For Poet Laureate, In Vino Veritas

There’s no question that Donald Hall ’51 is a Harvard man. America’s new poet laureate learned to party at the Advocate. He remembers getting drunk with Dylan Thomas and staying up late arguing with his arty friends, all of whom wanted to be the poetic voices of their generation.

After a sojourn at Oxford, Hall eventually returned to join Harvard’s prestigious Society of Fellows, where he learned about mathematical linguistics by chatting with Noam Chomsky.

But Hall the Harvard man isn’t a Harvard poet. There’s no Ivy League arrogance in his work, no flashy erudition. Rooted in the 31 years he has spent living on a farm in New Hampshire, Hall’s poetry focuses on the details of daily life. Much of his recent work deals with the loss of his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, to cancer.

In a phone interview last week, Hall, 77, dwelled fondly on his memories of his Harvard years, full of intellectual and literary sparring, flirtation and inspiration. But after a while, he says, he had enough.

Hall loved Harvard. It transformed him. But in order to write, he says, he had to get away.

THE YOUNG TITANS

Hall came to Harvard a loner, with few friends his own age. He had attended preparatory school at Phillips Exeter Academy, and had known he was serious about poetry he was fourteen. But before Harvard, Hall had never met anyone else who wanted to be a poet.

All that would change in Cambridge. He joined the Advocate and fell in with a now-legendary group of young writers that included Kenneth Koch ’48, John L. Ashbery ’49, Frank O’Hara ’50, Robert Bly ’50, and Adrienne Rich ’51.

“It was extremely exciting. We were all very serious about poetry,” Hall says.

He remembers staying up until four a.m. arguing over which poems to include in the upcoming issue of the Advocate.

“In retrospect, it looks like most of the stuff we printed wasn’t very good,” he says.

But he and his classmates took themselves very seriously—“They were all determined to be famous people,” he says.

It was an atmosphere that bred competition, much of it very productive.

“There was the kind of competition that was less pleasant, that was more murderous, but it didn’t get in the way,” he says.

His friendly rivalry with Bly was Hall’s favorite. “It was a kind of stimulus to try to work harder and be better,” he says. Their friendship has spanned the decades, Hall says, and the two of them are still constantly in touch.

At Harvard, Hall frequented the Grolier Poetry Bookstore and joined the Signet Society for Arts and Letters, where he lunched with Lampoon and Crimson editors including Daniel Ellsberg ‘52, who would later leak the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times.

He says he had a few good and demanding professors, including Babbitt Professor of Comparative Literature Harry Levin and Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory Archibald MacLeish, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet.

But academics were peripheral. He says his real education came from the people around him.

Arguing over intellectual issues was simply a way of life. Hall lived in Eliot House, which was “fairly arty” then, he says. He remembers a typical meal in the Eliot dining hall. He set down his tray at a table of musicians with the words, “Music is immoral,” and the debate began.

‘NOTHING BUT MARTINIS’

Then there were the parties. “I had never been social before, and I’m not social now.” But at Harvard, he says, “I loved parties and I loved chatting it up with everybody, flirting on the one hand, arguing on the other.”

Hall would cheer on Harvard’s losing football team every week so he could enjoy the festivities afterwards.

He and Rich, who was studying at Radcliffe and could not join the Advocate, even went on a few dates. They were “not very successful,” Hall says, although they became good friends afterwards.

But the real revelry happened at the Advocate. “Our parties tended to be pretty riotous. We served nothing but martinis,” Hall says.

Hall remembers going to Harvard poetry readings, but the Advocate brought him in much closer contact with literary greats.

During Hall’s time, Welsh poet Dylan Thomas gave a reading at Harvard and attended an Advocate party afterwards.

Thomas, an infamous drunkard, had already had a few beers earlier in the day, Hall says. His reading done, Thomas declared, “I’ve done my serious stuff, scotch will do for me.”

“He got roaringly drunk and made public advances to young women, just what you’d expect from Dylan,” Hall says.

When Nobel Laureate T.S. Eliot ’10 came to an Advocate party he was “more decorous,” Hall says. “I can’t imagine it was much fun for him, but he was kind.”

THE GREAT ESCAPE

For Hall, Harvard was the springboard to Oxford where, he says, the party continued. After a stint at Stanford, he returned to Harvard, where he became a fellow in the Harvard Society of Fellows, which brings together brilliant young scholars from many different disciplines to learn from each other.

Hall remembers chatting with Chomsky and enjoying the shoptalk of the physicists, which he says was incomprehensible and intriguing.

He met Eliot again. Another time, Vladimir Nabokov came for a meal.

“At the age of 25 I introduced one Nobel laureate to another one. That’s pretty heady stuff,” Hall says.

But as he approached the end of the fellowship, Hall realized that the dazzlingly intellectual milieu of the Ivy League was no longer right for him.

