Study Guide

Donald Hall

Donald Hall Essay - Hall, Donald (Vol. 151)

Hall, Donald (Vol. 151)

Introduction

Donald Hall 1928-

(Full name Donald Andrew Hall, Jr.) American poet, essayist, memoirist, children's writer, short story writer, editor, playwright, and critic.

The following entry presents an overview of Hall's career through 1999. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 13, 37, and 59.

Hall is considered by many to be among America's greatest living poets. He achieved success early in his career, with his poetry collection Exiles and Marriages (1955), and his reputation as a poet has steadily increased over time. His later poetry is generally regarded as the best of his career, and some consider it the best of his generation. Critics have compared Hall with such poets as Robert Bly, James Wright, and James Dickey, who favor simple, direct language combined with surrealistic imagery. Hall is also a respected essayist, educator, and editor, and his thoughtful prose—like his carefully crafted poetry—is widely praised for its clarity and integrity.

Biographical Information

Hall was born in Hamden, Connecticut, a middle-class suburb of New Haven, in 1928. He often spent summers at his grandparents' farm in New Hampshire, and his memories of this time and of the rural landscape figure prominently in his poetry and children's literature. Hall attended Phillips Exeter Academy and later attended Harvard University, where he received his bachelor of arts and socialized with fellow poets John Ashbery, Robert Bly, and Adrienne Rich. After receiving a second bachelor's degree from Oxford in 1953, Hall became a member of Harvard's Society of Fellows. It was during this period in which Hall published Exiles and Marriages. From 1953 to 1961, Hall served as the poetry editor for Paris Review. Hall turned his attention to academia in 1957 and accepted a professorship at the University of Michigan. He eventually left the position in 1975 to begin writing full-time at his family's farm in New Hampshire. He lived at the farm with his second wife, noted poet Jane Kenyon, until her death resulting from leukemia in 1995. An accomplished speaker, Hall was the host of Poets Talking, a series of television interviews with poets in 1974, and has given poetry readings at more than 1,500 colleges, universities, schools, libraries, prisons, and community centers. Hall won the Lenore Marshall/Nation Prize for his collection The Happy Man in 1986 and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry for The One Day in 1988.

Major Works

Hall garnered critical acclaim with Exiles and Marriages, a landmark in his early career, in which he wrote in a tightly structured style with an extremely formal application of rhyme and meter. The poetry in both Kicking the Leaves (1978) and The Happy Man reflect on Hall's return to his family's farm in New Hampshire, a place rich with memories and links to his past. Many of the poems explore and celebrate the continuity between generations, as the narrative voice in his poetry often reminisces about the past and anticipates the future. Hall's award-winning The One Day is one long poem consisting of 110 stanzas divided into three sections. The poem presents several narrative voices which comment on the meaning of life from the perspective of an individual experiencing the onset of old age. In the first and final segments of the poem, Hall alternates between a male and female narrator, speaking in blank-verse stanzas that expose personal details about their lives. Old and New Poems (1990) is divided into nine time periods, collecting revised poems from earlier collections and poems that had not previously been published. The earlier poems are more classical in form, while the later poems mix traditional and modern styles. In The Museum of Clear Ideas (1993), Hall examines how individuals cope with change and death. The collection also includes one of Hall's more famous works, “Baseball,” which serves as his ode to the American past-time. The poem is structured around the sequence of a baseball game, but instead of innings, it contains nine stanzas with nine lines each. The poems in Without (1998) confront Hall's grief over the death of his wife, Jane, and examine the details of his life after her passing. Without gives an objective appraisal of Kenyon's illness and relates many of Hall's emotions about being left alone after sharing his life with another. In addition to poetry, Hall has written many prose works. In Remembering Poets: Reminiscences and Opinions (1978)—which was revised and expanded as Their Ancient Glittering Eyes: Remembering Poets and More Poets (1992)—Hall recounts his conversations with and impressions of poets such as T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Dylan Thomas, and Robert Frost. He has also authored several books on the craft of writing, including Writing Well (1974) and The Weather for Poetry (1982). In 1993, Hall published Life Work, a memoir recounting his life at Eagle Pond Farm and his years working in literature. The book highlights Hall's rigorous daily writing schedule and his bout with liver cancer, which threatened to upset the balance between his life and his work.

