Allan Cooper: Many of your poems seem to have a sculptural, polished form, even the long free-verse poems of Kicking the Leaves and The Happy Man. Did your work with Henry Moore change your way of seeing the world, perhaps in a more sculptural way?
Donald Hall: You know I’ve known the old poets (and wrote about them in prose) and Dylan Thomas (who never got to be old) and Robert Frost and T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. And I’ve often said that I learned more from Henry Moore than I ever learned from any poet. I think I’ve talked about a couple of things. One is the difference between size and scale. Henry gave me a little bronze maquette, eight inches long–and its scale is about as big as a basketball court. I surely thought that it was size that conferred scale. No way. Another that Henry said, and maybe he was repeating something Rodin said? Never think of a surface except as the extension of a line.* One sees it every minute, looking at his sculpture–but think of applying it to a poem! I’ve tried.
Allan Cooper: The Selected Poems of Donald Hall is a very tight collection, reflecting your changes in subject matter and form over the past sixty years. And yet your distinct voice remains constant throughout those changes. This becomes evident when you place an early poem, for example “The Town of Hill,”next to the later poem “Great Day in the Cows’ House.” In your Postscriptum you say you chose the poems “willy-nilly.” But to me this seems a very carefully considered choice and placing of poems. Was it difficult to leave out a poem such as “Elegy for Wesley Wells” from this selection?
Donald Hall: You ask why I left out my Elegy for my dear grandfather. I wrote it when he died, when I was in Oxford in March 1953. Of course I tinkered with it after that, but I seemed to feel it was not good enough, that it strained to become, oh, “Lycidas” maybe. Of course he turns up everywhere in my writing, I’m thinking of prose writing, as well as my daily thoughts–along with Jane Kenyon of course.
When I was young I looked upon successful careers as continual rising. Of course you go up and down, up and down. In my 30s and 40s I had a long down patch, and published many hideous poems in magazines that I never reprinted—but also reprinted many in books or pamphlets that I should not have printed. One was published by David Godine in a sort of hardback pamphlet called The Town of Hill, and the title poem was the nearest thing to a good poem that I’d written in five or ten years! It was late in that volume, which came out just as Jane and I arrived in New Hampshire. My lowest point coincided with my divorce and five years of booze and casual promiscuity before I met and married Jane. When we were first married, it took me a while to get started. Actually I wrote the first parts of The One Day, although I couldn’t bring it together for another dozen years, and started “Kicking the Leaves” (the poem not the book) before leaving Ann Arbor to move into this New Hampshire house. Here the place and the marriage to Jane flowered, and I wrote the book Kicking the Leaves, with my horses and my cows et cetera. It was my breakthrough.
Of course since then I went up and down and up and down. Jane’s death was an overwhelming emotional moment, and poems kept coming out of it for years. She died twenty-two years ago next spring. Some of the best of my late poems, like “Kill the Day,” or “Her Garden,” or “The Wish”–came out of her death years after her death.
My last “selection” was much, much too long, White Apples and the Taste of Stone. I make up for it. I left out a couple of poems that I truly like but they are each too long.
Allan Cooper: Several more recent poems, such as “The Master” and “Affirmation” seem to me to be almost Buddhist in nature. There is the sense of the emptying out of life in “Affirmation,” and the idea that the poet had best keep his or her nose out of the inner workings of the poem in “The Master.” Is this a fair assessment, or did you have something quite different from this in mind when you wrote these poems?
Donald Hall: I was not conscious of following Buddhist thought or practice, ever, during the composition of these poems–and I know what you mean! I can’t tell you the source for them. Each of them has had a lot of attention. I had more mail from the magazine publication of “Affirmation” (the New Yorker) than I ever had from any other poem. People cutting it out and sticking it on their refrigerators! Not quite so much from “The Master” but relatively speaking…
*The original quote by Moore is “Never think of a surface except as the extension of a volume.” Here Hall is referring to the line (or lines) of a poem.
—Donald Hall & Allan Cooper
Allan Cooper has published fourteen books of poetry, most recently The Deer Yard, with Harry Thurston. He received the Peter Gzowski Award in 1993, and has twice won the Alfred G. Bailey Award for poetry. He has also been short-listed three times for the CBC Literary Awards. Allan intermittently publishes the poetry magazine Germination, and runs the poetry publishing house Owl’s Head Press from his home in Alma, New Brunswick, a small fishing village on the Bay of Fundy.
It was nice to read this interview with Donald Hall. I still remember how excited I was when I first read his KICKING THE LEAVES. His poems have continued to be exciting.
Thanks, Robert. You should send me some poems again. Just thinking.
Thanks for the invitation. I’ll do that as soon as I get some ready to go out.