Donald Hall, a prolific and award-winning poet and man of letters who was widely admired for his sharp humor and painful candor about nature, mortality, baseball and the distant past, has died. He was 89.
Hall’s daughter, Philippa Smith, confirmed on Sunday that her father died on Saturday at his home in Wilmot, New Hampshire, after being in hospice care for some time.
“He [was] really quite amazingly versatile,” said Hall’s friend Mike Pride, editor emeritus of the Concord Monitor newspaper and a retired administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, adding that Hall would occasionally speak to reporters at the Monitor about the importance of words.
Hall was US poet laureate in 2006 and 2007. Starting in the 1950s, he published more than 50 books, from poetry and drama to biography and memoirs, and edited a pair of influential anthologies. He was a baseball fan who wrote odes to his beloved Boston Red Sox, completed a book on pitcher Dock Ellis and contributed to Sports Illustrated. He wrote a prize-winning children’s book, Ox-Cart Man, and attempted a biography of Charles Laughton, only to have the actor’s widow, Elsa Lancaster, kill the project.
The greatest acclaim came for his poetry, for which honors included a National Book Critics Circle prize, membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a National Medal of Arts. Although his style varied from haiku to blank verse, Hall returned repeatedly to a handful of themes: his childhood, the death of his parents and grandparents and the loss of his second wife and fellow poet, Jane Kenyon.
“Much of my poetry has been elegiac, even morbid, beginning with laments over New Hampshire farms and extending to the death of my wife,” he wrote in a memoir, Packing the Boxes, published in 2008.
He at times resembled a 19th-century rustic, with untrimmed beard and ragged hair. His work reached back to timeless images of his beloved home, Eagle Pond Farm, built in 1803 and belonging to his family since the 1860s. He kept country hours for much of his working life, rising at 6am and writing for two hours.
For Hall, the industrialized world often seemed an intrusion, such as a neon sign along a dirt road. In the tradition of TS Eliot and other modernists, he juxtaposed classical and historical references with contemporary slang and brand names. An opponent of the Vietnam war, he was ruthlessly self-critical. Nakedly, even abjectly, he recorded his failures and shortcomings and disappointments, whether his infidelities or his struggles with alcoholism.
The joy and tragedy of his life were his years with Kenyon, his second wife. They met in 1969, when she was his student at the University of Michigan. By the mid-70s they were married and living at Eagle Creek.
“We sleep, we make love, we plant a tree, we walk up and down/eating lunch,” he wrote.
But Kenyon was diagnosed with leukemia and died in 1995, when she was 47. Hall never stopped mourning her and arranged to be buried next to her, beneath a headstone inscribed with lines from one of her poems: “I BELIEVE IN THE MIRACLES OF ART, BUT WHAT PRODIGY WILL KEEP YOU BESIDE ME?”
In the 1998 collection Without, and in many poems after, Hall reflected on her dying days, on the shock of outliving a woman so many years younger, and the lasting bewilderment of their dog Gus, who years later was still looking for her.
Hall was born in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1928, but favored Eagle Pond over the “blocks of six-room houses” back home. By 14 he had decided to become a poet.
He published poetry while at Phillips Exeter Academy and formed lasting literary friendships at Harvard, including with fellow poets Robert Bly and Adrienne Rich and with George Plimpton, for whom he was the first poetry editor at the Paris Review. He met Daniel Ellsberg and would suspect well before others that the leaker of the Vietnam war documents known as the Pentagon Papers was his college friend.
Hall studied at Oxford and became one of the few Americans to win the Newdigate Prize, an honor given to Oscar Wilde, John Ruskin and others. He returned to the US in the mid-1950s and taught at schools including Stanford and Bennington. He was married to Kirby Thompson from 1952 to 1969, and they had two children.
Hall’s first literary hero was Edgar Allan Poe and death was an early subject. In recent years, as Hall entered the “planet of antiquity”, many of his elegies were for himself.