DATE April 10, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Donald Hall discusses his poetry and the death of his
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
It was seven years ago this month that poet Donald Hall lost his wife, the
poet Jane Kenyon, to leukemia. His new book is a collection of beautiful
poems about going on without her. It's his second collection of poems related
to her death. The first was called "Without." Hall never expected to survive
Kenyon. She had nursed him when he had cancer. Just a few months after he
went into remission, she got her diagnosis.
They met in 1969 when Hall was teaching at the University of Michigan and
Kenyon was his student. They were married for 20 years and lived on Eagle
Pond Farm in New Hampshire, which is still Hall's home.
Both Kenyon and Hall had served as the state's poet laureate. Hall has
received several awards for his writing, including the National Book Critics
Circle Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in poetry and the Frost Medal
from the Poetry Society of America.
His new book of poems, "The Painted Bed," begins with this inscription from
the Persian writer Faiz Ahmed Faiz: "The true subject of poetry is the death
of the beloved." I asked Hall why he chose this quote.
Mr. DONALD HALL (Poet): It struck me, and it struck me not only, of course,
thinking about my late wife, Jane Kenyon, about whom I've written so much, but
about the fact that so much poetry is loss, is written about loss. It is not
merely a lamentation but an attempt to preserve what is lost, so that this
seemed to me eloquent, about what poetry has typically done, certainly what my
poetry, over the years has typically tried to do.
GROSS: Are you still writing poems about Jane?
Mr. HALL: Really, the last poem directly about Jane that I have started is a
poem called "The Wish" in "The Painted Bed." But there are many others in
which Jane makes her entrance. Jane, or her death, or my--I visit her
graveyard. These are poems subsequent to "The Painted Bed," poems that are
GROSS: I'd like you to read several poems from the new book. Let's start
with the poem "Barber." Feel free to introduce this in any way.
Mr. HALL: Yep. This poem, "Barber," is one that took place--the scene took
place not long before Jane's death but when we still had some hope that she
might live, and we were getting rid of some of the chemotherapy materials that
we had had before. That's enough, I think, to say.
"Barber." `Jane's brush cut looked like a Marine recruit's as she sat skinny
and pale at the table, interrupting our chore to vomit in a china bowl. We
picked through jumbles of medical supplies, filling two garbage bags with
leukemia's detritus. When I lifted up leftover disinfectant or DuoDerm, she
shook her head no, and I tossed it away, as I did with the Ziploc of her massy
hair, cut off the year before when it started to shed. The young barber
GROSS: Donald Hall, are you surprised at what moments actually stick in your
memory and what moments you remember enough to use them as starting points for
Mr. HALL: I guess I'm surprised that generally they occur and recur and recur
until I can no longer ignore them, and I get to the table and begin sketching
out something about them. It's the recurrence that indicates to me that they
have some depth or some resonance in me, and that perhaps then I should try to
put them into the form of a poem.
GROSS: And why did this moment become a poem?
Mr. HALL: Jane's hair was terribly important to her. She--losing it was such
a cruel thing. And when she had died--we were hopeful at the time I speak of,
when we threw away the bag of hair--when she died, I wished so much that I'd
had some of this hair, and I kept thinking about it, thinking about the
absence of her hair, and then remembered the scene early on in her leukemia,
when she began to lose her hair, and she couldn't stand it clumping on the
floor of the shower stall every day as it began to go out. So that she
arranged--we arranged for a barber to come from the barber shop in the
hospital and shave it all off. I remembered he was trembling, the young man.
He was very moved by what he had to do.
GROSS: When someone you love is dying and you know how limited your time
together is, you have a sense that it's almost like your duty to engrave
memories in your mind so at least you have the memory after you lose the
person. Is that something you became very self-conscious about, particularly
as a writer who works with memory?
Mr. HALL: I don't think I was exactly self-conscious. I wouldn't use that
word for it. I was just overwhelmed by necessity. I mean, it was what kept
me going, really, to remember these things, to preserve them, to embody that
loss by recounting events. I thought of things over and over again, like the
time we went to a funeral shortly before she died and there was to be another
funeral. These images, not language really, but recurrent images like images
in a dream, would come to me, and without self-consciously preserving, I would
need to write them down.
GROSS: Donald Hall, I'd like you to read another poem from your new book,
"The Painted Bed," also a poem about your late wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, and
this one is called "Sweater." Perhaps before you read it, you could just tell
us something about the moment that inspired this poem.
Mr. HALL: Yeah. Well, it took me a year before I could gather her clothes
and send them off, and I write about that a little bit here. After I thought
that I had picked up all her clothes, I kept finding more and more of her.
