Eagle Pond Farm is familiar to even the casual reader of Donald Hall. The weather-beaten spread, hard by Route 4 at the foot of Ragged Mountain in Wilmot, N.H., has been home to Hall's maternal clan since 1865. It is the subject or setting of many of his pms and essays, providing a consistent reference point for more than 40 years of work. It is the place where Hall spent summers growing up, returning for good in 1975 after re-marrying and giving up tenure at the University of Michigan to write full-time. And it is the house where his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, died in 1995.
In Without (Houghton Mifflin), Hall records the unbearable facts of a present he and Kenyon were powerless to alter. A slow-motion portrait of Kenyon's descent into the horrors of aggressive treatment following her leukemia diagnosis in 1994 at the age of 46, the collection continues without recoil through to her last days, spent choosing the poems for Kenyon's Otherwise: New &Selected Poems (Graywolf), and her final minutes. A second section addresses Kenyon directly, after her death. With their deliberate cadences, the poems seem written from a place beyond solace or anguish, a contracted world that leaves Hall bereft, with no relief, but still insisting on trying to say what has happened.
Readers will of course be tempted to draw parallels between Hall's book and Ted Hughes's bestselling Birthday Letters (FSG) whose publication made front-page news: both men were married to poets whose work was often highly personal and who were beset by depression and mania, and both collections address the poet's departed spouse in verse. While the real-life likenesses end there, Without is already generating the kind of attention unthinkable for many books of poetry. The book has a first printing of 10,000 copies (perhaps five times the usual); Hall has been profiled in Mirabella and for National Public Radio; more media attention is sure to follow. While some of the reception is obviously due to a master poet who has written a culminating work, it raises questions about what it takes for a book of poems to penetrate the national consciousness.
In Without, Hall is forced to fight it out with a career's worth of demons: death, family, sex and how to proceed in a life that offers no guarantee of value or redemption. The struggle is made still more poignant by the fact that no one expected Hall to be alive to tell of it. Hall had written about his own illness a few short years before in books like the Museum of Clear Ideas (HM) and Life Work (Beacon), both published in 1993, speaking plainly of his colon cancer and the metastasis that took more than half of his liver. An Emmy Award-winning Bill Moyers special, A Life Together, found Hall and Kenyon resolved to make the most of their time together at Eagle Pond, as the threat of recurrence loomed. But with Kenyon's diagnosis, The Old Life, as Hall called the book of poems he published the year of her death, was over.
That Hall has remained at Eagle Pond Farm, where Kenyon "led the way back" after their marriage, seems fitting at the very least. On a gray February morning, PW is met at the kitchen door by Hall, and by Gus, the long-haired "dear mongrel" who makes appearances in Kenyon's poems and, more frequently now, in Hall's. Almost immediately, Hall ushers us into his study, closing the door to reveal the wall of photos of Kenyon he writes of as "The Gallery" in Without.
"That's the woman I married," Hall says of a young, slightly awkward Kenyon hidden behind thick framed glasses. "And that's the beauty she became," he says, gesturing to Kenyon "foxy and beautiful at 45," with tresses of dark hair offset with silver framing her strong features and even gaze.
Hall's own appearance has changed dramatically from the man of the Moyers special, reading tours and book jackets. Wisps of thinned red hair reach his shoulders, and a nearly gray beard spreads densely across much of his face. Hall is also rather tall; the net effect is authoritative, if not imposing. As he moves to sit in a chair by a window facing the road, waving PW to a couch across the room, it's difficult not to feel a little daunted. But Hall quickly makes one feel at ease, talking with what one recognizes as characteristic frankness about his prolific and esteemed career.
That career now includes 13 books of poems and what Hall calls the work that "supports my poetry habit": essay collections, textbooks, profiles of poets and artists, children's books and short stories. Hall's 1955 poetic debut at age 27, Exiles and Marriages (having himself married three years earlier), was such a success that he had trouble living it down. Part formalist send-up of bourgeois dalliance and divorce and part grave T.S. Eliot-influenced metaphysical inquiry, the book captured the literary zeitgeist of the period Robert Lowell called "the tranquilized fifties" perhaps too well. A glowing Time magazine review-rare even then for poetry-ran along with a photo of Hall as a serious young Harvard graduate (his colleagues on the Advocate included John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch and Robert Bly, who remains his best friend), one who would go on to win the Lamont poetry prize for his first outing. Hall, now 69, chuckles over his younger self's precocity. "I remember the man who wrote those poems, and in the immortal words of Richard Nixon, 'I peaked too soon.' I began to do better work later on," such as A Roof of Tiger Lilies (1964), "that wasn't noticed."
