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.
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.
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.
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.”