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A respected writer, educator, poet, and editor, Donald Hall is best known for his poetry about nature. His work explores the juncture of nature, culture, and local and natural history. Hall has also published books on baseball and writing, as well as children’s books.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Early Literary Influences
Donald Andrew Hall was born on September 20, 1928, in New Haven, Connecticut, the son of Donald Andrew Hall Sr., a businessman, and Lucy Wells Hall. Hall divided his time growing up between Connecticut and his grandparents’ New Hampshire farm. In an essay in the New York Times Book Review, Hall claims that his childhood influenced his choice on his writing career: his mother read poems to him often and his grandfather not only recited poetry all day, he was also an interesting storyteller.
By the age of twelve, Hall began writing, influenced by his reading of Edgar Allan Poe. At age sixteen, he met Robert Frost at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and published his first work that same year.
Hall was educated at Harvard, receiving a BA in 1951. He then studied at Oxford, receiving another degree in 1953. After returning to the United States, Hall spent three years as a junior fellow in Harvard’s Society of Fellows while working on Exiles and Marriages (1955). This collection, which garnered critical acclaim, was written in a tightly structured style that featured formal rhyme and meter.
Returning Home to Write
In 1957, Hall took a teaching position at the University of Michigan, where he taught until 1975. During this time, Hall wrote poems that were driven by image rather than narrative, attempting to create an emotional effect without telling a specific tale. When his grandmother passed away, Hall left Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan in order to write full-time. He returned to his family’s farm, Eagle Pond Farm, in New Hampshire with his second wife, poet Jane Kenyon. The house was significant to Hall; it is where his grandmother and mother had been born and where he had spent his summers while growing up. Eagle Pond Farm became even more central to Hall’s work as evidenced by his poems in Kicking the Leaves (1979). The poems explore and celebrate the continuity between generations, as the speaker reminisces about the past and anticipates the future.
More Success and Awards
Hall’s next book of poetry, The Happy Man (1986), won the Lenore Marshal Poetry Prize. The book examines Hall’s life on the farm and the significance it had on his youth. The One Day (1988), his next collection, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. The work is one long poem divided into three sections. Hall uses two narrative voices, one of a female sculptor and the other a male, to interpret the meaning of life and examine middle age.
Cancer, Death, and Grief
Hall was able to support his family by writing poetry and essays. In 1989, while worrying about his mother’s gastrointestinal examination, he learned that he had colon cancer. By 1992 the cancer had metastasized to his liver. After surgery and chemotherapy, the cancer went into remission, though his chances of surviving the next five years were slim. Then in 1994, while still on guard against a return of the cancer and concerned for his wife’s future, he discovered that Kenyon had leukemia.
Hall worked on his next book of poems, The Old Life (1996). The poems read as a verse autobiography, a summation of Hall’s life that treats the familiar themes of life on his grandparents’ farm, family, and writing. Only at its end does its chronology reflect instead the impending deaths of first his mother and then his wife. Kenyon died in 1995 at age forty-seven, after a bone marrow transplant failed to reverse the course of her leukemia. Fittingly, the last poem in The Old Life is “Without,” a poem that details explicit grief over Kenyon’s death, and that is, as its speaker points out, devoid of punctuation.
Hall continues to live on his New Hampshire farm and to write. In addition to his poetry, Hall is a prolific author of biography, criticism, anthologies, essays, memoir, and children’s literature. In 2005 Hall published a memoir about his wife, The Best Day the Worst Day: Life with Jane Kenyon. In 2006 Donald Hall was appointed the U.S. poet laureate.
Works in Literary Context
Hall has a reputation as a nature poet, writing about New Hampshire, nature, and the cycle of life and death. Billy Collins of the Washington Post calls Hall a ”plainspoken rural poet.”
From the beginning, Hall’s poetry has focused on the relationship between human beings and their environment. For example, in the poem ”New Animals,” Hall describes a dream in which his grandparents return to the farm with exotic animals—zebras, giraffes, and ostriches—to replace its hens and cattle. In Here at Eagle Pond (1990), Hall takes this dream to mean that his grandfather approves of his decision ”to raise poems on this farm instead of stock,” a sanction that is vital to his sense of connection and place. Hall has disclaimed regionalism, but his sense of belonging and attachment to Eagle Pond Farm and the greater world of rural New England remains vital to his work.
