It's fitting that Donald Hall learned via fax that he would be the next poet laureate of the United States. He had no idea he was even being considered for the position, but there it was in writing (he had apparently missed the earlier phone call from the Library of Congress). "I'd rather read it in print than hear it anyway," he tells NEWSWEEK. "You hold it in your hand."
The author of 15 volumes of poetry, including "White Apples and the Taste of Stone," a new collection of his work spanning six decades of writing, Hall is the quintessential New Englander. His poems are plainspoken and personal, warm and often witty in a manner that sometimes conceals their complexity—a book-length poem called "The One Day" took him 17 years to write and advances his approach to life: "Work, love, build a house and die. But build a house."
Stoic though that may sound, Hall's selection as poet laureate did raise a few eyebrows because he has criticized the Bush administration in the past for being beholden to the religious right. Hall, 77, lives in his grandparents' New Hampshire farmhouse, where he says his chief company since his wife Jane Kenyon died in 1995 is "silence and solitude ... The telephone doesn't ring very often." That's changing now: it certainly rang when NEWSWEEK's Brian Braiker called, and Hall obligingly discussed his new appointment, which begins this fall. Excerpts:
Donald Hall: Thank you, sir.
You've criticized the religious right's influence on government policy.
Yes. I don't look forward to any political activity on my part.
Former poet laureate Robert Pinsky has called your appointment important because of threats to freedom of expression in the current atmosphere. Do you see it that way?
I belong to the ACLU, and I see it happening. I will certainly speak out, though it's hard to imagine speaking out as the poet laureate. It's not particularly appropriate, but I can do what I can do.
Your poetry tends to be more personal than political anyway.
I do have a poem at the end of my newest volume, which is not perhaps a good enough poem. It's called "We Bring Democracy to the Fish," and it's concerned with putting fish inside a fish farm and protecting them. Then later they will discover what their purpose is. [ Laughs. ]
Not knowing you were in the running for this position means you probably haven't done much planning for it. Do you have specific ideas yet about what you would do?
I have thought of satellite radio, with its many, many channels, possibly being willing to include one. You could have a new poet on each day. I don't know if that would be perfectly silly, but they have a superfluity of channels, as I understand. Therefore someone who cared for poetry could tune in at any point while driving and hear poetry. Of course that takes money, too, and money has to come from somewhere.
You sound slightly skeptical about the level of interest that may be there. Is poetry still important?
Poetry is a lot more important now than it's ever been in this country.
Really? Are there as many poets publishing as when you were a younger man?
There's many, many more. There are so many more magazines, so many more publishers. I've seen it become confusing and difficult: one of the negatives of it is nobody can read all this stuff. I get sent about 300 books of poems a year! I can't really read them all; I sample them all. When I published my first book, there was one prize for a book of poems: the Yale Younger Poet's Series. Now if you read the poet's magazines and so on, there are so many different prizes.
At the same time, it's almost hard to imagine something like "Howl" coming along and capturing the popular imagination at this moment.
I don't think it's hard to imagine. Billy Collins has sold more than "Howl" has at an equivalent point.
What's your take on Garrison Keillor's approach to poetry? He has a daily radio spot and he's put together a couple of anthologies with a real populist bent.
He does more than any other single person to disseminate poetry in America. I pretty much like his tastes. It is down-home poetry for the most part, and within down-home poetry there's a lot of good stuff. He does me a whole lot. He also does my late wife, Jane Kenyon , which pleases me.
What would she have done as poet laureate?
I don't know. I've been thinking of us being co-poet-laureate. I think she would have taken it and done it, although she was quite private and had a tendency toward depression.
You had decided at the age of 14 that you wanted to be a poet. What did your parents say about that?
My father had a job working for his father in a business, and he loathed his job. He didn't make enough money as a teacher to get married, so he went to work for his father. It is family lore that he came back from the dairy where he worked, shook his fist over my crib and said, "He's going to do what he wants to do." And he stuck by it even when it was poetry.
You wrote a beautiful poem about his death—"White Apples and the Taste of Stone." Father's Day is this weekend, does that mean anything to you?
Father's Day and Mother's Day mean nothing to me. They're Hallmark holidays. But my father means something to me. It's so long ago now that he died.
Robert Bly has written a lot about fathers and sons and the rifts between them. Do you see any of your relationship in there?
There's a lot of elegy and a lot of this sense that he felt that he had been a failure in his life. He turned to me to express his own ambition, because he buried his own ambition. When he died, it was just a few weeks after my first book of poems appeared, and he held it in his hand and said—his voice was already going—"My cup runneth over." This was an extraordinary thing.
Your mother lived to be 90.
I wrote a couple of children's books out of her childhood memories when she was very old. She was very pleased about that. She sort of thought she had written them. [ Laughs. ]
You spend years sometimes on a poem. Is there anything now that you've been working on for a long time?
There's some further memoir that I've been working on for quite a while, covering things like Connecticut and my father and the business down there—things I haven't written that much about. And I would think I would take another year on it, especially with this interruption in Washington, before I publish it.