Obituaries

obituary

Donald Hall, former US poet laureate and bard of New Hampshire’s Eagle Pond, dies at 89

Mr. Hall was photographed at his home in Wilmot, N.H., in 2013. The home belonged to his great-grandparents and was built in 1803.
Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe/File
Mr. Hall was photographed at his home in Wilmot, N.H., in 2013. The home belonged to his great-grandparents and was built in 1803.

Some poets come to their art in youth, but few as early as Donald Hall. He made up his mind to be a poet when he was 14, began to write poems several hours a day, and never wavered from his calling in a long, prolific life. Upon being appointed poet laureate of the United States in 2006, Mr. Hall explained simply his view of the value of poetry: “It is beautiful,” he said, adding that “there is no other purpose than the beauty of it. And that is reason enough to be.”

Mr. Hall died Saturday night. His death was announced by Wendy Strothman, Mr. Hall’s literary executor. He was 89 and had lived much of his life at the old farm called Eagle Pond, his family’s ancestral homestead, in Wilmot, N.H.

The author of more than 40 books, about half of which were poetry, Mr. Hall published his final collection of verse, “The Selected Poems of Donald Hall,” in 2015. His prose collection “Essays After Eighty” appeared in 2014, and “A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety,” is scheduled to be published this summer.

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He also wrote and edited anthologies, essay collections, biographies, memoirs, plays, children’s books, and a celebrated text for writers, “Writing Well.” Though he first gained fame outside the poetry world with the one-year laureateship, his reputation within it had long been secure. Over a 74-year career, he was witness to and practitioner of varied poetic styles. Yet his voice was at its most natural when he wrote of the ways, sorrows, and ghosts of rural New Hampshire.

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Along with his tenure as US poet laureate, he was the winner of numerous honors and prizes in poetry, and was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Among his awards was a 2010 National Medal of Arts. At ceremonies held in the White House, President Barack Obama said Mr. Hall’s work had “inspired Americans and enhanced the role of poetry in our national life.”

“One does write, indeed, to be loved,” Mr. Hall told the Globe in 1985. “Fame is another word for love, an impersonal word for love. One wants people 200 years from now to love your poetry. The great pleasure of being a writer is in the act of writing, and surely there is some pleasure in being published and being praised. I don’t mean to be complacent about what I have some of. But the greater pleasure is in the act. When you lose yourself in your work, and you feel at one with it, it is like love.”

Donald Andrew Hall, an only child, grew up in Hamden, Conn., and spent childhood summers at Eagle Pond, his maternal grandparents’ farm, where he absorbed family stories and poems that his grandfather would recite while milking cows. At Hamden High School, he began to write and send poems to national magazines, such as The New Yorker and The Nation. He transferred to Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire in 1944, and the following summer, at age 16, he attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference at Middlebury College, where he met Robert Frost and tasted an atmosphere that took his ambitions seriously.

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At Harvard College, Mr. Hall’s classmates included such later-famous poets as Robert Bly, Kenneth Koch, Adrienne Rich, Frank O’Hara, and John Ashbery, and his honors thesis was on the stylistic development of Irish poet W.B. Yeats. He studied with John Ciardi and F.O. Matthiessen. After graduating in 1951, he received a fellowship to Oxford University, where he became president of the Oxford Poetry Society and won the Newdigate Prize for poetry. In 1955, back at Harvard as a junior fellow, he published his first, highly autobiographical, collection of poems, “Exiles and Marriages,” which was named the Lamont Poetry Selection of the American Academy of Poets. Later collections included “The Dark Houses,” “A Roof of Tiger Lilies” — marked by experiments with surrealism — “The Alligator Bride,” “The Yellow Room,” “The Town of Hill,” and “A Blue Wing Tilts at the Edge of the Sea.”

As poetry editor for the Paris Review between 1953 and 1962, Mr. Hall conducted interviews with a stellar series of poets, including Dylan Thomas, T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, Yvor Winters, and Ezra Pound. Essays about these poets and his contacts with them were published in 1978 in “Remembering Poets: Reminiscences and Opinions,” revised and expanded in 1992 as “Their Ancient Glittering Eyes.” In addition to poems, he published biographies of sculptor Henry Moore and famed Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis. His children’s books included “Andrew the Lion Farmer,” “Riddle Rat,” and “Ox-Cart Man.” He wrote about his childhood in essay collections, “Life Work” and “Fathers Playing Catch with Sons.”

