Sunday, July 1, 2018

The Miracles of Art: Remembering Donald Hall

Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon - Eagle Pond Farm - 1993
Credit: New Hampshire Public Radio
I believe in the miracles of art but what
prodigy will keep you safe beside me.

These words are inscribed on a polished black granite stone shaded by oaks and birches on the edge of Proctor Cemetery, in Andover, New Hampshire.  They were penned by the late poet Jane Kenyon (1948-1995), when Donald Hall, her husband and fellow poet, was diagnosed with liver cancer.  Remarkably, he recovered only for Kenyon a short time later to be diagnosed with leukemia to which she succumbed in 1995 at age 47.  She believed the miracles of art might save her husband.  The doctors saved him only so he could watch her die.  Hall had this epitaph chiseled onto the granite stone along with Kenyon’s name and dates, and his own name and 1928, his year of birth.   One date was omitted.  For years Hall would visit Proctor Cemetery and dream of the days they shared in Ann Arbor, and since 1975 at Eagle Pond Farm.  Those lost days.  And he dreamed of the time he would finally lie safe beside her.

A week ago a dear friend messaged me to inform me that Donald Hall, one of my favorite poets, had passed away the previous evening at his ancestral Eagle Pond Farm, in Wilmot, New Hampshire.  He was 89 and in failing health for some time.  So I cannot say I was shocked by the news, but I am nevertheless devastated by the loss of this New England, this American icon, who had reached the pinnacle of his profession of poet, essayist, and dare I say, a definer of American culture.  He would be named US Poet Laureate in 2006-2007. 

There have many tributes to Mr. Hall since his passing; extensive obituaries recounting his life and career in literature and letters have appeared in newspapers and journals  across the country.  I doubt I can say anything about his life and writings that have not already been said many times over.   So permit me to share a few personal notes about the times his and my orbits intersected.

I had been reading Hall’s poems and essays for many years when I first wrote to him in 1998 asking if he might contribute a poem or an essay for an anthology I was editing to commemorate the life and works of my dear friend John Haines, a former poet laureate of Alaska.  I had first met John a few years earlier when he was the writer in residence at the George Washington University, in Washington, DC, and when he had invited me to participate in a workshop he was leading.  We became good friends after that and frequently corresponded after his return to Alaska.  So I wanted the anthology to include offerings from friends and contemporaries who knew John.  Donald  Hall was at the top of the list. 

I received a very nice letter from Hall congratulating me on my project yet he regretted that he had nothing he could contribute; his time was then devoted to the writing of elegiac verse (“poetry begins with elegy”) and prose while trying to come to terms with Kenyon’s premature death, as well as his own mortality. I then wrote back to him inquiring whether I might have permission to use “Stony John Haines” (1990), a short commentary which appeared in Death to Death to Poetry published by the University of Michigan Press, in 1994.   Hall was more than gracious and happy to allow me to include it in A Gradual Twilight: An Appreciation of John Haines published by CavanKerry Press, in 2003.

I met Hall for the first time when he read with Charles Simic at the Library of Congress in early March 1999.  We spoke after the reading and he asked how the Haines anthology was coming along.   After that we continued to correspond until we met again in the autumn of 2000 when he gave a reading from Kenyon’s posthumous collection, One Hundred White Daffodils, at the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University.  I was there doing literary research at the Houghton Library and saw an announcement for the reading on a kiosk in Harvard Yard.   That evening I wandered over to the museum after the library had closed and once again I enjoyed a nice conversation with Hall as he inscribed Kenyon’s book to me as “Jane’s remains.”   The next day we bumped into each other at the minuscule Grolier’s Poetry Bookshop near Harvard Yard.  Hall used to hang out there during his undergraduate days and was making a few purchases before returning to Eagle Pond Farm.  

Our correspondence continued for many year after that as age and infirmities began to take their toll on Hall’s body although he continued to reside at his ancient farm up until his death.  His mind remained sharp when the well of poems eventually dried up eight years ago.  He nevertheless continued to write essays in which he described the afflictions of age.  Essays After Eighty appeared in 2014 and he recognized that his own mortal coil was quickly shuffling off.  “In a paragraph or two, my prose embodies a momentary victory over fatigue.”  Still he kept writing. 

Last year I received a nice letter from Hall informing me that he was assembling yet another collection of essays.  He included a mock up of the proposed cover - A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety - along with a couple brief excerpts. “In your eighties you are invisible. Nearing ninety you hope nobody sees you.”  Just a few days before his passing I wrote to Hall telling him how much I was looking forward to the publication of the new book in July.   Unfortunately I doubt he saw my letter, and it is sad to think he will not see the publication of his last book and revel in its success.   It will be hard to read knowing Hall is no longer among us.  Writing about his friend Richard Wilbur, who died last year at age 96: “In his work he ought to survive, but probably, like most of us, he won’t.”  I disagree.  I am certain Hall’s legacy will live beyond my own years.  

Today Donald Hall was buried beside his beloved Jane in Proctor Cemetery, sharing the “double solitude” they experienced together for two decades at nearby Eagle Pond Farm.  But his poetry and prose will remain with us as we carry on - Don’s remains.   They are his prodigy, his miracles of art.

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