Naturally, lived in the same place together for 20 years, and the remains are
still there. They're fewer and fewer now, but even after I'd sent her clothes
away, I kept finding more, and this is the background of this poem.
`The second June afterward, I wrapped Jane's clothes for Rosie's Place(ph).
But I'd keep on finding things I missed. A scarf hanging from a hook in the
tool shed, a green down vest, or a sweater tossed on the swivel chair by her
desk where her papers pile untouched, just as she left them. The last time
she fretted over answering a letter or worked to end a poem by observing
something as careless as the white sleeve of a cardigan.'
GROSS: When I read that poem, it made me think about a few things. One is
that sense of like a moment frozen when somebody dies, that the whole
landscape they left is just...
Mr. HALL: Yeah.
GROSS: ...kind of frozen in place, and then the living have to decide if
you're gonna change it at all, or how long you're gonna leave it as a kind
Mr. HALL: I know. Yeah.
GROSS: ...living monument to them.
Mr. HALL: You have to do it. I think I've done, by this time--it's almost
seven years since Jane died. I think I've probably done what I had to do, but
certainly the first years it was very hard to do what I had to do. I had to
get rid of her clothes, to give them to some place where they could be useful.
And also, I did gather her clothes two years after she died. I did gather her
papers, her drafts of poems, letters. That took me until about two years
after she died before I could do that. Now I rarely find anything. I've
really come, finally after seven years, to a different place.
GROSS: How did you know that you were ready to give away the clothes or
collect the poetry and manuscripts?
Mr. HALL: You know, I knew from the beginning. I mean, when I knew she was
dying, I knew that I would have to do that eventually. It's a process of
getting closer and closer to what you can possibly do. For upwards of a year,
I often thought about her clothes. Every time I would look at the back of the
door to the bathroom, and there was her bathrobe and perhaps a nightshirt and
so on, I would think, `I've got to do it. I've got to do it.' And I wasn't
getting rid of her, I was doing what was necessary after her death. And I
steeled myself toward doing it until finally I could. Some people can do it
right away, and maybe that's healthier than me, but I just couldn't do it.
GROSS: The last line of that poem, "Sweater," refers to how sometimes when
she would write, her images were inspired by something as haphazard as the
white sleeve of a cardigan.
Mr. HALL: Absolutely. You've got it. After Jane died, some of the time when
I was writing about her, I felt as if I was writing for two, and so I thought,
well, what would Jane do at this point in a poem, and in this poem perhaps in
particular I'm talking about her desk where she sat to write, and I think
there was, in fact, a cardigan over her desk chair, but I was seizing that
particular the way she did. And sometimes in her poems, you can't
intellectualize about the relevance of what she sees, but it's absolutely
right. Well, here the relevance is obvious. It is a particular to end a poem
with, but it's one that obviously takes its place in the structure, meaning of
GROSS: Yeah. I wonder if you think that your poems about Jane Kenyon, your
late wife, are different in any way from your other poems, if the writing
style is different and if the writing style is more affected by her style
since they're so much about her?
Mr. HALL: Some of it is affected by her style. I know that the last poem in
"Without," called the "Weeds and Peonies," that was the first one actually I
wrote after her death, and I used some words that she particularly used, and I
made allusion to a poem I'd written about her long ago. There I had the sense
of us working together, as it were, more than in subsequent ones. I do think
that the style of the "Without" poems and maybe to a lesser degree of this
book, the poems about her are quite different from what I had done earlier.
They are, for the most part, more direct.
People used to call Jane simple until, you know, she got tired of it, as if
she were simple-minded. But she was. It took her a couple of years to
rewrite her poems into this, oh, apparent simplicity. But I think that I
tried to do something similar with many of these poems. I don't think they
really sound like Jane, but I think I was--she was a kind of model, yes.
GROSS: And do you think--when you write poems about Jane, do you think she
would be glad that you're writing about her since she was a poet, you were a
poet? Poetry's one of the things you always had so in common with each other.
Mr. HALL: Oh, yeah. This was one of the ground bases. It's so hard to say.
You know, one thing I've thought of so much? I was so much older than Jane
and I had been ill, and we all knew that I'd die early and she'd be a widow.
What would she have written about me?
Mr. HALL: And I've thought of that when I'm writing about her. Would she be
writing in this way about me? There's no answer to it. I do like to think
that--well, I'm quite sure she would have been pleased that I kept thinking
about her for so long, and that this was at the front of my work life, to
embody grief and to talk about her and, to a degree, her life.
