The slim, satisfying volume LIFE WORK, by poet and essayist Donald Hall, is an extended meditation about the nature of work. The book was written over a period of three months in 1992, during which time Hall was working on various projects; Hall’s approach to his task was to make entries on a more or less daily basis. For this reason, the book at times has the feel of a diary, but LIFE WORK is difficult to categorize.
Part of the charm of LIFE WORK is that Hall effectively communicates his own love of work. In 1975, Hall moved with his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, to Eagle Pond Farm in Danbury, Connecticut, which is the setting of LIFE WORK as well as of his SEASONS AT EAGLE POND. His move was perhaps primarily a retreat from the distractions of the world into his own work, which he loves so much that he does not consider it work at all. Indeed, LIFE WORK begins with the following statement: “I have never worked a day in my life.” The fact is, however, that Hall gets up at 4:30 a.m. and has at least four hours of writing under his belt by 10:30 a.m. Hall spends much time contrasting his own work with the physical labor of his parents, grandparents, and great grandparents, and much of the book’s appeal derives from the descriptions of the lifestyles of Hall’s forebears.
Hall is a gifted stylist who is capable of delighting the reader—at one point he refers to the flowers in his wife’s garden as “peonies whiter than the idea of white”—which makes his occasional awkward phrase or peculiarly punctuated passage particularly jarring. Much of the book is superb, but some sections seem to have been rushed. The second of the book’s two sections, which was written after Hall learned that he had liver cancer, has a focus and an urgency that the first section, for all its flashes of brilliance, lacks. The weaknesses of the book are, however, minor; they are more than adequately counterbalanced by its strengths.
At times, Hall discusses the work habits and views of well-known artists, and one of the best sections deals with the working style of the sculptor Henry Moore. At one point, Hall asks Moore, “What is the secret of life?” Moore’s response is marvelous: “The secret of life is to have a task, something you devote your entire life to, something you bring everything to, every minute of the day for your whole life. And the most important thing is—it must be something you cannot possibly do!”