June 25, 2006

Donald Hall and the Position of Poet Laureate

Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon

I spent some time reading articles about Donald Hall being appointed the 14th Poet Laureate of the United States.


"I think Don's a natural choice for our new laureate. He's been part of the poetic conversation ... for 50 years. He's a poet who's deeply rooted in a place, as fewer Americans are now, and also one even more rooted in the history of the language, in a lifelong love of musical speech." - Mark Doty

He is the third poet laureate from New Hampshire. (Robert Frost and Maxine Kumin are the others)

He is 77 and still has a reputation for outspokenness, particularly on 1st Amendment issues, so there's hope that this resident of the "Live Free or Die" state may stir things up.

He lives at Eagle Pond, in a New Hampshire farmhouse built by his great-grandfather in 1865 with his two cats, Thelma and Louise.

Eagle Pond was built by Hall's great-grandfather in 1865 and it's been in the family ever since. This places figures in much of his poetry. He says he remembers his grandfather telling stories here and reciting poems and summers haying in the morning and reading in the afternoon. He wrote his first poems about this house when he was 12.

He said that at 12 he wrote his first poem and it began: "have you ever thought about the nearness of death to you?"

Former Poet Laureate Billy Collins, called Hall a poet of "elegiac preoccupations," for whom "death is a favorite lens."

At 16, he was a fellow at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference in Vermont.

Got his bachelor's degree in literature from Harvard in 1951. Dated poet Adrienne Rich there and knew Robert Bly (still a close friiend), Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch.

At 29, he went to teach at the University of Michigan, where he remained until 1975.

There he met Jane Kenyon, then 19 and a student of his.

They married in 1972. Jane persuaded Hall to stop teaching, move back to Eagle Pond and support himself by writing. The prospect of no regular income terrified him, but they did it.

Hall and Kenyon together attracted almost as much attention as their poetry. Bill Moyers made an Emmy-winning documentary about the couple called "A Life Together."

Hall was appointed poet laureate of New Hampshire from 1984 - 1989.

In 1989, he learned he had colon cancer which metastasized to his liver. After chemotherapy, he went into remission, but was told he had a 1 in 3 chance of living three years.

In 1994, Kenyon was diagnosed with leukemia. Fifteen months later, at 47, she died.

Their life together, their love and her dying has been the subject of much of his writing since.

"I really got going as an elegiac poet when Jane died. It was the only thing that gave me comfort. I spent about 22 hours yelling and screaming and then I sat down to write. I was happy when I was writing to her. After a year it became impossible to say 'you,' while addressing her. I would like to write her many letters. There's so much she doesn't know."

He enjoys watching baseball on his satellite dish and like many from that area of the nation is a Red Sox fan.

These days, Hall wakes early, often by 4:30 a.m., and puts in several hours of writing, editing, revising ("the first drafts are always hideous") and dictating letters before taking a midday nap. He will assume his duties as poet laureate Oct. 1, but is not entirely sure how that will change his routine. "I will," he said, "administer prizes and fellowships and oversee a reading series at the Library of Congress." He will travel to Washington every six weeks and would like to start a poetry channel on satellite radio.

He has 15 poetry collections, several children's books, and essays on poets and their work. His latest poetry collection is White Apples and the Taste of Stone (Harcourt).


  • Established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937.
  • Usually held for one year but can be extended to as many as three.
  • Hall succeeds Ted Kooser, from Nebraska, who held the post since 2004.
  • It "pays" $40,000 a year ($35,000 for expenses and $5,000 for travel) The money is not paid by your taxes. It is donated by the Archer M. Huntington Foundation who endowed the position in 1936.
  • The official title is "Poet Laureate Consultant to the Librarian of Congress.
  • Official duty is one thing - an appearance at the opening of the Library of Congress' annual literary series in the fall.
  • Some Laureates take up a cause or focus on a project.
  • Ted Kooser set up a Web site americanlifeinpoetry.org where there's a poem a week with an introduction by him and is intended to be used by newspapers to promote poetry.
  • Billy Collins created Poetry 180 at www.loc.gov/poetry/180/ which also became a book and has produced a second volume. It was intended to promote K-12 teachers using a poem a day in their classes.
  • Robert Pinsky started the Favorite Poem Project favoritepoem.org
  • Robert Hass promoted the River of Words project for writing about nature and the environment by children riverofwords.org
  • Still, some poets just act as ambassadors of poetry without any special project, like Louise Gluck (2003-04) or the late Stanley Kunitz (2000-01) who, of course, was 95 at the time.

