A Q&A With Poet Donald Hall, Author of December’s #1 Indie Next List Pick

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Booksellers have chosen The Selected Poems of Donald Hall (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) as their top Indie Next List pick for December. Now 87 years old, Hall, who served as Poet Laureate of the U.S. from 2006 to 2007, has selected what he considers the best of his poems from the past 70 years for inclusion in this collection.

Katharine Nevins, co-owner of MainStreet BookEnds of Warner in Warner, New Hampshire, said that The Selected Poems of Donald Hall “is a gift of honesty, intimacy, and the pure genius that is Donald Hall… the perfect introduction to Hall’s literary contributions, as well as closure for his many ardent followers.”

Bookselling This Week spoke with the author of poems such as “Ox-Cart Man,” “Kicking the Leaves,” and “Without” about why he no longer writes poetry and how he chose the poems to include in this essential volume of his published work.

Bookselling This Week: How many poems did you review to select the ones you ultimately included in the collection?

Donald Hall: I have no idea, but it was probably 12 or 13 times as many as I chose for White Apples and the Taste of Stone: Selected Poems 1946–2006. I chose the best, I hope.

BTW: Did you consciously try to represent all the stages of your life (childhood, marriage, fatherhood, your life after Jane Kenyon’s death) by picking a few poems from each stage?

DH: Yes, I tried to represent the different stages of my poetry. I begin with three from my first book, then a fourth from my second book — all metrical — and then I go to free verse for ages. Toward the end, I return to some metrical poems. The stages of life, the stages of poetic adventure.

BTW: Do you feel that the best of your poems were inspired by the most profound life events? Or is it the little moments that often lead to your most powerful work?

DH: I think that two subjects represent the most profound matters in my life. I lived on this farm when I was a child, haying with my grandfather. Those ecstatic summers stayed with me forever, and still stay, and include my return to live here with Jane Kenyon, when I wrote so many poems out of the old farming. Of course the other subject, profound and desperate, was Jane’s early death.

BTW: Which is your favorite poem in this book?

DH: Of course, I don’t have any idea what’s best. At the moment, my favorites are two poems out of Jane’s death. One is “Kill the Day,” a violent rant that the reader can’t follow unless he immerses himself in the hurtle. The other is a more quiet, metrical poem, “Her Garden.”

BTW: You say that you lost the gift for writing poetry after a certain age. To the layman, this may sound mysterious. How is such a thing possible?

DH: I have always felt that poetry was intrinsically sexual, mostly by way of its sound, its mouth-pleasures. When erotic feeling dims and disappears, maybe in one’s eighties, poetry disappears with it. I’m glad I discovered this and didn’t continue struggling to write bad poems.

BTW: You’re also the author of the 2014 book Essays After Eighty. How is writing poetry different from writing prose?

DH: There is sound in prose also, by way of rhythm, and I love it. Some of those essays took 85 drafts! There is much less concentration on mouth-sounds. Structure of sentences, sequence of short, long, clauses, simple, complex, compound — and using word order for wit.

BTW: Has poetry been the most important thing in your life?

DH: From the age of 14 to the age of 87 (even if I can’t write it), poetry has been the most important thing.