Making Poetry Work: A Conversation with Donald Hall


Life Work

by Donald Hall

Beacon Press, $15

Seated comfortably in a tweedy grey suit, Donald Hall '51 appears completely relaxed. He is here to talk about his new book, Life Work, but by the very nature of his subject, he will talk about almost anything--his life, his work, his family, his bouts with cancer, his days at Harvard.

Life Work, more a long essay than anything else, is divided into two parts. The first part concentrates on work as a concept and on Hall's ancestors' attitudes toward work. The second part brings life and work together as Hall, learning that he is suffering again from cancer, estimates his chances of survival. In the face of impending doom, work takes on an even greater significance.

The book, which moves around in time, returns periodically to the actual process of writing the book, to the task which Hall must complete. Hall writes, "This morning I began a new longish poem...The poem gives off a posthumous odor." His lack of self-pity, personal style and use of the diary form make his ideas about work an engrossing and fast read. His speech resonates with the same richness of expression, sharpness of wit.

Q: What are you focusing on now?

A: In life I'm focusing on love, more intensely because of the probable but not inevitable brevity of my time. It's just the relationship with Jane [Kenyon] is better than ever, and then the grandchildren--but this is commonplace, I suppose, I also have a ninety-year-old mother who is of course going to die, but her mind is marvelous...

Of course, work is my life too, and I'm working on lots of poems. Since the first cancer, I have surely worked more hours a day on poetry, and it is not that I am finishing poems more quickly, it's that I'm working on more poems and taking as much time as ever. I tend to write long poems, and I have three long projects that are active...

The kind of frustration in my life is a happy frustration. I just wish every day were forty-eight hours. When that frustrates me, I remember the alternative. I've been depressed, too, when I couldn't do anything and I was lethargic and heavy and couldn't work, and then I think, No, I'll take it this way.

Q: Do you think you are more at ease talking about death?

A: I think that Jane is perfectly at ease talking about it and my mother is. My mother is a New Hampshire farm girl, but you'd think she was someone stepping out of Italian opera because she always expresses her feelings. My father didn't express them much in words, but he was a man who would weep. I was lucky. He was not lucky because he wept a whole lot.

Q: Were you always interested in the topic of "work"?

A: I wasn't particularly aware of it. But when I wrote about baseball players, I would always talk to them about work, about what their habits were, how they prepared themselves. And I did a profile of Henry Moore way back in the '60s, and he loved work and loved to think about and talk about work. When I write about something--the working day and routines and things--I'd write about work.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for the book?

A: I thought about writing about the NEA because I'm on the council and we were having big fights at that time. I was on the anti-censorship side, the free speech side. There was one vote that was 15-1, and I was the one. There was a galloping prudery going around there at the time.. Yet many people were writing about that, and I'm glad I didn't try. I listed several other things and the only one I can remember is work, and they leapt for that..

I started to work on it March 17, 1992, and then I was interrupted. Early in April, I discovered I had a return of the cancer, and therefore the subject matter broadened. As you know, the book is partly about writing the book, which is work. In my particular case I was distracting myself from the subject by writing about the subject. I was exploring, too, the subject of illness and death and dread.

Q: How did you come to little the book Life Work?

A: It had changed from Work to Work Work Work because I had a line in there quoting one of my grandfathers saying that. The trouble with that--and [my publishers] are right--is it sounds like a complaint. The poem is a hymn--I mean the book, everything is a poem you see-to work.

Q: What is your relationship to poetry?

A: Poetry is what I love the most and what I want to give the most attention and passion to, as well as the greatest clarity. So I work on it first thing in the day and then go on to writing prose later. Prose by its nature--making it is a little more relaxed than making poetry. For instance in a poem, ultimately you're trying for a kind of intensity whereby you'll say it once the best possible way. Poetry is the intensity of absolute concentration.

Also, when I write a poem, my primary model is the poem spoken aloud. That does not mean that I pay less attention to it on the page; paradoxically, it means that I spend a tremendous amount of attention to it on the page. Poetry is the most intense and ultimately is for oral presentation. The page is a key to that. The rhythm of the book, the way you move from one paragraph to another, they are not so microform. They're more macro. When I read prose aloud I feel a little useless. I'm sort of looking for the line breaks and they aren't there.

Q: Where do your poems come from?

A: My whole life, and that includes dreams and memories of infancy and books I've read last week. The trick is to have access to everything that might be useful at the point of the poem.

Q: When did you start calling yourself a poet?

A: Probably when I was fourteen, a pretentious fourteen-year-old... I was a very ambitious child, and it was generalized ambition--I want to be something great, if it's president fine, if it's an opera singer fine. Then poetry took me over when I was fourteen. I started with H.D., Hilda Doolittle. Then I want to T.S. Eliot and I didn't know what the hell was going on, but I liked the noises it made.

Q: What did you think of Harvard?

A: I love the Advocate, whatever it was back then. I was there at the time when there were all these [World War II] veterans, and you understand that someone who was two years older than you who had spent those two years fighting in Italy was really a lot more than two years older than you.

It was a marvelous time to be at Harvard for a poet... We didn't all like each other. Some of us got along better. Everyone got along with Ashbery. Do you know John? These days he's a very suave, sophisticated character, but he seldom spoke at that time. We all admired his work so much and his brains, but then you had to stand next to him and shout to get an opinion. He was withdrawn, but he was funny. He was amusing.

But Frank O'Hara was the funniest man in the universe. Never ever met anybody so funny, with his putdown epigrams. I knew Frank very well. We were in Eliot together, and he gave the best parties in Eliot. Big cocktail parties. Everybody drank all the time back then. We used to have these teas inviting people and it was just pitchers of martinis. We didn't have any beer; it was just martinis. When Dylan Thomas came, he didn't like martinis, he didn't like gin. He said it was the sort of thing made in a chemistry lab, and he said, "Oh scotch will do for me"--and it did for him