Eighty-seven-year-old United States Poet Laureate Donald Hall discovered that age had reduced his poetry writing skills. As a result, he channeled his energy and his passion for poetry into searching his tremendous “storeroom” of poems and selecting his best. “The Selected Poems of Donald Hall” is the result. And what a magical collection he has compiled. Hall’s final volume of poetry gifts his readers with a rich tribute to his life, his loves and his poetry.
The 79 poems in Hall’s collection offer a representative and chronological sampling of the artistic development of his poetry throughout the 63-plus years he has been crafting poems.
In his early years, Hall structured his poems with a strict meter and rhyming pattern. His fascinating and ironic poem, “The Lone Ranger,” flows in a controlled iambic meter and rhymes the second and fourth lines in each stanza:
“And when the bandits met to split the loot,
He blocked the door. With silver guns he shot
The quick six-shooters from their snatching hands
And took them off to jail to rot.”
As Hall’s life becomes more complex, so does his poetry. He abandons the structure of his early poems and turns to autobiographical free verse to probe and engage with those moments that bring him pain. In trying to endure his father’s early death, for example, Hall penned the short and imagery-rich poem, “White Apples:”
“when my father had been dead a week
and stared at the pale closed door
white apples and the taste of stone
I would put on my coat and galoshes.”
In 1972 Donald Hall married the poet Jane Kenyon, who was one of his students at the University of Michigan. Three years later, Hall quit teaching and they purchased Eagle Pond Farm in Wilmott, New Hampshire. Hall had practically grown up on this farm owned by his grandparents, and it became the place of their dreams.
This idyllic setting, where he and Jane grew close to nature and wrote poetry together, became the focal point of much of Donald Hall’s poetry. “Mount Kearsarge,” “Gold,” and “Old Roses” are examples of his Eagle Pond poems, all of which are ripe with details and images of the farm and overflowing with his understanding of nature and its role as a metaphor for our human journey.
One such journey in Hall’s life occurred with the quick and tragic death of his wife Jane in 1995 from leukemia. His solace and his loving companion was ripped from him, and his poetry became his powerful attempt to find his soul in the midst of the grief and imagery of this shattering moment. In one of the most important poems of his life, “Letter with No Address,” Hall writes a poetic letter to Jane after her death.
“. . .I drive and talk to you crying/and come back to this house/to talk to your photographs. . . . “Always the weather,/writing its book of the world,/returns you to me. . . . Your presence in this house/is almost as enormous/and painful as your absence. . . Three time/today I drove to your grave.”
This poem, and many of the others that explore Hall’s grief after losing Jane, handles the sadness artistically through the length of the line: the shorter the line, the more grief slows and lingers—his agony weighs him down. Hall’s ability to mirror his grief through the pace and rhythm of his lines is not only skillful but also is poignant and spiritual as he captures the sense of loss triggered by his wife’s death. Eventually, he even returns to a strict structure and rhyme scheme in his poems in an attempt to find some order in his chaos.
Hall’s poems reveal his mastery of the art of reflection. While reading each of his poems, I found myself recognizing powerful words, phrases and images that were “just right” as they charged my awareness of life. His imagination clearly fuels his reality and is enlightening.
“The Selected Poems of Donald Hall” was a spiritual journey, and I find myself returning to several of his poems as a focus for moments of meditation. I enthusiastically urge all readers to venture into Donald Hall’s very readable poetry to experience the wisdom of his poetic talents.