New England writer Donald Hall (born 1928) was a major poet in the lineage of Robert Frost. Memoirist, short story writer, essayist, dramatist, critic, and anthologist as well as poet, he was one of the most versatile and respected writers of his generation.
"In the history of literature, " wrote Donald Hall in a prose work, "Poetry Notebook, " published in the Seneca Review (1982), "most poets have been so saturated in their own literature that they have used it without knowing what they were doing." This he considered "The Tradition, " providing "models of greatness that we have the temerity to take as measures for our endeavors." Expressing a very different view, poet Alice Notley claimed that "There's only one poetic tradition, " and "the moment I enter this tradition or this history … its entire nature changes."
Notley and Hall were both prominent contemporary poets, but they exemplified radically opposite poetic styles, one innovative and avant-garde, the other conservative and restrained. For Notley, the poetic tradition evolves in the act of writing; from Hall's somewhat more conservative position, it is an established authority against which one's own work is to be judged.
This distinction divided New England poets of Hall's generation into two very different groups. Poets such as Robert Creeley, Ted Berrigan, and Clark Coolidge accepted Ralph Waldo Emerson's vision of the universe in perpetual flux and evolution and consequently developed a poetry of process—a poetry that is realized in the act of composition. On the other hand, poets such as Hall, Richard Wilbur, and Robert Lowell followed the example of Robert Frost in shaping poems according to traditional forms and meters and in celebrating essentially fixed values and standards.
Born in 1928, the son of a businessman, Hall spent his boyhood in Connecticut and New Hampshire. He attended local schools, graduated from Harvard in 1951, and received a B. Litt. from Oxford in 1953. After a year studying at Stanford University, he taught at Harvard until 1957 and then at the University of Michigan until 1975. A first marriage ended in divorce. In 1972 he married the poet Jane Kenyon. They lived and worked together until 1995 when Kenyon died of leukemia at the age of 47.
Hall's conservative posture informed the influential anthology he edited with Robert Pack and Louis Simpson, New Poets of England and America (1957). This book, with an introduction by Robert Frost, exhibited the academic taste then in vogue and stood in rigid opposition to contemporary innovative work such as that gathered three years later in Donald Allen's anthology The New American Poetry. These two books were widely seen as defining an unbridgeable chasm in American poetry:in fact, no poet appeared in both.
Hall eventually modified his view, and his later anthology, Contemporary American Poetry (1962; revised 1972), included a number of poets, such as John Ashbery, who would have been uncomfortable in the earlier volume. Nonetheless, Hall continued to be seen as a spokesman for the more conventional side of American poetry.
New England Writer
Hall's admiration for tradition and custom underlies his highly regarded memoir, String Too Short To Be Saved (1961), in which he nostalgically recounts his boyhood summers on his family's New Hampshire farm. At the time the book was published he felt that the world he described had vanished forever, but in 1975 he left his job at the University of Michigan, moved back to the farm, and, as he wrote in an epilogue for the book's reissue in 1979, soon discovered that the essential character of rural New England life was unchanged:"The dead are dead enough, and their descendants occupy new bodies, but everything is the same."
New England provided material for some of Hall's most admired prose works, including Seasons at Eagle Pond (1987), Here at Eagle Pond (1990), and Life Work (1993), a reflection on his life and heritage written when he was being treated for cancer. The book is by no means the bleak or self-indulgent meditation one might expect but finds strength rather in traditional New England values and "a community radiating the willingness or even the desire to be careful and loving."
Although written when he was still in his twenties, many of Hall's poems collected in To the Loud Wind and Other Poems (1955), Exiles and Marriages (1955), and The Dark Houses (1958) are marked by an elegiac, meditative sensibility as well as by an exceptional command of traditional poetics. An enthusiasm for Whitman led to experiments with free verse and the somewhat less formal poems in such books as The Alligator Bride (1969) and The Yellow Room (1971).
Most of Hall's major poetry was written after his return to New Hampshire. Many of these poems evoke the durable, seemingly immutable character of his region as seen through a deeply meditative or reflective sensibility. The books of this period include Kicking the Leaves (1978), The Happy Man (1986), The Museum of Clear Ideas (1993), The Old Life (1996), and The One Day (1988), a series of linked poems in blank verse that won the National Book Critics Circle Award. A selection from his poetry, Old and New Poems, was published in 1990.
Although primarily a poet and memoirist, Hall wrote books on baseball—Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball (1976) and Fathers Playing Catch with Sons:Essays on Sport (Mostly Baseball) (1984)—and children's books, including Ox-Cart Man (1979), winner of the Caldecott Medal. More recent children's books include When Willard Met Babe Ruth (1996), Old Home Day (1996), and I Am the Dog. I Am the Cat. (1994). His short stories were collected in The Ideal Bakery (1987). Hall edited textbooks and anthologies such as The Oxford Book of American Literary Anecdotes (1981) and The Oxford Book of Children's Verse in America (1990). His plays include "An Evening's Frost, " produced off-Broadway in 1965. He wrote about the sculptor Henry Moore in Henry Moore:The Life and Work of a Great Sculptor (1966) and in As the Eye Moves (1973). Marianne Moore:The Cage and the Animal, his study of that poet, appeared in 1970.
Remembering Poets, a series of sketches of modernist predecessors, including Ezra Pound and Robert Frost, was first published in 1978 and reissued in 1992 in a revised and considerably expanded version under the title Their Ancient Glittering Eyes:Remembering Poets and More Poets. His essays, reviews, and other short prose works have been collected in Goatfoot Milktongue Twinbird (1978), To Keep Moving (1980), The Weather for Poetry (1982), Poetry and Ambition (1988), and Death to the Death of Poetry (1994).
Further Reading on Donald Hall
No major critical or biographical study of Hall has yet been published. The best sources for biographical information are his autobiographical works, particularly String Too Short To Be Saved (1961); and Life Work (1993); For information on his poetics, see the collected essays listed in the text: Goatfoot Milktongue Twinbird, To Keep Moving, The Weather for Poetry, and Poetry and Ambition.
Additional Biography Sources
"Friends Pay Tribute to Late Poet, Janet Kenyon, " All Things Considered (National Public Radio), 3 May 1996.
Hall, Donald, Death to the Death of Poetry:Essays, Reviews, Notes, Interviews Ann Arbor:University of Michigan Press, 1994.
McNair, Wesley, "Taking the World for Granite:Four Poets in New Hampshire, " The Sewanee Review 104 (Winter 1996):70-81.
"Noah Adams Talks with Poet Donald Hall" All Things Considered (National Public Radio), 26 November 1993.