The Bookshelf: Donald Hall Holds Nothing Back In Final Collection

Jul 20, 2018

Before his death last month, former poet laureate Donald Hall was preparing to publish his final book, a collection of short essays on life as he approached his 90th birthday, a birthday that he knew he would not reach.

The book came out just weeks after his death and features Hall's reflections on the challenges of growing older, his encounters with famous poets, his life with his beloved wife, poet Jane Kenyon, and the way in which he spent much of his career, exploring death.

His new book is called A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety. NHPR's Peter Biello spoke with Hall's editor, Deanne Urmy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

(This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.)

This was not your first time working with Donald Hall. Can you tell us a little bit about your history with him?

Sure. I have worked with him for I think about 17 years. Considering Don's career, that's a mere blip. But I've worked with him on poetry and a little fiction. The last three books have been essays because he stopped writing poetry a certain time in his 80s.

That's something he writes about in this book. He considered it something of a relief to move away from poetry into something else.

Yes, Don knew when he wasn't writing well in any genre and he always said that he wrote, as you read, that poetry for him took testosterone, literal life force that he knew when he was at the end of his poetry writing career. But to his delight, I think prose came back with a whoosh. I mean he'd always he'd always written prose all his life but essays became his form for the last decade of his life. And, as you can tell from this book, he wrote with amazing...talk about the word force, amazing force in these essays.

Was there a difference in your approach with him depending on the form he was writing in? 

I'm not a poetry editor and Don's poetry didn't need editing from the likes of me. He was such a fierce self-editor, he writes about that as well. The essays in this book and the others were often revised 60, 70, 80 times and the same is definitely true of his poems. He sometimes put poems aside for years, even in a couple of cases a decade or two and just revised and revised. He was his own best editor for sure for both poetry and prose.

And how did you and Donald Hall work together to assemble this collection?

The mechanics of it first. Don wrote to me and to a lot of people almost every day. In the age of fax, his literary assistant came to the house every morning and brought him his sheaf of faxes and he read them and he dictated and then she wrote answers and that process began again the next morning. So, editorially speaking, Don and I were in touch a whole lot. He would send me an essay when it was pretty well drafted and I would respond. He'd send chunks of the book, he'd send the whole book. He loved response of all kinds. I mean he loved editorial response, he loved praise from me, from the outside world. He needed the eggs, he loved the juice so he kept in touch a lot. He, as I said, he was his own best editor but he loved being edited, especially I would say he had great faith that he knew how to write a sentence and he did.

In this book it was really fascinating. There's a line here, of course, where he says, "Why should a nonagenarian hold anything back?" and he didn't. And there are a couple of cases for this book when I reminded him that he really wasn't holding anything back and did he want to think about that. And a couple of small instances he edited himself, although you know not a lot. But that's the kind of editing I gave him, not so much line by line. Don was a master. Don taught me a lot. I didn't teach him a lot. He taught me things about writing prose that I still remember.

Like what things?

My favorite is how easy it is to take the first person singular out of sentence. You almost never need to say I when you're writing prose or a letter. And that's a terrific parlor game that has improved my prose a lot.

You go through your own prose and take out all the first person singular?

Absolutely. It works really well in a condolence letter, for instance, which is interesting when I think of it because Don was, I think, one of our great chroniclers of loss. In this essay, in this book there's some writing about Jane Kenyon, his wife who died 20-some years before Don that I think is just some of the most beautiful writing about grief that we have.

In some ways it feels like he is preparing to leave sort of his last impression on his readers with this. Is that something that he thought about?

Death was something he really understood, the generational cycle. He understood it in a really visceral way as many of us don't. There's so many stories about how he did understand that and wrote about it. But he watched everything going on at his farm. And I think one of the things that I find very moving about this book, he loved a couple of things about Eagle Pond Farm the most, his barn probably foremost but also an old, 150-something year old maple tree right out front. And just about a year before he died the maple tree fell and there's an essay in this book about that loss.

When he was dying it was just before the book was going to be published and there were people who wanted to talk to him. And I didn't know exactly what to do. So I asked about what to say. I didn't know what Don wanted known about why he couldn't speak to people. So I asked his assistant Kendall what she thought. Should we say he was not able to speak at this time or he was ill? And she asked Don and he said, "Tell them I have terminal cancer." And that actually makes me laugh because it makes me realize Don was writing perfect sentences until the end. Not beating around any bush, being completely direct. And that's Don.

I've never had the opportunity to meet him but when I read this book I felt like he was sitting right next to me. I mean that's how personal it felt. He talks about everything: sex and bodily functions, his own personal faults, his habits (good and bad). As I was reading, I thought, "Wow, he feels really present."

The other thing that I think makes him feel present is I find his writing occasionally to be very funny. His witticisms are as if he's sitting right next to you.

The only picture in the book is a photo of Don with an apple in his mouth. He went to a pig roast, right? 

Yes. Don would not deny that he was a little wild and out of control in some aspects of his life. I think that picture encapsulates it. That's the other thing about this book, that you know he writes about that era of his life in A Carnival of Losses too, the era when he was teaching at Michigan and he you know he'd been not so recently roaming around Europe knowing every famous poet in the mid-20th century, coming to Michigan, hosting you know all the great poets of the era. And so he does, he writes short pieces about some of those poets, reminiscences. He doesn't mean to be writing critically in this book. But he just tells stories about some of the poets that he came across.

I love that section of the book actually and he mentions people like Joseph Brodsky and Alan Tate and John Holmes. When I was reading the section I was thinking that Donald Hall is perhaps one of the last living poets to remember some of these people. It's almost like he's issuing statements that the biographers of those poets may be able to use some day. 

Yes, because there are stories that other people don't have and they're very idiosyncratic stories. You know Don's relationships to other poets were so idiosyncratic, competitive, loving, fierce, cantankerous, you know. Poets weren't kind of the stuff of legends for Don. They were his bread and butter. Everyone from from Auden to James Dickey to you know e e cummings to Stephen Spender.  They're people to him. They were his friends, sometimes his enemies. And that's a pretty remarkable, pretty remarkable legacy I think for literature for Don, that Don passes on to us, just those stories about poets doing their work.

What memories will you treasure having worked with Donald Hall?

I will treasure and miss the daily communications. Sometimes, of course, I thought I might have something I better do or I need to do instead of answering another Don letter. But I miss him terribly now that they're gone. And I miss his jokes. I miss his wonderful transparency. One of my favorite lines from Don just in a letter recently when he got some kind of attention, review attention or some fine writer wrote to say they loved his recent essay. And he said, "Yippy! More attention from me." I'll miss that.

Well he writes in this book that he said it would be terribly depressing to go out of print, but I don't see that happening anytime soon.

I don't either, and Don knew. He was always he kind of, I think he almost was excited about dying because he knows that you know that dying helped poets' sales so you know. And that's that's been the case. And I think he knows. I'm sure he knows.