“Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” These words, delightful in their oxymoronic truth, were reportedly spoken by the English actor Edmund Kean (1789–1833) on his deathbed. Though variously attributed to comedians and Hollywood actors over many years, this adage could easily have been spoken by Donald Hall. When he died on 23 June 2018, just three months shy of his ninetieth birthday, Hall left behind a legacy of making words say what he wanted them to say, and a way of facing his own mortality with uncommon candor, irreverence, and biting humor.
By age fourteen, Donald Andrew Hall Jr. knew that he wanted two things: to be a poet and to live in New Hampshire. He published his first poem two years later, and over a sixty-year career as an influential editor and the author of award-winning books, his poetry and criticism helped to shape contemporary American poetry. Hall achieved his latter goal in 1975 when he quit his teaching job at the University of Michigan after three years and moved with his second wife and former student, the poet Jane Kenyon, to his family’s farm in Wilmot, New Hampshire, in the south-central part of the state. Hall’s great-grandfather first moved there in 1865, Hall’s grandparents ran the farm, and young Donald spent summers there. With few breaks, Hall lived on “Eagle Pond Farm” for the rest of his life, and it was there that his new life with Kenyon and his writing flourished.
Sadly, “the generous comfort of solitude” he and Kenyon found by living and working on the farm turned too soon to loss, beginning with Hall’s treatments for colon cancer in 1989 and for liver cancer in 1992. Two years later, Kenyon learned she had leukemia; she died on 22 April 1995, at the age of forty-seven. From that day, many of Hall’s poems, interviews, and public appearances were dedicated to keeping her memory alive. In his poetry collections Without (1998) and The Painted Bed (2002), and in numerous readings and recordings, Hall chronicled Kenyon’s illness and death but also celebrated their twenty-three-year marriage and championed her poetry.
In Essays After Eighty (2014)—Hall’s only New York Times best seller—he addressed many of the same topics and themes of the new book, so in retrospect we can see them as poignant predictors of things to come: “Old age is a ceremony of losses,” he wrote in that volume. A Carnival of Losses furthers that warning: “In your eighties you are invisible. Nearing ninety, you hope nobody sees you.” This final collection of Hall’s prose pieces is a looking back on his life before and after Kenyon’s death, a kind of autobiography that is forthright, often gritty, and downright funny in the midst of so much personal tragedy and debilitative undoing in his later years.
As the title implies, this is a “whistling-past-the-graveyard” exploration of both the delight and the horror of losing everything: “Now I understood how death and desolation fit into the riotous joy and laughter. . . . The emotional intricacy and urgency of human life expresses itself most fiercely in contradiction.” Hall’s persona is that of a man who has suffered great personal loss but who is ready, even eager, to tell the world what old age is truly like: “Why should the nonagenarian hold anything back?” While finding joy in the dark humor of aging, he writes with a matter-of-fact flair about the indignities and trivialities of being old: losing his teeth, growing a beard, trying and liking e-cigarettes, forgetting names, and falling asleep so often that one day just blurs into the next.
The seventy-four essays in the book are divided into four sections: “Notes Nearing Ninety,” “The Selected Poets of Donald Hall,” “Necropoetics,” and “A Carnival of Losses.” The individual pieces vary widely in length, from two sentences to twenty pages. Hall engages the reader in the way a good conversationalist does, without the pretense of the pedant and with no reason to be guarded in his comments. In “Solitude Double Solitude,” for example, he talks plainly about the fears of being old and living alone: “Now and then, especially at night, solitude loses its soft power and loneliness takes over. I am grateful when solitude returns.” As he says, he feels no need to hold back now.
