Poet Laureate of the United States talks with Robert Birnbaum
Posted: December 18, 2006
© 2006 Robert Birnbaum
Images by Red Diaz/Duende Publishing
First published in Identity Theory
Even before he was named Poet Laureate of the United States in June, Donald Hall was a familiar figure in contemporary poetry. During the last fifty years, he has published more than fifteen books of poetry—most recently White Apples and the Taste of Stone: Selected Poems 1946–2006—and has received two Guggenheim Fellowships, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and the Ruth Lilly Prize, among other honors. But his recent appointment will no doubt bring him closer to the center of popular culture. After all, in June his photograph appeared on the same People page in Time magazine as Angelina Jolie's. Hall brings to the position a reputation for being outspoken, which was forged most publicly when he served as an advisory council member of the National Endowment for the Arts during George H. W. Bush's presidency. The 77-year-old poet lives with his two cats, Thelma and Louise, in Wilmot, New Hampshire, on a farm once owned by his great-grandparents. He is currently at work on a collection of poems and two prose books. Two weeks after he was chosen to succeed Ted Kooser as poet laureate, I drove up to see Hall and he spoke eloquently and at length about his newfound responsibilities and other things.
Note: A very abridged version of this conversation appeared in the September 2006 issue of Poets and Writers.
Robert Birnbaum: How does one address the Poet Laureate?
Donald Hall: PLOTUS. Poet Laureate of the United States.
RB: As in the acronym for the President of the United States, POTUS?
RB: The position is described as "a lightning rod for the poetic impulse" in the country—what's your take?
DH: You are a figure for poetry for a while; while you are at the Library of Congress, you get asked to speak, and actually I think you have something to do with the readings that will take place at the Library of Congress.
RB: You haven't been told what you do?
DH: Not very much. There are a couple of fellowships that I can award, I believe small ones. And I have to choose judges for a prize—and I am going to find out.
RB: Learn as you go?
RB: There is no comprehensive job description?
RB: I guess you call up Ted Kooser.
DH: He's been writing me letters. Very sweet—full of advice.
RB: At least as far back as Robert Pinsky, the recent wave of Laureates has suggested mission statements—
RB: Proclamations of great intentions of advancing poetry. Have they?
DH: Some of them have. Louise Gluck did not, apparently. But Ted Kooser made 200 appearances in two years.
RB: Wow. He works almost as hard as James Brown.
DH: Just about. And he also chose a poem a week for newspapers. And 144 newspapers or something like that, had taken them. And they reprinted them. And that's good. And he is going to continue doing that. So I won't be doing that. I have been talking about radio and even television.
RB: Television? Poets on television?
DH: There have been lots in PBS over the years.
RB: PBS isn't exactly television (as HBO isn't)?
DH: At any rate, I will see what I can do.
RB: Is this an exciting moment? Are you brimming over with enthusiasm?
DH: I am exhausted right now. I am practically panicky because I have been getting interviewed 20-25 times, telephone interviews, in-person interviews.
RB: I was hoping to speak with you before your mind became numbed.
DH: Oh no, you are the last for a while.
RB: I'm the last? [laughs]
DH: Oh, there'll be more.
RB: Does it strike you as some kind of weirdness—you being no stranger to attention, having won awards and such—
DH: Nothing like this. Nothing remotely like this.
RB: What is special here? Why did it that make you more interesting now? It's not exactly a Supreme Court appointment.
DH: I know, but there is the appeal for fixing news to a particular person—a kind of celebrity culture. And in a small, small way—I have become part of it. Temporarily. It's my fifteen minutes of fame. I was on the people page in Time, with my photograph together with Angelina Jolie.
RB: Better than with Paris Hilton, I suppose. Had you given any thought to declining the position?
