Bookmarks: An American man of letters

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Donald Hall died in Wilmot, N.H. on June 23 on the farm at Eagle Pond where his great-grandparents had moved in 1865. He spent his summers there as a young boy, haying and milking with his grandfather, and he lived there after 1975 with his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, until her death in 1995. The farm was where he finished his final book, "A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety" (Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2018), in time for its publication just days after he died.

Hall was one of the last of the "great men of letters generation" — writers who with spirit, skill, and dedication spanned both years and genres to achieve a special place in literature. He wrote more than fifty books, from prize-winning poetry to prize-winning children's books, from non-fiction about baseball, the sculptor Henry Moore and the poet Marianne Moore to anthologies of American poetry, from memoirs to essay collections. And yes, letters and more letters.

He received nearly every major poetry prize — The Newdigate Prize at Oxford, the Lamont Poetry Prize for his first book, the Edna St. Vincent Millay Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and nominations for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. He was named the United States Poet Laureate in 2006, and he received the National Medal of Arts from President Obama in 2010. But beyond these achievements in literature, Hall may have written more words in his daily correspondence than in the rest of his work.

I became one of the hundreds of his correspondents after inviting him to be the guest speaker at a medical honor society dinner at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 1970, an honor that had traditionally been bestowed upon a distinguished physician. Hall engaged and entertained the crowd of medical students with his poems, his wit, and his humanity, and we soon began to exchange letters in a correspondence that stretched over nearly 50 years. We wrote about the same things that he explored in his poetry — family, the Red Sox, aging, life. When I sent off a letter to him, I was always confident that I would hear back within days in a characteristic brief, typed letter on Eagle Pond Farm stationery with his corrections to his transcriptionist's version made in black ink. He dictated his responses to dozens of weekly letters while sitting in his comfortable blue chair listening to his beloved Red Sox, proofread each letter the next day, and sent them off.

His final book, "Carnival of Losses," is a fitting coda to his remarkable body of work. These essays and reminiscences address topics that he repeatedly returned to in a writing career that began with his first published poem at age 14 — the cycles of the natural world, the gifts of family and tradition on a New England farm, the joy of the great love of a woman, the heartbreak and unrelenting grief of losing that life partner, and the inevitable losses of friends and capacity that comes with aging.

Each year, I try to honor authors who have died in the previous twelve months by reading and writing about their work. In Hall's case, my choice of a single book to read will be difficult. His "Ox Cart Man" and "The Man Who Lived Alone" are beautiful books that I read to my young daughters and now read to my grandson. His "Lifework," a memoir about writing and living in New Hampshire, remains my "go to book" for gifts to friends and contains cherished passages where he writes about the "absorbedness in his work" and the elements in his "favorite day" from that first morning cup of coffee and picking up the newspaper at the general store to sitting down to work on his latest drafts of new poems. His "String Too Short to be Saved" and the three books about Eagle Pond Farm transport the reader to the New England farm where he was the fourth generation to live, love, and work. His "Essays After Eighty" and the just published "Notes Nearing Ninety" are filled with reminiscences and observations on aging and poetry.

Each of these books merits a second (or in my case, a third or fourth) read, but I will likely turn to his poetry, where a remarkable talent for finding, as Coleridge said, "the best words in the best order," was a constant presence. From "Exiles in Marriage" (1955) to his collected poems in "White Apples and the Taste of Stone" (2006) and his "Selected Poems" (2010), Hall remained focused on expressing common experience in simple, yet expressive and often moving language. He often mused about the transitory nature of fame, especially for poets, but it is likely that he will be long remembered for his book "Without," deeply moving poems written after the death of his young wife. For me, however, his poems about the ancestral farm in rural New Hampshire and his life there first with his grandparents, later with Kenyon, and finally living on alone will always be my favorites.

When I asked him last year for his choice of a poem for me to post on Poetry on the Charles, an old cherry tree where I hang poems for the enjoyment of passing runners, walkers, and bicyclists along the Charles River in Cambridge, Mass., he chose "Summer Kitchen":

In June's high light she stood at the sink

With a glass of wine,

And listened for the bobolink,

And crushed garlic in late sunshine.

I watched her cooking, from my chair.

She pressed her lips

Together, reached for kitchenware,

And tasted sauce from her fingertips.

"It's ready now. Come on," she said.

"You light the candle."

We ate, and talked, and went to bed,

And slept. It was a miracle.

Donald Hall was also a miracle. I will miss him.

Michael F. Epstein is a retired physician who reads and writes in Brownsville, Vt. and Cambridge, Mass. He can be reached at mfepstein@gmail.com


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