Donald Hall Biography

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(Poets and Poetry in America)

Donald Andre Hall, Jr., was born on September 20, 1928, in New Haven, Connecticut, the only child of Donald Andrew Hall and Lucy (Wells) Hall. Hall’s father ran a successful dairy business. Hall’s early years were divided between the contrasting worlds of middle-class suburbia and a pastoral, sensory-laden life on his grandparents’ farm in Danbury, New Hampshire. The Eagle Pond farm has remained in the Hall family for generations, and Hall made it his home, fulfilling a childhood dream to return. Hall has said that his whole intellectual and emotional life evolved from these conflicting cultures: the materialism and normalcy of his parents’ world and the closeness to nature and the land of his grandparents’ farm.

Spending time with his grandfather and doing farm chores as a boy gave Hall time to reflect. At the age of fourteen, he began to write poetry and yearn for a writing career. He also entertained ideas of a career as a great athlete or actor; his later adventures “trying out” for the Pittsburgh Pirates and giving many dramatic poetry readings show that, for Hall, these notions were not mere fantasies.

Hall entered Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, not for social reasons but because his parents thought highly of the school’s academics. He went on to Harvard University, because he believed that institution produced the best teachers. While an undergraduate, Hall dated Adrienne Rich, became friends with Robert Bly and Richard Wilbur, and was one of the founders of the Poet’s Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He won the Garrison and Sergeant prizes and was graduated with a B.A. from Harvard in 1951. On September 13, 1952, he was married to Kirby Thompson, a marriage that produced a son, Andrew, and a daughter Philippa, before it ended in divorce in 1969.

The first major milestone of Hall’s academic life saw him going to the University of Oxford in England as a Henry Fellow; there he also won recognition for his first important book, Exiles and Marriages. Hall earned his B.Litt. in 1953, then attended Stanford University in 1953-1954 as a creative writing fellow. Returning to Harvard from 1954 to 1957, Hall served as a junior fellow in the Society of Fellows.

Hall suffered two personal tragedies at the same time that his academic and writing careers began to flourish. His grandfather Wesley Wells died in 1953, and his father died in 1955 at the age of fifty-two. Both deaths made an enormous impact on Hall’s imagination; he wrote elegies in honor of both men and has continued to reflect on the convention of remembering the dead.

Hall served as a broadcaster on several British Broadcasting Corporation television programs featuring poetry, recorded several albums of poetry, including that of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and John Greenleaf Whittier, and received increasing praise for his own verse.

Hall was the Paris Review’s first poetry editor from 1953 to 1961. From 1957 to 1975, Hall served on the faculty of the University of Michigan, rising in the ranks from an assistant to a full tenured professor. Guggenheim Fellowships in 1963-1964 and 1972-1973 allowed him to live and write in England, where he first discovered a love for Walt Whitman’s poetry. At Michigan, Hall taught creative writing and literature courses, including an intriguing course on literary modernism featuring James Joyce, William Butler Yeats, and Edwin Muir. Some students considered Muir incompatible with the other two writers, but Hall managed to sway opinions through his ferocious energy, charm, wit, and performing skill as a teacher. Hall continued to write prose criticism and essays while in Ann Arbor, publishing String Too Short to Be Saved (1961), Henry Moore (1966), Writing Well (1973), and Dock Ellis in the Country of Baseball (1976, with Ellis).

On April 17, 1972, Hall was married to the poet Jane Kenyon, whom he met when she was a student at the University of Michigan. After Hall’s grandmother died, Kenyon convinced Hall to...

(The entire section is 1,640 words.)