“I knew I needed to get away from a society in which a good essay was more important than a poem,” he says.

Hall says he was offered teaching posts at Harvard, Yale, and Brown. Instead, he chose a job at the University of Michigan.

“Ann Arbor was good for me, to take me away from that high charged atmosphere and allow me to concentrate on the inwardness of poetry,” Hall says.

There were parties at Michigan, Hall says, “with a lot of booze and a lot flirting.” They couldn’t compare to the Advocate parties, he says, but that was no longer important.

“The point,” he says, “was not being the smartest guy in the room, but being with yourself and your art.”

‘A HAPPY PIRATE’

While Halls says he enjoyed teaching at Michigan, his real focus was writing. “I would come home and close the door and be alone with my work,” he says.

In 1972, Hall married Kenyon, who had been a student at Michigan. Soon after, the two of them decided to spend a year living on Hall’s family farm in New Hampshire. They never left.

It was a struggle for Hall to support himself by freelancing, he says. He wrote articles and essay collections and even children’s books—one of which, “Ox-Cart Man,” won the Caldecott award for the most distinguished picture book of the year.

“Some of the stuff I was writing was strictly to boil a pot,” Halls says. He got $500 for an article he wrote for Ford Magazine about Gertrude Stein’s love of automobiles.

But he says he felt as if he was getting away with something.

“I felt like a pirate, a happy pirate, making a living by writing,” he says.

FAME AND SOLITUDE

Over the years, Hall has garnered many poetry awards. He also served as the Poet Laureate of New Hampshire from 1984 to 1989.

Hall’s Eagle Pond Farm, the history of the farm’s inhabitants, and the patterns of a quiet New Hampshire life infuse much of his work.

So does the presence of Kenyon, whose career as a poet also flourished during their decades of marriage.

Kenyon died after a battle with leukemia in 1995. In his volumes of poetry published since then, “Without” and “The Painted Bed,” Hall grapples with different stages of his grief.

In the poem “Weeds and Peonies,” he describes Kenyon’s abandoned garden.

“Your peonies lean their vast heads westward / as if they might topple. Some topple,” he writes.

Hall also published a memoir about his wife in 2005, “The Best Day The Worst Day: Life with Jane Kenyon.”

Now Hall says he lives a mostly solitary life. But since he was named poet laureate, television crews have invaded his idyllic farm. He is besieged with telephone interviews and, on a recent day, fifty letters in the mail.

Even Sports Illustrated came knocking last Friday for an interview with America’s new premier poet, a baseball fan who has written both poetry and prose about his favorite sport.

“It is shocking to be so public,” Hall says.

He is only beginning to form plans of what he will do as poet laureate. He says he will give readings, although he does not plan to duplicate outgoing laureate Ted Kooser’s 200 appearances over two years. “I can’t do that. I’m too old,” Hall says.

But he may work with National Public Radio to promote poetry, or spearhead a new satellite radio station that would air a new half-hour poetry segment each day.

“Anyone interested in poetry—and there are a surprising number of people—could tune in at any point,” Hall says.

THE ONE ENDEAVOR

That’s one thing that Hall says has changed about poetry in America. While some will always bemoan the death of poetry, Hall says that it is much more popular than when he was an undergraduate.

There is a bigger audience for poetry, more volumes of poetry are sold, and more people want to become poets, he says.

Bly, in an interview, says Hall has nurtured the growth of American poetry, especially through his mentorship of young writers.

“He’s never lived as if the major thing in his life was to be a famous poet. He’s always lived as part of the community of poetry,” Bly says.

According to Bly, Hall spends hours every morning answering dozens of letters. He responds to questions about creative writing programs and comments on poems and stories sent for his perusal. Hall may live in rural New Hampshire but “he has his toes in so many things,” Bly says.

When asked about reviewing poetry, Hall acknowledges that the proliferation of poetry today makes it an overwhelming task.

What makes a poem stand out to him, Hall says, is the beauty of its sound.

“I look also for poems of emotional content, that are clear, not sentimental, but emotional,” he says.

In his own work, he tries to craft his words into an aesthetic whole, “like a little piece of sculpture,” he says.

At the center of Hall’s appointment as poet laureate, of his memories of Harvard and his life on the farm, is this single act of creation.

In his undergraduate years, he would wake at six to go to Albiani’s Cafeteria in Harvard Square, where he would drink black coffee and write until it was time to go back to Eliot for breakfast.

Decades later, little has changed.

In “An Old Life,” Hall writes, “Carrying my cup twenty feet / I sat myself at the desk / for this day’s lifelong / engagement with the one task and desire.”

A cup of coffee, a blank page. That’s the beginning.

—Staff writer Lois E. Beckett can be reached at lbeckett@fas.harvard.edu.