Letters: Writing Donald Hall, by Charles Bane, Jr.

Editor Carrie Seitzinger, Letters, July 29th, 2014

Tonight, here, poems have raised their oars to the sky...

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In the winter of 2012, Donald Hall, then eighty three years old, could sit back at his rural home, Eagle Pond Farm, in New Hampshire and accurately reflect that he was the most significant contemporary poet in the United States.  He had recently been awarded the National Medal of the Arts by President Barack Obama. He was past Poet Laureate of the United States; a winner, in 1988, of the National Book Critics Circle Award for his masterwork The One Day, which was also nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. He was a two-time Guggenheim Fellow, and winner of the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize.

In all, he had authored more than fifty works of verse, children’s books, essays and biography. Much of his later work focused on his relationship with his wife, the distinguished poet Jane Kenyon who died of leukemia in 1995, and whose death was a blow from which he never recovered.

In a life devoted to his craft, Hall had interviewed and formed lasting relationships with four titans of twentieth century poetry: Dylan Thomas, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and Robert Frost. These interviews appeared in both The Paris Review (he was the review’s Poetry Editor from 1953 until 1961), and later books.

Hall and I began writing one another in January of 2012. It was a condition of our correspondence that I would not ask for a public endorsement of my work, nor publish our letters in full until after his death. Hall himself never went near a computer. I emailed my letters to his assistant Kendall Currier, who transcribed these into hard copy. Hall then replied by hand or dictation and these were emailed in return.

I had no desire to impose on him; he was busy writing prose pieces for The New Yorker, where he had carte blanche, and essays. He had earned the chance to face the sun. To my surprise, we began writing one another nearly every other day. I realized at once that thinking was writing to Hall; they were one and the same. I never referenced a quotation; he processed them encyclopedically. It was liberating.

I was equally surprised to find that the past Poet Laureate was coolly but often assessing whether his work would be remembered.  He took quick note that his finest book, The One Day had the weakest sales. To him, it did not portend well. I took a lesson from this: the life of a poet is virtually without reward. For that most ignored class of artists, it must be enough to roam the netherworld of the inner self and return like Darwin with images and discoveries not set down before. And acknowledgement, let alone accolade, may never come.

Of one thing he was certain: Frost would be remembered. It wasn’t a benign remark. In Remembering Poets (Remembering Poets: Reminiscences and Opinions; Dylan Thomas, T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, Ezra Pound by Donald Hall, Harper and Row, 1978) he had detailed Frost’s personal cruelty, and ruthless sense of competition. But this was a brief shadow in our sunny letters.

In the end, Hall had formulated that poets disappear and then appear again in cycles. And we were both certain of this: that more than painters, composers and novelists, it is poets on who stars fall.

Ill, his letters sputtered and stopped. I did not write. We’d corresponded for nearly a year. I gathered our letters into a manuscript, annotated and with an introduction and donated it to The Paris Review. I received a handsome letter of thanks. I remembered Hall’s enormous pride that Jane Kenyon had refused to allow him to leverage his stature to advance her career, and I had new poems I wished to write.

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To Donald Hall – May 25, 2012

Dear Don,

My first day of normalcy after a week of serious illness. Thank you for your kind words about my work in your last letter. Alas, I do not read Hebrew. I remember I.F. Stone in an interview when he was in his eighties, discussing his delight in learning Greek when he was retired. I’d like to imitate his example. There is a fine translation of the The Five Books of Moses by Everett Fox–it was his life’s work–from the original Hebrew. The narrative is raw, tribal, and unaccountably moving. But it is not the King James, which I keep by my bed to reassure myself that miracles take place in poetry and that genius is always new under the sun.

I preserve our letters and their camaraderie. When I go to my desk to write, I say to myself, I have a friend who searches out the best and is persuaded that everything that is beautiful is of a common thing and, wrested alone by artists, is borne in flocks.

Always,

Charles

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To Donald Hall – June 22, 2012

Dear Don,

A late June night in Florida is like every other month of the year, except that the poinciana trees are in bloom for these weeks only and the grass below them is red and bright yellow. If the Florida resident wants changes of season, he or she must make them up and pretend that the Royal Palm trees brought from Hawaii where they grow as tall as buildings are oak or maple in the season they are remembering. For the rest, the year here is not of season, but of tide. At low tide on the Intracoastal Waterway, alligators sleep near the fishermen who walk onto the mud to catch their supper, or go shrimping with net and lantern.

It is fine to write poetry, but it is fine also not to, to have a finished manuscript in the hands of a book designer and not to be lost in the physics of verse. It is better than writing poetry to leave the windows open at bedtime and hear mockingbirds all night, and to be piped by birds to a cafe to read and watch the sunrise like a starfish. It is better still to be with my son without distraction and to have breakfast and talk.

“The One Day” was more than a day’s work, so perhaps seasons are illusory for writers in any climate. If you are reading Hemingway it is almost always Fall or early Spring, and Melville loves the snow that falls on the waves. Tonight, here, poems have raised their oars to the sky and time is slowed and prized.

Always,

Charles

[Photo Credit: AP]

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Charles Bane Jr. letters nailed magazineCharles Bane, Jr. is the American author of The Chapbook (Curbside Splendor, 2011) and Love Poems (Kelsay Books, 2014). His work was described by The Huffington Post as “not only standing on the shoulders of giants, but shrinking them.” A writing contributor to The Gutenberg Project, he is a current nominee as Poet Laureate of Florida. Visit his official website here.

 

 

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Carrie Seitzinger

Carrie Seitzinger is Editor-in-Cheif and Co-Publisher of NAILED. She is the author of the book, Fall Ill Medicine, which was named a 2013 Finalist for the Oregon Book Award. Seitzinger is also Co-Publisher of Small Doggies Press.
Learn more about her at her official site.