GROSS: My guest is poet Donald Hall. His new collection is called "The
Painted Bed." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is poet Donald Hall. His new collection, "The Painted Bed,"
is about life after the death of his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon. She died of
leukemia seven years ago.
I'd like you to read another poem from your new collection, "The Painted Bed,"
and this is called "Ardor." Would you introduce it for us?
Mr. HALL: Yes, I'll be happy to. "Ardor" is a poem that I wrote, or
began--What is it?--year and a half, almost two years after she died. And
frankly, things got a bit worse. It seemed hard to imagine that they could
get worse. A year and a few months after her death, and for quite a while, I
got depressed with a kind of violence of depression. "Ardor" comes out of
this time, and I worked on it, I know, on a visit down to Florida, which I
mention in it. But it came out of a time perhaps, something like a year and a
half to two years, after her death. Therefore, a state quite different from
the poems that I wrote quickly--or not quickly, but soon after her death.
Anyway, I'll read the poem.
`Nursing her, I felt alive in the animal moment, scenting the predator. Her
death was the worse thing that could happen. And caring for her was best.
After she died, I screamed, upsetting the depressed dog. Now I no longer
address the wall covered with many photographs, nor call her "you" in a poem.
She recedes into the granite museum of "Jane Kenyon, 1947-1995." I long for
the absent woman of different faces, who makes metaphors and chops onion,
drinking a glass of Chardonnay, oiling the walk, humming to herself, maybe
thinking how to conclude a poem. When I make love now, something is awry.
Last autumn, a woman said, "I mistrust your ardor." This winter in Florida, I
loathed the old couples my age who promenaded in their slack flesh, holding
hands. I gazed at young women with outrage and desire, unable to love or to
work or to die. Hours are slow and weeks rapid in their vacancy. Each day
lapses as I recite my complaints. Lust is grief that has turned over in bed
to look the other way.'
GROSS: Donald Hall, I just particularly like that line `she recedes into the
granite museum of "Jane Kenyon, 1947-1995."'
Mr. HALL: Yep. Yep.
GROSS: Can you say anything...
Mr. HALL: It was true that I...
GROSS: Yeah, go ahead.
Mr. HALL: I'm sorry. That I could no longer say `you,' as I did in earlier
poems after her death. She was now `she' and `her,' just part of the measure
of the receding that I speak of. And as she recedes into the granite
monument, there is a hard stillness about her death that's no longer vibrant
and moving and--I mean, in motion of--it is still.
GROSS: You know, since this poem is about her receding, and her memory
receding, do you remember her as she was before she was sick or when she was
Mr. HALL: Oh, for so long I could only remember her when she was sick. It
was terrible. My dreams, my daydreams were of the--first they were of the
last 11 days when we knew she would die, and then it was of earlier times and
the baldness and the suffering, the pain. Finally I was able to remember her
before. I remember the first dream where she had a full head of hair and she
was the way she used to be, and that was such a relief. And now really when I
think of her, I think of her I guess almost entirely when she was well. It's
GROSS: One of the lines in that poem "Ardor" is `when I make love now,
something is awry,' the implication being that you've had relationships
subsequent to your late wife.
Mr. HALL: That's right, yes.
GROSS: And it's like a reality that's alluded to within these poems about
grief, but it's like when I read this book, I just think of you as a man who
experiences loss, then--and I have to keep saying to myself, too, there's more
to your life. You know, that your...
Mr. HALL: Right. Right.
GROSS: ...life goes on. It isn't totally frozen in grief.
Mr. HALL: You know, one thing that this book has made clear to me is the
distinction between the embodiment of the poems, that part of your life, and
then the present life that has continued after the poems are finished. So
that the private past comes when I publish this poem as a public present. And
I am no longer in the places that these poems embody. I don't, of course,
renounce them therefore, but it is a bit strange. I am no longer in that
place of mourning that many of these poems embody. And even the most recent
of the poems, I began two and a half years ago. I'd work on poems endlessly.
I can't do them quickly, so I revise them and revise them, and by the time
they're published, I'm a long way from the moment that started them.
GROSS: I'm gonna ask you to read a poem that's a rhyming poem...
Mr. HALL: Yes.
GROSS: ...which I think is unusual for you.
Mr. HALL: When I began to write--my first book came out when I was 27--it was
rhyme and meter pretty much all the way. And most of my life I've written
forms of free verse. Free verse is so many different things. Actually, it is
easier to write a poem in rhyme and meter, providing you, you know, learn how
to write it at some point or other, than it is to write a free-verse poem. I
mean something simple by that. At the same time I was writing these poems, I
was working on other poems in free verse, and the free-verse poems took at
least twice as many drafts. When you start a poem in stanzas, you know
something about what you're going to do in the next stanza. When you write
one stanza, you know something about the next one. There are limits, there
GROSS: There's a form.
