The Interview: With a lot of poetry comes lots of bad poetry says Donald Hall

New Hampshire Union Leader
June 20. 2015 9:54PM
Donald Hall makes a point in his Wilmot home. (J.L. STEVENS/Courtesy)

WILMOT - This century appears to be a promising one so far for poetry.

Cities from Manchester to Pasadena host poetry slams. Hip-hop has entrenched its rhythmical brand of poetry into popular culture. And even small-town bookstores feature readings from poets.

Despite the groundswell, New Hampshire's most famous living poet announced two years ago that he was done with the craft.

"I'm too old," said Donald Hall, 86, this country's 14th poet laureate. "I think that poetry's very sexual, and I think it's a lack of testosterone or low testosterone. In the early 50s, I said that poetry was 'rich with sensuality.'"

Hall spoke recently in the book-lined living room of the Wilmot farmhouse that has been in his family for four generations. His right knee is shot, making the front couple of porch steps as daunting a challenge as a granite cliff on his beloved Mount Kearsarge.

He sits in an upholstered chair that is on a 6-inch riser; easier for him to get up and down. He looks out antique glass windows, the kind that warp outside objects like a funhouse mirror. Closest to his view are the peonies and other perennials that his deceased wife - acclaimed poet Jane Kenyon - planted decades ago.

Hall's best poetry, he said, was written in his 40s and 50s. Over time, his poetic abilities waned. So he just put an end to it (although he does revise previously written poems).

Hall still writes. Like a baseball player who trades his mitt for a golf club, he's turned to less vibrant endeavors. He answers nearly all letters that come his way. And in 2014, he published "Essays after Eighty," a wry look at being old. The book landed on the New York Times Bestseller list (for a week, he notes).

"Certainly, he has been a big name of his generation, partly because he so dedicated his life to writing," said Acworth resident Alice Fogel, the current New Hampshire poet laureate.

In the mid-70s, many writers found his career move inspirational, Fogel said. Encouraged by Kenyon, Hall gave up a tenured job at University of Michigan and moved to the Wilmot farm to make a living writing.

From there, Hall earned his place among New Hampshire's literary greats. Robert Frost, Maxine Kumin, Charles Simic. All are national poets laureate; each lived in the Granite State. Frost, Hall and Kumin wrote vividly about New England.

But Hall said there is nothing in Granite State water that makes for good poets. Rather, New Hampshire provided the inspirational summer getaway for Hall and Kumin. As a boy growing up in Connecticut, Hall spent summers in Wilmot working on his grandparents' farm.

"It was the place I loved most in the world," Hall said. "When I was 15 or 14, I thought I would build a cabin up on Ragged Mountain and trap. I'd be a lonely trapper."

He ended up a lonely writer, partly by design.

Kenyon and Hall maintained separate rooms in the house. He in the first floor study on the west side of the house; she in an upstairs study on the east side.

"We were doing the same thing in places as far removed from each other as possible," Hall said. "I often call a marriage a double solitude."

Their solitude was deeply shared. After Kenyon died in 1995, Hall published the critically acclaimed "Without: Poems," a collection of poems that detailed her leukemia and his loss.

He has earned many citations. In 2010, President Barack Obama awarded Hall the National Medal of Arts, and last week the New Hampshire Humanities Council named him among the state's 40 Over 40.

Hall writes in his living room chair, surrounded by books that are shelved to waist height. Closest to him are art books, the kind museums publish about a successful exhibit. Across the room are neatly lined encyclopedias and a 14-volume Oxford English Dictionary.

Hall lives alone, although his longtime companion Linda Kunhardt often visits. Longevity is on the mother's side of Hall's family, and but for his knee, he is healthy, despite a smoking habit he started in his 40s. He said his lungs have cleaned up since he started smoking electronic cigarettes.

"I liked to smoke cigarettes because it hurt my lungs, and vaping hurts more," Hall said.

Hall's career work includes poetry, essays, the writer's guide "Writing Well," children's books (his children's book "Ox Cart Man" won the Caldecott medal and is now popular in Asia) and magazine articles. Poetry generated probably 25 percent of his income, and most of that came from readings, he said.

Esquire routinely paid $10,000 for an article, Hall said. The New Yorker paid $40,000 for a profile of the sculptor Henry Moore, and that was in 1966 dollars, Hall noted.

Now, most magazines are struggling as readers turn away from quality periodicals and to ubiquitous social media feeds. When the New Yorker ran Hall's essay "Out the Window" in 2012, it paid $9,000.

"I couldn't do it now," Hall said. "Atlantic, Harper's, they're all diminished. All magazines lose from the Internet. Eventually, they'll all be on the wire."

Meanwhile, poetry proliferates.

Hall said he sees no massive public yearning for the poetic word. Rather, it's a supply-side matter. Colleges across the country have launched master's of fine arts programs, Hall said. The schools graduate aspiring novelists and poets who write poetry en masse.

"One of the reasons for it is technology," Hall said. "They're surrounded by machines and numbers and want to get away from them as far as they can, like getting away from steak by eating dumplings."

"Almost all the poetry's terrible," Hall said. There's nothing new about that; every era is replete with bad poetry, Hall said. But with more poets, there is more bad poetry, he said.

His advice to would-be Donald Halls: read the classics of the 17th century, like Shakespeare, Herbert and Milton. And a good poem can take a couple of years to write and need dozens of drafts, he said.

Hall's prose still leans poetic. He writes in short sentences with vivid images, turns of phrase and humor.

In his essay "Out the Window," he complains about a woman who calls him a nice old gentleman.

"'Nice' and 'gentleman' put me in a box where she can rub my head and hear me purr. Or maybe she would prefer me to wag my tail, lick her hand and make ingratiating dog noises," he wrote.

Hall is toying with the idea of another book - "Notes on Nearly Ninety" - but at this point the notes are brief and scattered."It has a title. Whether it exists or not depends on my health," he said.

In December, the "Selected Poems of Donald Hall" will be published. But it will cause the author anxiety. Hall said poetry takes a tremendous amount of revision - 30, 40, even 80 drafts, each time shortening a phrase, or mining a verb from his cavernous dictionary.

Even then, it's not enough.

"I hate to open the (new) book," Hall said, "because the first thing I see, I could still find a way to say it better."

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