The Hall effect

The effusive obituaries and encomiums for Donald Hall have given me pause. He was, by most accounts, an “important” poet, part of the miraculous crew born in the mid- to late-1920s. He served as poet laureate for a time, and remained something of a revered public figure. He received the Frost Medal and Ruth Lilly prize, both for lifetime achievement. And yet, I could not name a single poem of his, let alone quote one. The only books of his on my shelf are Remembering Poets and its later revision, Their Ancient Glittering Eyes, which I recall greatly enjoying once upon a time. But as for the poetry itself? I had nothing. So, I turned to my floppy, well-worn copy of Poulin’s Contemporary American Poetry, and was amused to discover that Hall had edited the first edition!

Perusing the poems, I vaguely recall reading them decades ago, but nothing really stuck with me. And, I must admit, the intervening years have not endowed them with any new and uncanny resonance. I still find them all rather pedestrian.

Hall was a vocal critic, and seemed to have little patience for poetry that did not comport with his tastes and preferences. But even if you agree with his assessments, it’s hard not to view them as the peevish pronouncements of a crotchety old man who just can’t understand these kids nowadays.

In fact, Hall was basically the poster child for white male privilege in the academy. Born in New Haven, he attended Exeter, Harvard, Oxford, and Stanford. He taught for a while at U. Michigan, but then retired to the family estate in New England. He served as The Paris Review’s first poetry editor. He was an advisor to the NEA during the senior Bush presidency and was named Poet Laureate by the junior.

Much has been made of his marriage to Jane Kenyon; perhaps it was happy and productive, but I, for one, find it distinctly icky when a college professor shacks up with an undergrad 20 years his junior. Surely an older academic should engage in some self reflection before plunging in to such a relationship—especially with his divorce so recent (or perhaps not even finalized) when it began. To be fair, Hall is not the only one with such a complicated personal history (Yeats, of course, comes to mind); but his relationship with Kenyon perhaps provide a lens through which to view his work, a lens defined by self-regard without self-awareness.

Perhaps I’m being unfair. Clearly, many people have a high opinion of his poetry. Maybe I simply haven’t read enough, but I can’t say that I share that assessment. On the other hand, he exhibited a profound influence on American poetry, and helped shape the debate about the value and function of poetry. Much of that debate—between the raw and the cooked, the well-wrought and the naked—was still going on during my formative years, and helped shape my own ideas about what makes a poem (or a poet) truly great.