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.


  1. I owe four of these poets laureate for making poetry important to me again after I left my English major behind back in '81. I'd heard Hall and his wife in an NPR interview in the late 80s that intrigued me enough to remember. Years later, I heard Pinsky locally and bought one of his books. Then I heard Billy Collins on NPR say that poetry needn't be the ordeal to read that I'd learned to make it, and I bought collections of his work, one after the other, reading it with growing excitement. Then I overdosed on Collins' stuff, and Kooser was the relief. Should mention that my interest in John Updike's novels led me to buy books of his poetry, too, and that his "Americana" hit me just at the time that Collins did - and it contains some poems that seem prescient in light of 9/11, which it preceded by just a few months.

  2. That's what being laureate is really about... and hurrah for Updike the novelist and Updike the (underappreciated) poet

  3. check out this interview with Hall



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