In 1957, he joined the English faculty of the University of Michigan. He was first married to Kirby Thompson, with whom he had two children. Their marriage ended in divorce in 1969, and in 1972 he married Jane Kenyon, a poet and translator, and a former student who was 19 years his junior. He gave up his tenured position at Michigan in 1975, and he and Kenyon moved to the house at Eagle Pond, which his great-grandfather had begun farming in 1865, and which Mr. Hall had acquired at the death of his grandmother. There, he wrote in 2008, “Jane and I . . . entered and revivified the New Hampshire domain.” The couple’s relationship, artistic and marital, became the focus of a Emmy-winning documentary by Bill Moyers, titled “A Life Together,” that aired in 1993.

Mr. Hall’s books of essays included two about New Hampshire, “Here at Eagle Pond” and “Seasons at Eagle Pond.” In 2012, he published a novella, “Christmas at Eagle Pond,” that was set in 1940 and drew heavily upon his memories of visiting his grandparents’ farm as a young boy. That world which he had so loved as a child also inspired poetry, notably in “Kicking the Leaves” in 1978, perhaps his best-known collection, filled with poems of new and legendary times and faces. Poems included “Eating the Pig,” “Old Roses,” and “Names of Horses.” The latter contemplates the farm horses that grow old and are put down by farmers over many generations, and ends, “old toilers, soil makers: / O Roger, Mackerel, Riley, Ned, Nellie, Chester, Lady Ghost.” His poems were often elegiac; poet Billy Collins once remarked, in a review, “In Hall’s poetry, as in reality, the dead outnumber the living.”

Mr. Hall became the most famous Red Sox fan among high literati. His 1993 collection, “The Museum of Clear Ideas,” includes “Baseball,” a cycle with nine “innings,” each with nine stanzas, each stanza with nine lines. In one stanza, the poet addresses Kurt Schwitters, an early 20th century German artist:

Kurt, last night Dwight Evans put it all

together, the way you make collage,

with an exemplary catch followed

by an assist at first base, a hit

in the seventh inning for the tie,

and another in the last of the

ninth to pull it out at Fenway Park

and win the game. The madness method

of “Baseball” gathers bits and pieces.

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In the early 1990s, Mr. Hall was diagnosed with liver cancer, and Kenyon’s dread of his possible death is expressed in poems collected in her books, “Otherwise” and “A Hundred White Daffodils.” In one poem, she wrote, “I believe in the miracles of art but what / prodigy will keep you safe beside me . . . ”? In a terrible irony, he recovered completely, but she was diagnosed with leukemia, and died in 1995, at 47. Mr. Hall had the preceding verse carved on their gravestone.

The abiding shock of Kenyon’s death was expressed in two collections, “Without,” and “The Painted Bed,” and in a tender, agonized 2005 memoir, “The Best Day the Worst Day: Life with Jane Kenyon.” For a while, Mr. Hall told the Globe in 1998, he had let his hair grow long, and realized it was because Kenyon’s hair had been long. In desperate depression, he pursued women in whom he had no enduring interest. In his 2008 memoir, “Unpacking the Boxes: A Memoir of a Life in Poetry,” he wrote of that time, “What was I looking for? . . . Was I cheating on Jane because I was angry at her desertion?”

He felt better eventually, and never stopped writing, despite diabetes and a stroke in 2001, which impaired his movement, but not his speech or writing. A collection, “White Apples and the Taste of Stone: Selected Poems 1946-2006,” appeared in 2006, and in 2008, “Unpacking the Boxes.”

As 2012 drew to a close, Mr. Hall announced that his poetry-writing days had come to an end, although he would continue to write prose. After 70 years, “Maybe that’s enough,” he mused in an interview posted on the New Yorker website.

In his later years, most notably in essays written for The New Yorker, Mr. Hall reflected, often with a mordant sense of humor, on the vicissitudes of age (“more than ever, I enjoyed being grubby and noticeable”), his blossoming career as a celebrity poet and public reader (“Poets have no notion of their own durability and distinction.”), and finding love and companionship late in life after enduring heart-wrenching loss.

In “Out the Window,” a 2012 New Yorker essay about taking in the view from his Eagle Pond home, he wrote the changes the advance of years had brought.

“New poems no longer come to me, with their prodigies of metaphor and assonance. Prose endures. I feel the circles grow smaller, and old age is a ceremony of losses, which is on the whole preferable to dying at forty-seven or fifty-two. When I lament and darken over my diminishments, I accomplish nothing. It’s better to sit at the window all day, pleased to watch birds, barns, and flowers. It is a pleasure to write about what I do.”

Correction: Because of reporting errors, the Donald Hall obituary Monday misidentified a reference in his poem “Baseball” and misspelled a word in an excerpt. The poem’s narrator is addressing Kurt Schwitters, an early 20th century German artist. The except’s third line should read: “with an exemplary catch followed.”