from American Poetry Review, May / June 2011
In June 2009, I interviewed the poet Donald Hall before a large live (and lively) audience at the West Chester Poetry Conference ("Exploring Form and Narrative"). The Contemporary Poetry Review transcribed the recording made that afternoon by the university's Poetry Center.
ERNEST HILBERT's PREFATORY REMARKS
I must admit that I'm a bit daunted to be seated here with Donald Hall, who has done everything a man of letters can do, and has done it well. He is perhaps best known as one of America's finest poets, but he is also a prolific author of books for children, essays, plays, short fiction, and memoirs. He has exerted incredible influence as an anthologist and editor, and experienced success as a public advocate for poetry. In his essay "Poetry and Ambition" Mr. Hall wrote: "To the desire to write poems that endure, we undertake such a goal certain of two things: that in all likelihood we will fail, and, if we succeed, we may never know it." These sensible words, charged with wisdom, are not only memorable but also useful for the working poet. We think to ourselves, surely a poet who has achieved as much as Hall has, has done so through the strong and steady exercise of personal ambition, but it seems clear to me that it is rather through the measured exercise of modesty and gratitude that he has achieved all that he has. This is a lesson that one would do well to absorb. I feel that the alternative, so drearily common to life in American poetry today, is summed up perfectly by Hall himself in the same essay: "Every now and then I meet someone certain of personal greatness. I want to pat this person on the shoulder and mutter comforting words. 'Things will get better. You won't always feel so depressed. Cheer up.''' We recognize that his success flows not only from his native talents, his devotion to his art, his grasp of the human condition, its universes of loss, love, pain, and beauty, but also from a healthy, and indispensable, sense of humor about it all. It is a distinct pleasure for me to welcome Mr. Donald Hall.
ERNEST HILBERT You began writing when you were quite young. What are some of your earliest memories as a poet?
DONALD HALL It began when I was twelve. Everything in your life that's really important starts from something trivial. When I was twelve I liked horror movies: various incarnations of the wolf man, played by Lon Chaney, Jr., Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein , and so on. Saturday afternoons I used to go down to the city, New Haven, by bus to see these things. I told the boy next door, who was a little older, and he said, "Well, if you like that stuff, you ought to read Edgar Allan Poe." I had never heard the name! I read all the time, but I didn't read any poetry to speak of. There was Edgar Allan Poe in my parents' library, and I started to read stories and poems. It was the best stuff I had ever read. It was nasty, with necrophilia and all that wonderful, wonderful stuff. So I began to write. I remember the first poem I wrote. It begins "Have you ever thought of the nearness of death to you? / It reeks around each corner," and so on. It had none of Poe's sound, but it had his morbidity at least. My friends tell me it's the best thing I ever did! I read a biography of Poe. And it said that when he was fifteen he was already reading Keats and Shelley.
Well, I'd never heard of them either. I saw a book with all of Keats and Shelley, and I bought it, so I beat Poe by three years! I began to write terrible early nineteenth-century sonnets.
In high school I would use the study period to work on poems. I had generalized ambition. I had to do something. I had to be somebody, and poetry was one of the possible ways. One night I went to a Boy Scout meeting. I did it to get out of the house. I was talking to an older boy scout. He was sixteen. I bragged that I had done a poem in study hall that day. He asked, "You write poetry?" I said, "Yes, do you?" And he answered, "Yes, it is my profession." In the old film Bonnie and Clyde , Clyde says "we rob banks," and it was as cool as hearing that. This was in New Haven, and he knew some Yale freshmen who would major in English. I was fourteen and looked older than my age. I got to hear people talk about T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens, who strangely enough was a businessman. My father was a businessman. I started using my allowance to buy Stevens and Eliot at two dollars and fifty cents apiece.
My poetry started to be modern. I walked home from high school every day and sat at the desk and got to work. One thing that surprises me in retrospect is that, as opposed to most young poets I have known, I began by revising. I would work on a terrible long poem about the "Night Wanderer"—which was me being romantic, walking around the streets of the city at night. I would come to the last line and then go back to the first line and start rewriting it. I didn't know anybody except the Boy Scout who wrote poems, and I don't think he revised his poems, but I began revising right away. It has become a way of life, revising poems. I don't write poems; I revise them.
I was telling that story to kids at a high school in Nebraska when a tall young man rose up and asked, "Didn't you do it to pick up chicks?" I said, "I forgot about that part."
