Meeting Donald Hall
Be careful what you throw out. After moving house, we have had to cut back on books and paintings. But I came close to discarding one of those thin, handsome American collections of poems you think you’ve finished with. Donald Hall’s 1978 collection Kicking the Leaves took me back to my two years at Goddard College, Vermont and the MFA course to which I flew over for residencies at the beginning and end of each of four semesters. When I graduated in 1981, I found myself in possession of one of the only formal Creative Writing degrees in the UK. The MA/M.Phil. course at my university, Glamorgan (later the University of South Wales) was what I was able to introduce and develop as a consequence of that MFA.
in the wilds of Goddard
late in January, 1979, I think.
Kicking the Leaves was published by Harper Row and like many collections of that time has a fine art quality which few could match in the UK. The cover has a photograph of the poet’s ancestors posed in front of their New Hampshire farmhouse, where the family had lived and farmed since the beginning of the nineteenth century. It is dedicated to Donald’s younger wife, the poet Jane Kenyan. She would die, aged forty-seven, in 1995. Donald Hall took years to come to terms with that loss, but poetry and prose writing would sustain him. They had met at the University of Michigan where Hall had been on the faculty and Jane had been a student. When he taught me at Goddard, he had left to be a full-time writer and they had moved to Wilmot in New Hampshire. She was New Hampshire’s Poet Laureate when she died.
The Goddard faculty was exceptional – Hall, Ellen Bryant Voigt, Robert Hass, Heather McHugh, Thomas Lux, Stephen Dobyns and the 2020 Nobel Prize winner, Louise Gluck. Guest speakers included Richard Ford and Ray Carver. Writing workshops were small and challenging. Donald Hall fitted my concept of an American poet – large, bearded, with a strong voice and strong opinions. He was wise and eloquent. He had studied at Harvard and Oxford. He had met Eliot, Pound and as a sixteen-year -old, he had studied with Robert Frost at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference in Vermont. “I felt light in head and body. Merely seeing this man, merely laying startled eyes upon him, allowed me to feel enlarged. My dreams for my own life, for my own ageing into stone, took reality in the stern flesh of Robert Frost, who rose out of a hill in Vermont.”
Donald Hall met Frost on many occasions, including shortly before the old man’s death. The stern flesh and sharp tongue of the most famous living poet in America would inspire and alarm Hall. It was Frost, together with Robert Browning, who had been the models for my own dramatic monologues from the mid-eighties. I pushed on further when one of my Goddard critique assignments had brought Norman Dubie into focus.
Kicking the Leaves is such a strong collection: the title poem, “Eating the pig” and “The Names of Horses” are evocative narratives rooted in his family’s rural life, but reaching forward into our world. Here is “Names of Horses”:
One October the man, who fed you and kept you and harnessed
you every morning,
led you through corn stubble to sandy ground above Eagle Pond,
and dug a hole beside you where you stood shuddering in your
and lay the shotgun’s muzzle in the boneless hollow behind your
and fired the slug into your brain, and felled you into your grave,
shoveling sand to cover you, setting goldenrod upright above you,
where by next summer a dent in the ground made your monument.
Did I read right through this collection back in 1979? I cannot remember: surely, I would have absorbed the voice, stance and emotional heft of these poems. Did they inform my own work? How could one not try to emulate “shuddering in your skin”?
As part of the MFA I bought, read and critiqued a dozen or more (mainly) American books each semester; dutifully posted with my own poems in draft to my tutor for that term. Donald Hall was not a tutor of mine, but Stephen Dobyns, Thomas Lux and Jane Shore were. Stephen and Thomas were a couple of years older than me, Jane was actually younger, but her first collection, Eye Level, had won the Juniper Prize and she had studied with Elizabeth Bishop in Radcliffe College. She was a rising star.
My cohort included Mark Doty and Robert Long. Both would go on to become lauded poets, especially in the years of AIDS which followed through the 1980s and beyond. In my study clear-out, I also came across a photograph of them which I must have taken. Apart from my student ID card there is no photograph of me at Goddard: I was under everyone’s radar.
Along with Kicking the Leaves I bought Hall’s collection of essays and reviews, Goatfoot, Milkwood, Twinbird which had been published by the University of Michigan Press the year before. It’s a disparate collection of quirky, partial wisdoms. In the final piece he writes,” I remember Vernon Watkins telling me, years ago, that all a poet’s poems derived from one experience. The statement bewildered me then, and I believe it now.” I could not have read the book to its end, for I, too, was bewildered and inspired by Vernon Watkins when I had tutorials with him as an undergraduate in Swansea. I would have mentioned that to Donald Hall: the marginal, solitary Brit at Goddard was in need of all the kudos he could muster.
Folded inside my copy of Kicking the Leaves were two ruled pages of notes from a ring binder. At least now I can share some of the notes I scribbled at Donald Hall’s classes and from his writings:
“The pseudo-Pindaric is a helluva lot of fun. Though there are other ways of counting – word counts (Marianne Moore and Auden) prosaic, but controlled – accentuated counts, counting ‘loud’ noises (Coleridge’s “Christabel”) – how much this is used depends on a belief in the absolute measure of a sound.”
“The narrow cell within which Pope paced out his life: five steps up and five steps back – two important words each side of the caesura. Now this has to be balanced in all sorts of verse writing, from equal balance to infinitesimal, on the fourth, fifth or sixth syllable.”
“William Carlos Williams’s ‘the red wheelbarrow’ is all to do with line-structure. Free verse has to partake of a magic structure of its own. Read it through as a sentence – loving and loud. It is visually connecting… control and thought. The poem is intensifying by its visual shape.”
“Robert Frost’s’ ‘After Apple Picking’ works with varied-length lines in iambics. A poem is intensifying by its visual shape.”
“…pitch, volume and duration…expectation and variation… an iambic pentameter always has five feet, but there are different ways of getting there.”
“There is a need for structure and magic form – wisdom through shape – reading with the whole body.”
“I intend a poem after I write it: I intend by not crossing out.”
“Poems get taught as puzzles to which the answer is prose; the intellectual rather than the sensual.”
[Eliot, Pound, Frost and Dylan Thomas] all these men felt that their lives were a matter of their daily consideration, that their life’s work was, at each point in time, breaking against the shore of the moment.”
“Dream is the spirit dying into the underworld, and being born again.”
“The finished poem makes the noise of the lid closing on a perfectly-shaped box” – Yeats.
Donald Hall would go on to become the US Poet Laureate in 2006, though the strain of that role and its expectations blocked his poems for a few years. He then had a late blossoming and, in his eighties, wrote more prose, including Essays After Eighty, and some poems. He was eighty-seven when he died, a decade older than I am now. The mature, wise poet of my time at Goddard was only fifty-two. He died in a hospice, not in the painted marital bed in the farmhouse at Eagle Pond, as he’d wished. Ageing and house-bound, he looked out at the maple tree which is on the cover of Kicking the Leaves forty years before. The weather, the birds and the passing cars led to a late volume, Out of the Window. So, Vernon Watkins, whom we both met, was right; of course, it was that one experience.
The World Wide Web and the ubiquity of information were in no-one’s dreams in the late seventies when I was at Goddard and having to post my air mail letters and poems across the pond. Now we can all meet and enjoy Donald Hall:
https://www.theatlantic.com › archive › 2018/06 › remembering Donald Hall: a poet of love and loss.
YouTube has an interview: “Old age is a ceremony of losses”.
Poem Hunter and Poetry Foundation are among several sites to feature his work.
There are copies of Kicking the Leaves for sale online. AbeBooks has a signed copy for $75.