Work That Builds a Sense of Home
A CONVERSATION WITH POET DONALD HALL
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.
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.
Aside from the financial insecurity, the new home must have involved a deeper emotional shift. In your long poem, "The One Day," there's a passage that reads:
The one day recalls us to hills and meadows, to moss, roses, dirt, apples, and the breathing of timothy - away from the yellow chair, from blue smoke and daydream. Leave behind appointments listed on the printout! Leave behind manila envelopes! Leave dark suits behind, boarding passes, and souffles at the chancellor's house!
Tell me about the interior change you must have felt.
Absolutely.... When I lived in Ann Arbor, my sense of time was so different from what it became here.... I was never content in the present that I lived in. Most of the time I remember thinking, "well, in just another year and a half, maybe I can take a year off and go to England," or I can do this and that. You know, there are so many people who live for retirement. "Five years from now ... , then I can retire and go where I want." One of the most important things of my life was the early death of my fa ther who had worked at a job that he did not love, and who planned to retire - and then died at 55. This is a common American story, probably a common human story, but I was determined it should not happen to me. When I lived here less than a year, I realized suddenly that I was living in the present for the first time of my life.... That I got up in the morning and I sniffed the wind and I saw where the sun was and I looked at things and I got to work - and I lived in that moment. And if I looked forward, it was looking forward to waking up to the next day. It wasn't looking forward to some trip I was going to make six months from now or some career change 10 years from now. I was where I wanted to be. This was an extraordinary change. ... It led to the biggest inward change. It was that sense of time. And of course, that's another way of speaking of happiness. Curiously, or frustratingly, the greatest happiness is not to know you are happy, is not to know what time it is, is to be lost in the hour....
Reading your memoir about your summers at Eagle Pond as a boy, it struck me that you had almost a Confucian regard for age and for the wisdom that is passed on through generations. It's remarkable in someone so young. Where do you think that feeling came from?
I was the only grandchild of two sets of grandparents.... In New Hampshire, the old people were the ones who were so attractive. The young people I met up there, the middle-aged people, were pretty quiet, rather dour. The old people were the wonderful storytellers and the repositories of so much that fascinated me.... When I was away from those old people, I dreamed up questions to ask them to prompt new stories. My grandfather was at the center of it, probably at the center of my life - my New Hampshire grandfather, the old farmer Wesley Wells. He was a great storyteller as well as a reciter of poems.... Most of the stories he told were just reminiscence, anecdote. And he told them with a wonderful sense of narrative, a wonderful sense of shapeliness. And he loved language - not like poetic language, but the good come-back, the witty turn of phrase. ... He just loved it that he had someone who was a good audience for his stories. ... So there was a kind of pattern in me of love for old people which I thin k has gone through the rest of my life.
So much of your writing is about "home-making in both the literal sense of "one's daily labors" and in the mythical dimension of human culture. Robert Frost certainly had his say about the idea of "home" in his New Hampshire poems. How does it shape your work and language?
Home is a comfort. Home is where you want to stay, where you can imagine yourself living in the ... present moment, just continuously canceling out time. When I was away from here, when I was in bad times, I had an image in my head [of "home"], a physical image, the topographical landscape of this place with all the associations of family, of history.... It invited me and comforted me.... I think I have "home" in a sense more than most people are able to - and maybe sometimes I am shy of speaking about i t. There was an old cartoon when Goldwater was running for the presidency in which Herblock had Goldwater saying to a beggar woman, "Why don't you go inherit a department store." I feel that way about my connectedness here. I have this, and I can't tell other people, "why don't you go have it." I'm just the lucky one....
Yes, but in reading the poems, isn't a reader pressed to look at his own home in a different way, maybe with a more attentive eye?
Yes, that's what I would hope. And I can try to make models of fitting into where you are, and leave it there for people in the future to take a look: This is how it was possible to live.
In all your books since "Kicking the Leaves," the landscape is treated as a presence that speaks of the tension between "home" and "time." The large cycles of time enrich the moments of our lives even as they're carrying the experiences away from us. The poem "Great Day in the Cows' House" is a perfect example where the sense of celebration and loss are inextricably coupled.
In that poem, I talk about the experience of canceling out time. That turns up in poem after poem. Part of that notion I took from the mystic and theologian Meister Eckhart who had the phrase, "God cancels the successiveness of men." Now the "Great Day," which is my own symbol of this ... cancels the successiveness of creatures, because I wanted to include not just men and women, but also Holsteins as well, and trees - so that the trees of the tie up are both ancient timbers and saplings that are still d amp. And I feel that, at moments, I can feel the coexistence, the copresence of everything, and I desire this sensation.
So in the same way you preserve the artifacts of past generations in this house, in your writing you try to conserve the links with history in order that we may envision a new life. There's a line in one of your essays that speaks of "the past hovering in dusty present like motes, a future implicit in shadowy ranks of used things, usable again." A cycle of endless regeneration and renewal. And through all your books, there is one force that continually binds us to this cycle - work! Work is the redemptive power - whether it's the days of haying with your grandfather or the early mornings at your writing desk. And in the poem, "Ox Cart Man," the whole of the man's existence is seen as the seasonal cycle of labor.
Work, work, work! ... And the exhaustion of everything he does. And you know, when I first published that poem or read it aloud, I was just astonished to hear many people say, "Ohhh, how sad! He does all the work and then he's gotta do it over again." Well, I never had that idea. It is not a misreading of the poem, of course.... It's a response to the poem. But I never thought of it.
It's a measure of where the readers stand in relation to their own work, the cycles of their lives.
I thought of that sort of total dispersement of everything. Everything that you have done goes out, gets changed into something else. Then you come back and start all over again, and that always exhilarated me. I can say that every day is like that year, that cycle of years, from the getting up in the morning all excited to get to work, till you're going to bed at night sleepy, in order to get up again, get going.
So you aren't one of those writers who will complain about the pain and the anxiety of writing. In the early mornings, when you wake to another day's work, the feeling for you is...?
It's bliss. I don't apologize. It's bliss. I get frustrated at my inabilities, like anybody .... I get stuck and don't know what to do next. But let me not exaggerate that. That is simply part of the context. It's part of the work.
And that pleasure comes across in the reading of the poems as well, along with a challenge: to look around at your own day and your own labor and see whether you are fed by the experience.
Indeed. I can't tell people to go and have grandparents like mine, go and have a farmhouse to move into like me.... But I can say: Find what you love, and do it. I'm happy to say that.