Critical Reception

While Exiles and Marriages received a favorable response from reviewers, it is the work from the latter part of Hall's career that has received the most critical acclaim. Lawrence Joseph stated in his review of Old and New Poems that Hall's writing “reflects the gifts of a poet whose powers have expanded during his fifties, into his sixties—a rare accomplishment.” Reviewers have praised Hall for continuing to be ambitious and challenging in his poetry, while keeping his subject matter firmly rooted in the everyday. They have also complimented the simplicity of his style and the naturalness of his imagery. Many critics were particularly fond of The One Day, with Frederick Pollack stating that it “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.” In addition to his accomplishments as a poet, Hall is respected by critics as an academic who has made significant contributions to the study and craft of writing. Hall is considered by several of his peers, as Peter Thorpe asserted, to be “one of the few living American examples of an authentic Man of Letters, after the grand old manner of Edmund Wilson and T. S. Eliot.”

Principal Works

Fantasy Poets No. 4 (poetry) 1952

Exiles and Marriages (poetry) 1955

Andrew and the Lion Farmer (juvenilia) 1959

String Too Short to Be Saved: Recollections of Summers on a New England Farm (essays) 1961; revised 1979

A Roof of Tiger Lilies (poetry) 1964

An Evening's Frost (play) 1965

The Alligator Bride: Poems, New and Selected (poetry) 1969

The Yellow Room: Love Poems (poetry) 1971

Writing Well (essays) 1974

A Blue Wing Tilts at the Edge of the Sea: Selected Poems, 1964–1974 (poetry) 1975

The Town of Hill (poetry) 1975

Kicking the Leaves (poetry) 1978

*Remembering Poets: Reminiscences and Opinions (essays) 1978

The Ox-Cart Man (juvenilia) 1979

The Weather for Poetry: Essays, Reviews, and Notes on Poetry, 1977–1981 (essays) 1982

Fathers Playing Catch with Sons: Essays on Sport (Mostly Baseball) (essays) 1985

The Happy Man (poetry) 1986

Winter [with Clifton C. Olds] (essays) 1986

The One Day (poetry) 1988

The Ideal Bakery (short stories) 1990

Old and New Poems (poetry) 1990

The One Day; and, Poems, 1947–1990 (poetry) 1991

Here at Eagle Pond (poetry) 1992

Life Work (memoirs) 1993

The Museum of Clear Ideas (poetry) 1993

Death to the Death of Poetry (essays and interviews) 1994

Lucy's Christmas (juvenilia) 1994

Lucy's Summer (juvenilia) 1995

Principal Products of Portugal: Prose Pieces (essays) 1995

The Old Life (poetry) 1996

The Milkman's Boy (juvenilia) 1997

Without (poetry) 1998

The Oxford Illustrated Book of American Children's Poems [editor] (poetry) 1999

*This work was revised and republished under the title Their Ancient Glittering Eyes: Remembering Poets and More Poets in 1992.

Criticism

Donald Hall with Liam Rector (interview date January–February 1989)

SOURCE: “Donald Hall: An Interview by Liam Rector,” in American Poetry Review, Vol. 18, No. 1, January–February, 1989, pp. 39–46.

[In the following interview, Hall discusses his body of work and the state of contemporary poetry and poetry criticism.]

[Rector:] You've written poignantly about time and generation. Jose Ortega y Gasset had a scheme for generation:

1–15 Childhood

15–30 Youth

30–45 Initiation

45–60...

(The entire section is 7336 words.)

Bill Christopherson (review date Winter 1990)

SOURCE: A review of The Ideal Bakery, in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 27, No. 1, Winter, 1990, pp. 121–22.

[In the following review, Christopherson offers a positive assessment of The Ideal Bakery, calling Hall “one of contemporary literature's gourmet chefs.”]

The characters in Donald Hall's first collection of short stories, The Ideal Bakery, are mainstream, and their plights are all too recognizable: a divorced father trying to get back in touch with his bookish nine-year-old during a weekend fishing trip; a middle-aged professor trying to rekindle a relationship with an embittered former lover; a graduate student of literature whose...

