View from poet Donald Hall’s window: on ageism, writer’s block and the wonder of Andro-Gel

Poet Donald Hall next to the window of his Wilmot, N.H., home. Photo by Gary Knight

Poet Don Hall’s essay about the irrelevance of old people is the best argument against that wrongheaded notion. Published in the Jan. 23 New Yorker, “Out the Window” catalogs the indignities of old age as Hall views it, from being ignored by a grandchild’s teenaged friend, to a run-in with a condescending security guard at the National Gallery of Art — his girlfriend, Linda, pushing him in a wheelchair and stopping before a Henry Moore carving, whereupon the guard approaches to explain just who the sculptor is.

Hall, 83, is probably the world’s authority on the artist, having not only known him well but also written a heralded biography of the man.

But he and Linda say nothing and nod politely, only to be stopped again as they’re exiting the cafeteria by the same dunderheaded guard who bends down to ask Hall: “Did we have a nice din-din?”

Back in his creaky New England farmhouse, Hall takes his quiet rage out on a yellow legal pad, as he is wont to do. He writes with a cheap Bic pen. Then he has an assistant — aka “my friend down the road” — type the essay up, after which he edits it by hand and the ritual continues, noting each new draft with a number at the top. He writes only essays now and takes pleasure in the task, as he writes in the magazine:

New poems no longer come to me, with their prodigies of metaphor, and assonance. Prose endures. I feel the circles grow smaller, and old age is a ceremony of losses, which is on the whole preferable to dying at fifty-seven or fifty-two. When I lament and darken over my diminishments, I accomplish nothing. It’s better to sit at the window all day, pleased to watch birds, barns, and flowers. It is a pleasure to write about what I do.

• • •

In the spring of 2010, Cambridge, Mass.-based photographer and fellow Nieman Gary Knight and I drove up to see Hall in his New Hampshire farmhouse. We talked mostly about ageism as he sees it,  from the blue armchair where he spends winters watching juncos and chickadees, and worrying about the weight of the snow on the roof of the barn.

Our introduction to the legendary poet had taken place earlier that year when he lumbered onto Harvard’s Walter Lippman House stage looking like Walt Whitman fresh off a bender, his khakis wrinkled and his hair and beard unkempt.
“Poetry is like oral sex!” he bellowed at the start of his talk, which veered from dead metaphors, to a prolonged and recent writer’s block, to the sweet-sad memories of his poet-wife, Jane Kenyon.

An example of a dead metaphor Hall finds hideous: Never write that someone or thing “darted across a room” — better to say “moved quickly” and move on. Hall shared his all-time favorite line of poetry, written by Thomas Hardy, which he recited with bravado, his tongue drilling the consonants like a baseball on wood: “Down their carved names the raindrop plows. . . ”

After an hour and 15 minutes, he stood up abruptly and announced that he was sorry; he needed urgently to get up and go pee.

We loved it. Of all the eccentric geniuses we heard from at Harvard, Hall was the the one who seemed most genuinely himself. He spoke lustily of language —  a tonic for a room of middle-aged journalists who were being encouraged to write in 140-character exchanges and HTML.

Gary and I arranged a follow-up interview through a series of old-fashioned letters; Hall detests the phone. He dictated his notes and directions through his assistant, while I wrote back  on my laptop but mailed my notes  in envelopes made from recycled maps that I imagined he’d enjoy. On his personal stationary, the assistant typed that any Tuesday in May would be fine but mornings were best. “Mid-day I get comatose,” he explained.

• • •

“I used to have solid thighs,” Hall tells us by way of greeting, the morning we arrive at Eagle Pond Farm. His hands are bony, too, with veins like a topographical map. He smiles wryly and points to the Band-Aid on his arm. “It tears for no reason at all; they call it ‘thin skin.’ I kinda like that,” he says. “But getting old is just a series of losses.”