Mr. HALL: ...oh, requirements to fill. And with free verse, you want to
improvise until you finish it so that it has a kind of fixity to it. But you
don't know how you're going to achieve that fixity. You have to improvise
until you find it, and there's more measurement, obviously, in the stanzaic
GROSS: Would you read "The Wish?"
Mr. HALL: Yes. This is the last of these rhymed poems, and actually it's the
last poem that I have written which is directly a poem of mourning.
"The Wish." `I keep her weary ghost inside me. "Oh, let me go," I hear her
crying. "Deep in your dark you want to hide me and so perpetuate my dying. I
can't undo the grief that you weep by the stone where I am lying. Oh, let me
go." By work and women, half distracted, I endure the day and sleep at night
to watch her dying re-enacted when the cold dawn descends like twilight. How
can I let this dream forget her white withdrawal from my sight and let her go?
Her body, as I watch, grows smaller, her face recedes, her kisses colder.
Watching her disappear, I call her, "come back," as I grow old and older.
While somewhere deep in the catch of sleep, I hear her cry as I reach to hold
her. "Oh, let me go."'
GROSS: You said that that poem was the last poem you really wrote about
Mr. HALL: Directly mourning. As I say, she is in other poems, and the tone
is one of mourning or grief there, but this one is straight about the mourning
and, of course, it is a poem in which I have her ask me to let her go.
Mr. HALL: That has to be me asking me in some ways.
GROSS: Did you know that that would be the last poem of the series?
Mr. HALL: No, I really didn't. I really didn't. As I pulled away from this
poem, I worked it over and worked it over, then I began to be aware.
GROSS: Poet Donald Hall will be back in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: Coming up, actress Julie Christie. Her films include "Darling,"
"Doctor Zhivago," "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" and "Shampoo." She's in Hal
Hartley's new film "No Such Thing." And we continue our conversation with
poet Donald Hall.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with poet Donald Hall. His
book, "The Painted Bed," is a collection of poems about life after the death
of his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon. This month marks the seventh anniversary
of her death from leukemia. This is Hall's second book of poems about
Kenyon's death. Earlier in the interview, he said that he thought he had
concluded his cycle of poems mourning her.
Did writing poems of mourning for your wife and then ending that cycle
coincide with being able to have relationships with other women afterwards?
Mr. HALL: It was, I think, a steady process in both directions. Finally, I
have been able to feel love. I did some dating. I had relationships earlier.
But probably I had to move along, past the place of the poem called "The
Wish," before I could really let myself go into love of another woman. Jane
is not gone. She'll always be there, goodness knows. But I am able to look
GROSS: Right. I'd like you to read a poem now that isn't published in your
new book. I don't know whether it's--I guess it was written too late for the
new book or it just doesn't fit with the theme of the new book, but this is
about sitting with a woman who you're having a relationship with after Jane's
Mr. HALL: Right.
GROSS: And you--say what you'd like to to introduce that and then you can
go over it.
Mr. HALL: All right, one thing I'll say to it is that this is a--I told you
I'd take two years to write a poem. This is a poem that I began only last
GROSS: That's quick.
Mr. HALL: I have the draft--yes, and I'm sure it's not finished. But I'm
happy to read it. This is draft number 25. And that is--makes it a neonate.
I don't know, of course, what I'll change, and, obviously, I like it enough to
read it now. But it is quite new and it is a love poem out of my present, and
thank goodness it is my present, from the porch.
`We sit on the porch, gloved hand in hand, to watch the cold white snowflake
universe shake down multiple tiny geometries against blackness's zero. We
keep silence for sound would shatter the laden luminous night that softens
into sameness the fence post, car and mailbox. Behind us a lamp's light
through a curtained window calls us away from virginal cold to huddle our
bodies together in a quilted passion of comfort. We will wake to snow's
harvest and the unmitigated sunshine of tea and of golden breakfast.'
GROSS: That's a lovely poem.
Mr. HALL: Thank you.
GROSS: Is it a relief to be writing about relationships that are current, to
be writing about a relationship that exists now as opposed to be writing
about, you know, mourning a death?
Mr. HALL: You know, when I wrote poems of mourning, I was relieved to write
them. It relieved me. It's a different sense in which you're using it. I
had to do it. If I had turned my head away, and looked elsewhere at that
point, it would have been a bad thing for me. So I had to do it. And I use
your word, I mean, it's a relief to do it. But certainly now to be at a point
in my life, a point seven years after Jane's death, when I can look elsewhere,
and when I can write happy poetry. This was a happy poem, "The Golden
Breakfast(ph)," that's a great relief indeed. Just lately for the first time
since January of 1994, I've been able to feel happy when I go to bed because
I'll wake up in the morning. I used to feel that way a lot and I hadn't for a
GROSS: There's a final poem I'd like you to read and it's the poem that
concludes your book. And the poem is called "Affirmation."
