The Best Day the Worst Day

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

The Best Day the Worst Day opens with the matter-of-fact statement, “Jane Kenyon died of leukemia at 7:57 in the morning, April 22, 1995,” setting the tone for the pages to follow. Although describing both the most devastating and the most sublime moments of his life, poet Donald Hall maintains this straightforward tone throughout his memoir, creating an emotional impact stronger than the most dramatic prose could achieve. For example, Hall describes the excruciating sequence of events, painfully familiar to anyone who has buried a loved one, that immediately follows a death by a simple listing of necessary tasks: deciding upon the time and place of the funeral, arranging for the obituary, choosing a casket, informing friends and family of the death, arranging for pall bearers, and finding room in the refrigerator for all the donated casseroles. This stark, unadorned accumulation of details evokes an incredibly affecting portrait of Hall’s emotional state, while setting the stage for the chronicle of his life with poet Jane Kenyon to follow.

Kenyon first met Hall in 1969 when she was one of 140 students in his “Introduction to Poetry for Non-English Majors” course at the University of Michigan. She found him intimidating, and he did not even know who she was. Later that year he accepted her as a student in his poetry writing seminar, where Kenyon was a good, but not outstanding, student. Although friendly, the two did not go out until 1971, when he took her out to dinner to console her on a breakup with her boyfriend. Hall was recovering from a divorce, and both were wary of forming a new relationship, so they progressed slowly, with once-a-week meetings, gradually increasing them to two, three, and then four times a week. By 1972, although worried about the nineteen-year age difference between them (he was forty-seven, she was twenty-eight), they decided to marry.

Three years after their wedding the couple resolved to take time off from their academic life in Ann Arbor to spend a year at the Hall family’s Eagle Pond Farm, near Wilmot, New Hampshire. Although they lived in the 1803 farmhouse through the coldest winter in one hundred years with no heat other than a wood stove, no insulation, and no storm windows, the couple fell in love with rural life and decided to make the farm their permanent residence. Hall quit his job at the university, hoping to make a living through free-lance writing. With one child in college and one headed there in two years, it was a risky decision to give up an annual income, medical insurance, and retirement pension. He took every writing job he could getincluding essays, short stories, poems, book reviews, children’s books, and even a book of riddles.

Although their happiness was tempered by Hall’s two bouts with cancer and Kenyon’s battle with bipolar disorder, the two poets lived an often idyllic life at Eagle Pond Farm for many years. They reveled in small-town life, and both became active in the church. (Hall ended up playing Santa in the Christmas pageant every year and both became deacons.) They doted upon their three cats and their beloved dog Gus, and Kenyon became an avid gardener, forming elaborate plans during the long winters, and planting in the spring. They enjoyed competitive ping pong games, walks with the dog, coffee in bed, reading, and most of all, their writing.

Hall credits much of the success of his marriage to what he calls “the third thing,” something separate from the couple which strongly interests them both. He believed that “Third things are essential to marriages, objects or practices or habits or arts or institutions or games or human beings that provide a site of joint rapture or contentment. Each...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 5)

Kirkus Reviews 73, no. 6 (March 15, 2005): 334.

The New York Times Book Review 155 (November 20, 2005): 20.

Poetry 186, no. 2 (May, 2005): 161-164.

Publishers Weekly 252, no. 10 (March 7, 2005): 57.