I was trying to be attractive, but I also fell in love with real poetry. I began with the moderns and then moved backwards until eventually I could admire the great seventeenth-century poets. I went on to prep school, to college, to Oxford like you, and the poetry became the center of my life. It's what I intended to do. Everything else was ancillary. At prep school, on Saturday night there was a movie. All. the other students went to the movie, and I cherished that night for being absolutely alone in my room to work on poems.
EH You mentioned Oxford. While you were at Oxford, you edited Oxford Poetry, worked on the Isis and as editor of New Poems, and then, on top of that, you became poetry editor for the Paris Review. Can you say a few words about how that came about?
DH I wanted to impose my taste on everybody! At Harvard I had known George Plimpton a little. He was at Cambridge when I was at Oxford. Oxford and Cambridge have long vacations, six-week vacations twice during the school year. In Paris during these breaks George was starting out on the Paris Review with other Americans living in Paris at the time. Peter Matthiessen was one of them. Meantime, I won the Newdigate Prize for poetry at Oxford. (Matthew Arnold won it. Oscar Wilde won it. But it was offered every year, so winning the Newdigate doesn't mean a damn thing.) The editors putting together the Paris Review, most of them, were trying to be novelists. There were no poets among them. So George over at Cambridge heard about me winning the Newdigate. He came over to play tennis for his college against my college. He got hold of me and we went out for supper together after the tennis match. We talked for a long time, a bibulous occasion. He asked me if I would choose poems for the Paris Review's first issue. I came up with some poems, including one from Robert Bly. While the first issue was going to press they named me poetry editor. I really adored doing it for many years. It allowed me to speak for a generation. There were some good older poets who wanted to give us poems—but we published only our own generation. We published Thom Gunn, Geoffrey Hill, James Dickey. Once, when I was back in Massachusetts, I wrote two poets whom I did not know, whom I had been admiring in magazines: James Wright and Louis Simpson. Jim sent me several which I took. Louis sent me one, called "The Battle," which was very good, but there was an error in the poem. I suggested a change—a danger with Louis—but my suggestion was right, and we printed the poem. Two great friendships began, with Louis and with Jim.
We helped each other. In my generation, we tended to send each other our poems in manuscript. We'd criticize the hell out of each other, helping each other very much. Mostly I was some distance from all of them, and I'd use the mails. I still do. I'd spend six months or a year on a poem, until I couldn't see what else to do to it, and then I'd wrap it up and send it to somebody or to several people. That critical exchange began very early. It started when I began to know other poets, which was in college.
EH What were the Paris Review parties like?
DH I didn't go to any in Paris. George Plimpton in his house on 71st Street in New York gave fabulous parties, famous, famous parties. There would be a big black guy and a little black guy. The big black guy was Archie Moore, the heavyweight champion [1952 to 1959 and again in 1961], and the little black guy was James Baldwin, the novelist. Artie Shaw and Peter Duchin fought over the piano. I remember trying to interrupt a conversation between Kenneth Tynan and Kingsley Amis. Kingsley Amis had become a right-winger by that time, and Tynan was left wing. They wouldn't let me say a word. Philip Roth was often there, and there were people with special interests. A man called Boris would visit during the party. He had a little black bag, like a doctor. He also had hypodermic needles, like a doctor, but no one was doing medical procedures. Some folks would go off to a little side room and do whatever they did. Often, Jackie Kennedy paid a visit, but I missed her. I lived in Michigan, where I had a job. If I came to New York I'd go to George's. George seemed to have a party virtually every night. Sometimes George would leave his own parties to go to other people's. He was unlike anyone else I've known, with sort of a New York prep school accent. Everybody in his family talked the same way. Paris Review was the center of his life. He had money, and he had many amusements. He did what he called "participatory journalism." He pitched against major leaguers, played football briefly for the Detroit Lions, sparred with Archie Moore, played hockey as a goalie for a minute or two. Then he would write about these experiences, of course. All of these pieces were arch, and modest, and very, very amusing.
EH Do you have any specific memories of Geoffrey Hill?
DH Oh, yes, yes. At the end of my first year at Oxford, Geoffrey Hill published a poem in Isis. I had never heard his name, nor had anyone else at Oxford, but I admired the poem. I was giving a sherry party for the Poetry Society, in my Christ Church rooms, and I invited Geoffrey Hill to attend.
