Donald Hall is a poet’s poet. He is also a non-poet’s poet. He is a writer for people who love the sound of words, for those who are confused by much poetry, for people who love rural life, are somewhat nostalgic, who love New England; he is a poet for romantics. Hall is a gifted storyteller. He admires hard work, marriage and baseball. He loves his golden retriever, Gus, and he deeply loved and greatly encouraged his second wife, Jane Kenyon, now gone 12 years. He has always been fascinated by death, one of his primary subjects, and writes strongly, even lovingly, about it and the toll it takes on those left behind.
This new edition of poems, White Apples and the Taste of Stone, spanning 60 years, is arranged chronologically but does not give dates or the original title of the volume in which they appeared. Now in his late 70s, Hall has outlasted his own cancer, living far beyond his father’s lifespan, his expectations of years, and his nearly 20-years-younger wife. He is still producing – and like most of us as we age, his beliefs and values have become more certain. He doesn’t mince words, not that he ever did.
Hall has been likened to Robert Frost, although he writes more about people than did Frost. (Hall met RF on numerous occasions and called him “ a little competitive… and very kind to me.”) Hall’s language is accessible, as was Frost’s. Of course, Frost, often considered a nature poet, did write of people – his family, neighbors, people on sleds in the snow, workmen
- but Hall writes more about humankind: his ancestors, his neighbors, his wife and children. Hall is not a nature poet, but he is a rural poet, in love with community, friends, family ties, hard work, commitment to people and to place.
Besides writing traditional poems, i.e., short, in stanzas, about tiny “moments of being” (Virginia Woolf’s words), Hall has written many verse essays and memoirs, several of which are included here. These longer narrative pieces span longer time periods and read more like stories than traditional poems.
A few of my favorites, besides the title poem that continues to haunt me, include ”The Repeated Shapes,” about the sorrow of his older male relatives; “ The Black-Faced Sheep,” about his grandfather and the valuable farm animals; “The Night of the Day,” a verse memoir of escaped heifers and of the poet “… sleepy, /not wanting to sleep, happy, startled by happiness.” Jane Kenyon, too, was often “startled by happiness,” and as we readers know of her depression, Hall’s poem “Rain,” about her melancholy and his acceptance and tolerance of it, is especially touching. Nineteen new poems are included in this volume. In these new works, Hall has veered away from his primary subject of several years, his grief about and the details of Jane’s death - although she still crops up once in a while. Of course, the included poems from his book written and published in his grieving Jane period –
Without - remain searing, heart-wrenching, visual. Many take my breath away, on second, third, fourth readings.
Aside from poetry, Hall has long published essays, memoirs, children’s books and even a best-selling English Composition textbook,
Writing Well, now in its ninth edition (co-authored by Sven Birkerts). Hall was our 2006-2007 national Poet Laureate. He has won such awards as the National Book Critics Circle Award, the
Los Angeles Times Book Prize, a Caldecott Award for children’s literature, and the 1990 Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America.
In 1993, Bill Moyers interviewed Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon at their New Hampshire home for a documentary
entitled “Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon: A Life Together.” As is sometimes true with poetry, the title poem of Hall’s new collection, although written and published years before the program was taped and aired, received a new layer of meaning during the interview. Moyers asked Hall about the significance of “white apples and the taste of stone. ” When Hall wasn’t entirely sure about where the images came from, Moyers suggested a possibility and Hall said he was absolutely right, thanking him for helping him better understand his own poem. Such are the layers of meaning of truly satisfying poems like Hall’s. They are meant to be reread, read aloud, shared.
In a more recent interview with Marcia Day Childress for The Hedgehog Review, in fall 2006, Hall says of his work, “These poems try to teach us – or teach me – how to live.” We are all still learning or re-learning about daily living from Donald Hall’s poems.