Donald Hall, 87, says he can’t write poems any more. But he can still write essays and articles, and he can still select his favorite poems and assemble them into a collection that illustrates a lifetime of poetry.
The collection is entitled, appropriately enough, The Selected Poems of Donald Hall. The poems are drawn from some 16 collections of poetry Hall has published since 1955. His poetry is what might be called “New England Plain Speak, ” not unlike that of another New Englander, Robert Frost. Hall’s poetry comes from the land, the weather and the people of New England, specifically New Hampshire and Connecticut, a poetry that is often flint-like and always spare.
He’s had a distinguished career. He met Frost at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. According to his biography at The Poetry Foundation, he studied at Harvard, with classmates like Adrienne Rich, Robert Bly, Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery. He received a degree from Oxford. From 1953 to 1961, he was the poetry editor for The Paris Review. He began teaching at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, marrying one of his students, Jane Kenyon. She died from leukemia in 1995, and some of the most moving poems he wrote (several of which are included in this collection) are about Jane, her illness and death, and his grief. In 2006 he was named U.S. Poet Laureate.
His poetry is known for something unusual for poets—it got better as he got older.
His grandparents lived on a farm called Eagle Pond in New Hampshire; when his grandmother died, he bought the farm and has lived there ever since. Jane Kenyon died there. He’s written a collection of essays about the farm, Eagle Pond, and has published a childhood memoir entitled Christmas at Eagle Pond. A considerable portion of his poetry flows from and through that farm in New Hampshire, with its view of Mount Kearsarge.
His poetry is also rooted in emotion and passion. He’s not known as a love poet, but he could be, especially in the poems that relate to Jane Kenyon. This is one:
Late snow fell this early morning of spring.
At dawn I rose from bed, restless, and looked
Out my window, to wonder if there the snow
Fell outside your bedroom, and you watching.
I played my game of solitaire. The cards
Came out the same the third time through the deck.
The game was stuck. I threw the cards together.
And watched the snow that could not do but fall.
Love is like sounds, whose last reverberations
Hang on the leaves of strange trees, on mountains
As distant as the curving of the earth
Where the snow hangs still in the middle of the air.
His poetry uses plain language, yes, but it moves in startling and unexpected ways, like “where the snow hangs still in the middle of the air.”
He may no longer be writing poetry, but what he’s written is sufficient for a life. The Selected Poems of Donald Hall beautifully illustrates that sufficiency.
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
“I require all our incoming poetry students—in the MFA I direct—to buy and read this book.”
—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish