Issue 120, Fall 1991
Donald Hall was born in New Haven and raised in Hamden, Connecticut, but spent summers, holidays, and school vacations on a farm owned by his maternal grandparents in Wilmot, New Hampshire. He took his bachelor’s degree at Harvard, then studied at Oxford for two years, earning an additional bachelor’s in 1953. After holding fellowships at Stanford and at Harvard, Hall moved to Ann Arbor, where he was professor of English at the University of Michigan for seventeen years. His first book of poems, Exiles and Marriages (1955), was followed by The Dark Houses (1958), A Roof of Tiger Lilies (1964), The Alligator Bride: New and Selected Poems (1969), The Yellow Room (1971), The Town of Hill (1975), Kicking the Leaves (1978), The Happy Man (1986), The One Day (1988), and Old and New Poems (1990).
He is also the author of several books of prose, some written for students, some for children, and some for sports fans. They include biographies of Henry Moore and Dock Ellis, a reminiscence called Remembering Poets (about Frost, Pound, Thomas, and Eliot), and four collections of literary essays: Goatfoot Milktongue Twinbird (1978), To Keep Moving (1980), The Weather for Poetry (1982), and Poetry and Ambition (1988). Two of the anthologies he has compiled have become classics: New Poets of England and America (with Robert Pack and Louis Simpson) and Contemporary American Poetry. Among other honors, he has received the Lamont Poetry Selection Award (for Exiles and Marriages) and two Guggenheim Foundation Fellowships (1963, 1972). His children’s book, Ox-Cart Man (1980), illustrated by Barbara Cooney, won the Caldecott Award. He was the first poetry editor of The Paris Review, from 1953 to 1961, as well as the first person to interview a poet for this magazine.
In 1975, after the death of his grandmother, Hall gave up his tenured professorship at Michigan and moved with his wife Jane Kenyon to the old family farm in New Hampshire. Since then he has supported himself through freelance writing. Sixteen years later, he continues to feel that he never made a better decision. It was at Eagle Pond Farm that the first two sittings of this interview were conducted in the summers of 1983 and 1988. A third session was held on the stage of the YM-YWHA in New York.
Donald Hall likes to get to work early, and so both interview sessions at the farm began at about six a.m. Interviewer and interviewee sat in easy chairs with the tape recorder on a coffee table between them.
I would like to begin by asking how you started. How did you become a writer? What was the first thing that you ever wrote and when?
Everything important always begins from something trivial. When I was about twelve I loved horror movies. I used to go down to New Haven from my suburb and watch films like Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, The Wolf Man Meets Abbott and Costello. So the boy next door said, Well, if you like that stuff, you’ve got to read Edgar Allan Poe. I had never heard of Edgar Allan Poe, but when I read him I fell in love. I wanted to grow up and be Edgar Allan Poe. The first poem that I wrote doesn’t really sound like Poe, but it’s morbid enough. Of course I have friends who say it’s the best thing I ever did: “Have you ever thought / Of the nearness of death to you? / It reeks through each corner, / It shrieks through the night, / It follows you through the day / Until that moment when, / In monotones loud, / Death calls your name. / Then, then, comes the end of all.” The end of Hall, maybe. That started me writing poems and stories. For a couple of years I wrote them in a desultory fashion because I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to be a great actor or a great poet.
Then when I was fourteen I had a conversation at a Boy Scout meeting with a fellow who seemed ancient to me; he was sixteen. I was bragging and told him that I had written a poem during study hall at high school that day. He asked—I can see him standing there—You write poems? and I said, Yes, do you? and he said, in the most solemn voice imaginable, It is my profession. He had just quit high school to devote himself to writing poetry full time! I thought that was the coolest thing I’d ever heard. It was like that scene in Bonnie and Clyde where Clyde says, We rob banks. Poetry is like robbing banks. It turned out that my friend knew some eighteen-year-old Yale freshmen, sophisticated about literature, and so at the age of fourteen I hung around Yale students who talked about T. S. Eliot. I saved up my allowance and bought the little blue, cloth-covered collected Eliot for two dollars and fifty cents and I was off. I decided that I would be a poet for the rest of my life and started by working at poems for an hour or two every day after school. I never stopped.
What about at your high school? I believe you attended Exeter—was anyone there helpful to you?
