Hall, Donald 1928–
Hall is an American poet, editor, biographer, critic, essayist, dramatist, and author of children's books. His poetry is characterized by a nostalgic yearning for lost virtues and values, coupled with respect for the cyclical processes of nature. (See also CLC, Vol. 1, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
Donald Hall is another of the men-about-Parnassus … which makes it all the more surprising that in the central poems of A Blue Wing Tilts at the Edge of the Sea, four long sequences concerned with a love affair in middle age, he should show such calamitous lack of judgment. For every passage that rings true, is another that turns sickly, and a third that crassly exploits the delicate ironies of love in later years. Ingenuity outpaces feeling, except for a few opening poems and the last section of the book, where Mr Hall brings just the right degree of invention to bear on some quiet memories and observations…. (p. 960)
Roger Garfitt in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1975; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), August 29, 1975.
Donald Hall is a well-established figure on the contemporary American scene. [Kicking the Leaves] serves notice, however, that he is still willing to take a few risks. Kicking the Leaves is a strangely vulnerable work. It asks to be accepted on its own terms, as guileless, brooding and sentimental. Most of the poems were occasioned by Hall's taking possession of the farm in New Hampshire where his grandfather and great-grandfather had lived. Centered as it is around this experience, the book assumes a certain personal tenor. Its motive and concerns are very much Hall's own, and the reader who is unwilling or unable to interest himself in them will be disappointed.
Every poem in this collection deals overtly with the theme of death. There is not so much the evocation of anxiety, evanescence or nostalgia as there is the bold statement of their presence. The poet simply insists on it in every instance…. At its best, death is presented through amiable, though grotesque, conceits, as in the poet's identification with his slow-roasting dinner in "Eating the Pig," or in the homage to the Arctic survival yarn, "Wolf Knife." At its worst, Hall's preoccupation can come as close to banality as anything a poet of his calibre has written in recent memory…. (pp. 26-7)
Hall asks his readers to share not only his obsession with mortality, but also a sense of nostalgia for his own family. The poet's use of familial reminiscence in his present contemplation of himself and his world may put one in...
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[Biography] is central to Donald Hall's Remembering Poets. His book is mainly a gathering of well-told anecdotes about the author's relations with Frost, Pound, Eliot, and Dylan Thomas. Hall deserves praise for the care he has taken to verify his information, to be accurate, to complete stories of which he knew only a part at first hand. The care is visible everywhere but most attractively in the author's frankness about himself. The refusal to cover up his blunders deepens the appeal and the humor of the narrative. His good nature and appreciativeness give it coherence. Readers in general, and young readers in particular, who hesitate to dip into poetry of any sort will find themselves reaching for the works of Hall's subjects as they yield to the charm of his voice.
That they will discover much about the poetry itself is less certain. Hall is aware of the limitations of his approach, and insists that one must not confuse the personality of a genius with his work. Yet for all his experience as a poet, Hall rarely shows much penetration or independent judgment when he acts as a critic. Biography is an efficient method of getting into the meaning and shape of works of art so long as the biographer is obsessed with the creative imagination of his subject.
Naturally, the characters of his four poets fascinate Hall and infuse drama into his accounts of them…. Some of the anecdotes move one deeply, like the report...
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[All] the poems in Kicking the Leaves are about death, not food. Their persistent elegiac tone rises first of all from that roast pig, who—apple in mouth—in its anatomical wholeness touches the poet's sense of pity and starts him thinking about ancient modes of cooking when stoves were altars, slaughter was sacrifice, and ceremony attended both the death and the ingestion of animals….
Food takes Donald Hall's heart back to his family's rhythms of seasons and deaths, back to his memories of his great-grandfather's farm in New Hampshire which is now his own.
So rich a theme has generated poems about roses, horses, oxcarts, black-faced sheep. Hall writes with clarity and honesty, enlisting none of the usual strategies of poetry such as rhyme, meter, or a heightened diction. His words are plain and right, and his manner is casual and alert….
These poems are a celebration, as he makes clear, of the poet's middle age. They are a stock-taking, a sifting of values. The raw and unsettling evocations of death by violence (of wolves, pigs, people) are, it would seem, deliberate encounters with reality to be faced with a naked mind, without religion or philosophy. And, it must be added, without sentimentality or romantic coloring.
The taste these poems leave in the mind is the bitterness of life's brevity, the disgust we hide from ourselves at having to slaughter to live. Against the goodness of being alive runs the harshness of the bargains by which we live: the toil and death of other creatures both animal and human. This is a bleak way of looking at things. It is, in part, the way these poems look at the world. Such honesty has its reward. There are lights other than the worst to see things in, and, having insisted on the shadows, Hall feels free to exult in brightnesses.
Pity is an ambiguous emotion, part fear and part solicitude. Hall has purged fear from his pity (a purging that may be the theme that brings these poems into a unity), giving a kind of awe to his solicitude for the fragility and uncertainty of life.
Guy Davenport, "New Hampshire Elegies," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1979; 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), March 30, 1979, p. 430.