DH: Flittingly, because I like solitude. I live alone in this house and I like it. I have a lady friend who comes once a week. But basically I am alone here, not talking. The phone doesn't ring much. People know I don't like the telephone. I had 35 phone calls a day for a couple of days. And the letters are amazing. I had a hundred pieces of mail one day. Not all of them need to be answered—
RB: Getting letters must be a nice thing? A throwback—
DH: I am a throwback. I write letters. I get lots and lots of letters. I write lots of letters—100 a week. No, 75 anyway. I dictate answers. I have been dictating answers for 40 years and I'm comfortable with it. Many of them have questions—to which I do need to respond.
The poetry reading is popular. I have lived long enough so that I have seen poetry increase enormously in audience. I know that it is not so many people as go to the dog tracks one night in Florida, probably.
RB: There is the contemporary practice called FAQs where someone anticipates the things that people might be concerned with—you could do that.
DH: Ted Kooser did and he sent me a copy of his own. And so much of it is what I could say—the same thing. I may do it if it turns out I keep getting interviewed.
RB: I asked about consideration of declining the position more as a gesture of dissent. Did that occur to you?
DH: No. I knew this was not the administration. I was not [to be] George Bush's poet. People have not accused me of that. At least not yet. And it's the Library [of Congress]; it's quite separate from the administration.
RB: And you will not be asked to write a poem about a wedding or some silliness?
RB: In fact, you won't be asked to write any poems—that's not the, uh, job.
DH: No, not for anything at all. And it's free that way.
RB: Speaking of what may occasion a poem, any thoughts about David Ortiz?
DH: I have great gratitude towards David Ortiz and his amazing talent for the walk-off.
RB: Recently when he did it two games in a row, it became a magical thing—worthy of some great gesture—an epic poem, I don't know. With your widely known love for baseball—might you?
RB: You've written two books on baseball. Would you—how do you decide a subject? Does it just happen?
DH: It just happens. Some words come into my head. And I begin to write. I wrote a poem about Ted Williams at an old timers day. And I wrote a poem called "Baseball." Which is nine parts, each of nine stanzas, each of nine lines, each one nine syllables. In that particular poem I talk about baseball only about 10% of the time. It's a collage—I pretend I am teaching baseball to Kurt Switters, the great collagist, but I have my own collage in there. But there is a lot of baseball in it. And so it's not directly baseball.
RB: So much of baseball is not directly baseball, anyway.
RB: Forgive this silly question [laughs]. What was Robert Frost really like?
DH: Robert Frost could be difficult—he was very kind to me. But he was very vain. And very competitive. One time I was walking to a school building at the University of Michigan where I taught and Frost had been writer-in-residence twice. Very early in his career. And we happened to pass a room and I said, "That's where I teach." And he said, "They didn't make me teach."
DH: Here he was, six years older than I am—enormously famous—and he had to be even a little bit competitive with me. But he was very kind to me. And I met him on many occasions and talked with him. I found him very pleasant, but I was always sort of worried—
RB: That he might turn?
DH: Yeah, but he never did, except for that time and that was hardly a turn.
RB: Is he the most well known American poet? Like the brand name of poets?
DH: Yeah he probably still is. His reputation went down a bit after he died—everybody's does. But it's back there now, and it will stay there. Whitman and Dickinson are the only people, I think, who could compare with him. In another way, the Englishman T.S. Eliot, who is under some shadow now, he is certainly very well known. But not so much as Frost. Frost would like that.
RB: Is his fame to do with his adoption by John Kennedy?
DH: Do people remember that now? I'm not sure.
RB: What's responsible for his stature—his body of work?
DH: On his work and the fact that he is easy to understand, for the most part. And he forms part of a link of imagined rural past. Which is imagined for most people who have never known it. But—there it is.
RB: His observation that poetry is what's lost in translation is so telling—which makes how we are to apprehend non-English poems a problem. Poetry ought not to be localized, and this country we seem not read literature in translation anyway—
DH: Largely except for the big names. Homer. Dante.
RB: They are forgiven for being foreign.
DH: I feel distrust of all translations. I know it's not the real thing. The real thing is only the poem itself. And the sounds it makes. And you cannot imitate the sounds in a foreign language. A different set of phonemes.
