Donald Hall: an advocate for the understanding of poetry

The US poet laureate's desire to help others understand poetry motivates him to speak around the country.

When Donald Hall, poet laureate of the United States, tells audiences that poetry is not an unpopular art form, people listen intently.

Some do so because of his title and impressive dossier, which includes two Guggenheim fellowships, the National Book Critics Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and 15 published volumes of verse. Others, however, listen because they understand that resurgence is a theme for Hall, both in his poetry and his life.

"A book of poems by a well-known poet used to get a print run of 1,000 copies, and you'd be lucky if you sold out," says Mr. Hall. "Now more publishers are printing 8,000 to 10,000 copies for a first edition." He also notes that many literary magazines are being published, and when you add their modest circulations together, the result is a large readership.

Hall believes this upward trend has been fueled by readings – at colleges, literary festivals, and other venues – which have become increasingly popular since the 1950s. "The poetry reading used to be a rare event," he explains. "Even famous poets such as Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams were rarely asked to read their poems." But hearing a poem read aloud "can be like reading it many times. You have a helping hand to get you into the poem. You have an actual body, an actual voice, and a series of gestures."

The voice many hear in Hall's poetry is almost Frost-like with its concrete diction and unadorned language. It's a voice that is familiar with loss and the cycles of the natural world, a voice that is both engaging and authoritative.

Some of that authority may come from the fact that Hall, like Frost, has been shaped by the New Hampshire landscape. He has lived on his family's farm in Danbury, N.H., since he left a teaching position at the University of Michigan in 1975 to focus on his writing. For 23 years he and Jane Kenyon, his late wife, built a life together on that acreage.

Today, when Hall travels as poet laureate, people often tell him they've been touched by his poetry, especially his book "Without," which recounts Kenyon's illness and passing and his struggle with the loss.

"I felt great relief in writing [that book]; it was all I could do at the time. I worked on those poems for two hours every morning for a year. I'd sit down at the desk with a heavy heart, a heart heavy with grief, and my heart would lighten as I wrote. And I knew if I could do it right, the poems would help others as well."

His desire to help others understand poetry is what motivates Hall, at 78, to speak to various groups around the country and give dozens of interviews to journalists. (Laureates aren't required to do either.)

Hall will also give three joint readings with Andrew Motion, Britain's poet laureate; the first will take place in Chicago on May 7, the second in Washington, D.C., three days later, and the last in London on June 6.

That idea delights Hall's fans, who love to hear him read and to have the opportunity to ask him about his life and work. One question Hall hears over and again from both journalists and readers is: How did you start writing?

The answer might offer reassurance to parents who worry that their children's interests are not sufficiently refined. "When I was 12, I had a fondness for horror movies like the Wolfman. The boy next door said I should read Poe," Hall recalls. "I had never heard of him, but my parents had a collection of his and I thought 'this is the best stuff I've ever read,' and I set out to write poems of pure morbidity."

Hall's morbid phase quickly passed, however, and he moved on to the work of Keats and Shelley. When he was 14, he found modern poetry.

"We were living in Connecticut at the time, and Wallace Stevens was doing some of his best work up in Hartford," he says. "I also learned about Pound, and after school I would work on poems and revise them."

Many poets don't start rewriting at such a young age, but Hall's early practice of rewriting has become a signature feature of his work. "I don't publish anything I haven't worked over 100 times," he says. "There's a great deal of stripping away; in early drafts I may say the same thing two or three times, and each may be appropriate, but I try to pick the best and improve it. I work on sound a great deal and I will change a word or two, revise punctuation and line breaks, looking for the sound I want."

Revision applies to his life as well, as does moving forward despite difficult times.

"I've had my ups and downs," says Hall. "I published my first book at 27, but it wasn't a very good book; my reputation sank considerably and I had to live it down later. But I kept going and then when I was pushing 50 I wrote "Kicking the Leaves," and that started to turn the tide again."

Yet while the vicissitudes of life may change, Hall's love of poetry has remained a constant. So has the solace he finds at home, which is equipped with a fax machine but not an Internet connection.

"I'm sitting in the blue armchair in my living room," he says, "where I tend to do more reading than writing these days." He is accompanied by a cat named Louise, whose sister Thelma died last year.

When asked what advice he would give to poets, he says, "Poetry is the thing. Go back and read the old poets. Renew your own love of the art of poetry; keep working."

His advice to novice readers is equally succinct: "The two important things about poetry are sound and the way metaphor holds things together. I used to be a teacher years ago, and I would begin by reading a poem aloud and then I'd talk about the structure of the poem. Try to see it as a whole and as a unit of sound."

Elizabeth Lund regularly reviews poetry for the Monitor.

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From "Kicking the Leaves" by Donald Hall

This year the poems came back, when the leaves fell.
Kicking the leaves, I heard the leaves tell stories,
remembering, and therefore looking ahead, and building
the house of dying. I looked up into the maples
and found them, the vowels of bright desire.
I thought they had gone forever
while the bird sang I love you, I love you
and shook its black head
from side to side, and its red eye with no lid,
through years of winter, cold
as the taste of chicken wire, the music of cinder block.

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