Donald Hall, who served as The Paris Review’s first poetry editor, died Saturday at the age of eighty-nine.
Hall had an enormous influence on American poetry. A prolific writer, he published more than fifty books, from poetry and drama to biography and memoirs, and edited numerous anthologies, including the influential New Poets of England and America (1957; coedited with Robert Pack and Louis Simpson). His biggest renown was for his poetry, where he explored mortality, baseball, and the distant past, and returned, again and again, to the subject of the death of his second wife, the poet Jane Kenyon. Although Hall went on to have other lovers, including his longtime companion Linda Kunhardt, he arranged to be buried next to Jane, beneath a headstone inscribed with lines from one of her poems: “I BELIEVE IN THE MIRACLES OF ART, BUT WHAT PRODIGY WILL KEEP YOU BESIDE ME?”
Hall served as poet laureate of the United States in 2006, and had, in his house in New Hampshire, a framed photo of himself standing between the Obamas. But before all that, he was an editor—first at Harvard’s literary magazine and then at The Paris Review. In this magazine, he published some of the earliest work of Robert Bly, Adrienne Rich, Louise Simpson, and James Wright. “I was trying to define a generation,” Hall once said about his early days as an editor. “I think it worked very well.”
There are few great poets with whom Hall was not in regular correspondence. “My letters are my society,” he said in his Writers at Work interview. “I carry on a dense correspondence with poets of my generation and younger. Letters are my café, my club, my city.” In an essay for the Library of Congress, Hall wrote, “Way back we didn’t call ourselves poets, because it would have been pretentious. Poets were rare, and poets were great or they were nothing.”
Although he often mourned the state of contemporary poetry, of technology and the proliferation of words, Hall measured himself and the poetry he loved against the greats. “The desire must be,” he said, “not to write another dozen poems, but to write something as good as the poems that originally brought you to love the art. It’s the only sensible reason for writing poems. You’ve got to keep your eye on what you care about: to write a poem that stands up with Walt Whitman or Andrew Marvell.” And Hall built poems that would last, poems for posterity, poems that could not be washed away.
From his poem “Exile,” which appeared in the first issue of The Paris Review:
Each of us waking to the window’s light
Has found the curtains changed, our pictures gone;
Our furniture has vanished in the night
And left us to an unfamiliar dawn,
Even the contours of our room are strange
And everything is change.
Waking, our minds construct of memory
What figure stretched beside us, or what voice
Shouted to call us from our luxury—
And all the mornings leaning to our choice.
To put away – both child and murderer –
The toys we played with just a month ago,
That wisdom come, and make our moving sure,
Began our exile with our lust to grow.
(Remembering a train I tore apart,
Because it knew my heart.)
We move and move, but only love the lost,
Perversity our master to the bone;
We search our minds for childhood, and are tossed
By fevers to rebuild a child unknown.