After a couple of years of public high school, I went to Exeter—an insane conglomeration of adolescent males in the wilderness, all of whom claimed to hate poetry. There was support from the faculty—I dedicated A Roof of Tiger Lilies to one teacher and his wife, Leonard and Mary Stevens—but of course there was also discouragement. One English teacher made it his announced purpose to rid me of the habit of writing poetry. This was in an English Special, for the brightest students, and he spent a fifty minute class reading aloud some poetry I’d handed him, making sarcastic comments. For the first ten minutes, the other students laughed—but then they shut up. They may not have liked poetry but they were shocked by what he did. When I came back to Exeter ten years later to read my poems, after publishing my first book, the other teachers asked my old teacher-enemy to introduce me and my mind filled up with possibilities for revenge. I did nothing of course, but another ten years after that apparently my unconscious mind did exact its revenge—and because I didn’t intend it, I could enjoy revenge without guilt. I wrote an essay for The New York Times Book Review that offered a bizarre interpretation of Wordsworth’s poem about daffodils. At the end, I said that if anyone felt that my interpretation hurt their enjoyment of the poem, they’d never really admired the poem anyway, but just some picture postcard of Wordsworth’s countryside that a teacher handed around in a classroom. When I wrote it, I thought I made the teacher and his classroom up, but a few days after the piece appeared, I received the postcard in an envelope from my enemy-teacher at Exeter together with a note: I suppose your fingerprints are still on it.
Was there anyone else when you were young who encouraged you to be a writer?
Not really. My parents were willing to let me follow my nose, do what I wanted to do, and they supported my interest by buying the books that I wanted for birthdays and Christmas, almost always poetry books. When I was sixteen years old I published in some little magazines and my parents paid for me to go to Bread Loaf.
I remember the first time I saw Robert Frost. It was opening night and Theodore Morrison, the director, was giving an introductory talk. I felt excited and exalted. Nobody was anywhere near me in age; the next youngest contributor was probably in her mid-twenties. As I was sitting there, I looked out the big French windows and saw Frost approaching. He was coming up a hill and as he walked toward the windows first his head appeared and then his shoulders as if he were rising out of the ground. Later, I talked with him a couple of times and I heard him read. He ran the poetry workshop in the afternoon on a couple of occasions, though not when my poems were read, thank God; he could be nasty. I sat with him one time on the porch as he talked with two women and me. He delivered his characteristic monologue—witty, sharp, acerb on the subject of his friends. He wasn’t hideously unkind, the way he looks in Thomson’s biography, but also he was not Mortimer Snerd; he was not the farmer miraculously gifted with rhyme, the way he seemed if you read about him in Time or Life. He was a sophisticated fellow, you might say.
We played softball. This was in 1945, and Frost was born in 1874, so he was seventy-one years old. He played a vigorous game of softball but he was also something of a spoiled brat. His team had to win and it was well known that the pitcher should serve Frost a fat pitch. I remember him hitting a double. He fought hard for his team to win and he was willing to change the rules. He had to win at everything. Including poetry.
What was the last occasion on which you saw him?
The last time I saw him was in Vermont, within seven or eight months of his death. He visited Ann Arbor that spring and invited me to call on him in the summer. We talked about writing, about literature—though of course mostly he monologued. He was deaf, but even when he was younger he tended to make long speeches. Anyway, after we had been talking for hours, my daughter Philippa, who was three years old, asked him if he had a TV. He looked down at her and smiled and said, You’ve seen me on TV?
Also we talked about a man—another poet I knew—who was writing a book about Frost. Frost hadn’t read his poetry and he asked me, Is he any good? I told him what I thought. Then, as we were driving away, I looked into the rearview mirror and saw the old man, eighty-eight, running after the car—literally running. I stopped and he came up to the window and asked me please, when I saw my friend again, not to mention that Frost had asked me if his poetry was any good, because he didn’t want my friend to know that he had not read his poetry. Frost was a political animal in the literary world. So are many of the best poets I run into and it doesn’t seem to hurt their poetry.
Our meeting is an occasion of sorts since you are the original interviewer of poets for The Paris Review. Whom did you interview?