But when I first met him, in my rooms, he offended me. I told him I loved his poem, and his response was to keep grinning and nodding his head. His manner was like someone tipping his cap to me. Because this was Oxford, the land of irony, I thought he was making fun of me. But he was only socially nervous. He had been a wunderkind at grammar school, and had come to Oxford on full scholarship. His father was a constable in a village, and he was conscious of class.
At that time, I was editing a pamphlet series called the Fantasy Poets, tiny little things which collected together about six pages of poems, printed by a surrealist painter who lived outside Oxford. There were four pamphlets a year, and I had just been number four in the first series. Talking with Geoffrey, I invited him to submit a manuscript for the next year's season. When a manuscript arrived, I was back in the United States for the summer, staying at the farm with my grandparents, and the envelope was forwarded from my parents' address in Connecticut. I read it through, and could not believe the excellence. It included "Genesis" and "God's Little Mountain," for instance—poems which Geoffrey probably reviles by this time. I was dazzled. I went to sleep, but woke in the night in order to read it again. Needless to say, I accepted it.
My second year, Geoffrey and I saw each other almost every day. Alone among Oxford poets, Geoffrey knew American poetry. That year, 1952-53, I was the elder poet, he the younger. We had dinner together, went to a pub, and he was jolly then. I drove him to his parents' house for his twenty-first birthday. Our friendship lasted after Oxford. We visited him in England several times, and Jane and I flew over to attend his second wedding. He came to New Hampshire before he had moved to Boston University, alone or with a girlfriend, later his second wife. We visited many times. We wrote letters. After he moved to Boston, we drove to Brookline.
Geoffrey Hill is the best poet writing in English. I watched it happen, reading manuscripts, delighting in new books. In a depression, he could not write. He had a frightening heart operation. Medication allowed him to write again. Our friendship continued for forty-odd years, and we have been estranged for the last decade and a half. I won't go into that.
EH What are your memories of Robert Frost and of Ezra Pound?
DH I met Robert Frost first when I was sixteen. I went to the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference as a contributor. If you were a contributor, your manuscript was read by professionals and used in workshops. The auditors just listened. The Bread Loaf people offered me a job waiting tables, no fee, no contributing .... I wrote back, indignant as only a sixteen-year-old could be, saying I would come as a contributor or I would not come at all. They took me.
EH There's a lesson there.
DH There were no young men there—in 1945—and I chased the women. That's the last time they ever took a sixteen-year-old. The year before, there had been a seventeen-year-old named Truman Capote. The first night I was there, there was a welcoming meeting for the conference. Frost was not in attendance. The meeting was in a building on an eminence, and I sat in a chair looking out French windows. Suddenly I looked out the windows and saw the head of Robert Frost rise from the ground, as he walked up the hill, and bit by bit his whole body showed. I had seen the real Robert Frost as if he materialized from the ground.
I saw him, spoke with him, played softball with him. I spent an hour or so sitting with him on the old porch with two women, a mother and her daughter who was seventeen and about to go to Bryn Mawr. The girl was beautiful, and Frost did not want to lose sight of her—which is why we spent so long together. He was always kind to me, but of course not to everybody. I met him last in the year when he died, and perhaps seven or eight times all told. He never spoke to me about my poetry, but once called me up to praise my first prose book, String Too Short to Be Saved. He told me that I could do anything in poetry that I wanted to do. I understood that he meant that I had not done it yet.
George Plimpton asked me to interview Pound. At first, I was to meet him at St. Elizabeth's in Washington, where he was incarcerated, and he said yes and then took it back. Apparently one of his hangers-on had bad-mouthed the Paris Review. He said he understood it was part of the pinko-usury fringe.
When he was back in Italy, I was living in England for a year; and George sent me an address in northern Italy, where Pound was wintering with his daughter and her family. We made a tentative date, I rented a car, and Pound wrote me a post card: "Marano ice-bound. Come to Rome." (I don't mean that quote literally.) With my wife and two children I drove from England to Rome, and when I first knocked on his door—8o Via Angelo Poliziano, where he stayed with an old friend—he said, "Mr. Hall—you find—me in fragments." His accent sounded a bit like W. C. Fields. I spent three days or so interviewing him.
He had not yet entered the silence of the last ten years of his life, but the silence was on its way. He would begin a sentence and not know how to end it. A day later, after brooding all night, he would finish the story. On the tape recorder he often said, "Turn the damn thing off." It was upsetting for him because he was determined always to be brilliant, witty, wise ... and constantly felt his failure.