(The entire section is 598 words.)

Frederick Pollack (review date Winter 1990)

SOURCE: “Donald Hall's The One Day,” in Salmagundi, Nos. 85–8, Winter, 1990, pp. 344–50.

[In the following review, Pollack offers a positive assessment of The One Day and classifies the poem as a modernist work.]

Born in Hamden, Conn. in 1928, Donald Hall has lived since 1975 in a New Hampshire farmhouse where his grandmother was born in 1878 and his mother in 1903. The mother seems a supportive figure; when, as a child, the poet cried for her after lights-out, she made much less fuss about it than, say, Proust's mother. Hall (by which I mean both the reigning persona of the poems and the man in the interviews) seems remarkably unalienated. Not...

(The entire section is 2264 words.)

George Looney (review date Spring 1990)

SOURCE: “Keeping the World Going,” in Ohio Review, No. 46, Spring, 1990, pp. 116–28.

[In the following excerpt, Looney offers a positive assessment of The One Day, complimenting the poem for its sense of wonder and beauty.]

In “Toward a Changed Poetics,” the final chapter of Praises and Dispraises (1988), Terrence Des Pres wrote that “Writers must, it seems to me, vote to see the world keep going.” About this there can be no sane argument. What is arguable is how writers must go about casting that vote. If the imagination is, as Wallace Stevens suggested, “a violence from within that protects us from a violence without,” a “pressing...

(The entire section is 1752 words.)

Donald Hall with George Myers Jr. (interview date Spring 1991)

SOURCE: “An Interview with Donald Hall about The One Day,” in Ploughshares, Vol. 17, No. 1, Spring, 1991, pp. 71–75.

[In the following interview, Hall discusses the process he used to write The One Day and the events that inspired the poem.]

[Myers:] Your work on The One Day lasted more than a decade, I believe. How long exactly?

[Hall:] It was sixteen years from the time I started the poem—not knowing what I was starting—until I finished it. (I'm always tempted to put quotations around the word, when I say “finished,” because, when I have a chance to republish anything, I tinker.) I wasn't working on...

(The entire section is 1500 words.)

Lawrence Joseph (essay date Fall 1991)

SOURCE: “Donald Hall's Old and New Poems,” in Michigan Quarterly Review, Vol. 30, No. 4, Fall, 1991, pp. 699–716.

[In the following essay, Joseph explores how Old and New Poems is an example of how Hall's poetry has evolved throughout the years and how the collection relates to the genre of American Modernist poetry.]

I

In 1978, when he was fifty, Donald Hall published his seventh book of poems, Kicking the Leaves, to widespread acclaim. Hall's reputation as a critic, anthologist, editor, literary journalist (and, arguably, one of our leading persons of letters) was by then already established. Almost suddenly Hall...

(The entire section is 5023 words.)

Publishers Weekly (review date 29 June 1992)

SOURCE: A review of Their Ancient Glittering Eyes: Remembering Poets and More Poets, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 239, No. 29, June 29, 1992, pp. 48–49.

[In the following review, the critic offers a positive assessment of Their Ancient Glittering Eyes.]

“Curiosity endures, surviving criticism or philosophy,” affirms poet and critic Hall (Here at Eagle Pond) as he introduces a distinguished gallery of poets [in Their Ancient Glittering Eyes: Remembering Poets and More Poets]—Frost, Thomas, Eliot, Moore, MacLeish, Winters, Pound—with verisimilitude and freshness enough to satisfy readers. An expansion and revision of Remembering Poets...

(The entire section is 237 words.)

Suzanne Keen (review date 24 September 1993)

SOURCE: “A Poke Over the Wall,” in Commonweal, Vol. 120, No. 16, September 24, 1993, pp. 21–23.

[In the following positive review, Keen argues that The Museum of Clear Ideas is primarily about how humans cope with endings and issues of closure.]

Donald Hall's new book of poems, The Museum of Clear Ideas, made me want to run out into the yard and shout. And check the tomatoes, and the box scores. To reread Horace, James Wright, and to undertake a study of the undervalued art of tone. As I write, we have shaken loose the bonds of the basketball season, and turned our full attention to baseball. If you're near a major league stadium, you're probably...