Photo by Gary Knight

When his poet-wife Jane Kenyon died of leukemia in 1995 at the age of 47, Hall said he had so many words gushing from him that some days he couldn’t write fast enough. He wrote memoirs (“The Best Day, The Worst Day: Life with Jane Kenyon”). He wrote poetry collections (“Without,” “The Painted Bed.”)
He talked about her to anybody who’d listen. “If I was at the counter of a diner and someone said, ‘Can you pass the salt?’ I’d say, ‘Yeah, my wife used to like a lot of salt.’ ”

For a solid year, he wrote her a letter every day. He couldn’t fill his tank up with gas without driving to her grave. “She would have turned 64 this year, and that’s unbelievable to me,” he says. “I still think about her every day.”

But he also tells us about his girlfriend, Linda Kunhardt, a teacher nearly 30 years his junior. And she’s definitely not the first.

Just two weeks after Kenyon died, Hall bought himself a box of condoms, desperately searching out affairs. They were, he wrote in one poem:

As distracting as Red Sox baseball

And even more subject to failure.

He holds up a recent copy of Poetry magazine to show off Linda’s first published work, called “The Slaying.” It’s a five-stanza poem with a refrain that goes: I find executives in my pants.

Hall giggles and says: “I have no idea what it means.” But he loves that she’s as off-beat as he is and, he adds, “She’s messy, too. She loves my hair.”

• • •

Photo by Gary Knight

In 2007, Hall thought he had written his last. “What came first, the depression or the writer’s block, I don’t know,” he explains. Having just finished his yearlong stint as Poet Laureate of the United States, he found himself pacing from one end of his Civil War-era farmhouse to the other. For the first time in his life, he could not commit words to paper.

He lost 60 pounds.

His son was so worried that he removed his pistol from the house.

He took him to a doctor, who found a pharmaceutical fix. And before long, he picked up his legal pad.

The New Yorker published “Meatloaf” in July 2010, an ode to baseball, grief and poetry, written in nine stanzas of nine lines of nine syllables.

I live alone with baseball each night
but without poems. One of my friends
called “Baseball” almost poetry. No
more vowels carrying images
leap suddenly from my excited
unwitting mind and purple Bic pen.

With any luck, Hall told us he figured he had one last book left in him, his 39th. And true to word, “The Back Chamber” was released a year later in September 2011. As an L.A. Times reviewer noted rapturously: “Eros and the particulars of skin-on-skin are found on nearly every page.”

A poem generally takes him a year to write, so he had been happy to unearth some abandoned ones from “back from when I was writing a good deal every day and writing a lot of crap.” He saved a dozen of 83 pages and threw the rest away.
During our meeting, one of the recent poems, titled “The Last Stage,” was in its 130th draft and counting. It contained references to Kenyon, dead Red Sox players and anxiety about his house burning down. He read it aloud to us, and it was electrifying.

He said his kids would never want to live at Eagle Pond Farm, and it pains him to consider what will come of his family collections — not the deKoonings and the Warhols as much as the seashells and stones, the tiny lead baseball players he played with as a kid, the statue of an Egyptian ruler he can longer name.
How does he want to be remembered? I asked.

“I’ve lived to see people with three Pulitzers die and be totally forgotten; that might happen to me. But I’d like to think I’ll survive in my work. ”

• • •

In a letter he mailed after our interview, Hall divulged how exactly he’d conquered writer’s block. A pharmaceutical testosterone called Andro-Gel renewed his appetite for … everything.

“Shortly after taking it, my beard grew larger, I felt horny, and I started some new poems. The new book should be dedicated to Andro-Gel! I think this book will be my last. I don’t think I will write any more poems. I am not depressed. I can write prose.”

He may feel peripheral at times, but the New Yorker piece is vintage Hall: elegant and full of gratitude, gumption and candor. I’d love to know how how many drafts he took to compose this thrilling, sweeping sentence:

Decades followed each other — thirty was terrifying, forty I never noticed because I was drunk, fifty was best with a total change of life, sixty extended the bliss and then came my cancers, Jane’s death, and over the years I traveled to another universe.

One dash, five commas, and the anguish of adulthood nailed in just 44 words.

Donald Hall sees the world quite well from his worn chair and, hell yes, he can still write prose.