RB: I have the same concern about prose in translation—thus I credit the translator as an almost equal partner in the creative process.
RB: Your stance is that poetry is so aurally based or driven—
RB: —that translating a Spanish poem into English you're not getting—
DH: —the same thing. I read translations anyway. And I see what people are writing about. I see sometimes how they are constructing their poems with images and even with metaphors that cohere, if it's a good translation—and I get something from it, but I know I'm a not getting the real thing. The real poem is only itself.
RB: So we should not pay attention to the translation?
DH: When we do we are paying attention only to a facsimile—only to a part of the poem.
RB: What do you make of the joke that more people write poetry than read it?
DH: Well, that's not true.
DH: People listen to it a good deal, the poetry reading is popular. I have lived long enough so that I have seen poetry increase enormously in audience. I know that it is not so many people as go to the dog tracks one night in Florida, probably. But when I was growing up a book of poems by a well known—in that context—well known poet would be printed in an edition of one thousand hardback copies. And if that sold out in three years it was doing pretty well. But now the same poet or same sort of reputation and there are more of them, would be printed in a 1st printing of eight or ten thousand.
DH: Oh sure. And they sell at the poetry reading a lot. But the poetry reading is a big audience. More people attend the readings than buy the books.
RB: Camille Paglia came out with a book of her own favorites or some such—not the best or greatest.
DH: I have heard about it but not read it.
RB: She included a song by Joni Mitchell, "Woodstock."
DH: I haven't read that particular poem or song. But I have read a good many and I don't think they make it as poems. There are lots of great songs in the Elizabethan period, which are good poems, not great poems, but after that, not. And I read the Beatles and read [Bob] Dylan and so on, and they can be pleasant to read, but they lack the intensity and aesthetic wholeness of a good poem. They rely on music, mostly. They are songs. And it's wonderful to hear songs, but that doesn't mean that a good song makes a good poem.
RB: Your criterion being that the poem has to rely solely on its own music or the words create their own music?
DH: There is a total disconnect between music-music and poetry-music, and a good poem with a beautiful sound doesn't necessarily make a good song. People set them to song. There is a poem by my late wife, Jane Kenyon, that has been set, God knows how many times. "Let Evening Come." It has been set by many, many composers. I haven't counted, but there would be at least 25 versions of that out there. Sometimes for a chorus, sometimes for a single voice. So people think that sets well—and I can see why they would because of the repetitions and its long vowels that hold on to a sound, but that doesn't mean that Joni Mitchell is singing them.
People tend to say in newspaper articles, "Poetry has lost its audience." It means poetry has lost me. And there is a great deal of an audience out there. Not everybody loses it, but some people do. It is associated with college time and so on.
RB: I had interest in poetry as an undergraduate but since I left school—
DH: That happens, that happens much. That's why people tend to say in newspaper articles, "Poetry has lost its audience." It means poetry has lost me. And there is a great deal of an audience out there. Not everybody loses it, but some people do. It is associated with college time and so on.
RB: Additionally, I presumed to try to write poetry then—
DH: Why not?
RB: Of course, except what I wrote was muck. But what I thought was valuable about Paglia's book was that it was a re-acquaintance, it refocused me on poems—
RB: So since my re-immersion I have gone back to old favorites and new poems. I really like a poem by Paul Zimmer called "Zimmer Imagines Heaven":
After the meal Brahms passes fine cigars.
God comes then, radiant with a bottle of cognac,
She pours generously into the snifters,
I tell Her I have begun to learn what
Heaven is about. She wants to hear.
It is, I say, being thankful for eternity.
Her smile is the best part of the day.
DH: I don't remember that poem.
RB: In the recording I have of it, he says it's just a list and a lot of poetry is just lists—it's a simple poem and I just can't hear it enough. Are there some that are like that for you?
DH: Oh yes. Poems that I can't get enough of and I know them very well. And I say them many times. Thomas Hardy, the poet who apparently wrote a few novels too.
RB: He did? Nice of you to acknowledge that.
