Twenty-six years ago now--in late Spring of 1988--Sandie and I were settling in. We’d been back in the States for several months, had gotten married spectacularly in February, and by late April she’d landed a job in the world of Antiques, while I was still searching hard for both a teaching position and a sympathetic editor or two who might give my poems a hearing and a place in their magazines.
I’ve been revisiting those days gone by because, a few weeks ago, I found and bought a signed copy of The Old Life, one of the many wonderful books of poetry (and not forgetting his prose works) by venerable and venerated, yet still under-rated and too-little-known, author-for-all-seasons Donald Hall.
Man-about-pond (Eagle Pond, on the farm of that same name), poet of New Hampshire and the world, Hall in a long and distinguished career has written honored children’s books and baseball books (Fathers Playing Catch with Sons); guides to writing and reading; collections of his own varied poems (lyric and witty, dark and elegiac, stoically autobiographical); reminiscences of farming, his “live free” forebears, and famous elder poets he knew early on (Their Ancient Glittering Eyes); always-pithy essays by the hundreds, eagerly-awaited letters by the thousands and, for all I know, cookbooks, travel guides, biographies, and helpful hints on the path to spiritual enlightenment.
No, you can strike out that last one; Hall’s too cranky and earthy and wise-with-age to pretend he has answers. Though a believer and regular rural-church attendee, he has his doubts and sees the ironies and lies awake at night wondering why he lives on while his much younger wife, poet Jane Kenyon, and other sorely needed men and women are killed off hourly.
Back in ’88, Hall was New Hampshire’s poet laureate. (Two decades later he became the 14th poet laureate for the entire U.S.) Because I admired his plain-spoken, free-flowing poems, I wrote him a fan letter, which led to a brief flurry of messages back and forth. But starting before and then continuing much beyond our exchange, Hall’s life became an epic-length study in pathos and odd circumstance... Lately divorced, he took up with and then married a graduate student named Jane Kenyon who was herself a poet already short-listed to become great. The couple moved from the University of Michigan to Eagle Pond Farm, near Wilmot, the Hall family’s ancestral farm that Donald remembered vividly from his childhood. Then Hall was diagnosed with some sort of incurable cancer, and Ms. Kenyon vowed to see him through the long slide... except that a bizarre thing happened: Hall lived on and on, and Jane became the patient instead, her own deadly leukemia diagnosed too late.
During those dreadful months the two poets wrote brief lyrics and longer works both that were harrowing and sorrowful, love-stricken and life-affirming, death-resisting and then, exhausted, broodingly accepting--poem collections that were widely acknowledged and honored: Hall’s The Happy Man, The One Day, The Museum of Clear Ideas, The Old Life, and following Jane’s death, the coruscating Without; Kenyon’s books were Let Evening Come, Constance, and the posthumous collection Otherwise. (She also enjoyed a few years as another poet laureate for New Hampshire.)
Kenyon died in 1995. In idle ignorance I had assumed Hall to be dead too, but the Internet insists that he's still up there in New Hampshire, alive and ticking if not exactly kicking. He reportedly had eased into withdrawal mode, gradually turning reclusive, restricting himself more and more to Eagle Pond Farm. He’d watch the seasons come and go and write about whatever was on his mind, from brindle cows to the language of poetry, from the snakebitten Red Sox to the foibles of multi-celled creatures. He kept publishing--mostly prose; he said the urge for poems had moved elsewhere--and he lived on...
And he is still there today, two decades past Kenyon's death, observing, scribbling notes, eighty-five years young. Speaking little. Writing. Cared for in 2014 by some other woman, but always remembering Jane.
In honor of his stoic and astonishing quarter-century, I am reproducing the most expansive letter from our brief correspondence--thoughtful, newsy, chiding me gently. So here’s to Donald Hall, splendid writer, remarkable man, stubborn old cuss; loving husband and living poet:
(I began this post a year ago while having reproduction problems with BlogSpot host--never did figure out how to fix the visuals, or present the letter correctly. But anyone who actually wants to read Hall's words--and why wouldn't you?--can expand the letter image area to 300% and make out fairly well. My apologies for computer ignorance.)