June 16, 2006

Shakespeare in the Park

Poster by Rafal Olbinski

A good part of summer in New York City is Shakespeare in the Park. I used to be a regular attendee but it has been a lot tougher to get into NYC for a day - and the lines for free tickets has gotten long (a good thing for Shakespeare though). Some of the best productions I've ever seen were there in the park and I saw Kevin Kline, Meryl Streep and a lot of other actors before they hit the really big time money in films.

This year is its 50th year and the series starts with free performances of Macbeth in Central Park.

If you can't get to the park, you can at least read Shakespeare online and explore popular books and lesser-known gems at your computer using Google Book Search. The search is a cool tool anyway.

June 15, 2006

Walt Whitman Poetry Festival - October 7, 2006

The free 4th Annual Walt Whitman Poetry Festival will be held on Saturday, October 7, 2006 at Auditorium Square Park in Ocean Grove, New Jersey from 9:00AM to 5:30.

The schedule will include featured poets Laura Boss, Maria Gillan, Peter Murphy and BJ Ward. There will be workshops, tutorials, panels (including one by editors about getting published) readings and open readings.

The Walt Whitman Poetry Festival website contains the most up-to-date information including directions and information on accomodations and other area attractions.

It's a nice event and Ocean Grove is a really interesting NJ shore town that's unlike most others. I'll be doing a reading that day and hope to meet some Poets Online poets and blog readers.

June 10, 2006

Jennifer Michael Hecht and Doubt

I was listening to one of my regular podcasted radio programs this week and heard a name that sounded familiar - Jennifer Michael Hecht.

The program is Speaking of Faith which is hosted by Krista Tippett and I highly recommend it. It's not really about religion in the organized religion sense, it is about faith and spirituality - and it's not preachy or new age. Look at the show's archive and you'll get the best sense about the scope of topics. You can listen online or download the podcasts.

The program I heard featured the historical scholar Jennifer Michael Hecht. On the show site it says that "as a scholar she always noticed the 'shadow history' of doubt out of the corner of her eye. She shows how non-belief, skepticism, and doubt have paralleled and at times shaped the world's great religious and secular belief systems. She suggests that only in modern time has doubt been narrowly equated with a complete rejection of faith, or a broader sense of mystery." The title of the show was "A History of Doubt" and Hecht's book is Doubt: A History (Harper SanFrancisco, 2003)

I checked back on Poets Online to confirm and Jennifer Michael Hecht was the poet I used for a prompt on "revisionist history" last year. I used her poem "History" for the prompt and you can read the poem and hear her read it on the show site along with another poem, "No, I Would Not Leave You If You Suddenly Found God".

BTW, I took their online "Scale of Doubt" Quiz and it says I am an agnostic, but I'm not so sure about that.

Jennifer Michael Hecht's web site is at jennifermichaelhecht.com

Read Krista's journal entry on doubt
- it's an interesting extension on the ideas in the program. Doubt would make a good writing prompt too...

June 7, 2006

Rediscovery and "The Discovery of Sex"

"The Discovery of Sex" a poem by Debra Spencer, (from Pomegranate, Hummingbird Press, 2004) was one that I heard read by Garrison Keillor on The Writer's Almanac and later went to the webite to find the print version.

Though its title says discovery, I'm pointing at the rediscovery that's in there for our June writing prompt.

In her poem, two adolescents (one the narrator) discover sex, as perhaps their daughter years later is discovering it somewhat by seeing them. And woven into that is the parents rediscovering something from their past, and the woman recalling her own mother calling to them to stop fooling around - the scene now renacted by their own daughter.

Sex is certainly one of the things that is always being rediscovered, both by young people who believe they have found something new, and rediscovered by older people who perhaps may have forgotten where they had put it - but I see no need to write only about sex when there is so much else to be rediscovered.

BIO NOTE: Debra Spencer invented her own alphabet when she was three. She wrote her first book in the second grade and went on to earn a BA from the University of California at Santa Cruz in 1972 and an MA from San Jose State University in 1988, where she won the Anne Lillis Memorial Scholarship for Poetry. In her desk she keeps a Bart Giammati baseball card, a fossilized shark’s tooth, the tuning key to an Anglian harp, and a piece of the Berlin Wall. She works at Cabrillo College as a learning disabilities specialist, and sings with Community Music School of Santa Cruz.