T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Marianne Moore. I had already known Eliot for a number of years. At the time of the interview, he was returning from a winter vacation in someplace like the Bahamas and we did the interview in New York. He looked tan and lean and wonderful, which surprised me. I had not seen him then for two or three years, and in the meantime he had married Valerie Fletcher. What a change in the man! When I first met him in 1950, he looked like a corpse. He was pale and bent over; he moved stiffly and slowly and coughed a continual, hacking cough. This ancient character was full of kindness and generosity, but he looked ready for the grave, as he did the next several times I saw him. Then, when I met him for the interview after his happy second marriage, he looked twenty years younger. He was happy; he giggled; he held hands with his young wife whenever they were together. Oh, he was an entirely different person, lighter and more forthcoming. Pound I interviewed in the spring of 1960. I was apprehensive, driving to see him in Rome, because I was afraid of what I’d run into. I had loved his poetry from early on but his politics revolted me, as they did everybody. The Paris Review had scheduled an interview with him once before when he was at St. Elizabeth’s, but he canceled at the last minute because he determined that The Paris Reviewwas part of the “pinko usury fringe.” That’s the sort of thing I expected, but that’s not what I found. He was staying with a friend in Rome and I drove down from England with my family. After I had knocked on the door and he swung it open and made sure it was me, he said, Mr. Hall, you’ve come all the way from England—and you find me in fragments! He spoke with a melody that made him sound like W. C. Fields. There’s the famous story—this didn’t happen to me but I love it—of a young American poet who was wandering around in Venice, not long before Pound died, and recognized the house where Pound was living with Olga Rudge. Impulsively, he knocked on the door. Maybe he expected the butler to answer, but the door swung open and it was Ezra Pound. In surprise and confusion the young poet said, How are you, Mr. Pound? Pound looked at him and, as he swung the door shut, said, Senile.
The Pound I interviewed in 1960 had not yet entered the silence, but the silence was beginning to enter him. There were enormous pauses in the middle of his sentences, times when he lost his thread; he would begin to answer, then qualify it, then qualify the qualification, as though he were composing a Henry James sentence. Often he could not find his way back out again and he would be overcome with despair. He had depended all his life on quickness of wit and sharpness of mind. It was his pride. Now he was talking with me for a Paris Review interview, which he took seriously indeed, and he found himself almost incapable. Sometimes after ten minutes of pause, fatigue, and despair, he would heave a sigh, sit up, and continue the sentence where he had broken it off. He was already depressed, the depression that later deepened and opened that chasm of silence. But then and there in 1960 I had a wonderful time with him. He was mild, soft, affectionate, sane. One time he and I went across the street to have a cup of coffee at a café where I had had coffee earlier. The waiter recognized us both, though he had never before seen us together, and thought he made a connection. He spoke a sentence in Italian that I didn’t understand, but the last word was figlio. Pound looked at me and looked at the waiter and said, Si.
In the interview with him, your questions are challenging yet he seems, not evasive exactly, but as though he just did not quite understand what he had done.
Oh, no, he never really understood. He insisted that there could be no treason without treasonable intent. I’m certain that he had no treasonable intent, but if treason is giving aid and comfort to the enemy in time of war, well . . . he broadcast from Rome to American troops suggesting that they stop fighting. Of course he thought he was aiding and comforting the real America. He wasn’t in touch with contemporary America, not for decades. All the time he was at St. Elizabeth’s he was in an asylum for the insane, and his visitors were mostly cranks of the right wing. The news he heard was filtered. I think you can chart his political changes right from the end of the First World War and find that they correlate with the growth of paranoia and monomania that connected economics—finally, Jewish bankers—with a plot to control the world. He started out cranky and moved from cranky to crazy.
In Remembering Poets, just as now, the one poet you interviewed that you don’t talk about is Marianne Moore.
Back then, I thought I didn’t have enough to say—or enough that other writers hadn’t already said. Lately, I’ve come up with some notions about her that I may write up for a new edition of that book. I had lunch with her twice in Brooklyn. The first time she took me up the hill to the little Viennese restaurant where she took everybody. Like everybody else I fought with her for the check and lost. She was tiny and frail and modest, but oh so powerful. I think she must have been a weight lifter in another life—or maybe a middle linebacker. Whenever you’re in the presence of extreme modesty or diffidence, always look for great degrees of reticent power or a hugely strong ego. Marianne Moore as editor of the Dial was made of steel. To wrestle with her over a check was to be pinned to the mat.
Another time when I came to visit, her teeth were being repaired so she made lunch at her apartment. She thought she looked dreadful and wouldn’t go outside the house without a complete set of teeth. Lunch was extraordinary! On a tray she placed three tiny paper cups and a plate. One of the cups contained about two teaspoons of V-8 juice. Another had about eight raisins in it, and the other five and a half Spanish peanuts. On the plate was a mound of Fritos, and when she passed them to me she said, I like Fritos. They’re so good for you, you know. She was eating health foods at the time, and I’m quite sure she wasn’t being ironic. She entertained some notion that Fritos were a health food. What else did she serve? Half a cupcake for dessert, maybe? She prepared a magnificent small cafeteria for birds.