Tuesday, June 26, 2018

What I never told Donald Hall

Donald Hall, by his own estimation, paid more attention to death than other poets.

“It’s well known and kind of amusing,” Hall told me when I called him in August 2014 to talk about his friend Galway Kinnell. “Everybody’s poetry is alike. Love and death. Love and death.”

“I paid more attention to death than Galway,” he said.

Hall died June 23, 2018, at his family farm in Wilmot, New Hampshire.

Hall’s fascination with the theme of death, even as his own neared, is instructive.

When I — a rookie editor who still missed writing — spoke to Hall, the 85-year-old told me he still wrote every day even though poetry had stopped a few years earlier.

A publicist sent Hall’s writing from that final period to my office a few weeks ago in the form of “A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety.” I took the book home, and it now sits on my nightstand.

Hall died before I could finish his book, which has saved us both from my recurring desire to try the phone number for him that I still have in my reporting notes.

I wanted to call him after reading a few essays that I found particularly powerful but talked myself out of it when I thought of the essay “Solitude Double Solitude,” where he writes of writing routine and his “solitary pleasure.”

I also suspected that I, an unpublished poet, was not among those who Hall really wanted to hear praise of his prose. He told me in 2014 that his 60-year friendship with Kinnell was very important. The last time they saw each other five years earlier they were still sharing poems.

“Friends say that this is good," Hall said. "I remember Galway said that about this poem.”

I no longer remember what poem Hall was talking about.

What I wouldn’t tell Hall, I will tell you. Hall stared down death to the end. I loved the essay “Seven Hundred Words” in his latest book.

Suppose I am the 150-year-old maple outside my porch. […] In January the last survivors flutter down onto the snow. These black leaves are the words I write.

His exploration of death urges us to be deeply rooted in the experience of life.