inability to continue to write poetry, do you still consider it the main concern of your literary life?
DH: Poetry is the first thing for me. But without it, I am extremely happy writing my prose. No line breaks — but still sentence structure and word choice et cetera. Next year I will publish The Selected Poems of Donald Hall. I love poetry, but for the first time since 1940 the practice of poetry is a bit distant.
AC: You mentioned to me that you feel that the last time you collected your poetry — in White Apples and the Taste of Stone — it was much too long and that a future collection would be much shorter. Do you feel now that a poetry collection has more value the more selective it is?
Every good poet in the world has written only a few terrific poems.
DH: Yes, the more selective a collection is, the more valuable it is. Too many recent collecteds go six hundred to nine hundred pages. They are too heavy to hold. Every good poet in the world has written only a few terrific poems. I used to think Thomas Hardy was magnificent because there were twenty good ones. By now I think there are fifty. But the collected poems from Oxford take three volumes. That’s okay. If you love somebody’s work you are fascinated to read the inferior things.
AC: You talk about your leaving teaching to return to your family’s farm in New Hampshire as a formative experience in your life. Did you find the world of the university not conducive to the poetry you wanted to write?
DH: I loved teaching and didn’t find it hurtful to my work. Reading poetry aloud to students, I learned how to read aloud. Still, these days, I hear from old students, or they write something down — as in the Letters to the most recent Poets & Writers. I loved lecturing, but after a lecture I went home and got to work. Work was a sacred word, and always apply to writing. Teaching was sort of a hobby that paid my living. Although I loved teaching, I always wished I could write all the time. Then I was able to! So was Jane. You must know her poems.
AC: I am familiar with Jane’s, particularly the poems collected in Otherwise. I also found your work with The Painted Bed, a collection of poems about mourning her. Do you feel as though grief transformed your poetry?
DH: Jane’s death gave me a perennial subject. For five years I wrote about nothing but Jane, except for a few of the flings that I undertook because of her death. I don’t think that Jane’s life and death had anything to do with the forms and shapes of my late work — except that the better she got, the more I tried not to sound like her. I didn’t worry about that any more.
AC: You talk briefly in the book about Jane’s legacy and your own. Do you feel like you have some responsibility to her poetry and estate, or do you leave that to the publishers and biographers?
DH: I plug Jane as much as I can. For years, I began all readings with her poems. Otherwise, anthologists and writers are tending to her on their own. I think they will continue without my help.
AC: The way you discuss time in the book seems to negate the popular notion that things are steadily getting worse in the world. Has your conception of progress changed as you’ve aged?
DH: I am a great reader and proclaimer about politics. Of course things are getting worse every day! Almost every one of us knows the same thing. Maybe we are wrong.
AC: Who are the poets that have really stuck with you over the years and who are some that you may have grown out of or may have aged poorly?
DH: I think that Hart Crane was very important up to twenty or so, then Yeats for many years, then Thomas Hardy — Walt Whitman and, more lately, Emily Dickinson.I’ve always loved Marvell — and the 17th century in general. Maybe I’m saying “everything?”
AC: You talk about feeling like an ineffective poet laureate. Did the job just not suit you?
DH: When I was appointed Poet Laureate, I had all sorts of plans. At the beginning, I was certainly interviewed and provided a million moments of poetry on television, on radio, and in print. When I went to Washington first, I thought I had discovered a weekly radio appearance — but it didn’t work out. Then my strength began to ebb. I think I had a reaction to a medicine that should not have been prescribed. I felt awful. I could not write anything and I could not do anything. I did what the Library needed, for a minimum, but never did anything truly useful or energetic. (Many poet laureates have done virtually nothing. A few have done a lot.) I didn’t do a second year, as they wanted, because I had been so wretched the first time. It was a disappointment. It was an honor of course, and lots of attention — but my performance was a disappointment. By this point, I feel much more energetic though infinitely older and life is better.
AC: You’ve spoken before about the constant editing and revising of your poetry and how you tinker with poems long after their initial publication. Has revision continued for you or has that stopped with the poetry as well?
DH: Essays After Eighty came out in December 2014. In December 2015, I will publish The Selected Poems of Donald Hall. It’s a short selection, which is what I wanted, and my main concern has been the choice of what I hope is the best. But I have also made some small changes. There is one poem which I almost cut in half and touched up. There is another where I was able to reverse the order. There are several others where I changed a word or two. I remember adding a word. I remember cutting a word. I remember changing a word for mere accuracy — nothing that anybody would notice, even if they already knew the poem. I had been reading aloud so many times, especially in 2009, and it seemed to be that I saw mistaken things in poems that I read over and over again. I could revise them, without thinking that I was writing new poems — which I could no longer do.