The Sunday Poem: Donald Hall

 

 

 

The Coffee Cup


The newspaper, the coffee cup, the dog’s
   impatience for his morning walk:
These fibers braid the ordinary mystery.
   After the marriage of lovers
the children came, and the schoolbus
   that stopped to pick up the children,

and the expected death of the retired
   mailman Anthony “Cat” Middleton
who drove the schoolbus for a whole
   schoolyear, a persistence enduring
forever in the soul of Marilyn
   who was six years old that year.

We dug a hole for him. When his widow
   Florence sold the Cape and moved to town
to live near her daughter, the Mayflower
   van was substantial and unearthly.
Neither lymphoma nor a brown-and-white
   cardigan twenty years old

made an exception, not elbows nor
   Chevrolets nor hills cutting blue
shapes on blue sky, not Maple Street
   nor Main, not a pink-striped canopy
on an ice cream store, not grass.
   It was ordinary that on the day

of Cat’s funeral the schoolbus arrived
   driven by a woman called Mrs. Ek,
freckled and thin, wearing a white
   bandana and overalls, with one
eye blue and the other gray. Everything
   is strange; nothing is strange:

yarn, the moon, gray hair in a bun,
   New Hampshire, putting on socks.

 

 

 

About Donald Hall

Considered one of the major American poets of his generation, Donald Hall’s poetry explores the longing for a more bucolic past and reflects the poet’s abiding reverence for nature. Although Hall gained early success with his first collection, Exiles and Marriages (1955), his more recent poetry is generally regarded as the best of his career. Often compared favorably with such writers as James Dickey, Robert Bly, and James Wright, Hall uses simple, direct language to evoke surrealistic imagery. In addition to his poetry, Hall has built a respected body of prose that includes essays, short fiction, plays, and children’s books. Hall, who lives on the New Hampshire farm he visited in summers as a boy, is also noted for the anthologies he has edited and is a popular teacher, speaker, and reader of his own poems.

Born in 1928, Hall grew up in Hamden, Connecticut. The Hall household was marked by a volatile father and a mother who was “steadier, maybe with more access to depths because there was less continual surface,” as Hall explained in an essay for Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series. “To her I owe my fires, to my father my tears. I owe them both for their reading.” By age twelve, Hall had discovered the poet and short story writer Edgar Allan Poe: “I read Poe and my life changed,” he remarked in CAAS. Another strong influence in Hall’s early years was his maternal great-grandfather’s farm in New Hampshire, where he spent many summers. Decades later, he bought the same farm and settled there as a full-time writer and poet.

At a recent reading in Peterborough, New Hampshire, Donald Hall told us that his new book, "The Back Chamber," would be his last book of poems. He explained that his mind doesn't work as it once did. Prose now comes easier to him than poetry. (Photo by Michelle Aldredge, 2011)

Hall attended Philips Exeter Academy and had his first poem published at age sixteen. He was a participant at the prestigious Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, where he met Robert Frost, that same year. From Exeter, Hall went to Harvard University, attending class alongside Adrienne Rich, Robert Bly, Frank O’Hara, and John Ashbery; he also studied for a year with Archibald MacLeish…

In 1953, Hall also became the poetry editor of the Paris Review, a position he held until 1961. In 1957 he took a position as assistant professor of English at the University of Michigan, where he remained until 1975. While at Michigan, Hall met the young Jane Kenyon. They later married and, when Hall’s grandmother, who owned Eagle Pond Farm, passed away, bought the farm, left teaching, and moved there together. The collections Kicking the Leaves (1978) and The Happy Man (1986) reflect Hall’s happiness at his return to the family farm, a place rich with memories and links to his past. Many of the poems explore and celebrate the continuity between generations. The Happy Man won the Lenore Marshall/Nation Prize. Hall’s next book, The One Day (1988), won the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Donald Hall making me laugh at a reading and book signing sponsored by the Toadstool Bookshop in Peterborough, New Hampshire (Photo by Sheri Fink, 2011)

 

Donald Hall working at his desk in his New Hampshire home near Eagle Pond in 2007 (Photo by Tony Cenicola courtesy The New York Times)

A long poem that meditates on the on-set of old age, The One Day, like much of Hall’s early work, takes shape under formal pressure: composed of 110 stanzas, split over three sections, its final sections are written in blank verse. The critic Frederick Pollack praised the book as possibly “the last masterpiece of American Modernism. Any poet who seeks to surpass this genre should study it; any reader who has lost interest in contemporary poetry should read it.”

