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Notes Nearing Ninety: Learning to Write Less

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Arts & Culture

Donald Hall, who died in June this year at the age of eighty-nine, was a prolific poet, essayist, and editor whose work has had an enormous impact on American letters. He was The Paris Review’s first poetry editor, and he served as the U.S. poet laureate. His Art of Poetry interview appeared in our Fall 1991 issue. Before his death, he compiled one final book of essays, A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety, an excerpt from which appears below. 

Donald Hall in his home in Wilmot, New Hampshire. Photo: Gary Knight.

 

When I was sixteen, I read ten books a week: E. E. Cummings, William Faulkner, Henry James, Hart Crane, John Steinbeck. I thought I progressed in literature by reading faster and faster—but reading more is reading less. I learned to slow down. Thirty years later, in New Hampshire with Jane, I made a living by freelance writing all day, so I read books only at night. Jane went to sleep quickly and didn’t mind the light on my side of the bed. I read The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and six huge volumes of Henry Adams’s letters. I read the late novels of Henry James over and over again. After Jane died, I kept reading books, at first only murderous or violent writers like Cormac McCarthy. Today I am forty years older than Jane ever got to be, and I realize I haven’t finished reading a book in a year.

An athlete goes professional at twenty. At thirty, he is slower but more canny. At forty, he leaves behind the identity that he was born to and that sustained him. He diminishes into fifty, sixty, seventy. Anyone ambitious who lives to be old or even old endures the inevitable loss of ambition’s fulfillment. In a Hollywood retirement home to meet a friend, I watched a handsome old woman in a wheelchair, unrecognizable, leap up in ecstasy when I walked toward her. “An interview!” she said. “An interview!” A writer usually works until late in life. When I was eighty, still doing frequent poetry readings, audiences stood and clapped when I concluded, and kept on clapping until I shushed them. Of course I stayed to sign book after book and returned to my hotel understanding that they applauded so much because they would never see me again. 

Suppose I am the hundred-fifty-year-old maple outside my porch. When winter budges toward spring, I push out tiny leaves, which gradually curl yellowish green, then enlarge, turning darker green and flourishing through summer. In September, flecks of orange seep into green, and October turns the leaves gorgeously orange and red. Leaves fall, emptying the branches, and in December, only a few remain. In January, the last survivors flutter down onto snow. These black leaves are the words I write.

Back then, I wrote all day, getting up at five. By this time, I rise scratchy at six or twitch in bed until seven. I drink coffee before I pick up a pen. I look through the newspaper. I try to write all morning, but exhaustion shuts me down by ten o’clock. I dictate a letter. I nap. I rise to a lunch of crackers and peanut butter, followed by further exhaustion. At night I watch baseball on television, and between innings run through the New York Times Book Review. I roll over all night. Breakfast. Coffee.

When Jane was alive, our dog Gus needed walking every day. Jane walked him when she woke, feeling sleepy before breakfast. When they left, I lifted my hand from the page, waving goodbye. Midday, we had lunch and a nap, and then I walked Gus. In my car, I drove him up New Canada, the dirt road near our house, and parked where the single lane widened. We walked the flat earth, not for long because I wanted to get back to the manuscript again. Now when someone brings a dog to the house, I barricade myself in a big chair. An attentive dog would break my hip.

Louise is my cat. Ten years ago, her vigorous sister Thelma squirmed out of the house and discovered Route 4. My assistant Kendel dug a hole, and we set a half-barrel over the grave to impede hungry animals from enjoying a Thelma snack. Louise is passive, too shy to scoot through an open door. At night, when I watch MSNBC, she annoys me by rubbing my knee, but she never knocks me over.

Striving to pay the mortgage in the late seventies and eighties, some years I published four books. Now it takes me a month to finish seven hundred words. Here they are.

 

Donald Hall (1928–2018) served as the U.S. poet laureate from 2006 to 2007. He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a recipient of the National Medal of the Arts.

“Seven Hundred Words” excerpted from A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety, by Donald Hall. Copyright © 2018 by Donald Hall. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.