Donald Hall: poet, farmer, indefatigable observer of life

Charles Dharapak/AP/File
Barack Obama and Donald Hall enjoy a conversation in 2011.

The passing of Donald Hall, who died Saturday at 89, gained attention across the country because of his poetry – no great surprise since Hall had served as US poet laureate from 2006 to 2007.

But it was prose that sustained Hall through most of his career, and he was a master of that genre, too.

Because poetry generally doesn’t sell well, most professional poets support themselves as university professors. Hall had a nice teaching job at the University of Michigan, but he quit decades ago to move back to his family’s ancestral farm in New Hampshire with his wife, fellow poet Jane Kenyon. He continued crafting poems, but writing articles and essays for magazines and newspapers paid the bills.

“I claim it as an honor that in 1975 I gave up lifetime tenure, medical expenses, and a pension in exchange for forty joyous years of freelance writing,” Hall told readers of his 2014 prose collection, “Essays After Eighty.”  

Throughout most of his career, national magazines paid freelancers well, which made Hall’s decision to leave teaching possible, if risky. “I could not do it now,” he conceded near the close of his life. “Only the New Yorker remains among magazines that pay enough to notice.”

Hall’s other big asset was his work ethic. He called Eagle Pond, his New Hampshire home, “The Letter Farm,” a place where he grew words with the same regularity that his ancestors once grew food. True to his agrarian roots, Hall embraced work as a routine, sticking to a strict schedule as he hammered away. “Back then, I wrote all day,” he recalled of those freelance days in his final book, “A Carnival of Losses,” due out next month.

Like any successful freelancer, Hall understood that it helps to embrace variety in landing assignments. He called his 1995 collection of prose pieces “Principal Products of Portugal,” a reference to the hodge-podge lists that grade school students were sometimes forced to memorize. A freelancer’s work was much like that, Hall observed – a bit of this and that, adding up, one hoped, to a successful living, a meaningful life. His topics included baseball and grandfatherhood, poetry and gardening, the ravages of age, and the delights of summer. 

The routine of writing kept Hall going after Kenyon passed away in 1995. He wrote about that loss a lot, the sameness of the subject underscoring a grief he never seemed to conquer. But in revisiting his relationship with Kenyon, Hall was also indulging another principle of the resourceful freelancer – selling the same story to different audiences.

That technique touches “Carnival of Losses,” which is essentially a recapitulation of the themes informing Hall’s previous prose and poetry: the life of the farm, his New England ancestry, the turning of seasons, the great love of his life.

What stands out most about Hall was his indefatigability, his insistence on putting words to paper, even as his health seemed to fail and his world to narrow. In 2012, essentially confined to his living room chair, Hall penned a beautifully observed essay for The New Yorker about what he could see from his window. It was a wonderful revelation of what the world reveals when one is brought, by either inspiration or necessity, to take the time to look.

“In a paragraph or two, my prose embodies a momentary victory over fatigue,” Hall wrote in “Carnival of Losses.” “As I write toward my nineties I shed my skin. I tell short anecdotes, I hazard an opinion, speculate, assume, and remember. Why should the nonagenarian hold anything back?”

If America had a prose laureate, Hall could have worn the crown with distinction.  

Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Advocate newspaper in Louisiana, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.”

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