Old and New Poems (1990) contains several traditional poems from earlier collections, as well as more innovative verses not previously published. “Baseball,” included in The Museum of Clear Ideas (1993), is the poet’s ode to the great American pastime and is structured around the sequence of a baseball game, with nine stanzas of nine lines each. It remains one of Hall’s best-known poems.

President Obama awards the National Medal of Arts to Donald Hall in 2010 (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images North America)

 

Hall in his home reading beneath art by Marisol and Warhol (Photo by Tony Cenicola courtesy The New York Times)

In 1989, Hall was diagnosed with colon cancer. Though his chances for survival were slim, he eventually went into remission. In 1994, Kenyon was diagnosed with leukemia and died fifteen months later. Kenyon’s death had a profound effect on Hall and he has struggled to document his loss in both his poetry and prose. The poems inWithout: Poems (1998) were written as Kenyon underwent chemotherapy and assembled her final volume, Otherwise: New and Selected Poems (1997). They bluntly address the facts of Kenyon’s death, detailing her physical deterioration and Hall’s own rage and grief.

In The Painted Bed (2002), Hall continues to grieve Kenyon. The New York Times reviewer J.T. Barabese found the book “filled with raw sexual disclosures, rowdy anger and a self-blasting mockery.” The Best Day The Worst Day: Life with Jane Kenyon, a memoir about their marriage, was published in 2005.

Opening with his account of Kenyon’s death, Hall describes their first meeting in 1969 at the University of Michigan. At the time, Kenyon was a student and Hall a professor of literature. The couple, married for twenty-three years, lived and wrote side by side on their farm, pausing from their work to take walks and tend to their garden—the story of their “harmonious life,” as a reviewer for Kirkus Reviews referred to it, is also a history of the treatments his wife had to undergo for leukemia.

During his recent reading, Hall said that he learned more about writing from the artist Henry Moore than anyone else. "Moore taught me that surface is an extension of substance," Hall explained. (Photo by Michelle Aldredge, 2011)

 

A cast iron stove and oil painting of Charles Laughton, the actor, by Alan Lowndes inside of Donald Hall's New Hampshire farmhouse. “I love visual art, second only to poetry,” Hall told the New York Times in a 2007 interview. (Photo by Tony Cenicola courtesy The New York Times)

White Apples and the Taste of Stone: Selected Poems 1946-2006 (2006) was published the same year Hall received his appointment as the 14th U.S. poet laureate. David Hamilton, writing for the Iowa Review, noted that “Hall is a poet of fierce appetite and is fierce as a poet of appetite . . . Hall says what he thinks in these poems.” Hall served as poet laureate for one year.

In addition to his accomplishments as a poet, Hall is respected as an academic who, through writing, teaching, and lecturing, has made significant contributions to the study and craft of writing. As Liam Rector has explained, Hall “has lived deeply within the New England ethos of plain living and high thinking, and he has done so with a sense of humor and eros.”

Hall retold this story about Robert Frost during his reading: "The last time I saw him was in Vermont, within seven or eight months of his death. He visited Ann Arbor that spring and invited me to call on him in the summer. We talked about writing, about literature—though of course mostly he monologued. He was deaf, but even when he was younger he tended to make long speeches. Anyway, after we had been talking for hours, my daughter Philippa, who was three years old, asked him if he had a TV. He looked down at her and smiled and said, You’ve seen me on TV?" (From The Paris Review/Photo by Michelle Aldredge)

His books on the craft of writing include Writing Well—in its ninth edition by 1997—and Death to the Death of Poetry (1994). Hall is also a noted anthologist and helped assemble the influential New Poets of England and America (1957) with Louis Simpson and Robert Pack. He also edited Contemporary American Poetry (1962; revised 1972). Life Work (1993) is Hall’s memoir of the writing life and his tenure at Eagle Pond Farm. His early children’s book, Ox-Cart Man (1979), is one among several works that have established him in the field of children’s literature. A fable on the cyclical nature of life, Ox-Cart Man expresses for readers “the sense that work defines us all, connects us with our world, and we are all rewarded . . . in measure of our effort,” according to Kristi L. Thomas in School Library Journal.

