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?