When he extracted a Kent from its box — he still smokes a pack a day — his hands shook and so did his bushy beard. Photo by Gary Knight

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11 Comments

  1. Gerald Duffy

     /  January 30, 2012

    Very nice piece. A good friend of mine — a special collections librarian at the University of New Hampshire and, like myself, a British ex-pat — happens to know Donald Hall well, We both read the New Yorker piece last week and had a good laugh, especially, at the “din-dins” quote. My friend actually heard Donald tell the museum anecdote during a car ride and got to hear some wonderful mimicry as well. For well-meaning idiots like the museum guard, I’d like a well-defined strategy as I approach my own old age. Pepper spray may be a little over the top, but it’s the first thing that comes to mind.

    Reply
    • bethmacy

       /  January 30, 2012

      Dear Gerald, thanks for the great comment. Pepper spray could be good.
      When my mother turned about 70, she said overnight clerks started handing her bags and her change, saying, “There you go.”
      As in, “There you go, little missy.” Babytalking my tough-as-nails mother! :)
      I’m 47 with mostly gray hair, so please let me know when you figure out the perfect technique for combating such doofussery — time’s a wasting.
      Thanks for writing, and take care. Beth

      Reply
  2. Kurt Rheinheimer

     /  January 30, 2012

    Yes, a perfect complement to the NYer piece, which I read, like Tom, thinking nearly as much about how much Beth was going to like it as about Donald Hall, tho’ that’s likely at least in part because he, like Updike before he left us, provides a sort of terrifying and unblinking preview of the things that are not so very far away at all for some of us, and you have to turn away from the awful glare now and then . . .
    (Also strong enough for me to stumble into Facebook where I never go and don’t know what I’m doing.)

    Reply
    • bethmacy

       /  January 30, 2012

      Thanks so much, Kurt! You and Gail and your Gray’s Anatomy hiker bodies will be able to fend off the idiot security guards of the world, I have no doubt! Let’s do one of your big old hikes real soon, K? Thanks! (And you seem to be doing just fine on FACEBOOK!)

      Reply
  3. Mary Bishop

     /  February 1, 2012

    That’s as real as real gets. I didn’t read your essay, Beth, until after I’d dug out Hall’s. To allow yourself to be your own authentic, unpredictable self — Is there any greater luxury, any greater fun, in the whole wide world?

    Reply
  4. Rob Neukirch

     /  February 3, 2012

    Well, Ms. Macy, great minds think alike (forgive me for aligning myself with you.) Well over a year ago I came across my copy of “String Too Short to be Saved.” I’d read it years ago and passed it on to others and spontaneously wrote to Hall one day thanking him for that and other works, especially his memoir of Jane Kenyon…so dear. We began a correspondence and just yesterday I wrote to him about the N’Yorker essay. He certainly speaks his mind. I asked in one note about Kerouac and others, Ginsberg – “first word, best word.” He wrote back saying that was a lot of “bullshit” and probably not true anyway and explained to me his editing process. The last story I wrote I determined to edit at least 40 times – I did so and came away with a much better story. He and I both like “old” things and that is the connection. If I drive up to NH this summer to see some friends I’m determined to stop at Eagle Pond Farm. We’ll see.
    Yours, Rob

    Reply
    • bethmacy

       /  February 3, 2012

      Rob, who knew? That’s a fantastic story about Don. He’s fun to correspond with, isn’t he? And I’m sure would delight in a visit from you! Thanks for sharing how he’s inspired you and your writing, too. Miss you, must catch up soon — Beth

      Reply
  5. MATERIAL

    At fourteen, parked
    by the depot
    in the Chevy
    pickup with its
    motor running,
    she studies flaked
    B&M paint
    on clapboard and
    takes all edges
    in – shapes of paint
    flecks, dimensions;
    wood-grainy, rain-
    smudged, deep-textured
    lumps and fadings;
    Concentration
    upraises things,
    like bread, or grass
    after warm rain.

    – Donald Hall

    Reply
    • bethmacy

       /  February 13, 2012

      Wow. Thanks for posting, Bucky. Miss you but glad to hear from you, even in someone else’s words. xoxox

      Reply
  6. Thank you for the great post. I love the poem and use it in my journalism classes. Think I may have passed it out in the newsroom ages ago, too.

    Reply
  1. Bereft — of widows, aging & Jane Kenyon | Reveries Under the Sign of Austen, Two

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