Mr. HALL: Yes.
GROSS: Would you talk about this before you read it?
Mr. HALL: And this--I will, yes, yes. This is a poem that ends "The Painted
Bed" and it may end the--I hope, I guess, that it ends this series of feelings
that "The Painted Bed" embodies. And it's a possible feeling--and this poem
has been--it's very depressed poem. But it has been a poem that's had a great
deal of response. I published it in a magazine and I've had more letters
about it than I think I ever have on any poem I've published in a magazine
before. And so that it must reach people. For me it is the--you know, the
private past becoming the public present and I read it aloud to you--happily
to read the poem, but also very aware that it represents or embodies something
that is a long way from where I am now. "Affirmation."
`To grow old is to lose everything, aging, everybody knows it. Even when
we're young we glimpse it sometimes and nod our heads when a grandfather dies.
Then we row for years on the midsummer pond, ignorant and content. But a
marriage that began without harm scatters into debris on the shore. And a
friend from school drops cold on a rocky strand. If a new love carries us
past middle age, our wife will die at her strongest and most beautiful. New
women come and go, all go. The pretty lover who announces that she is
temporary is temporary. The bold woman, middle-aged against our old age,
sinks under an anxiety she cannot withstand. Another friend of decades
estranges himself in words that pollute 30 years. Let us stifle under mud at
the pond's edge and affirm that it is fitting and delicious to lose
GROSS: At the end there when you say, `Let's affirm that it is fitting and
delicious to lose everything,' I was wondering if you meant that as a kind of
Zen moment or as a kind of bitter irony?
Mr. HALL: When I was writing it, sitting at my desk, when it came out of me,
that is, it came out in a different form, and then boiled down into this
form, I was thinking of it as a bitter irony, and, you know, when you are
working on a poem you intend some things that, you know, you know about but if
the poem is any good, and I will say this about any poem that anybody writes,
there are things going on in that poem that you're not aware of at the moment
of writing. I think it's almost essential for the poet to be someone who can
say things that contain an underside of which he or she is not consciously
aware. And many people responding to this poem have seen an affirmation at
the end, which is not so much to affirm as to accept, but to accept with and
embrace the nothingness that--or the loss of everything that is inevitable.
So I have been hearing more and more of this and I think, in fact, that
although I was conscious of a bitter irony, that I was, in fact, affirming in
ways that I wasn't aware of.
GROSS: The poem is largely about aging...
Mr. HALL: Yup.
GROSS: ...and the things that you lose as you get older.
Mr. HALL: Right. And then there are, obviously, my particular losses.
GROSS: Right, right.
Mr. HALL: But I generalized them, `our' and `we.' They could stand in for
other people's losses.
GROSS: Here's what I'm thinking. Often when you're younger, when one is
younger, one isn't particularly interested in the musings or the poetry of
being older. Right?
Mr. HALL: That's right, yes. Yeah.
GROSS: I don't know if you went through that as a younger reader, but...
Mr. HALL: I think perhaps--I don't think I did so much, because I grew up
loving old people, I mean, grandparents and so forth, but at any rate I
GROSS: So I guess I was wondering if you had any reservations yourself about
actually writing on the subject of growing older.
Mr. HALL: I had no reservations whatsoever. This is where I live now. I
grow older and older, as I say in that other poem, "The Wish." I'm certainly
aware of it. I'm feeling wonderful right now. And I'm not feeling
particularly old, but I know I am.
GROSS: How old are you?
Mr. HALL: And I'm--I--I'm 73. At the moment I am aware that my years are
considerable and that they're--it's highly likely that I will not live
forever. I'm aware of it without worrying about it much of any because I am
happy in my daily life now. When I was so unhappy in my daily life, my
mortality, the gradual loss of everything, was more immediate to me. I'm not
quite on the midsummer pond, but I am able to live now in the present, and
that is--and in a present that has its joys and, of course, that is, as you
said earlier, a considerable relief.
GROSS: Well, Donald Hall, very good to talk with you again. Thank you so
much for reading some of your poems.
Mr. HALL: Thank you for the opportunity. I always enjoy talking with you.
GROSS: Donald Hall's new collection of poems is called "The Painted Bed."
Coming up, actress Julie Christie. This is FRESH AIR.
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