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.”
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.”
• • •
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.