After one day I told my wife that I thought that he was lonely, and we asked him to go out to dinner with us. We took him to Crispi's, a restaurant he remembered from the old days. He ordered an osso bucco, which I had never heard of. I ordered it too, and I have been eating it ever since. Being social with my wife and me, he was relaxed, funny, and charming. He was no longer tense, in the absence of a tape recorder. He spoke of the spending time with "a normal American couple—I suppose in contrast to the naïve right-wingers who often visited him in Washington. We left Crispi's, we walked down the street, and he found a man with a cart selling exquisite Italian ice cream, gelato. He bought us cones. I remember him walking into the night, wearing his Confucian scarf, a hat on his leonine head.
It was a memorable time, even affectionate at the end. Of course I knew his anti-Semitic vitriol of the past, but if he still retained any such feelings, he did not show them then.
EH Very briefly, I want to touch on your work as an anthologist. With Pack and Simpson, you edited a very influential book called the New Poets of England and America (Penguin, 1957), which helped to define American poetry for quite a while afterward. How did you go about choosing the poets to appear in that anthology?
DH Pack started it and realized he couldn't do it alone. He added Simpson, and Simpson, who was my friend by that time, added me. Probably because of the Paris Review, I knew a lot more than anyone else what was going on. I provided many of the poets. The anthology brought together many poets of my generation who had never been brought together before. Some were hardly known. Robert Bly had not yet published a book. There was no Allen Ginsberg, and there was no Gary Snyder. Not one of the three of us had heard of Snyder. One of us had been at Columbia with Ginsberg when he was writing musical little Elizabethan lyrics. We had no idea of the Beat generation. Also, something that I remember with horror: perhaps we had fifty poets in there, and I think five of them were women. We didn't notice. We just knew that we were taking the best stuff at the time. It's a fact that there were far fewer women poets. The poetry world now has more women than men, but not at that time. I remember speaking with an editor, a few years later, at a time when women were beginning to become more and more eminent in the poetry world. I was talking with Dan Halpern, who was editing his magazine Antaeus. We noticed together that by this time there were as many women poets as men. I told him, yes, but the submissions to the Paris Review were considerably more by men than by women. He said the same thing of Antaeus, and we understood that men were still more aggressive, marketing their work. No longer.
EH I interviewed W. D. Snodgrass two years ago. I knew that he wrote under pseudonyms, and I asked him to give me at least one of them. In that anthology there are some W. D. Snodgrass poems, and more by a poet named S. S. Gardons, allegedly a gas station attendant in Texas. Of course S. S. Gardons is an anagram for Snodgrass. So you knew about this? Can you tell me why you chose to put him in under two names?
DH We thought it was funny! I admired De's work very much, as I still do. I knew he had published some S. S. Gardons poems that contained information he did not want to make public. There were some good Gardons poems, so we had a double dose.
EH Your wife, Jane Kenyon, a distinguished poet, died in 1995. You have written quite a lot about that experience. Can you talk about how you started writing again after she died?
DH About a month after Jane died, I began a poem, "Weeds and Peonies." From then on, for five or six years I wrote poems about her and nothing else. Early, I heard that one of our nurses, from our bone marrow transplant time in Seattle, was having a first child. Immediately (this happens with everybody after a death) I thought, "Oh, how Jane would like ... " and realized of course that I could not tell her.. So I started to write her a letter, in lines of verse, telling her what was going on, mentioning the nurse and the other friends ... and then I began another letter, and another. I ended with "Letter After a Year." When I was working on poems about her death, I was happy. It was the only time all day that I was happy.
It was a comfort to me, to be able to write to her and work on it. Everything got revised over and over again. So I would work on the new letter then on the old letters. I'd work about two hours a day on them. One day when I was about to sit down at the desk I told our dog "poetry man is suiting up!" I felt wonderful writing these miserable poems, as if I were doing something about it. After two hours I'd have twenty-two hours before getting to the desk again. But writing out of grief helped me with grief.
EH In December 1993 you and Jane were the subject of an Emmy-award-wining Bill Moyers documentary called A Life Together.
