Donald Hall, Poet Laureate of the United States in 2006-2007, and Ann Arborite Jane Kenyon, his second wife and an extraordinary poet in her own right, left Ann Arbor in 1975 to move to Hall’s ancestral home in rural New Hampshire. Although Hall wrote “Kicking the Leaves,” one of the best poems I know that is based at least partially in Ann Arbor, he does not, by and large, speak very fondly of this place nor of his time at the U-M, where he returns for a reading at 5 p.m. today in the U-M Museum of Art’s Helmut Stern Auditorium.
The place Hall does write about obsessively and often brilliantly is that farmhouse in New England, about the land around it and the people who have lived and worked there. His recent, massive book of selected poems, White Apples and the Taste of Stone, which picks from sixty years of work, circles round and about that farm. In one of the very early poems, Hall elegizes his ancestor: “Against the clapboards and the window panes / The loud March whines with rain and heavy wind, / In dark New Hampshire where his widow wakes.” Four hundred pages and sixty years later, the poet, now in his eighties, hears the same wind: “In October the red leaves going brown heap and scatter / over hayfield and dirt road, over garden and circular drive.”
The close observation of that place has created a unified vision that moves through all of Hall’s long life, one that has been devoted to his art. He has tried lots of different forms, both in poetry and prose; he has adopted different voices, some purely narrative, others meditative, or for a short period almost surrealistic; but he has always come back to that house and his memories of it. That unity allows the reader to move through White Apples and the Taste of Stone from beginning to end, almost the way one would read a novel or memoir.
Donald Hall is quite possibly the premier American elegist. His memories of the people gone before him are continually revivified by his life in the house those people built. When he and Kenyon returned to live there, their life together became part of the fabric of that place. And when Kenyon died at the age of forty-seven from leukemia, the place and Hall’s keen knowledge of elegy combined to make powerful tributes that will almost certainly continue to be read and quoted. In a poem addressed to his dead wife that reflects on her garden and the view from the place they both loved, Hall writes,
I paced beside the weeds
and snowy peonies, staring at Mount Kearsarge
where you climbed wearing purple hiking boots.
“Hurry back. Be careful, climbing down.”
Your peonies lean their vast heads westward
as if they might topple. Some topple.
In the specifics of Hall’s place and his losses, we find emotions we all share.