WILMOT, N.H. — "There were times when I thought I'd never be published," Donald Hall was saying, just days after learning, by fax, that he had been named poet laureate of the United States. "Times when my reputation sank." After his 1978 collection "Kicking the Leaves," some critics argued that it was poignant to read a poet who had once shown such promise.
Hall, though, is having the last laugh. For two solid days last week the phone, which sits on a ledge in the living room of Eagle Pond, his 141-year-old New Hampshire farmhouse, rang with requests for interviews and photographs, and with friends calling to say congratulations. Thelma and Louise, his two cats, came to the door to meet each new visitor. Hall, who is 77, admitted to being a "bit overwhelmed."
Eagle Pond was built by Hall's great-grandfather in 1865 and it's been in the family ever since. Sitting by the window, wearing a red and black checked shirt and khaki pants, the poet gestured at the stuff of personal history: manuscripts, a red folder of poems-in-progress, a stack of freshly typed letters, a Dictaphone and an art collection, including a small Henry Moore sculpture, several Warhol prints, a signed De Kooning and a Picasso etching, each of which, in any other home, might command their own rooms. In this quiet house, with its painted floorboards and rooms full of books, they play second fiddle to the old maple trees outside the windows and the walls that are saturated with memories.
Eagle Pond has long played a central role in Hall's work, which is nakedly autobiographical. He remembers his grandfather telling stories here and reciting poems. He remembers summers haying in the morning and reading in the afternoon. Hall, in fact, remembers just about everything. Reading his latest collection, "White Apples and the Taste of Stone," is like reading a novel. Fathers, grandfathers, children, lovers, fields and trees form a great lapidary continent.
Hall wrote his first poems about this house when he was 12. At 16, he was a fellow at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference in Vermont. Robert Frost was in residence. "I was kicked out for chasing the ladies," Hall remembered in a mock-confessional tone, eyebrows raised and a gleeful look on his face. Actually, he'd been invited to have a drink at the faculty house, where someone gave him a tall, neat glass of whiskey and spent the rest of the evening walking the young poet up and down the road, "hoping he wouldn't go into a coma." Next evening he returned for a second glass and was roundly reprimanded for his impertinence.
Hall has never deviated from the path of poetry. In 1951, he received a bachelor's degree in literature from Harvard — where he dated poet Adrienne Rich and knew Robert Bly, Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch. After Harvard, he earned his B.Litt. at Oxford, freelanced for the BBC and the New Statesman and served as poetry editor of the Paris Review. In England, he spent four days with poet Ezra Pound. "He had lost it without knowing it," Hall said. "And he was feeling regret for his anti-Semitism and other things. He said things like, 'I guess I was off base all of the time' and 'Do you think they should have hanged me?' "
After coming back to the United States, Hall went to Stanford for a year as a creative writing fellow, then returned to Harvard for three years in the Society of Fellows. In 1957, at 29, he was invited to teach at the University of Michigan, where he remained until 1975. "I liked teaching," said Hall, who wanted to be an actor when he was young. "It gave me a chance to perform. Sadly, the most talented go onto something else. Poetry becomes something they used to do."
In Michigan, Hall met poet Jane Kenyon, then 19 and a student of his. They married in 1972, and soon thereafter Kenyon persuaded Hall to make one of the most significant decisions of his life — to stop teaching, move back to Eagle Pond and support himself freelancing. "I was terrified about money. Jane had grown up in a family of freelancers; she was ready to chain herself in the root cellar if necessary. We wrote magazine pieces on everything: Gertrude Stein, Henry Moore, you name it." Kenyon worked on translations of Anna Akhmatova's poetry and wrote her own poems. Their love was almost as famous as their poetry; in 1993, Bill Moyers made an Emmy-winning documentary about the couple called "A Life Together." In 1984, Hall was appointed poet laureate of New Hampshire, a post he held until 1989.
That year, Hall learned he had colon cancer. By 1992 the cancer had metastasized to his liver. After chemotherapy, he went into remission, but was told he had a 1 in 3 chance of living three years. In 1994, Kenyon was diagnosed with leukemia. Fifteen months later, at 47, she died. Almost all of Hall's work since has been about her, about their love and her dying.
"I really got going as an elegiac poet when Jane died," he said, glancing out the window at the old maples. "It was the only thing that gave me comfort. I spent about 22 hours yelling and screaming and then I sat down to write. I was happy when I was writing to her. After a year it became impossible to say 'you,' while addressing her. I would like to write her many letters. There's so much she doesn't know."
Of course, long before his wife's death, Hall was known as a poet fascinated by death. Billy Collins, one of his predecessors as U.S. poet laureate, called Hall a poet of "elegiac preoccupations," for whom "death is a favorite lens."
"In college they called me the cellar-hole poet," Hall said proudly, referring to the holes that remain long after houses have rotted, many of which dot the woods of New England. "I wrote about loss; I was full of it. I hayed in fields that had once been thick with pine."
For Hall, though, loss is just one of a panoply of subjects, part of a wider vision of the world. "For a poet who writes so well and so knowledgeably about death," said David Kipen, literature director of the National Endowment for the Arts, "there's a great hedonistic streak to him. When he meditates on nature, or watching baseball on his satellite dish, or the 'bright tumult' of making love in daylight, or most of all when he writes about his own work, it's so obvious that he's in it for the enjoyment of the thing."
These days, Hall wakes early, often by 4:30 a.m., and puts in several hours of writing, editing, revising ("the first drafts are always hideous") and dictating letters before taking a midday nap. He will assume his duties as poet laureate Oct. 1, but is not entirely sure how that will change his routine. "I will," he said, "administer prizes and fellowships and oversee a reading series at the Library of Congress." He will travel to Washington every six weeks and would like to start a poetry channel on satellite radio.
He is the 14th poet laureate of the United States, a position established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937. The post is usually held for one year but can be extended to as many as three. Hall succeeds Ted Kooser, a poet from Nebraska, who has held the post since 2004.
"I think Don's a natural choice for our new laureate," noted poet Mark Doty, who has written extensively about Hall's work. "He's been part of the poetic conversation ... for 50 years. He's a poet who's deeply rooted in a place, as fewer Americans are now, and also one even more rooted in the history of the language, in a lifelong love of musical speech."
Hall is the third poet laureate from New Hampshire — Frost and Maxine Kumin are the others — and like them, he was chosen, as Librarian of Congress James Billington recently told an interviewer, because of the "sustained quality of his poetry, the reach and variety of things he talks about." Hall, however, has a reputation for outspokenness, particularly on 1st Amendment issues. (Let us not forget that he hails from a state whose motto is "Live Free or Die.") "He may get into a political dust-up or two," acknowledged Kipen, "but I'm guessing he won't do it just to make a statement. There's a real sense of spontaneity, a lack of calculation about him."
For his part, Hall said, "I don't believe I'll be attacking anyone." More to the point is the idea of making a place for poetry in the world. "People always say poetry is dead," Hall explained, "but it's never died. The multiplicity of poets and the size of the audience have only grown. When I was a kid, a first printing of a book of poetry might be 1,000 copies. Today it would be 8,000. There is, however, the problem of judgment due to the sheer size of the sample.
"And there is the problem of Balkanization — you have your Los Angeles poets and your New York poets. Poetry is poetry. I write a great deal about New Hampshire. People come here for the land and for the remnants of the rural culture. I came for the silence."