The poet Donald Hall died this weekend at his home in Wilmot, New Hampshire at the age of 89. He is being remembered as one of the greatest poets in American history.
Host of All Things Considered Peter Biello spoke with Mike Pride, a friend of Hall and Editor Emeritus of the Concord Monitor.
(This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.)
Thank you very much for speaking with me.
Glad to be here.
And so sorry about the circumstances, about the loss of someone that you considered a friend.
He was a terrific friend. We knew each other for almost 40 years and saw each other fairly often so, it's it's a tough time.
Well tell us about the man who created all this poetry. When did he decide he wanted to be a poet?
Don decided he wanted to be a poet when he was 14 years old. And his first poem, I believe, was about death and it was very Poe-like. So he was already steeped in poetry and at Christmas time he would ask his parents for books of poetry by particular poets. So he knew what he wanted to be a poet at a very young age. And unlike many of us he followed through.
And he had his first book published in his mid-20s, was it?
He did yes. The book called Exiles and Marriages, and Exiles and Marriages had been a very close contender for the Pulitzer Prize even though those poems were written when Don was in his early 20s. He did not win but the winner was Elizabeth Bishop who was one of the greatest poets in American history.
If you're going to be beat, be beat by Elizabeth Bishop. Tell us about his revision process because you wrote in his obituary that he had an obsession with revising his poems. What was the nature of the obsession?
He thought poems were never finished, basically. And so I can tell you one little story about that that really sort of illustrates it. And that is one of the first times I met him, I had a copy of his book The Alligator Bride and in that book is one of his favorite poems called “The Man in the Dead Machine” and he saw it in my hand and he took it away from me and he made a revision in green ink. And I happened to bring it to another event where he was a couple of years later and he grabbed it again and he made more revisions in red ink. And I think he did that at least three times. Publication was just one more stage of revision basically for Don.
Hall married Jane Kenyon and they had a very happy life for years living in New Hampshire. And when she died in the mid-‘90s of leukemia, his grief was pretty profound and lasted for years and years.
Yes. For one thing, she lived a year with acute leukemia and he took care of her throughout that time. So he was at her bedside and that basically occupied all his time, taking care of Jane. And he was with her through her treatments and the bone marrow transplant and the effort to keep her alive. These efforts failed and so when she died he was just distraught. And among other things he tried to write himself out of this grief.
He's well known for having poet laureate positions, both here in New Hampshire and then nationally. How did he feel about those positions?
I think he embraced the New Hampshire position. I think the main thing that he wanted to do with that was to be a troubadour, a bard, the great New Hampshire bard. And he lent himself, he went to events all over the state, spoke in town halls, libraries, schools, even middle schools. Wherever he was wanted, he went and read his poems and talked to the students about poetry.
But by the time he was appointed Poet Laureate of the United States, he was not feeling well. He was ill and it was very difficult for him to really embrace that position. So he was clearly very honored to have been named Poet Laureate of the United States, but he felt like he wasn't able to do what he wanted to do.
Well how will you remember Donald Hall?
The funny thing is, you know, I've been talking about them so much in the last day or two and also writing about him, that I guess I really haven't examined my own feelings. But for me it's mainly, he was one of my best friends. I mean, for nearly 40 years we could talk to each other about anything. And when he was writing prose in particular, we would exchange critiques of each other's work. And he was brutally frank but I knew that meant he loved me. And you know, who wouldn't want Donald Hall to read and critique drafts and work in progress. And so I had that privilege through our friendship.
And then as far his work goes, I mean, I just found him to be a dynamo. I mean, he wrote these beautiful, beautiful memoirs. And he wrote amazing criticism encouraging American poets to be ambitious and to work really hard. I mean, that was basically the way he approached things. He wrote a textbook about writing that had lasted in classrooms for generation after generation. And he wrote wonderful memoirs about the older poets that he had known. So, I mean, he just wrote so many things I can hardly mention them all. So I think that, you know, that kind of man of letters or person of letters, I don't think that too many of them exist. And that's definitely what Donald was.
Mike Pride is Editor Emeritus of the Concord Monitor and a friend of Donald Hall who died this weekend at the age of 89. Mike Pride, thank you very much for speaking with us.
Oh you're welcome. It's been a pleasure.