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

I [Heart] the Hub

Here’s a sentence I never thought I’d write: I “graduated” recently from Harvard University, along with honorary doctorates Meryl Streep and David Souter and about two dozen new BFFs, aka Nieman Fellows. I put the verb in quotes because technically we don’t earn degrees or graduate; we audit Harvard classes and attend thrice-weekly programs and seminars at Lippman House, the program’s home base.

Monica, Audra, me and Janet at our faux graduation.

We earn “certificates,” which were handed out to us the week prior by Harvard President Drew Faust, who encouraged us to become the leaders of the new-media world. Faust spoke openly and engagingly, including about what it was like for her to travel abroad as a representative of Harvard and be “treated like a head of state.”

I can’t say we’ve been received as heads of state, but the Nieman Fellows have been feted and fed and saturated with enough intellectual fodder to last a lifetime, as I’ve tried to describe on this blog. We’ve been plucked from disparate newsrooms (and home offices) across the world and thrown into a challenging, welcoming environment that’s designed to send us back to our communities with renewed vigor and curiosity.

Among the things I’ve learned:

The Beeb (center) took me and Janet on an equally grueling hike in Quincy recently.

• How to serve a drop-ball in squash, a game I’ve become so enamored of that I’ll play even if it means re-aggravating the sciatica I pulled during my first time out last fall. (Props to my squash mentor, Martha Bebinger, who set a terrible example early on by diving for every single shot.)

• That Harvard professors were accessible not just through their lectures but also over drinks and dinner. Special thanks to Africa historian Caroline Elkins and public health professor Kathy Swartz, who were especially adept at dispelling the myth of the aloof, pinky-raised Hahvahd scahla.• That only Americans would add M&M’s into trail mix. This tidbit is courtesy of skinny South African pal Janet Heard, who also taught us our new favorite exclamation: SHAAAAAAAaaaa! It translates loosely to: Wow! Or, holy shit! Or, somebody get me a stiff gin-and-tonic! (In the realm of our dozen-plus goodbye gatherings, sending off the South Africans will be the hardest. They are the Scarecrow to my Dorothy; I’ll miss them the most.)

• That it’s possible for a municipality to spend twice as much per capita per school child than the norm, but only if it has pothole-riddled roads that would rival any Third World country. (Note to incoming Niemans: If you’re thinking of buying a new car, wait until the year is over. Our suspension is totally shot.) No wonder the Massholes are so crazed behind the wheel.

• That children continually surprise you. Max, the sullen 16-year-old, was so angry and depressed when we got here that he “quit” school on the second day. (We talked him into going after lunch.) Now, of course, he doesn’t want to leave — although we did have to bribe him with $10 bucks to participate in the year-end Nieman Kids photo. Eleven-year-old Will, on the other hand, told me at the end of the first day of school that no one talked to him at recess. “But that’s OK because that’s always how it is on the first day of school when you’re the new kid,” he added. (I covet his level of maturity, I really do.) Three days later, he was elected class rep by a bunch of kids who still like to tease him about his “country accent.” But now, he’s the one in our family who most wants to return home to Roanoke.

• That my husband happily carved out his own role as a so-called affiliate. Not only did Tom work full-time while sitting in on regular classes. He also had a mini-premiere of the film he co-produced, “A Gift for the Village,” with velvety-smooth narration by Nieman Lisa Mullins, anchor of BBC’s “The World” program. He gave his own sounding (life/work story) in May — and had everyone in the room laughing. He also initiated our buddy Steve Pike into the world of

Tom and Steve in Colorado -- or was it Vermont?

Landon Brothers: taking Steve to Vermont to snowboard with his crazy brother Mike and later to Colorado, to snowboard with his even crazier brother, Rich. He did untold favors for people here, just as he does back home — from video editing to technology training to printer-unjamming. And now he’s busy trying to figure out how we’re going to pack everything we brought up here into that 16-foot Penske truck, plus a couch we bought in the fall, plus a hutch and seven dining room chairs given to us by our Nieman pal Anita Snow. (They’re mementos from her AP days in Mexico City and Havana and, unfortunately for her/fortunately for us, they won’t fit into her tiny, ultra-expensive new apartment in New York, where she’ll be covering the United Nations for AP – but we will, when we come to visit!) Oh, and while we packed we helped the South Africans throw a braii (barbecue) to herald the opening of the South African World Cup. SHAAAAAaaa!

Gary Knight, our fearless default leader, on our winter outing in Stowe, Vt.

• And lastly, that I really, really hate goodbyes. It’s why I’ve been putting off writing my last Nieman blog entry. I’m one of those who likes to leave the party fairly early — while it’s still going strong — with a thank-you hug to the host and a quick exit out the back door. About half our buddies have already taken off for various points across the globe, from Kandahar to London to Toronto to NYC. We also miss our favorite Zimbabwean princess, MIT journalism fellow Firle Davies—known across the commonwealth for shouting “F—ing savages!” at passing cars who inadvertently splashed her and her tail-slapping Lab, Jessie, as they trudged through the cold Cambridge rain.

Will, the Zim Princess and Tom in Elkins' Africa course. "I didn't understand any of it," Will said. "But now I've been to Harvard."

