A Lion in Winter
An Encounter With Poet Donald Hall
For decades Donald Hall wrote odes that raised the dead and paid homage to New Hampshire’s rural past. His big poems ranged from the whimsical to the apocalyptic, from the rules of baseball to humanity’s penchant for self-destruction. Now he is 84 and the poems come no more.
But when work is life, every end is a beginning. In the solitude of his family farm in Wilmot, Hall rises mornings to strengthen nouns and slay adverbs, just as he did when he was writing poetry. Discovering, to his delight, that old age is the secret to truer prose, he has reinvented himself as an essayist. Or perhaps he has willed this to be. Either way, editors at the New Yorker, Playboy, The American Scholar and other magazines buy his essays when he is ready to let them go.
Writing prose in his favorite chair. Hall’s New Yorker essay, “Out the Window,” is ostensibly about the view from that chair in wintertime.
Then I sat in my blue chair
with blueberry bagels and strong
black coffee reading news,
the obits, the comics, and the sports.
Carrying my cup twenty feet,
I sat myself at the desk
for this day’s lifelong
engagement with the one task and desire.
-From “An Old Life” by Donald Hall
He credits Wendy Strothman, his agent, with suggesting he try prose again. She asked him to write a book about Christmas at Eagle Pond, the site of the farm where he has lived since 1975. He also spent boyhood summers haying there with his grandfather, but he was never at the farm for Christmas in those years. This was no obstacle. More than half a century ago, while writing “String Too Short to Be Saved,” a memoir of those boyhood summers, he had imagined an abandoned railroad on nearby Ragged Mountain. Its rusted tracks led him to the writing he recalls as the best in the book. Surely he could imagine Christmas at the farm in 1940.
As slight and sentimental as the Christmas idea sounds, Hall seized on the challenge. He is a man with a past and a place, and writing this book countered whatever gloom he might have felt when his poetic muse vanished. “I had a ball writing it,” he says. “All the people from ‘String’ came to life again, and as soon as they opened their mouths, I knew exactly what they were going to say.” When the manuscript was done, the pleasure of writing it lingered.
It cuts against conventional wisdom – and perhaps reason – that a very old man should improve his game in any way, but that is what happened with Hall. “As poetry went, prose came,” he says from the same blue chair where he sat when I first interviewed him 30 years ago. It sounds like a miracle when he says it, a surprise, as in some sense it is. But when I dig out that old interview, I see that I asked him then about a sentence he was pondering as a future epitaph. We were talking about a rough patch in his work. “I was passive,” he said. “I was a chip on the stream. Well, man is a bird that can change the shape of his beak. Wowwee! You can change. You can get better.”
There you have it: Man is a bird that can change the shape of his beak. In his youth Hall wrote reviews in a style he describes as academic. Early on, he developed a voice as a writer that sounded like no one else’s, but his mature prose, as he sees it, was “too bejeweled.” Now, embracing the slower pace of old age, he approaches his essays in memoir as he did his poems, writing dozens of drafts. The changes he makes may seem minute – deleting a comma, adjusting the pace or shifting the end of a sentence to the beginning – but they add up to greater precision. Aware that his prose is thinner than it used to be, he thickens it with particularity.
When the book was done, Hall began an essay called “Out the Window,” a meditation on old age that unfurls from the view through the farmhouse window nearest the blue chair. Six months into writing it, he knew it was pretty and lyrical, but experience told him it needed a counter-movement, something to lift it above the ordinary. After lunch at an art museum one day, his companion, Linda Kunhardt, was pushing him toward the galleries in a wheelchair. A guard leaned over and asked him, “Did we enjoy our din-din?” Almost immediately the writer’s mind turned the insult into the gift it was: the guard had given him the counter-movement for “Out the Window.” David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, liked the essay and took it for the magazine, which published it last January. By then, Hall had begun more essays, the sage looking back on the events of a long life.
The lion in winter, it turned out, was still a lion.
When I walk in my house I see pictures,
bought long ago, framed and hanging
– de Kooning, Arp, Laurencin, Henry Moore – that I’ve cherished and stared at for years, yet my eyes keep returning to the masters of the trivial – a white stone perfectly round, tiny lead models of baseball players, a cowbell, a broken great-grandmother’s rocker,
a dead dog’s toy – valueless, unforgettable detritus that my children will throw away as I did my mother’s souvenirs of trips
with my dead father, Kodaks of kittens,
and bundles of cards from her mother Kate.