DH: There are some poems there that seem to me to be so beautiful in the language and I can't get enough.
RB: Tell me one.
DH: Well, one called "During Wind and Rain." It's probably my very favorite, and there is another great one called "Transformations" which is quite short.
RB: Recently someone published a book, a whole book on Allen Ginsberg's "Howl."
DH: Yeah, it was a collection of essays on "Howl."
RB: It is a long poem, but I wonder if the only things that people remember is the opening stanzas?
DH: "I have seen the best minds of my generation…"
RB: A powerful statement—I looked to see the ending, which was about Ginsberg's friend, Carl Solomon, who was in a mental hospital. What is your measure of Howl's place in the culture? It seems that the Beats are now dismissed.
DH: They have no followers now. But "Howl" is a poem that I don't cherish particularly. I like other poems by Ginsberg more. It was a poem that made news. It announced the Beat Generation and it sold enormously at the time. And for people who were young at that time it was a kind of liberation—it was a definite, not a "kind of" liberation—and they retain their fondness for that poem as one retains a fondness for one's youth.
RB: I am fond of Lawrence Ferlinghetti's "Coney Island of the Mind." But my first favorite poem was Frank O'Hara's "To the Harbormaster."
DH: He's very good. I knew him at college. And had been in the Navy for four years he was older than me—Kenneth Koch was there also. And there was Adrienne Rich and John Ashbery and Robert Bly and me.
RB: Almost a baseball team.
DH: Practically. It was a hell of a time for poetry—at that college at that time.
RB: Poets seem to come pretty much from academia now?
DH: A great many go to MFA programs and they don't start so young as they did. My first book, it was published when I was 27. And I no longer like much of it—there is some of it in the new book but very little. But the group I was speaking of at Harvard, we were all intensely poets. We all had chosen what we wanted to do.
RB: You all wore berets and smoked Gauloise cigarettes?
DH: I don't mean that at all. I meant we were tremendously full of poetry and there were few of us but we were intensely in love with it and that was what we were doing—that's all we were doing. It was not something we did among other things.
RB: I was joking, but there is a tendency, seemingly most connected with poetry and maybe music, to pose and posture.
DH: Well, I have done some of that too. I was full of it when I was 14 years old. I tried to pretend I was crazy—to be interesting. Especially for girls.
RB: Did it work?
There is a total disconnect between music-music and poetry-music, and a good poem with a beautiful sound doesn't necessarily make a good song.
DH: No. It works a lot better when you are older.
RB: If I asked you for any career advice for aspiring poets that you might be positive and hopeful—you wouldn't say, "What, are you crazy?"
DH: Oh, of course not.
RB: It's not a career.
DH: It's a life. It's a whole life. And my advice to young poets is pretty standard—read the old people. Read the 17th century. Don't just read 20th century. Sometimes you get the impression that people think that poetry began in 1984 or something. And read the old boys and revise. Revise endlessly. Never show a poem to anybody else until you have worked on it yourself for a couple of months.
RB: A couple of months?
DH: Or a couple of years. Depending on how long it takes. I often don't show poems for two years. I keep working at it.
RB: But you are not just working on one poem?
DH: No, several at once. And they come and go at different speeds. At some point I will ship them to other people to get a response and usually then I will go back to the workshop after I have shown it to somebody else. They point out the errors and problems that I haven't been aware of, and I have to start over again, more or less. But it takes me a good long time before I am ready to put something in print.
RB: You are a man of many talents—you write prose. Essays—
DH: I made a living by writing for 31 years. Poetry contributes to that because of the readings—that's where the financial reward comes in poetry. Not in publication in magazines or the sales of books, to speak of. But the sale of books is considerably more than they used to be.
RB: You write essays—
DH: And children's books and textbooks.