DH Moyers is an amazing man. He had filmed us both at the Dodge Festival, so he had that footage. He wanted to come up and interview us in our house. He interviewed me first, while Jane hid away in her study. Then he walked up and down, for half an hour or an hour, outside on the highway, then did two hours with Jane. He would look not at his notes but up at me and quote from my poems, ask me questions about them. He had them by heart. He was a man who can concentrate on one thing until it absolutely fills him up. He gave me an interpretation of a mysterious line in one of my poems. I understood my line right on camera. He filmed us a year and a day before Jane was diagnosed with leukemia. We saw the finished product before she took sick, not long before. It was popular, often repeated, and sold well as a tape, more recently as a DVD. 1993 was a happy time for us. It was a busy time, unusually so, and a happy one—before time was removed.
EH Imagine a Twilight Zone episode in which the outward or administrative structure of American poetry—the prizes, the fellowships, the awards—suddenly disappeared overnight. You woke up and walked out onto the streets and it was all gone. How would American poetry change?
DH Many people would keep on writing poems. They'd meet on street corners. I don't believe I know anyone who writes with prizes in mind. One of the great pleasures of writing is to lose yourself into the paper in front of you. You are writing, and you don't know who you are. You are into the text. As I say, I revise more than I write. I revise by changing a mark of punctuation or a word. I have no idea of my identity, writing or revising, certainly have no idea of an audience. After I stand back from a poem, weeks or months, I may know this poem would never be popular but might be good. Other times I would know the reverse, but it would only be after working on it for a long time. It was never written for any kind of coterie. I didn't really think of the audience except as Richard Wilbur has said, to hope that audience is the muse. You are writing to make the poem as good as you possibly can, but you're not thinking of the Pulitzer Prize committee. I don't think anybody is.
EH Do you have any advice for a young poet?
DH Last night we talked about Robert Creeley writing a one-draft poem right in front of me. We know that William Stafford got up in the morning and wrote a new poem every day. He might have revised it over and over that morning, but he never went back to it. That quickness astonishes me. My advice is for all of you to be like me, not like them [audience laughter].
I have two big pieces of advice: Be willing to revise. I've met young poets who say "I can't revise. That would be insincere. I write just what I feel at the moment, and changing it would be to violate my inspiration." That's to think of yourself, not the poem. If you've got a line about something that really happened, but it's a terrible line, cut it out and make up something better that didn't happen, something that sounds better. Lie—for the sake of assonance. For most of the poets I've known, very much including De Snodgrass, revision has been a long and painful process. The only people I know who have done as many drafts as I have are Donald Justice and De Snodgrass. I'm sure others have. The last poem I sold to the New Yorker took a year and a half and went through about two hundred drafts. Because I like to boast about how much work I do, I count the number of drafts.
The other thing I'd like to say to poets is for God's sake read the old poets. The best century of English poetry is the seventeenth. You can learn things about the construction of a poem, even if you're not writing metrically; you can learn how to read according to their meter, and that will help your ear whether you're writing metrical or free verse. You can't imitate them. You would sound like a complete fool trying to use the language of the seventeenth century. Probably a young poet has to begin with poems closer to his time, and then move back through the nineteenth, eighteenth, to the seventeenth century. There's much to learn from Chaucer too, but I have to draw the line somewhere. There seem to be would-be poets out there who think that poetry started in 1974. I've got news for them!
EH I'd like to end with a question we talked over a bit during dinner last night, but we were interrupted before we could finish. What is the good life?
DH I've been thinking about it. I'll begin by saying life should be lived toward moments when you lose yourself in what you are doing. You have to have something you really want to do. That doesn't happen for everybody. I interviewed the sculptor Henry Moore when he was the age I am now. (Earlier, I wrote a book about Moore, a New Yorker profile, and I came to know him pretty well.) A magazine asked me to interview him again at a later age. I arranged to go to England with Jane and get out to his house in the country and talk about being 80. Henry was a wonderful man, affable, funny, not ironic. I asked, "What is the meaning of life." He answered me, without irony, saying that "you must have something you want to do more than anything else, that's at the center of your being, the center of your life, the one thing you really want. The most important thing about this desire is that it must be incapable of fulfillment."
He woke up every day wanting to be as good as Donatello or Michelangelo. Every night he went to bed knowing he hadn't done it that day. The next day he would wake up with the same ambition in his mind, with total absorbedness. Always beginning again. Always knowing he'd fail. Always beginning again. Amen.
EH That is the finest and most practical advice I have heard.American Poetry Review
Editors: Stephen Berg, David Bonanno, Elizabeth Scanlon