If that initial burst of fame tapered off after a while, it was enough to fuel a transition to a successful academic career. Having picked up a second bachelor's at Oxford and spent time as one of Harvard's Society of Fellows, Hall settled at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in 1957. He had two children with his first wife, and went on to publish and edit widely during the ensuing two decades. The marriage ended in 1969, and Hall entered what he has called "a bad patch of mid-life." When he met Kenyon in Ann Arbor, she was 22 and he 42; they married two years later. The impetus to move to Eagle Pond, inhabited by the family ghosts that populate Hall's work, came from Kenyon. The two were to devote themselves to writing, with Hall embarking on a freelance career that continues to this day. Hall's textbook, Writing Well (now in its ninth edition, with Addison Wesley Longman), was selling briskly, which "made it possible to think about coming here" in 1975.
Kicking the Leaves vaulted Hall back into prominence in 1978, going on to sell nearly 100,000 copies over the years. Many of its poems reappeared in Old & New Poems (Ticknor &Fields, 1990). "The standard sentence in the reviews of that book," Hall quips, "is that Hall has been around a long time and published a lot of books, but it wasn't until he quit teaching and moved to the New Hampshire house with his second wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, that he began to get good." Hall begs to differ somewhat but allows the pundits a measure of truth. "I felt a little aggrieved for some of my old poems, but if my work got better while I was here, I think it was partly because I was watching Janie, with tremendous stubbornness and hard work, get better and better."
Kenyon had just published her third book (exclusive of her translations of Anna Akhmatova), Let Evening Come, to warm reviews, and the two began to read together more frequently. Hall had already found further critical success with The Happy Man (1986) and The One Day (1988). The latter, a long poem in four parts that was 17 years in the making, won the NBCC Award for poetry and was a Pulitzer nominee. The book also, along with a collection of naturalist essays called Seasons at Eagle Pond, inaugurated Hall's long relationship with Houghton Mifflin, its (now defunct) imprint Ticknor &Fields and editor Peter Davison.
Hall remembers these times as some of the couple's happiest. "Jane's reputation had finally caught up with her poetry. And we went out and read together, and we lived in this house, and got up early, and worked. We had to make boundaries in order to live together and do the same thing, but we did, and it was just magnificent." Kenyon's Constance came out in 1993, along with Hall's Museum of Clear Ideas and Life Work. After Hall's illness, the couple went out on a joint book tour and also traveled to India for a second time.
They did their last reading together in January 1994, at Bennington. "We came back here, and she began to have flu symptoms. And I flew down to Charleston to do a reading and a lecture, two nights gone." After missing a connection on the way back, "I called and asked how she was doing. She told me about this terrible nose bleed, and how she had gone to the hospital to have it stopped, and that they were doing blood work. She was more upset, though, about the car's not starting and having to get it towed. This is hard to believe," Hall says, visibly agitated and upset, "but as I stood there, I thought 'Jane has leukemia.' " He pauses again, apologetically: "I can't stop telling this story."
Hall began drafting Without during Kenyon's treatment. "I nursed Jane here and at the hospitals, but there was a lot of other time to fill, and the most absorbing thing I could do was write. She often couldn't, but she was glad somebody could." As they had done during Hall's illness, the couple resolved to take things exactly as they came. "Jane and I were not deniers, we were proclaimers. We were not cheerful with one another. Writing about this is what I would have expected from us, and Jane did, too."
After Kenyon's death, Hall stayed at Eagle Pond, drafting and redrafting -- often up to 200 times -- the poems that would become Without. Slowly, he began to send them to friends and to read them in public. "People came up to me and spoke as if I had been brave to read these pms aloud. I don't feel brave. Talking of grief, talking of suffering, is something I seem to need to do. For some people, that's not their way. But to bring it to someone else, I think, relieves me." Seeing Otherwise through to press was also a comfort. Asked if he thinks that the circumstances of Kenyon's death have anything to do with her increased posthumous fame, Hall concurs: "Her fame is infinitely greater since her death, but she was aware that people were talking about her more and more, and reading her more, before she even got sick, so I don't feel too badly about that. She knew that people were beginning to find her." If Without gets more people to discover Kenyon's work, Hall will be all the more pleased. "She'd kick my ass if she thought I was promoting her at all before."
The idea of a glimpse into the raw stuff of a writing life shared -- and, in different ways, cut tragically short -- between two accomplished poets may be the main attraction for readers of both Hughes's Birthday Letters and Hall's Without. In the latter's case, the book will almost certainly be taken up, as Hall notes, "as a companion to the grief of others." But, he continues, "Art is what gets it from here to there." Just as any work must put up or shut up, it is the poems themselves that will hold readers to Without. "I may have failed in what I attempted to do, but a poem is not a poem unless it is a work of art. It may begin with a scream of pain, but you make that into a work of art or you have utterly failed."Since completing Without, Hall has not sent out any new poems to magazines, although he has been writing, and is "not ready to think about" his next collection. He will do a stint "teaching literature to poets" at New York University after a 10-city reading tour, where he will read Kenyon's work as well as his own. "Before, she wouldn't let me, but I'm reading her because I want to be with her. And I think that everything I write for the rest of my life will be affected by Jane, by the loss of her and her poetry. I'm surrounded by her. She's here."