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Work That Builds a Sense of Home


By Steven Ratiner / November 6, 1991

DONALD HALL greeted me at the screen door, his dog Gussy cautiously inspecting the visitor. Like a boy enthusiastically sharing his box of treasures, he guided me through the rooms of Eagle Pond Farm, showing off the artifacts of his family's long generations in this countryside. Wicker prams, bed quilts patched from still-older dresses, a box of carded wool from his great-grandfather's first season of shearing. There is the shelf of photographs featuring the grandparents he so lovingly immortalized in books like "String Too Short to be Saved" and the new "Here at Eagle Pond." In stories, plays, essays, memoirs, children's books, and over a dozen volumes of poetry, this award-winning writer has excavated and explored the very idea of what it means to be of a family and to feel at home. Hall's own recent history makes such a compelling myth, it's easy to understand why book reviewers so frequently offer it as pure fact: Donald Hall, poet, professor, gives up tenure at a major university to return to the familial farmhouse; inspired by this homecoming, he is transformed as a poet and begins to write masterfully about family history and bucolic New Hampshire. This is closer to the truth: For a well-educated suburban boy from Connecticut, the summers spent working with his grandfather in the fields and hills around Eagle Pond helped give birth to a second self. Poetry and the life of the spirit were cultivated in this green territory. And for decades he has labored determinedly to explore that emotional landscape, to preserve the people and memories he - even at a distance - called home. In 1975, exchanging the staid security of academia for the invigorating r iskiness of the freelance writer, Hall and his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, transplanted their daily existence to the terrain he'd been homing in on for decades. It has been a bargain they have never regretted. Today Donald Hall writes in the room he once slept in as a boy. The physical presence of Eagle Pond has only magnified and accelerated the ripening of his talent. Reading through the recent "Old and New Poems," it is clear that his gift involves more than colorful family roots and glimpses of a vanishing rural culture. It is a musicality of language wedded to an uncompromising vision of how an individual explores, savors, and passes on the sense of being home. Within his poems, we begin to discover where we too are lovingly tied to the people, places, and tasks of our lives.

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Steven Ratiner: Were you fearful when you decided to move to rural New Hampshire - away from academia, far from the literary scene?

Donald Hall: I had very good students at the University of Michigan.... But I didn't really like the way we all lived together at the university. I grew up in the suburbs, and the university town is like the suburbs.... People of the same economic class lived near each other and they drove the same cars. I went to school with kids who tended to be like each other.... This place was an alternative - my mother's peoples' place, my grandparents' place. I came up here where there was such a diversity. And I was met at the depot by an old man driving a horse and buggy. What could be more different? I knew when I came here from Ann Arbor, I wasn't going to be driving a horse and buggy, but I had the sensation that I was coming to a different culture, one that resembled the old one. The things had changed less than I expected and I really admired it. I was frightened of making a living, quitting tenure, quitting regular income for the rest of my life. But I, with the support of my wife, ... had the courage to do it, and it has worked out very well.... Writing about this place has been a sort of center for me ... a platform for me from which to view the rest of the world. Remember the poem by Yeats, "Lapis Lazuli," in which he looks at a piece of sculpture in which three Chinamen climb away from the world and look back down on it.... It's a way, not to separate themselves from the world, but to gain enough distance on it to see it clearly and to comment about it. It's a place of vantage point. And I think that, in terms of my writing, this landscape, t hese people, this place has been a vantage point from which to look at the place itself and at the rest of the world that I have known.