I have Donald Hall on my mind, Donald Hall, the prolific poet and writer inextricably bound to his farm in New Hampshire and the life that grew there, who died on June 24. When someone dies, someone I’ve known if only secondhand, as is the case with most writers I admire, I’m always surprised that I didn’t feel the loss before I read about it. On learning this, I searched through stacks of books to find The Selected Poems of Donald Hall, published in 2015 and given to me by a friend with a note,” This book is from a publishing house Jomar [her husband] cleared out. We salvaged what we could. I thought of you when I came across it.” Beneath it lay a copy of Old and New Poems.
Hall joined a raft of luminaries at Duke Farms in 2004, at the Dodge Poetry Festival held in bucolic Hillsborough, New Jersey. On the day I attended, Christin, my erstwhile colleague and game-for-anything companion, joined me. She had a wicked cold and had to sit in front of the lodge fire for most of the day. Were I a better friend, I would have ignored her protest when I suggested, “Let’s just go home, Christin. You’re sick.” Instead, I took advantage of her thoughtfulness. The rain dripped constantly, the ground turned squishy, as the lot of us poetry lovers traveled from tent to tent, muddy pants bottoms speckled proof of our loyalty.
That day poets’ voices filled my head: Rita Dove and Lucille Clifton, Philip Levine and Yosef Komunyakaa. I heard Billy Collins speak about his current disenchantment with fiction, its tedious plots. Collins, who later reviewed Hall’s selected poems, 1946-2006 Apples and the Taste of Stone for the Washington Post, would say, “Hall has long been placed in the Frostian tradition of the plainspoken rural poet. His reliance on simple, concrete diction and the no-nonsense sequence of the declarative sentence gives his poems steadiness and imbues them with a tone of sincere authority.”
When I’d had my fill, I trudged my way back to the lodge and gently jostled feverish Christin awake, apologetic but enthralled—the poetry, oh, the poetry. On our way to the car, we passed a tent with a long line winding its way inside. “Who are you waiting for?” I couldn’t resist asking someone. “Donald Hall is here. He’s reading again tonight, but he’s signing now.” It’s Donald Hall who wrote that a poetry reading “helps toward understanding…because the poet’s voice and gesture provide entrance to the poetry: a way in, a hand at the elbow…”.
This was Friday, October 1st. What I knew from reading about Hall is that he was a rabid Red Sox fan. He would conduct an interview with Noah Adams on npr in the wake of the Red Sox’s epic triumph that ended the “Curse of the Bambino” on October 20th. He would explain that he’d had to do something to charm the girls after he was cut from the eighth grade baseball team, so he turned to poetry, and Adams would quip,”So you became a poet by default.” This Red Sox Rejoice celebration yet-to-be would drive me to share Hall’s “Fathers Playing Catch with Sons,” the opening essay from Fathers Playing Catch with Sons: Essays on Sport (Mostly Baseball) with my eighth graders as a mentor text, its opening sentence “Like so much else between fathers and sons, playing catch was tender and tense at the same time,” the most enticing invitation ever—baseball player or not.
I looked at Christin, and she at me. You have to love a friend like her—one like me, not so much. “I’ll sit over there,” and she pointed to a cluster of chairs under a makeshift shelter. I didn’t even try to demur; I stood in line. When I finally reached Hall, clutching my copy of Old and New Poems, maybe not his best, but it held “Ox-Cart Man,” a poem-turned-picture-book that I had shared with my eighth graders, I was dumbstruck. For some rock stars, for me writers. Afterward I hugged the newly signed copy to my heart.
In an article for Poetry Magazine, “The Third Thing,” Hall reveals bedrock relationship wisdom, which only now as I wend my way through retirement couplehood, I can fully appreciate:
“Through bouts of ping-pong and Henry James and the church, we kept to one innovation: with rare exceptions, we remained aware of each other’s feelings. It took me half my life, more than half, to discover with Jane’s guidance that two people could live together and remain kind. When one of us felt grumpy we both shut up until it went away. We did not give in to sarcasm.”
He and his wife, poet Jane Kenyon, shared a life and a love—of poetry and of each other—and this inspired much of his work.
Some day soon, when we’ve found our next house, I’ll unwrap the framed poster I have from this Dodge Festival, the one that hung in our house in New Jersey for 13 years and moved with us across the country. I’ll give it a new home. Yes, that one, with Jane Kenyon’s words,
“I am the one whose love
overcomes you, already with you
when you think to call my name…”
and the memory of Donald Hall.