Hall’s willingness to say what he wants is at its best in the section on selected poets he has known. As the first poetry editor of the Paris Review (1953–62), through his earlier connections as an undergraduate at Harvard and Oxford, and with his subsequent years as an essayist and columnist, Donald Hall befriended or interviewed a who’s who of modern poetry, some of whom he briefly sketches in this collection: Ezra Pound, Seamus Heaney, Stephen Spender, Theodore Roethke, and James Wright. The eighteen pieces in this section include plenty of memorable one-liners and observations, often derogatory yet somehow delivered without excessive vitriol: “James Dickey was the best liar I ever knew,” “Allen Tate always looked grumpy” (his single remark on that Agrarian), and “Robert Frost, of all people, complained to me that Roethke was too competitive.” But Hall is sometimes generous to and appreciative of other poets, and he saves his highest praise for Richard Wilbur: “His appearance and demeanor had always resembled his work—handsome, formal, warm, wry, as elegant as the curls of his italic hand, and young.”
The witty and frank comments in “The Selected Poets of Donald Hall” contrast with the section called “Necropoetics” (loosely translated as “poetry of death”), which consists of a single essay, the longest in the collection. This section focuses on how the loss of those closest to Hall changed his life: his wife, of course, but also their friends, his grandfather—“My grandfather,” he writes, “was my life’s center, the measure of everything”—and his father, who died when Hall was just twenty-seven. It was at his father’s funeral that Hall set forth his life goal: “I decided that for the rest of my life I would do what I wanted to do.”
Mostly, though, “Necropoetics” is a paean to Jane Kenyon and their life of poetry on Eagle Pond Farm. Over the years, death had produced some of Hall’s best poetry, and he shows how, in moments of grief or an awareness of mortality, his muse rose to the occasion. For example, as he discusses, his most anthologized and most frequently taught poem, “My Son, My Executioner,” written in 1955, was occasioned by his son Andrew’s birth, which makes the speaker aware that being a father sows the seed of his own destruction: “Your cries and hunger document / Our bodily decay.” “Necropoetics” is also an honest look at the jealousies and inequalities inherent in Hall’s writing relationship with Kenyon. His first book of poetry, Exiles and Marriages (1955), was published when she was only nine years old, and he was already well-known as a poet and freelance writer when they married in 1972. However, as her poems gained more and more acclaim, he says, “I began to make my poems as unlike Jane’s as I could manage.” Yet her death inspired him to write more and more of what he called his Jane poems until “[her] voice and mine rose as one, spiraling together images and diphthongs of the dead who were once the living, our necropoetics of grief and love in the unforgivable absence of flesh.”
“Notes Nearing Ninety,” the opening section, runs the gamut of the poet’s interests and experiences, from his early life as a teacher and writer, to his life with and without Jane, to politics and losing his driver’s license. He is afraid of anonymity and the onset of dementia, but also has a wonderful memory of how his most successful book came to be. In “Walking to Portsmouth,” his friend Paul Fenton stops by one day to tell Hall a story he had heard about a local ox-cart driver who packed everything he made throughout the year into a cart; by the day’s end he sold everything, including the ox itself, headed home with presents for the children, then started over building the next cart. Hall turned this entertaining story into a poem and then into a children’s book, Ox-Cart Man, which was very well received commercially and won the Caldecott Medal in 1980. Recalling such moments of clarity and creativity seems to delight Donald Hall the most.
In the final section, “A Carnival of Losses,” Hall refreshingly drops pretense and realizes he is most likely living in his last decade, and so speaks to a higher truth about life and love. Hall discusses his interview with Boris Karloff and how it led to his becoming a poet; he remembers humorous anecdotes about his grandfather, his stint on Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion, and baseball; and he delights in discussing bodily functions best left unspecified in a review.
The book ends with a hopeful and beautiful essay, “Tree Day,” a short but fitting tribute to Hall’s personal life and hopes for the future. A 150-year-old maple tree falls in his front yard, prompting him to reflect on his own mortality. Yet he also points out that his ancestral home will continue in the family when his granddaughter Allison and her husband move into the house on Eagle Pond Farm after Hall dies. They plant a hearty elm tree to take the place of the fallen maple. “Tree Day” concludes with this poetic observation: “I am free to imagine another grandchild swinging from another branch of another tree.”
A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety. By Donald Hall. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018. 216 pp. $25.00, paper.