(The entire section is 1366 words.)

Vincent Sherry (review date Summer 1994)

SOURCE: “The High Pasture,” in Sewanee Review, Vol. 102, No. 3, Summer, 1994, pp. lxxxix-xc.

[In the following review, Sherry offers a positive assessment of both Life Work and The Museum of Clear Ideas.]

[Life Work and The Museum of Clear Ideas] are olympian books. They are wise, but are written against every convention of wisdom.

Life Work turns its diary of the quotidian into a treatise in which the duties and pleasures of labor are measured. The mixed attitude of duty and joy suffuses Mr. Hall's prose, its cadences alternately stately and capricious, elegiac and carnivalesque. A mock-classical decorum provides tonal...

(The entire section is 745 words.)

Joanne Schott (review date May 1995)

SOURCE: A review of Lucy's Summer, in Quill & Quire, Vol. 61, No. 5, May, 1995, p. 51.

[In the following positive review, Schott commends Hall's ability to bring the past to life in Lucy's Summer.]

Lucy is the author's mother and this account of the events of the summer of 1910, Lucy's seventh, come from the stories she told about her childhood. Her mother started a home-based millinery business that summer but still had to can hundreds of jars of peas, beans, tomatoes, and rhubarb. The routine is broken by an itinerant photographer who takes a portrait of Lucy and her little sister, by the Fourth of July parade, and by a trip to Boston, where Mother buys...

(The entire section is 241 words.)

Peter Thorpe (review date July–August 1995)

SOURCE: A review of Life Work, in Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 15, No. 4, July–August, 1995, p. 29.

[In the following review, Thorpe offers a mixed assessment of Life Work, faulting the work for indulging in too much “name-dropping.”]

There are plenty of definitions of work, including the cynical one by Bertrand Russell—that it's merely moving matter from one location to another. Additional words—or ideas—for work include labor, toil and moil, struggle, swink (archaic), drudge, grub, plod, exert, strain, and goodness knows how many others.

This memoir by Donald Hall [Life Work] seeks to put the concept of work into a...

(The entire section is 811 words.)

R. S. Gwynn (review date January 1996)

SOURCE: “Proseurs,” in Sewanee Review, Vol. 104, No. 1, January, 1996, pp. 142–49.

[In the following excerpt, Gwynn criticizes Hall's use of publishing sales figures to defend modern poetry in Death to the Death of Poetry.]

What happens when poets turn their hands to prose? We might expect that they would have an easy go of it, wouldn't we? Prose, after all, is easier to forge than poetry. Prose writers are spared having to learn phrases like medial caesura or substitute foot: all that each of them has to know is how to put a semicolon in its place and make subjects and verbs agree. Poets, on the other hand, go mad worrying about such silly...

(The entire section is 806 words.)

Lawrence Goldstein (review date Fall 1996)

SOURCE: “The Harvard Advocate,” in Michigan Quarterly Review, Vol. 35, No. 4, Fall, 1996, pp. 745–54.

[In the following review, Goldstein assesses three examples of Hall's nonfiction works—Principal Products of Portugal, Death to the Death of Poetry, and Life Work,—and explores what these works reveal about his poetry.]

These days the theory of literature has taken up, again, the infinitely interesting matter of literary production—how writing gets written, revised, edited, published, distributed, reviewed, reprinted, canonized. It is a subject that has fascinated Donald Hall all of his life, the more so after 1975, when he resigned from his...

(The entire section is 4274 words.)

Chris Walsh (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “‘Building the House of Dying’: Donald Hall's Claim for Poetry,” in Agni, Vol. 47, 1998, pp. 175–83.

[In the following essay, Walsh discusses the role of history and modernity in The One Day.]

“In my head for a long time I called it Building the House of Dying.

—Hall on the book that became The One Day

“Diatribes from our current art-bashers—columnists, senators, fundamentalists—bring nothing new to our culture,” says Donald Hall, characteristically blunt in his most recent collection of literary essays, Death to the Death of Poetry (1994)....

(The entire section is 3270 words.)