Hall continues to live and work on his New Hampshire farm, a site that serves as both his home and an inspiration for much of his work. In addition to the poet laureate position, Hall has been awarded many honors including two Guggenheim fellowships, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for poetry and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize.

(Above biography courtesy of The Poetry Foundation)

 

Paintings by de Kooning and Warhol hang above the couch in Hall's living room in New Hampshire. (Photo by Tony Cenicola courtesy The New York Times)

 

Hall can see Eagle Pond from the front porch of his farmhouse. His great-grandfather built an addition to the house in 1865. (Photo by Tony Cenicola courtesy The New York Times)

 

In this week’s New Yorker, Donald Hall writes about growing old in the New Hampshire farmhouse where his family has lived since the end of the Civil War. In this special New Yorker Out Loud podcast, Hall talks with Blake Eskin about how his home inspires his writing, why he’s stopped writing poetry, and what it’s like living among so many memories and stories. You can subscribe to The New Yorker‘s podcast here.

 

Listen to The New Yorker Out Loud: Donald Hall Looks Out His Window


 
 

 
 
“The Coffee Cup” from Old and New Poems by Donald Hall Copyright © 1990 by Donald Hall. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

 

By | 2016-11-11T21:53:23+00:00 01.21.12|Events, Greatest Hits, The Sunday Poem, Words|3 Comments

About the Author:

I’ve spent almost 20 years helping thousands of successful artists of all disciplines and working to make the arts more accessible. (One friend likes to call me “the arts enabler.”) From 1999-2012 I worked at The MacDowell Colony, the nation’s oldest artist colony, but I've also done time at an arts magazine, a library, an art museum, and a raptor rehabilitation center. In May of 2012 I left MacDowell to pursue writing, speaking, curating, and creative projects full-time. In 2015 I was named a “Top 100 Artist, Innovator, Creative” by Origin magazine. I've appeared as an arts and culture commentator on New Hampshire Public Radio, and in 2017 I was the recipient of the Wampler Art Professorship at James Madison University. I am the founder of the Gwarlingo Salon series, which connects artists like DJ Spooky with rural audiences in the Monadnock region. In 2017 my collaborator Corwin Levi and I will publish our first book, Mirror Mirrored, which combines Grimms’ fairy tales with vintage illustration remixes and the work of contemporary artists like Kiki Smith, Carrie Mae Weems, and Amy Cutler. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, but have called New Hampshire home since 1999. My studio is located in the historic, mill village of Harrisville. I miss fried okra, the early southern spring, and restaurants that stay open past 9:00 p.m., but rural life agrees with me. In New Hampshire I can see the stars, go kayaking or snowshoeing, watch bald eagles fish in the lake, and focus on my creative work in silence. I no longer have to worry about traffic jams; deer, wild turkeys, and frost heaves are the primary road hazards here. Although I live in the country, I’m fortunate enough to be part of a vibrant arts community that extends beyond this small New England village. The quiet days are punctuated by regular travel and frequent visits to museums, theaters, readings, arts events, lectures, and open studios around the country. (You can read my full CV here.) Thanks for visiting Gwarlingo. I hope you'll be in touch.

3 Comments

  1. John Greenwood January 22, 2012 at 8:25 am

    It’s as though you knew I was stopping by. Another informative post and off I go again! I relax for one minute and you have to introduce me to another amazing individual. I wish I had been this excited about knowledge absorption in 1970.

  2. Suzi Banks Baum January 23, 2012 at 12:09 pm

    Michelle, your posts are feasts. The Sunday Poem is an anthem for me and I thank you for posting it here, with the gorgeous photos of Hall’s inspiring home. Inspiring to him and to me. xoox S

  3. Sue February 20, 2012 at 8:32 pm

    I love Donald Hall’s work and Jane’s. The interview I just heard was great. The poem “Out the Window” .. amazing. I just read “The Best Day the Worst Day”…heartbreaking. The detail is unbelievable.

Comments are closed.