Donald Hall

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Donald Hall on Poetry: Revising, Sharing, & Critiquing

Hall Book

While reading The Selected Poems of Donald Hall, I jumped to the “Postscriptum,” where Hall offers up some thoughts on poetry writing — and especially on poetry sharing with someone who could give competent feedback. In Hall’s lucky case, he was married to that person, fellow poet Jane Kenyon, until she died of leukemia at the ridiculously young age of 47. What follows are selected bits from Hall’s P.S.:


  • “Reading my things aloud a thousand times, I have become aware of language that works and language that has dead spots.”
  • “Most of my life, I have worked on poems each morning, fiddling with everything. I have crossed out a word and substituted another; the next day I have often returned to the first word, or found yet another. Or I have broken a line at a new place. Always when I finished a poem, I showed it to friends who told me if it was terrible, or at least suggested improvements. I did the same for them.”
  • After we married, Jane [Kenyon] and I worked together over each other’s poems. We did not look at early drafts — it’s a bad habit; wait until the poem solidifies — but when the poems felt done, each of us used the other as first reader. One day I would say, ‘I left some stuff on your footstool,’ or Jane would tell me, ‘Perkins, there are some things on your desk.’ (‘Perkins’ was me.) If I repeated a word — a twist acquired from Yeats — Jane crossed it out. Whenever she used verbal auxiliaries I removed them, and ‘it was raining’ became ‘it rained.’ Jane kept her lines clear of dead metaphor, knowing my crankiness on the subject. She exulted when she found one in my drafts. ‘Perkins! Here’s a dead metaphor!’
  • “Neither of us did everything the other said. We helped each other vastly. She save me from a thousand gaffes, cut my wordiness and straightened out my syntax. She seldom told me anything was good. Sometimes she’d say, ‘This is almost done,’ or ‘You’ve brought this a long way, Perkins.’ I asked, ‘But is it any good?’ I pined for her praise. It was essential that we never go easy on each other.
  • “People have long assumed that poets flourish when they are young, but for most poets their best work comes in middle life. Wallace Stevens said, ‘Some of one’s early things give one the creeps.’ A friend insists that no one should publish a poem written after eighty. I hope I wrote good things, young and old, but my best work came in my early sixties.”

The Hands of the Dying


Typically, I’m not a fan of the “Best of…” series, but last week at the library I picked up a copy of The Best of the Best American Poetry edited by Robert Pinsky and released in 2013. Surprisingly, I enjoyed many poems by many familiar faces in this collection, and what I liked best was how the back of the book included not just a brief bio on the poet, but a brief commentary on the selected poem as well.

Most moving was the Jane Kenyon poem “Reading Aloud to My Father.” Kenyon describes the final days sitting beside her dying father, but in this case, poignancy is added to the poem not by Kenyon’s commentary in the back (for she herself would succumb to leukemia 14 years after her father’s death), but by commentary added by her husband, the poet Donald Hall. First, though, the poem:


Reading Aloud to My Father by Jane Kenyon

I chose the book haphazard
from the shelf, but with Nabokov’s first
sentence I knew it wasn’t the thing
to read to a dying man:
The cradle rocks above an abyss, it began,
and common sense tells us that our existence
is but a brief crack of light
between two eternities of darkness.

The words disturbed both of us immediately,
and I stopped. With music it was the same–-
Chopin’s piano concerto–-he asked me
top turn it off. He ceased eating, and drank
little, while the tumors briskly appropriated
what was left of him.

But to return to the cradle rocking. I think
Nabokov had it wrong. This is the abyss.
That’s why babies howl at birth,
and why the dying so often reach
for something only they can apprehend.

At the end they don’t want their hands
to be under the covers, and if you should put
your hand on theirs in a tentative gesture
of solidarity, they’ll pull the hand free;
and you must honor that desire,
and let them pull it free.


The words quoted in the first stanza are from Nabokov’s memoir, Speak, Memory. In 1996, one year after Kenyon’s death, Hall wrote this commentary, which was used for this book; it gives the poem special significance and power, I think:

“Jane wrote many poems about her father’s illness and death, of which ‘Reading Aloud to My Father’ is the latest and last. Reuel Kenyon died of cancer in Michigan in 1981; Jane and I stayed with him for much of his illness, helping Jane’s mother care for him. When Jane was dying, I thought of this poem. Music was her passion, as it was her father’s; at the end, she could not bear to hear it, because it tied her to what she had to leave. In her last twenty-four hours, her hands remained outside the bedclothes, lightly clenched. I touched them from time to time, but I did not try to hold tight.”

Thus did a husband use his wife’s words from 14 years earlier to guide his behavior at her own death. And thus were Jane Kenyon’s last hours an echo of her father’s. I lingered on the part about the hands. I reread the poem. I lifted my eyes from the book and stared in the distance, for a while seeing nothing.



Lost Sherpa of Happiness —