Monday, June 15, 2009

Donald Hall

Donald Hall is widely read and loved for his award-winning poetry, fiction, essays, and children’s literature. He has published sixteen collections of poetry, most recently White Apples and the Taste of Stone: Selected Poems 1946 – 2006. A former poet laureate of the United States, Hall is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His honors include two Guggenheim fellowships, the Poetry Society of America’s Robert Frost Silver medal, a Lifetime Achievement award from the New Hampshire Writers and Publisher Project, and the Ruth Lilly Prize for poetry. Hall lives on his ancestral farm in Wilmot, New Hampshire.


To grow old is to lose everything.
Aging, everybody knows it.
Even when we are young,
we glimpse it sometimes, and nod our heads
when a grandfather dies.
Then we row for years on the midsummer
pond, ignorant and content. But a marriage,
that began without harm, scatters
into debris on the shore,
and a friend from school drops
cold on a rocky strand.
If a new love carries us
past middle age, our wife will die
at her strongest and most beautiful.
New women come and go. All go.
The pretty lover who announces
that she is temporary
is temporary. The bold woman,
middle-aged against our old age,
sinks under an anxiety she cannot withstand.
Another friend of decades estranges himself
in words that pollute thirty years.
Let us stifle under mud at the pond's edge
and affirm that it is fitting
and delicious to lose everything.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

I’m not sure when I wrote it. Something like 2000? It started with the first line, not particularly original, but flashing in my mind and leading on.

How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?

Fewer revisions than usual. If I had to make a guess I would say thirty-five. Over four or five months?

Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?

Some inspiration. I remember that first line came accompanied by an energy and a momentum. But I have to keep a poem around and keep staring at it, changing a word every day or week.

How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?

At some point I realized that I had a liquid, or muddy, metaphorical area. I remember, in the lines about the lapsed friendship, having “ruin” or “destroy”—and changing it to “pollute.” It was a late revision.

How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?

I do not remember how long I let it lay about. I remember sending it out to the New Yorker thinking that the end of it did not work, and wondering whether I should send it or not. Unlike most of my New Yorker poems, this one was accepted immediately and published in just a couple of weeks. Sometimes I wait a year and a half.

How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?

Often I let a poem sit around for a year or so. It depends. When I have finished something, or taken it to a point where I don’t know what to do next, I show it to friends. I listen, make changes or not, and let it sit around some more.

Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?

I always opt for fiction if it makes the poem any better. The first friend who died did not die near a body of water.

Is this a narrative poem?

I don’t think it’s a narrative.

Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?

I have no notion of influences. This is not a denial.

Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?

I never have an audience in mind. At some point I am aware of a level of audience. When I work, I have no sense of myself or of any one to whom I am writing.

Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?

I have no recollection of anybody’s response. I am sure I showed it to friends.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

There are so many differences among my poems, formal with line-length or concentration on a long line or on a short line and assonance, narrative, rhyme, etcetera. I don’t think that this one differs from some others. But how would I know?

What is American about this poem?

I don’t know. It was written by an American.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

I certainly thought a lot about abandoning it. Obviously I didn’t. I’m glad I didn’t. I have had much response to it since its publication.


  1. Great interview. I'm very much a fan of The Museum of Clear Ideas. I appreciate the quick glimpse into Hall's writing process.

  2. In a culture that's so relentlessly youth-focused, it's moving and refreshing to read Hall's poem about the inevitable losses and disappointments that accompany aging. I also appreciate that Hall seems to be experiencing another kind of "letting go": that of caring how others perceive him and his poems! He's just writing them, and for himself, primarily. Good for him.

    Thanks, Brian.


  3. "Well, this could be an embarrassing answer, though I’m betting it’s not all that unusual. I sent this poem out regularly for two and a half years before it was accepted by Poetry International, a journal that has been very kind to me over the years."

    I loved reading this--it gives me hope! Thank you for your honesty.

  4. Hello. My name is Danielle and I am currently in a class called Creative Writing and Poetry at my high school. I looked at and analyzed this poem and I was wondering if Donald had the original copy? I would REALLY like to see what the original first draft was like just to see how far he came from the first to this draft.
    Thank you,

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