-From “The Things” by Donald Hall
Don and I are old friends. Several times a year, often with a brown bag on my front seat, I drive out to his house. In the bag are liverwurst sandwiches with Vidalia onion slices and hot mustard or roast beef sandwiches with lots of horseradish and a little mayo. As a sop to healthful living, I make them on whole-grain bread. Or we ride to a nearby diner that we still call Blackwater Bill’s, though the name is out of date. There the waitress coddles Don, as local people and women in general tend to, and he eats hot dogs with relish and spicy mustard. Before and after lunch, we sit in his living room, he in the blue easy chair, I in a straight-back where his cat can press her face into my palm and beg a rub. I can never remember whether she is Thelma or Louise, knowing only that one died, one survives. Don lights Pall Mall Oranges as we talk, yet another pleasure of the mouth for a man who likens poetry, and especially the sound of poetry, to oral sex.
Most of his literary contemporaries are dead or ailing. He was a poet of death and decay, writing elegies for his father and others, odes to cellar holes, stonewalls and old horses and poems about the agony of losing his wife, Jane Kenyon. Nearly 18 years after Kenyon’s death from leukemia, any reminder of it moves him to mournful remembrance. It is different now with his contemporaries. W.D. Snodgrass is gone, Adrienne Rich gone, James Wright long gone. His once-robust correspondence with Robert Bly has slowed to a trickle.
In September, when Don’s friend Louis Simpson died, I sent him the obituary from the New York Times. He replied by describing his last contacts with Simpson, the only friend who called him “Donald,” and added: “A funny thing happens, predictable, I suppose. When you are 84 years old and an old, old friend dies, you feel a moment of melancholy, and a moment of affection – but you do not burst into tears, you do not run around the house screaming. What else was he going to do? Rumor has it that all of us die.”
Of course, Don thinks about his own death too, but he did that in poems for decades. Sixty years ago, he ended a poem about the birth of his son with these lines: “We twenty-two and twenty-five, / who seemed to live forever, / observe enduring life in you / and start to die together.” He does not relish the physical act of dying. “I don’t want to turn blue,” he says. And because none of his children or grandchildren wish to move to the farm, he worries what will become of the house and its contents, including the things his family saved over the generations. “Most of your things are going into the dumpster,” he says. He confronted his anxiety over this in “The Back Chamber,” his last poetry collection.
I lie on the painted bed
on the journey I undertake
to repose without pain
in the palace of darkness,
my body beside your body.
-From “The Painted Bed” by Donald Hall
The realization that he could no longer write poetry crept up on him. By 2007, “Not much I did was as good as it felt,” Hall says. Sound had been the key. Form and narrative seemed to take care of themselves once he got the sound right, especially the long vowels, but also the ring and clash of consonants. When he began struggling, the poems he finished were sometimes witty and well-turned, but they lacked the audacious language and pleasing images that had distinguished his work. He also found he could not start poems. They had often begun with a line or two whose meaning was unclear. “It would come into my head,” he says. “I didn’t know where it was going, but I would surrender to it and let it go where it carried me.” The lines – the inspiration – stopped coming.
Six years ago Don served as poet laureate of the United States. Two years ago President Obama placed the National Medal of Arts around his neck. His poetry earned him these honors, and losing the ability to write it could have hastened his decline. But he took it philosophically. “I don’t miss poetry,” he says. “Maybe one of these days a poem will come forward, but I don’t think about it.” He also knew he was not the first poet to suffer such a loss. “No poet in the world has written his best poetry in his eighties,” he says. He is certain the two strong poems in Robert Frost’s last collection were written decades before the book was published. Even the work of Thomas Hardy, a favorite of Don’s, withered in old age.
The long arc of life has changed the way he sees his own work. In his youth he thought the reason to write, beyond the hope of wooing cheerleaders, was the quest for immortality. Now he knows better. Archibald MacLeish, one of the best-known poets of the mid-20th century, won three Pulitzer Prizes between 1932 and 1958, but who reads MacLeish today? “I mostly think nobody’s going to remember my work,” Don says, “but it doesn’t stop me from wanting to write.”
In part because of those summers on the farm with his grandparents during the 1930s and early ’40s, Don has always regarded old people with appreciation and curiosity. A recurring theme in his elegies was the way one generation succeeds the next, but time cancels them all, the past eliding with the present. Now he is the old man of the family. He naps each day. He travels less. He walks with a cane or a wheeled walker and avoids stairs. His knees buckle sometimes, and he fears falling.
These infirmities do not define him. The love of Linda Kunhardt comforts him. Kendel Currier, his cousin, keeps him in touch with the outside world by e-mail. His carrier leaves the snail-mail on a chair in the kitchen. When he reads in public, the audience stills and leans in to catch the words of his gravelly voice. But, most important, he works. “Pretty much every day I make something better,” he says. “The ability to write something is absolutely essential.”
