Diphthongs and Buttery Vowels: Donald Hall (1928–2018)

Donald Hall has died at eighty-nine, but he left some final words in his 2014 collection of essays, Essays After Eighty.* Let’s be honest, we had given the man up for dead more than twenty years past when his colon cancer metastasized to his liver. He survived that to endure the horrendous loss of his wife, Jane Kenyon, in 1995, and, out of his keening, gave new richness to the poetry of grief. Finally, in his words, poetry abandoned him. So he was left to write prose in his celebrated blue chair by the window; then, with one of his stupid cigarettes, he accidentally set fire to the chair, which was hauled outside and put to death by axe-wielding firemen. Old age, he warned slyly, is “a ceremony of losses.”

I love Hall’s prose, partly because of what he did to mine years ago. He pared and whittled my essays and helped me take pleasure in the work of revision. But he turned me into such a slavish disciple that he finally said, “Don’t let me turn your prose into a telegram.” I think most writers write—whether anything from essay to email—with a couple of people looking over their shoulders. I’m no exception, and Don Hall is almost always there. 

Mostly, however, my admiration for his work begins in hearing/reading his voice. I can yoke “hearing” and “reading” here because some of the same qualities come through both. These are undefinable, but unmistakable, qualities that constitute the man. They emerged as easily from conversation as from the round tones of the podium—as he liked to say, “We rise to assonance.” They riffed off the ground rhythm of the language—he once recounted that he and Donald Justice would carry on conversations in iambs. They grew directly from his tone—the Harvard bite of clever, the sly New Hampshire wit, the genuine and naked laugh, and the emotion—deep and direct.

Here’s a passage from Essays at Eighty that talks about the lost muse.

“Poems are image-bursts from brain-depths, words flavored by buttery long vowels. As I grew older—collapsing into my seventies, glimpsing ahead the cliffs of the eighties, colliding into eighty-five—poetry abandoned me. How could I complain after seventy years of diphthongs? The sound of poems is sensual, even sexual. The shadow mind pours out metaphors—at first poets may not understand what they say—that lead to emotional revelation.”

As I read these words, I think it’s maybe only the line break, not the poetry that abandoned him. But the metaphors didn’t “pour out” anymore; so for his last book, he wrote what he saw. And told stories. 

“Old age sits in a chair, writing a little and diminishing. Exhaustion limits energy. Yesterday my first nap was at nine-thirty am, but when I awoke I wrote again.”

“[A]mbition no longer has plans for the future—except these essays. My goal in life is making it to the bathroom. In the past I was often advised to live in the moment. Now what else can I do?”

“One feature of old age is gabbing about almost-forgotten times.”

But then the guy watching over my shoulder tells me, “Essays, like poems and stories and novels, marry heaven and hell. . . . [I]f the essay doesn’t include contraries, however small they may be, the essay fails.” Okay.

At eighty, Hall surrendered his driver’s license after two minor accidents, giving up what was left of his physical independence. Soon after, he dreamed of being in a house that terrified him, wanting to escape, searching for a door he couldn’t find. He was in a house without doors. Then, in real life, he unwittingly left that cigarette ember in the blue chair. During the night, he was startled awake by a smoke alarm and saw smoke pouring into his bedroom through the door. The Life Alert he wore around his neck saved him. Some ceremony.

Imagine a smoldering and shredded blue chair standing alone in the snow, a chair that hosted decades of buttery vowels. Or just imagine living for eighty-nine years. Is that contrary enough?

D.C.

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*A memoir will be out in July.