We gave Firle an “I [Heart] Boston” T-shirt as a going-away gift because she so did not [Heart] Boston, especially the weather. But even she’s reported, via e-mail from her thatched-roof home in Harare, a growing fondness for the place. I think it’s us she misses the most. . . although it may also be our steady electricity. And her daily Bikram.

No ironic Boston T-shirt necessary for me; I do love the Hub (you gotta love a place that officially nicknames itself the Hub of the universe) — but not for its pomp and grandeur.

I love it because of all the great people I’ve gotten to know so well, so quickly here — a rarity in middle age. Or as our default leader Gary Knight put it the other day at maybe the seventh going-away gathering of the month: “This kind of friendship will probably never happen again in our lives.” (He’s the default leader because he and his fantastic journalist/wife, Fiona, have ended up hosting the most parties. And though I’m older than Gary by a couple of months, I’ll always see him as a kind of big brother/journalism adviser/shrink.)

Friendship like this is something to be grateful for, and to hang onto, as we leave the Hub and head back to our far-flung locales and beloved old friends, and set about realizing what a gift this year has been.

Global education (Candy Store, part II)

I crashed my South African pal Janet’s favorite course on the study of Africa and its problems, taught by the Pulitzer-winning scholar Caroline Elkins. We were walking toward the classroom building with another Nieman, Zimbabwean Hopewell Chin’ono, when photographer Gary Knight swept up to join us in his wonderfully British way (is bescarfed a word)?

BTW: This is the first time I have ever seen Gary Knight holding a camera.

“You two together in a course on Africa?” he said to Janet and Hopewell, eyebrows raised, his usual grin its usual huge. “You two examining how her European ancestors decimated your African ancestors? …  Fantastic!

My favorite thing about being tossed into the intellectual/multicultural stew that is the Nieman Fellowship is making friends with journalists who have covered extraordinary events all over the world — the end of Apartheid, drug wars in Mexico, conflict in Kosovo, gunfire in a Fallujah mosque and just about every other modern-day big event you can think of. (When one Nieman said she was itching to go cover the Haiti earthquake, our curator was said to chortle something about “golden handcuffs” — the pledge we signed not to work during the Nieman year. To which I respond: Cuff away.)

My second favorite thing is the range of brain candy available to us as class auditors at Harvard. Courses this week have ranged from Pentecostalism in Liberia and Robert Oppenheimer’s guilt (a sampling of Harvey Cox’s Religion in America) to the new “paleo” movement of New York hipsters who restrict their diets to meat and other foods of the caveman era (Food and Culture, taught by Ted Bestor).

Henry Louis Gates led his second Af-Am studies lecture with a rap song by G-Mike that went, “Read a book. Read a book. Read a Book, Mu-tha-fuck-a, Read a book,” then segued to a talk on Enlightenment-period philosophers’ belief  that blacks were closer to apes than humans. (Gates had a great piece on root.com earlier in the week about the “real curse on Haiti,” which he traced back to Thomas Jefferson.)

Just for kicks — and because I heard you don’t want to spend a year at Harvard and not see this guy in action — I sat in on Rory Stewart’s human rights class. This is the British chap who spent two years walking across Afghanistan, ran a province in Iraq and will leave Harvard in March to run for British Parliament, where he’s favored to win the Conservative seat (“When I told the dean I was leaving early, I explained that it’s like running as a Democrat in Massachusetts”). He talked about Nietzsche, Bentham and Mill and their criticisms of human rights legislation. The introductory material didn’t quite move me, but it was interesting to get a glimpse of the charming, eloquent Big Brain at work.

Sri Lanka Tsunami, Joachim Ladefoged, 2005

Last night a bunch of us braved snow and a wind so bitter that our car doors froze shut to get to Tufts University for the opening of a photo show called Questions Without Answers, a truly stunning (though sometimes hard-to-stomach) exhibition from VII, the photo agency started in 1999 by our favorite bescarfed Brit and his mates.  This massive show depicts the defining events of the post-Cold War period — the fall of the Berlin Wall,  Iraq, Afghanistan, 9/11, Congo. … These are some of the most heartrending, intimate photographs I’ve ever seen — or not seen (because editors deemed them too graphic or politically unpalatable), as was sometimes the case.

This morning I get to return to Drawing with Anne McGhee, who is post-retirement but still teaching, making art and — get this — learning how to figure-skate. Last month she came to class with a purple hand, after a bad fall on the ice. Many her age might worry about breaking a hip, but Anne shrugged the bum hand off and, sure enough, the following week she was good to go, fearless and full of sass. Her favorite move is the sit-spin, “which I like to do really fast,” she explained. She’s a fabulous teacher, especially for beginners, because she wanders around the studio looking at your work, cracking jokes and making suggestions. Just when you’re feeling too clumsy to advance beyond Charcoal for Dummies, she asks: “Are you sure you’ve never drawn before? I don’t believe it.”

I guess that’s what I hope to take away from our year in Cambridge — the desire to keep exploring new possibilities, no matter how remote or improbable they seem. I may never walk across a continent or report from a war zone, but I know now with certainty: If you believe there are many journeys still ahead, well then, damn straight there are.

Sans model for this January drawing class, Anne arranged a still life of Niemans instead: Marcela Valdes, Alysia Abbott and Beatriz Oropeza.