Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about poet Donald Hall, now in his 84th year, and an American treasure. I came upon him early as a teaching assistant at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where we used his Writing Well as our principal text in our composition courses. Written in Hall’s typical plain-language, no nonsense style, I learned a lot from it at this early stage of my teaching career.
The other day I happened to tap into Daniel Giola’s blog with its invaluable essays he’s written on a good number of American poets, including Hall, and I liked what I read. Giola is himself a talented poet, who formerly was head of the National Endowment for the Arts and currently teaches at Stanford.
Truth is, I hadn’t read Hall, the poet, who served as our Poet Laureate in 2006. Until I read Giola, I was also unaware of Hall’s prowess in writing memoirs. I downloaded his Life Work this morning from Amazon and am eager to get into it, seeing the critical accolades its drawn, which doesn’t surprise me. Educated at Exeter Academy, Harvard, and Oxford, he’s written more than fifty books of poetry, prose and children’s stories; been awarded two Guggenheim fellowships; the National book Critics Circle Award for Poetry, and twice nominated for the nation’s foremost literary honor, the National Book Award. I’m embarrassed it’s taken me so long to catch-up.
I started this draft yesterday and am now a good way into Life Work, which he had initially published in 1993, or just after surgery for colon cancer (originally diagnosed in 1989) that had now metastasized to his liver, giving him a dismal prognosis of 1 in 3 odds he’d be around another year. Ironically, he beat the odds, only to lose his much beloved wife, Jane Kenyon, a former student and poet he had married twenty years earlier while teaching at the University of Michigan. She had seemed so healthy, only to suddenly be diagnosed with leukemia and passing in 1995. As Hall candidly remarks, “The worst day is the day when grief or sorrow overcome you. Your wife has cancer; you have cancer.”
It would take some six years for Hall to right himself again. Jane’s presence permeated the house. Giving her clothes away turned into an ordeal:
He emptied the dead woman’s dresser and closets,
stacking rings and bracelets, pendants and necklaces.
He bundled sweaters and jeans, brassieres and blouses, scarves
and nightgowns and suits and summer dresses
and mailed them to Rosie’s Place for indigent women.
For decades a man and a woman living together
learned each other for pleasure, giving and taking,
studying every other day predictable ecstasy
secure without secrecy or advenmre, without romance,
without anxiety or jealousy, without content ….
(from “Kill the Day”)
Each new day reopened the wounds of loss–of lovers in communication, always together, mutual artists sharing creative ecstasy. The gnawing loneliness. The unfairness of it all. She was just 47.
All of this is part of the undertone of sadness to this work I sometimes think intrinsic to the acute sensibility common to artistry and especially poets. As Hall reminds us, poetry is fundamentally about time and mortality. This has been my own observation across the years in reading, teaching and occasionally writing poetry. We may think of music as the most affective of the arts, but I have found poetry more so, sometimes reminding me of the way a drug works, bringing potential healing, but with it, too, a risk for side effects and a wish one hadn’t dosed. But then I think of the greater risk of sensory, if not spiritual poverty, in refusing to let its potential for insight, empathy, and catharsis to work its grace and make me whole. Poetry is latent with a sacramentalism that wraps around the soul.
One of the big draws of Life Work lies in its repertoire of Hall’s daily ritual that has made his prodigious artistry possible. Mornings, he rises at 5; better, leaps out of bed, eager to resume yesterday’s unfinished tasks following a cream cheese bagel washed down by coffee. A consummate craftsman, he revises poems sometimes a hundred times and even more. Mornings are filled with creation. Afternoons, with well-deserved indulgence.
I like the human side to Hall. He tells us he’s installed satellite TV. He loves his Red Sox and Celtics, never missing a game. With New England in my own blood, I relish these teams, too, though I’ve lived away from the place for many years. Reading a work like this alleviates my guilt in often violating the Puritan ethic of duty in my sometimes preferring play over work.
You won’t find this in Life Work, but in a recent NPR Fresh Air interview (February 8, 2012), Hall tells us he’s given up on writing poetry, since the ideas, words and images don’t spring up with their former ease. He continues to write, however, focusing on prose: “As long as I can do my work and continue to enjoy myself, I feel fulfilled. My body causes me trouble when I cross the room, but when I am writing, I am in my
heaven–my old heaven.”