RB: Which is more like the British Grub Street tradition—
DH: Absolutely—I love it. I had tenure. I gave it up in order to write full time. And live in this house. I was teaching in Michigan and I couldn't commute from here, so I had to quit my job in order to live here. And Jane was pushing me all of the time. She loved it here so much. She wanted to live here. She grew up, her parents being freelancers—musicians—so it wasn't so scary for her. So we came here with a mortgage and one of my kids in college and the other not yet in college and I made a living by writing—writing essays and writing for magazines a great deal. But after a while it got so I would never write anything for a magazine that I couldn't foresee collecting in a book later. So I would get paid twice. I like writing prose—I just don't care for it as much as writing poetry.
RB: Because? Not the same emotional impact?
DH: Yeah, the emotional intensity, the power packed into a small unit.
RB: This is your grandparents' home—
DH: Great grandparents originally.
RB: Going how far back?
DH: 1865. My grandmother was born here. And my mother.
RB: Your connection to this place must be incredibly—I don't know—deep.
DH: Sure, I started coming here when I was a child and the rest of the year I was in Hampden, CT, a block of houses that were the same house, with the same cars, same incomes. And I came up here and there was terrific diversity, rich and poor, educated and retarded, and everything in between, altogether and my grandparents had one horse, no car, no tractor and the horse did all of the hard work and we hayed with my grandfather. I had a bedroom where I had a table and I'd work there in the mornings while he was cutting hay, working on poetry—and not prose—and in the afternoon I would go haying with him and the culture up here was a storytelling culture. He was a great storyteller and he knew hundreds of poems by heart. And he would recite poems while he was milking the Holsteins.
RB: Had you never lived here, what might your work have been like?
DH: If I had spent my whole life in a city or suburb I presume I would have written anyway, but what I would have written about—outhouses—would have been entirely different. It's a general opinion that my poetry started to get good or made a big leap when I moved here at 47, when I left my teaching job at Ann Arbor to move here and Jane and I just concentrate entirely on poetry. I would work on poems first thing in the day. Then I would work on magazine articles, and textbooks and children's books to boil the pot. I liked doing it—I'm not complaining. I really loved doing it, but I often had four books out in a given year. That's how we lived. Right now I am working on two prose books as well as a few poems, but I don't do so many different things as I used to do. I can't seem to write kids' books any more.
RB: Why not?
DH: I don't know. One thing, while Jane was alive—she was nineteen years younger than me and I kept thinking about wanting her to be able to stay here after my death. It was reasonable to believe I would die before her. And I wrote all the time thinking of leaving an estate for her. And to pay for our time here and also saving money for her estate. But then I would say that you are just doing what you want to do. You want a noble excuse for it.
DH: But after Jane died, I stopped doing a lot of that writing.
RB: Was it in Without that you quote someone about all poetry being about loss.
DH: I think I used an epigraph from Mandelstam, I can't remember what it was.
RB: How does one deal with such a tremendous loss?
DH: The chief way I dealt with it, in so far as I dealt with it, was writing about it. Writing Without. That first year I worked every morning on letters and on earlier poems that I had begun about her illness. The whole bit, from disease and caregiving to death and grief. And I worked on it and dealt with it by writing about it. So for about two hours every morning I could work on poems. Writing them over and over again. And those were the hours in the day I was happy.
RB: A close friend just died—a sudden diagnosis and a month later he was dead—an aggressive cancer. Unbelievable. But I was reading The Best Day and the Worst Day and took me right to that month and the wrenching nature of it.
DH: The marriage to Jane was the most important thing in my life. Period.
RB: [pause] You have shown that you can keep going.
DH: I kept going with writing poems.
RB: I admire the concept, taken from sports, of living life so that you leave it all on the field. Have you ambitions or things you yet want to undertake?
DH: Not really, not big projects. I am, as I say, working on two prose books after that I don't have anything. The occasional poem will come to me and I'll work on it.
RB: How familiar are you with your own body of work?
DH: A good bit—for one thing when you read poems, so reading you go back to your older work and so I am more connected with the poems then I am with prose. I don't read prose aloud. Right now, I am having to go over some old prose for a reprint. And I am trying to remove repetitions. With poetry I regularly read poems that I wrote 50 years ago.