Often at readings Don has spoken of the opposite ways readers respond to “Ox Cart Man.” Like the children’s book of the same name, the poem describes the cycle of a farmer’s life. All year the farmer grows potatoes, shears sheep, sugars maples, makes birch brooms, builds a cart. In October he loads the cart and walks to Portsmouth beside the ox that pulls it. At the market he sells everything, including ox and cart. Then he goes home and starts anew. Some readers pity the farmer for having to toil so hard and then turn around and do it all over again. Others find his life useful and fulfilling.
We made in those days tiny identical rooms inside our bodies which the men who uncover our graves will find in a thousand years shining and whole.
-From “Gold” by Donald Hall
For Don Hall, there has never been any ambivalence about the farmer in “Ox Cart Man.” Whether with pitchfork or pen, work that you love, not the product of that work, makes life worth living. This has been Don’s faith, and in old age he has been rewarded for it.
He is a happy man.
Author of this story Mike Pride is a writer and historian. He is editor emeritus of the Concord Monitor, where he ran the newsroom for 30 years and still writes for the paper. His new book is “Our War: Days and Events in the Fight for the Union,” an innovative human history of New Hampshire’s experience in the Civil War. A long-time friend, admirer and colleague of Donald Hall, Pride offers the following recommended reading list for those just discovering him:
- “Kicking the Leaves”
- “The One Day”
- “White Apples and the Taste of Stone: Collected Poems, 1946-2006”
- “Life Work”
- “Their Ancient Glittering Eyes”
“String Too Short to Be Saved”
A full Donald Hall bibliography can be found below.
Along with serving as poet laureate to both New Hampshire and the United States, Hall has received a number of honors but perhaps none more prestigious than receiving the 2010 National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama during a ceremony at the White House in Washington, DC, March 2, 2011. Below is the statement from the National Endowment for the Arts:
Donald Hall – Poet
Donald Hall is an American poet who, through an illustrious career and as Poet Laureate of the United States from 2006-2007, has worked to improve poetry’s standing in the United States and provide new inspiration.
Hall has published numerous books of poetry, most recently “White Apples and the Taste of Stone: Selected Poems 1946-2006” (2006), “The Painted Bed” (2002) and “Without: Poems” (1998). Other notable collections include “The One Day” (1988), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and a Pulitzer Prize nomination; “The Happy Man” (1986), which won the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize; and “Exiles and Marriages” (1955), which was the Academy of American Poet’s Lamont Poetry Selection for 1956. In addition, Hall has received two Guggenheim Fellowships and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
A Donald Hall Bibliography
- Fantasy Poets Number Four (1952)
- Exiles and Marriages (1955)
- The Dark Houses (1958)
- A Hundred Thousand Straightened Nails (1961)
- A Roof of Tiger Lilies (1964)
- The Alligator Bride (1969)
- The Yellow Room: Love Poems (1971)
- The Town of Hill (1975)
- A Blue Wing Tilts at the Edge of the Sea: Selected Poems, 1964-1974 (1975)
- Kicking the Leaves (1978)
- The Toy Bone (1979)
- The Happy Man (1986)
- The One Day (1988)
- Old and New Poems (1990)
- Here at Eagle Pond (1992)
- The Museum of Clear Ideas (1993)
- The Old Life (1996)
- Without (1998)
- Two by Two (2000, with Richard Wilbur)
- The Painted Bed (2002)
- White Apples and the Taste of Stone (2006)
- The Back Chamber (2011)
- Henry Moore (1966)
- Dock Ellis (1976)
- Remembering Poets (1978)[a]
- The Ancient Glittering Eyes (1992)[a]
- An Evening’s Frost (1965)
- Bread and Roses (1975)
- Ragged Mountain Elegies (1983)
- Andrew the Lion Farmer (1959)
- Riddle Rat (1977)
- Ox-Cart Man (1979)
- The Man Who Lived Alone (1984)
- I Am the Dog, I Am the Cat (1994)
- Summer of 1944 (1994)
- Lucy’s Christmas (1994)
- Lucy’s Summer (1995)
- Old Home Day (1996)
- When Willard Met Babe Ruth (1996)
- The Milkman’s Boy (1997)
- The Ideal Bakery (1987)
- Willow Temple (2003)
- String too Short to Be Saved (1961)
- Seasons at Eagle Pond (1987)
- Life Work (1993)
- The Best Day the Worst Day: Life with Jane Kenyon (2005)
- Eagle Pond (2007)
- Unpacking the Boxes: A Memoir of a Life in Poetry (2008)
- Christmas at Eagle Pond (2012)
- To Read Literature (1981)
- Writing Well with Sven Birkerts (1994)