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Remembering Donald Hall ’47, a lion of American poetry

Peter Nelson

The former poet laureate was revered for 'expressing a deep veneration of nature' with simple eloquence.

June 27, 2018
Donald Hall shares a laugh with President Barack Obama in 2010 after being awarded the National Medal of Arts.
Donald Hall shares a laugh with President Barack Obama in 2010 after being awarded the National Medal of Arts.

Donald Hall ’47, our prolific New Hampshire poet, essayist, and Red Sox fan, died this week at age 89. Personally speaking, his influence on my early literary life was enormous: I recall, as an impressionable teenager roaming a bookshop, picking up a copy of one of his books of poetry and being mesmerized by the plain-spokenness of his nature poems. I was astounded to discover how very much could be said about barns, birds, hills and ponds; and then how his poetic descriptions could turn unexpectedly into some kind of heightened mystical reality. 

And then I discovered that this same guy also could write beautifully and passionately about baseball (especially his beloved Red Sox). For many years, Fathers Playing Catch with Sons became one of the beloved worn paperbacks at my bedside. I then began to see his name popping up everywhere in magazines, anthologies and books; his output seemed infinite. (I read somewhere that his letter writing was so prodigious that the post office in his rural town in New Hampshire gave him his own ZIP code).

Donald Hall, for me, epitomized the romantic image of the kindly, introspective backwoods New England poet. That the only time I ever saw him in person was at a poetry reading with Richard Wilbur at a Congregational church in tiny Cummington, Massachusetts, did little to dispel this image for me. His uncontrollable beard and sparkly eyes lent an air of the New England sage.

America has lost a beloved literary figure this week, so I thought it would be fitting to present a small sampling of Donald Hall’s work held in the Academy Library’s Archives and Special Collections. 

During his three years at Exeter (1944-1947), Hall was active in many clubs and activities. Most notable was his work on the editorial board of the Phillips Exeter Review, the school’s literary magazine. He submitted a large quantity of poems, essays and stories, such as this poem appearing in the March 1947 issue:

Clearly, his poetic sensibility and facility with language were already on display and nurtured at Exeter, so much so that he was admitted to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Middlebury at the age of 16, where he met (among other great literary influencers) Robert Frost.

In 1956, Hall donated to the Phillips Exeter library 12 drafts of a poem, “The Blind,” which had appeared in his first published collection, Exiles and Marriages. It was meant to demonstrate a poet’s creative process, leading from a first tentative handwritten version that is full of cross-outs, on to successive written revisions, up through the more finished typewritten drafts (nevertheless still marked by cross-outs and alternate words). Below are the first and 10th drafts:













Hall explained, in an accompanying letter to Exeter librarian Rodney Armstrong, that most of his poems go through a much longer series of revision sheets, and that in “The Blind,” being a mere 12 sheets, “the development of the poem is more clearly seen […] Here, the process of writing is exactly the same as in the longer sieges, only slightly more compressed.” 

The last item I’d like to share is a sample from a more whimsical work from 1983, "Brief Lives: Seven Epigrams." Each epigram — being witty, often satirical short verses — is printed individually (by the exquisite Stinehour Press of Vermont) on postcard-size sheets and enclosed slyly inside a mailing envelope. The poems address various constituencies in the literary world: “On a Poet,” “On a Literary Agent,” “On a Novelist,” and so on, including this rather jaundiced take on teachers of creative writing “On a Teacher”:

Though he avoided academic creative writing jobs once he could support himself financially later in his career, Hall did a good deal of teaching, first at Stanford and then at the University of Michigan; and it was in the latter place where he would probably agree that he achieved his greatest triumph, meeting and marrying the incomparable poet Jane Kenyon. 

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