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Poet Laureate Donald Hall Reflects on Age and Nature

October 16, 2006 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, the new poet laureate of the United States. Jeffrey Brown talked with him recently at his home in Wilmot, New Hampshire.

JEFFREY BROWN: Even a first visit to Donald Hall’s New Hampshire home can have a familiar feel if you’ve read his poetry. His subjects are all around: outside, Mount Kearsarge, lording over the horizon; Eagle Pond, just across the way and through the woods; the gardens surrounding the house, also inspiration for his writing; inside, the painted bed which Hall shared with his poet wife, Jane Kenyon, for 20 years. When she died here, he turned to poetry.

This is Hall’s ancestral home. His family has owned it since the 1800s, and he spent the summers here as a boy, working the farm with his grandfather, while the older man recited “Casey at the Bat” and other poems. Hall returned here to live full-time some 30 years ago, giving up his tenured position at the University of Michigan.

And over time, he’s established himself as one of the nation’s leading men of letters, a prolific poet, essayist, author of children’s books and textbooks. Now 78, the new poet laureate is a man devoted to words and to a particular place.

The inspiration of home

DONALD HALL, U.S. Poet Laureate: I'm incredibly lucky. I fell in love with this place when I was 8 or 10, and loved it, and loved the people in it, and loved the culture around it, loved the hills and valleys, loved the old houses, like this one, white cobber with green shutters. And I lived through the school year looking forward to coming here and doing what I could do here, but absorbing the life here, the life lived.

JEFFREY BROWN: What did it do for your poetry to come back and live here?

DONALD HALL: That was amazing. When I came back, I decided I'd been writing about New Hampshire from a distance so much. Now that I was back in New Hampshire, I wouldn't write about it any more.

Quite the reverse: I went through everything. I wrote about all the old farm animals. I wrote about the hills. Everything about it stimulated me, and I had perhaps the most prolific year of my life when I first came back.

JEFFREY BROWN: There's a poem called "Mount Kearsarge."

DONALD HALL: "Mount Kearsarge."

Great blue mountain, ghosts. I look at you from the porch of the farmhouse where I watched you all summer as a boy. Steep sides, narrow flat patch on top. You are clear to me, like the memory of one day. Blue, blue, the top of the mountain floats in haze. I will not rock on this porch when I am old. I turn my back on you, Kearsarge. I close my eyes, and you rise inside me, blue ghost.

JEFFREY BROWN: "I will not rock on the porch. I turn my back on you." You were wrong.

DONALD HALL: I was wrong. It's wonderful to read it knowing how wrong I was. It's still inside me, as well as outside me.

JEFFREY BROWN: The stuff of your poetry is all around us here. Is that how you see the poetry? Is it about the dailyness, the stuff of your life, the experience of your life?

DONALD HALL: Well, a great deal of it is. And my poetry has become more personal or more naked, even, as I've gotten older.

JEFFREY BROWN: Really? Why do you think?

DONALD HALL: Less fear, perhaps, less fear of being exposed.

JEFFREY BROWN: Less fear of exposing your own life to the world?

DONALD HALL: Yes, right.

JEFFREY BROWN: Did you feel a need to do that?

DONALD HALL: I felt the need to be more open and expressive of my feelings, not just about the hills and the countryside, but about the daily life. When my wife, Jane, died, I wrote openly and at great length about that.

Dealing with the death of his wife

JEFFREY BROWN: Jane Kenyon was Hall's student at Michigan. After they married and moved here, they set up a working life together, both writing and gaining substantial followings.

Bill Moyers profiled the couple in a 1993 PBS documentary: Hall with pencil and pad downstairs in his study; Kenyan at her typewriter upstairs. But just a year later, she was diagnosed with leukemia and died at age 47.

Hall wrote about it all in detail in what many now consider his most powerful poems. He read to us from one called "The Ship Pounding."

DONALD HALL: Week after week, I sat by her bed with black coffee and the Globe. The passengers on this voyage wore masks or cannulae or dangled devices that dripped chemicals into their wrists.

I believed that the ship traveled to a harbor of breakfast, work, and love. I wrote: "When the infusions are infused entirely, bone marrow restored and lymphoblasts remitted, I will take my wife, bald as Michael Jordan, back to our dog and day."

JEFFREY BROWN: These poems are so raw -- "My wife, bald as Michael Jordan" -- was that hard to do, or was that helpful?

DONALD HALL: It was helpful in any extreme. And writing her letters after her death gave me the only sort of happiness of the day. I felt in communication with her somehow, not supernaturally, but poetically.

JEFFREY BROWN: Did you have to somehow decide that you were going to address her illness and then death through poetry or...

DONALD HALL: It just happened. It just happened, absolutely. Poetry is what I've done my whole life. And every important thing in my life had found itself into poems. But when she was sick, dying of leukemia, what else could I write about?

And I did write about it with joy, despite the misery that the poems contain and express.

JANE KENYON, Late Wife of Donald Hall: ... the boat stops in hard...

JEFFREY BROWN: It's clear, even through all of that pain, that this was a very happy marriage.

DONALD HALL: It was a very happy marriage, extraordinary. We were doing the same things we wanted to do. Every now and then, she would bring me some new ones. I would show her some new ones. We didn't come running to each other when we had a poem; we worked on them for a while separately. And then we would help each other out, and we were a team.

Poetry and public life

JEFFREY BROWN: Hall has just come out with a new book of poems spanning six decades. And now he's taking on a new public role as poet laureate. He says he's still developing ideas, including for radio and television, to promote poetry in American life.

A lot of people despair over the place of poetry in our society, and I know that you're something of an optimist.

DONALD HALL: I certainly am. In my life, I've seen enormous increase in the consumption of poetry. When I was young, there were virtually no poetry readings. Now you can't walk down the block without hitting a poetry reading somewhere. Poetry is simply more popular. It's still not as popular as dog racing; I understand that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Dog racing, huh?

DONALD HALL: Dog racing or a number of other things, but it has become infinitely more popular and has a much larger audience.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what do you think it offers the culture?

DONALD HALL: Poetry offers works of art that are beautiful, like paintings, which are my second favorite work of the art, but there are also works of art that embody emotion and that are kind of school for feeling. They teach how to feel, and they do this by the means of their beauty of language.

'Saying the unsayable'

JEFFREY BROWN: There's an essay of yours that I read in which you refer to it as "saying the unsayable."

DONALD HALL: Saying the unsayable, that is the trick.

"Affirmation."

To grow old is to lose everything. Aging, everybody knows it. Even when we are young, we glimpse it sometimes, and nod our heads when a grandfather dies. Then we row for years on the midsummer pond, ignorant and content. But a marriage, that began without harm, scatters into debris on the shore, and a friend from school drops cold on a rocky strand.

If a new love carries us past middle age, our wife will die at her strongest and most beautiful. New women come and go. All go.

The pretty lover who announces that she is temporary is temporary. The bold woman, middle-aged against our old age, sinks under an anxiety she cannot withstand. Another friend of decades estranges himself in words that pollute thirty years.

Let us stifle under mud at the pond's edge and affirm that it is fitting

and delicious to lose everything.

JIM LEHRER: You can read Donald Hall's poems and learn more about him and our poetry project by going to our Web site at PBS.org.