Stepping up to the literary plate
INTERVIEW: On the eve of his visit to Limerick, former US poet laureate Donald Hall talks to Belinda McKeon in his New Hampshire home
EARLY ON AN October Saturday the landscape around Eagle Pond Farm, near Wilmot in the state of New Hampshire, is astonishing to drive through. This is the famous New England fall in all its glory, and it is almost too beautiful for words. But only almost: “These colours were the most outrageous, crimson and bright orange and Chinese red. The birches turned russet, and the oaks a deeper brown-red. We floated on the bliss of the natural world.”
Those are the words of Donald Hall, poet laureate of the United States in 2006-7 and the author of 16 collections of poetry, as well as of several memoirs and essay collections, who will read in Limerick next Friday as part of the 12th annual Cuisle poetry festival. When Hall wrote those words, in his 2005 memoir The Best Day the Worst Day, he was recalling the first autumn he and his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, spent together at Eagle Pond Farm. That first fall of theirs was in 1975, when the couple, recently married, took leave of absence from their life in the academic and literary whirls of Ann Arbor, in Michigan, where Hall taught poetry at the university.
The plan was to camp out in the house in which Hall’s maternal grandparents had lived, and in which he had been so happy during childhood summers: a clapboard farmhouse dating back to the first years of the 19th century and heated only – and bear in mind that New Hampshire winters plunge regularly towards 20 below zero – by a solitary wood stove not much younger than the house.
Hall and Kenyon continued to float on the bliss of worlds natural, and poetic, and private, for the next 20 years; Eagle Pond Farm, which had always been the “poetry house” to Hall in his boyhood, became the home of their hearts and of their poems, and their bliss was deep and unbroken until Kenyon’s diagnosis with leukaemia in 1994 and her death the following year. She was 47, had published four collections of poems and, at the time of her death, was poet laureate of New Hampshire. Hall, 19 years her senior, had, against the odds, survived an aggressive cancer just two years previously. At the close of The Best Day the Worst Day, which is a memoir of their life together and of Kenyon’s illness and death, Hall writes that still, at Eagle Pond Farm, Kenyon fills the air around him “like a rainy day”.
And that is the case, too, on a day like today, a brilliantly bright day, when the blue sky is caught and deepened in the waters of Eagle Pond, with those leaves crimson and russet and Chinese red seeming to ignite along its edges. At 10am Hall is at the door of his farmhouse with a welcoming wave, and a few minutes later he is settled into a blue chair by the sitting-room window, its sill piled with books and papers, while Louise, a slip of a cat with a dainty, interrupting mewl, curls herself around everything in sight.
Now 81, Hall moves slowly on his feet, and he looks, if not weary, then somewhat wizened – in his creased flannel shirt and with his beard and crown of wild grey hair, he sets you wondering whether you are looking at the likeness of one of the two men who lived in this house before him; his grandfather Wesley Wells, whose gift for storytelling first made Hall think of this as the “poetry house”, or his great-grandfather Benjamin Keneston, who was a blacksmith and who fought in the American Civil War – thus giving Wesley much fodder for his stories – and who bought the house and its farm in 1865.
Hall was first brought to this house at the age of six weeks, he says, and from the age of three or four he loved the place so much that he did not want to leave and go back to his home place of Hamden, Connecticut. By 10 he was coming up to New Hampshire for the whole summer, and it was when he was 12 that he began to write poems, in the little bedroom that is now his “extraordinarily messy” study. An older boy, a neighbour in Connecticut, had turned Hall on to Poe, Keats and Shelley, and so followed a couple of summers of writing Victorian and romantic verse while, outside, his grandparents saved the hay.
How did they feel about him being inside, sweating over sonnets, instead of out in the meadows, sweating over the scythe? They loved it, he says. And besides, he only ever wrote in the morning. “My grandmother would bring me black coffee in bed at about 6am. They would have been up for about an hour or so. And sometimes I’d join my grandpa at the haying, scything around the stone walls and the trees, but mostly I stayed in my room and I read – I read through Shakespeare one year – and worked on poems. And I remember I began to study metre. And so it was my poetry place.” He laughs. “I remember when I was 15 or so, I had a fantasy. There were a lot of old bachelors living in cabins in the woods at that time, and I had a fantasy that I would have a cabin, and trap for a living, and write all the time. And that’s not me. I’m physically inept and lazy. But I did, you know, want to spend my life doing it.”
Hall went to prep school at Phillips Exeter Academy, which was awful, he says, “a Republican universe” in which the death of Roosevelt prompted “a snake dance of joy” by the students. But if this was repugnant to Hall, practically brought up by a grandfather who, “in an absolute ocean of Republicans, was a fierce Roosevelt Democrat”, then Hall’s passion for poetry was little short of repugnant to his classmates. “It was something to be sneered at,” he says, imitating the scorn: “Ah, go and write a poem about fruit.” However, Hall, who had by then moved on from Keats and Shelley to Eliot and Stevens, cared nothing for what his Exeter classmates thought, and here’s the proof: at 16 he attended the prestigious Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference and met for the first time Robert Frost – almost 60 years his senior.
Was Hall intimidated? “Oh, I looked up to him enormously. He was pretty easy to talk to, but I think I pretty much listened that first time. Later he said of me, ‘I brought him up as a pup,’ referring back to that first time. Later again he read a book of mine, and he said, ‘You can do anything in poetry you want to do.’ But what he also meant was, you haven’t done it yet. And I knew that. He was a man of great vanity and jealousy, and often nastiness – not to me; I was sometimes afraid he would be, but he remained generous with me. And he was a model of endurance and perseverance. I mean, he was almost 40 before anybody knew his name; he was unpublished in the US, virtually, except for school magazines.”
It was largely through working on just such a magazine – the Advocate, at Harvard – that Hall met a group of young poets who would become his extraordinary contemporaries: John Ashbery, Robert Bly, Kenneth Koch, Frank O’Hara and Adrienne Rich.
“ God, Harvard,” he says. “None of us knew we would ever publish a book, but we took it very seriously. We would stay up late arguing over whether one poem was good enough to go in our magazine. It was incredibly stimulating. We argued all the time.” (The only poem he really remembers publishing in the Advocatewas Ashbery’s Some Trees.)
After Harvard came Oxford, where Hall earned a BLitt and, for his poem Exile, won the university’s Newdigate Prize. That got him a mention in Timemagazine. And that, in turn, got him out of going to war. “This is a sort of sordid story, but my father, unbeknownst to me, brought the Timeissue down to the local draft board, and I was deferred.”
Instead of going to Korea he spent a year at Stanford, working with Yvor Winters, and three years on fellowship at Harvard. While there he published Exiles and Marriages, his first collection, and edited an important anthology of new English and American poetry.
A teaching job at the University of Michigan followed soon afterwards, and it was while teaching a poetry workshop there that he encountered Kenyon, then 22 and already a striking poet. It seems Hall had made an impression on her even before they met; after her death, in a notebook from her undergrad years, he found this line: “When I found out Donald Hall lives three houses away I felt like I did when I found that Dublin was a Viking stronghold.”
They married in 1972 and soon moved to a stronghold all their own. Hall never returned to Ann Arbor, nor to teaching. He and Kenyon gave their lives to their poetry, and when they needed money Hall wrote magazine articles, textbooks, children’s books. He has written of his marriage to Kenyon as a “double solitude”; Kenyon in her study all day, Hall in his own, the house humming with the combined energies of their works in progress. “Once a year I’d knock on her door,” says Hall, without the trace of a joke. “Only if there was something I had to interrupt her for. Otherwise, there was that privacy, separation, during writing time. We might meet at the coffee maker, have a cup of coffee, just pat each other on the butt, and not talk. And at night, she’d be over there , reading Keats, and I’d be here, reading Gibbon, and mostly there was silence.”
Silence remains Hall’s most natural element. After Kenyon’s death he wrote out of silence for years about her illness, about the death itself and about the long journey of grief; poems that populated his collections Without(1998) and The Painted Bed(2002). Just as he and Kenyon did from their first years here, Hall resists company – he prefers to write letters to people, dictating several letters a day to a recording machine – than to meet them. In this context the demands on his time and energies of his year as poet laureate can only be imagined. If he has to talk he would prefer to do it by phone, though he prefers approaches to come via the fax machine that sputters incongruously in his book-lined study than by phone. Yet in conversation he is generous and gregarious, laughing with glee, telling long stories and sometimes chiding himself for having told it all before, in one of his memoirs, in an essay or in a poem. It is to show me photographs of Kenyon that he brings me into his study, where there is a whole wall dedicated to her frank, fine-boned face. “That’s foxy Jane,” he says, looking at one photograph. “And that’s spiritual Jane. She was both.”
Apart from the cat Louise (her sister, Thelma, met her end on the busy road outside) Hall lives alone, although he does have a companion, “my love Linda” as he refers to her in his 2006 memoir, Unpacking the Boxes. “A girlfriend,” he says now, “I mean, a lady friend, she’s not a girl, who comes over a couple of nights a week. But it’s virtually just peace and solitude here. And I miss it when I’m away. I love to come back to it.”
Donald Hall is reading next Friday at 8pm in Daghdha, John’s Square, Limerick. He reads with Robert Hass and Penelope Shuttle. Tickets €5. Bookings at Belltable Arts Centre, 061-310633, limerickcity.ie