Hall’s earliest poems were metrically formal, but The Alligator Bride (1969) shows Hall was willing to experiment with free verse. Hall developed a more expressive and imaginative range, paying particular attention to sound. He values a poem’s aural quality as much as its appearance on the page. He favors simple, direct language combined with surrealistic imagery. Hall has identified as crucial to his conception of poetry a force he calls ”the vatic voice,” which provides the inspiration for his poems. According to the poet, the vatic voice is something that all people possess internally, although there is no means of controlling when and where it will surface. Poets merely cultivate their ability to listen to the voice when it speaks.
Works in Critical Context
Critical response to Hall’s work has generally been favorable. His carefully crafted poetry and thoughtful prose are widely praised for their clarity and integrity, and his selection as United States poet laureate—a position held by only thirteen people before him—indicates his standing among his contemporaries.
Kicking the Leaves
As a volume, Kicking the Leaves welcomes the narrator back to a house built by his great grandfather, Benjamin C. Keneston, a home in which many generations lived and died, linked by stories and everyday objects. In Poet and Critic, Brent Spencer describes the collection as ”mostly poems about memory, yet not mere reminiscence. The effort in these poems is to look for that part of the past that lives on into the present.”
The One Day
The One Day represents a gathering of material that Hall had been working on since 1971 and even earlier. Hall developed the 110 ten-line stanzas and worked with them for about four more years before he thought of structuring the long narrative poem into three parts. The poem takes the form of tightly wrought ten-line stanzas: building blocks, as Hall calls them, for the ”house of dying.” Critics have seen the work variously as the portrait of a midlife crisis and an excoriation of modern spiritual corruption. Frederick Pollack writes that the poem as a whole ”may be the last masterpiece of American Modernism. Any poet who seeks to surpass this genre should study it; any reader who has lost interest in contemporary poetry should read it.”
Liam Rector, reviewer for the Los Angeles Times Book Review, claimed that ”with The One Dayhe moves out into a different terrain from his recent mature books, Kicking the Leaves and The Happy Man.” Daniel Mark Epstein from America labeled The One Day as Hall’s midlife crisis poem, ”a painful time for men and women alike.” Epstein added that Hall ”uses mid-life [in the poem] as a metaphor that works on several levels—personal, historical and mythic.” In the Washington Post Book World, David Lehman praised the book as ”loud, sweeping, multitudinous, an act of the imperial imagination” and declared that high on Hall’s thematic agenda are age and aging, rage and raging against the dying of the light, but his powerful rhetorical gestures and dazzling juxtapositions communicate a pleasure even beyond the skillful treatment of such themes.
- Hornback, Bert G., ed. “Bright Unequivocal Eye:” Poems, Papers and Remembrances from the First Jane Kenyon Conference. New York: Peter Lang, 1998.
- Rector, Lam, ed. The Day I Was Older: On the Poetry of Donald Hall. Santa Cruz, Calif.: Story Line Press, 1989.
- Chisolm, Scott. ”An Interview with Donald Hall.” Tennessee Poetry Journal 2 (Winter 1971): 26-28
- Cramer, Jeffrey ”With Jane and Without: An Interview with Donald Hall.” Massachusetts Review 39, no. 4 (1998-1999): 493-510.
- Mills, Ralph J., Jr. ”Donald Hall’s Poetry.” Iowa Review 2 (Winter 1971): 82-123.
- McNair, Wesley. ”Taking the World for Granite: Four Poets in New Hampshire.” Sewanee Review 104, no. 1 (1996): 70-81.
- Myers, George, Jr. ”An Interview with Donald Hall about The One Day.” Ploughshares 17 no. 1 (1991): 71-75.
- Pollack, Frederick. ”Donald Hall’s The One Day.” Salmagundi (Winter 1990): 344-350.
- Scharf, Michael. ”Donald Hall: Elegies from Eagle Pond.” Publishers Weekly 245, no. 12 (1998): 72-73.
- Walsh, Chris. ”’Building the House of the Dying’: Donald Hall’s Claim for Poetry.” Agni 47 (1998): 175-183.
- ”Donald Hall: Online Resources.” Retrieved September 28, 2008, from http://www.loc.gov/rr/program/ bib/hall/hall.html#bio. Last updated on September 10, 2008.
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