Poet Donald Hall Reflects on Love, Death and New Hampshire

'The Back Chamber' by Donald Hall“Love, death and New Hampshire,” Donald Hall once said when asked what he writes about. It remains true in the former U.S. Poet Laureate’s newly published book of poems, “The Back Chamber.”

At 83, Hall is one of the nation’s most renowned writers. Sitting in his favorite old chair in his house on Eagle Pond, N.H. that used to belong to his grandparents, Hall chronicles the landscape, explores the evolution of loss and the erotic details of love.

“I wrote from grief and lamentation, but I also wrote about the pleasure of our erotic life,” Hall said while talking about his late wife, the poet, Jane Kenyon, who died sixteen years ago.

“For about five years I wrote about her entirely,” he said. “She is still in this house: her handwriting is around; her photographs are around; I think of her, I suppose, every day, but she is distant and there is room for other things in this house and in this world.”

Art Beat talked to Donald Hall by phone at his home in New Hampshire:

That arc is captured in the poem “Love’s Progress,” from the latest collection:

When love empties itself out,
it fills our bodies full.
For an hour we lie twining
pulse and skin together
like nurslings who sigh
and doze, dreamy with milk.

The lingering presence and memory of Jane is also present in the new collection. In the poem “Searching,” the dog Gus “…sniffs at her armchair/ and listens for her talking,” forgetting that she has died.

We visited Donald Hall at his home five years ago for an interview with the NewsHour when he was named U.S. Poet Laureate. During that visit, he recounted a ritual Jane and he shared to break away from their separate writing for time together in the middle of the day. He told me about it again in our recent phone conversation: “We wrote in the morning and I wrote in the late afternoon, too, but in between we had a quiet period together where sometimes we would play ping pong. We would not keep score because Jane hated to lose and I was better than her at ping pong and that was sort of a metaphor of our life together.”