RB: You mentioned earlier that you don't like some of your earlier work, isn't that just the way it is?
DH: Yes. That's the way it is.
RB: Isn't it just hard to do that?
DH: Some of it I go back to gladly. I was desperate to write poems. Then I would push, push. I have become more patient than to write a poem for the sake of writing a poem. I am allowing the poem to come to me now so that I don't have so much that is wasted.
RB: The work is already done.
DH: Most of the work—I am 77 years old, it has to be done.
RB: [laughs] Excuse me if this is morbid, but have you a tombstone inscription?
DH: It's already there. Jane is there—Jane Kenyon with her dates and there is Donald Hall with one date, the other to be filled in.
RB: And the inscription?
DH: Two lines from a poem of Jane's—"I believe in the miracles of art but what prodigy will keep you safe beside me." I had cancer a couple of times, and just a year and a half before she tested for leukemia, I had half my liver out, and you don't survive that. I was supposed to die. We were both very aware that I was going to die. And she wrote that poem, "I believe in the miracles of art. What prodigy will keep you safe beside me?" Well, the prodigy of us being buried beside each other.
RB: Are you a religious person?
DH: I go to church.
RB: What happens when you go to church?
DH: Community rather than communion—a church, two miles down the road. A church that my great grandparents contributed to when it was built. It was built around 1886.
RB: What denomination?
RB: A few years ago, maybe more I was reading a magazine piece by Jim Harrison and he was hunting with a poet friend whom he claims spontaneously exclaimed, "I haven't learned a damned thing from experience." What's your take on that? Have you learned anything?
DH: From experience, sure. That's what my poems are about.
I was not [to be] George Bush's poet. People have not accused me of that. At least not yet. And it's the Library [of Congress]; it's quite separate from the administration.
RB: Your experience?
DH: My experience. After all the experience of Jane's death produced all those poems. The experience of moving back her into the house I had been living in when I was a kid that's formed part of my work.
RB: Will you learn something from being a celebrity poet?
RB: What are you looking forward (most to) about this appointment?
DH: Probably the sale of my books.
RB: It's a one-year appointment.
DH: Most people take it for two years. I am taking it for one now. And if I should like it and feel I am being useful, I will probably take it for another year. Pinsky did three years and other poets—Ted Kooser did two years. Louise Gluck did one—
RB: Originally the position was "Consultant to the Library."
DH: Yeah that was in the '30s. So many of the people who are talked about as former poet laureates weren't [in fact] called that—there was a vote in Congress to change the name, that's all [in 1986].
RB: I wonder what the enabling legislation said?
DH: I have no idea, but all it did was change the name of the position. It was after that the poet laureates did things that really got attention—like Pinsky and his Favorite Poem Project. Practically everyone has had something that they—Kooser was interested in that column of his and in talking to teachers. And I will do some of that as well.
RB: Gwendolyn Brooks went to elementary schools. Given that you are the focus of much attention—can I guess that the most frequent question is, "What does the PLOTUS do?"
DH: Yeah, that's the first one. And the one that I am least capable of answering.
RB: And the attention has come from not only print but radio and TV.
DH: Also Sports Illustrated has been here—they are sending a photographer bringing with him a ball and a glove.
RB: You'll be playing catch?
DH: No, my balance is no good now.
RB: Do you still go to ball games?
DH: I did last year, but I am not going to this year because of my balance, going down stairs, problems with my legs.
RB: Can I tell you I don't think going to major league ball games is fun?
DH: You can tell me that. I had been going with a grandson. Jane and I went to the 1st game of the '75 World Series at Fenway Park where Luis Tiant won and Boston won and we sat in the bleachers. But we were happy to be there.
RB: Can you mention some young poets to look out for? That you particularly admire?
DH: Yes, but I hate to answer because I'm always going to leave somebody out that I really wish I had put in there. You know Jane Hirschfield's work?
DH: She's good. She's young compared to me. In her forties. I think of her, but there are really many others.
RB: Well, thank you so very much.
DH: Okay. Thanks for coming up.