Remembering Donald Hall, first thoughts

(Given the Tanglewood aspect of this, I’m re-posting it from my personal blog

June 26, 2018 – When the email announcing Donald Hall’s death arrived Sunday morning, I was drafting a letter to him, which would include a blank bookplate for him to sign, for my pre-ordered copy of A Carnival of Losses; Notes Nearing Ninety, which the publisher may be rushing to bookstores now.

In a letter dated 1 November 2016, he wrote, in response to my comment about an essay from the book published on the New Yorker’s website:

“Yup, Double Solitude is in the new book. Last week I sent it to my agent and my editor. I haven’t heard yet. I like the title: “I-89,” with the subtitle Flashparagraphs Speeding Toward Ninety.”

At the time, I suppressed the notion that publication may be dragged out in order to capitalize on his death, which this Giant of Poetry had been working against at least since first being diagnosed with cancer in 1989.

My acquaintance with him began in 2012, thanks to the power of another essay published in the New Yorker, Out the Window, from his book Essays After Eighty. I recommended it to a friend, who read it then told me she had taken one of his classes at U. of Michigan in the 1960s. I suggested she send him a note, which she did; he responded right away saying “You probably want to take me to dinner.”

She told him that I was part of the bargain, arrangements were made, and in June 2012 I enjoyed the first of three visits with Donald Hall at Eagle Pond Farm, followed by dinner at restaurants in the vicinity of Wilmot, NH.

Donald Hall at UNH, Nov. 9, 2017; photo courtesy David J. Murray
Donald Hall at UNH, Nov. 9, 2017; photo courtesy David J. Murray,

We met last in November, at the University of New Hampshire, which held a celebration thanking him for the donation of his papers – comprising 600 cubic feet. He read from his work and also delivered something of a valedictory lecture, advising us of where the best poetry in English may be found.

That event triggered a couple more items that I would be enclosing in the never-to-be-finished note. Donald Hall said something along the lines of that the best poems ever written in English date from the 17th and 18th centuries. I wanted to ask him to list a dozen or so, thinking that I may study them – and maybe even have a go at “translating” them.

When I looked for a transcript of his remarks on the UNH website, I found instead mention that access to his papers would be by his permission, I thought I’d better hurry and get that note in the mail.

Don was a guest on the June 2008 broadcast of A Prairie Home Companion, with Garrison Keillor, at Tanglewood, which I reviewed for BerkshireLinks. That gave me an opening four years later when we met. Telling Don that I had been to that show, I referred to the host as simply “Garrison.” Whereupon Don stopped me in my tracks – “Garrison? He’s always been Mr. Keillor to me.”

A year or so later, after I had read Essays After Eighty, I sent him a note inviting him to visit the Berkshires, perhaps during Tanglewood season. Here’s an excerpt from his reply:

“I wish I could come down your way. [My friend] went down not long ago to look over the old Wharton place. I can’t drive any more, I can hardly walk, and needless to say I can’t fuck. I feel fine as you will discover reading the essays – but I cannot come to Tanglewood with the bachelor Norwegian farmer. He wrote me a dear and hilarious response to my Essays. Thank you and love, Don”

Why, you’re welcome Don, may you rest in peace.