Donald Hall with Michael Scharf (interview date 23 March 1998)

SOURCE: “Donald Hall: Elegies from Eagle Pond,” in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 245, No. 12, March 23, 1998, pp. 72–73.

[In the following interview, Hall discusses the death of his wife (poet Jane Kenyon), his editing of her last collection of poetry, and Without, his own poetry collection about their life together.]

Eagle Pond Farm is familiar to even the casual reader of Donald Hall. The weather-beaten spread, hard by Route 4 at the foot of Ragged Mountain in Wilmot, N.H., has been home to Hall's maternal clan since 1865. It is the subject or setting of many of his poems and essays, providing a consistent reference point for more than 40 years of work. It is...

(The entire section is 2147 words.)

John Bayley (review date 16 July 1998)

SOURCE: “The Way We Write Now,” in New York Review of Books, Vol. 45, No. 12, July 16, 1998, p. 41.

[In the following excerpt, Bayley discusses Hall's exploration of grief in Without.]

Poets must often write to cheer themselves up, and in so doing the good ones can cheer up their readers as well. Thomas Hardy's passionate love lyrics to his dead wife, the wife to whom when she was alive he had paid very little attention for thirty years and more, are also an acknowledgment of himself as he was, an acceptance of what he had done, or failed to do. So moving are these poems, and in a sense so self-delighting, that the reader too feels calmed and blessed at...

(The entire section is 980 words.)

Donald Hall with Jeffrey S. Cramer (interview date Winter 1998–1999)

SOURCE: “With Jane and Without: An Interview with Donald Hall,” in Massachusetts Review, Vol. 39, No. 4, Winter, 1998–1999, pp. 493–510.

[In the following interview, Hall discusses his relationship with his late wife and how he has coped emotionally since her death.]

Anyone acquainted with the story of Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon cannot help but stand in awe of the irony which, if it appeared in fiction, would appall by its tear-jerking manipulation. The reality, as I stand before Jane Kenyon's grave, leaves me saddened and numb.

The lines on their shared stone are from Kenyon's poem, “Afternoon at MacDowell.” Although she wrote it with...

(The entire section is 6868 words.)

Robert McDowell (essay date Winter 1999)

SOURCE: “Expansive Poetry,” in Hudson Review, Vol. 51, No. 4, Winter, 1999, pp. 792–802.

[In the following excerpt, McDowell argues that Without is an example of expansive poetry and lacks the sentimentality one might expect from the emotional subject matter.]

More then a decade has passed since the anthologies Ecstatic Occasions, Expedient Forms, edited by David Lehman, and The Direction of Poetry, edited by Robert Richman, made the first ensemble attempts to recognize a change in our poetry: the renewed interest in form. It has been ten years since the special issue of Crosscurrents (1989), edited by Dick Allen, gave the name...

(The entire section is 1502 words.)

Leslie Ullman (review date February 1999)

SOURCE: A review of Without, in Poetry, Vol. 173, No. 4, February, 1999, p. 312.

[In the following positive review, Ullman compliments Hall's candor and his ability to put his grief into words in Without.]

Grief's soundings—their depth and intricacy—arise from Donald Hall's thirteenth poetry collection as naturally as mist over water, even as they also provide the harshness from which the book takes its form. Without is described by the publisher as “a companion volume” to Hall's most recent collection, The Old Life, which also is autobiographical but covers a greater territory of Hall's life up to the present and offers names, events, and...

(The entire section is 849 words.)

Donald Hall with Cynthia Huntington, Heather McHugh, Paul Muldoon, and Charles Simic (essay date September 1999)

SOURCE: “How to Peel a Poem: Five Poets Dine Out on Verse,” in Harper's Magazine, Vol. 299, No. 1792, September, 1999, pp. 45–60.

[In the following roundtable discussion, poets Hall, Cynthia Huntington, Heather McHugh, Paul Muldoon, and Charles Simic discuss their favorite poems and what makes them special.]

Poetry has been described, in eras past, as “the natural language of all worship,” “the hop-grounds of the brain,” “devil's wine,” and “the bill and coo of sex.” Contemporary assessments tend to be less poetic. Poetry today is something that the federal government should fund, that our publishing houses must support, that the public schools...

(The entire section is 9511 words.)