Interview: Donald Hall, Author Of 'Essays After Eighty' The former U.S. poet laureate says he can't write poetry any more, but still has some prose in him. In a new book, Essays After Eighty, he considers his art, his beard and his experience growing old.
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At 86, Poet Donald Hall Writes On, But Leaves Verse Behind

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At 86, Poet Donald Hall Writes On, But Leaves Verse Behind

At 86, Poet Donald Hall Writes On, But Leaves Verse Behind

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Our country has never had a poet laureate, probably, who was so ambivalent about the job as Donald Hall. He only went to his office once. Hall has never fit in well with convention. Decades ago, he quit his job as a tenured professor and was a huge success as a freelance writer and poet. At 86, he's still writing, but seems to have left poetry behind. His new book is called "Essays After 80." Donald Hall, welcome to the program.

DONALD HALL: Hello, good to talk with you.

RATH: So you write that - you say you have stopped writing poetry.

HALL: Yes.

RATH: When did you stop, and how did it come on?

HALL: Oh, I guess it was about three years ago. And I realized I didn't have it anymore, and it's just getting old. I think you need higher testosterone levels to write poetry than I have at the moment. But fortunately, I can still write prose.

RATH: Was it unnerving, you know, to lose that?

HALL: No, because it was gradual. I had the sense of poetry fading on me - or me fading on poetry - for several years. And then I would think no, this is good, and then six months later, it wasn't so good. And so I saw it coming. I didn't really see these essays coming, and I'm very glad they came.

RATH: How is - how is that different? What is - why is it you can do that? Because the prose is awfully poetic. It's pretty beautiful.

HALL: I know. Sorry.


HALL: I think it is, too. But I...

RATH: You're allowed to be immodest now, I think.

HALL: Yes, my strong suit. But prose is not so dependent on sound. The line of poetry, with the breaking of the line - to me, it's - sound is the kind of doorway into poetry. And that - my senses or my ability to control it lapsed or grew less. I still use it in prose, but the unit is the paragraph. I had 60 years of writing poetry. I shouldn't complain now.

RATH: Well, you're writing these essays about that sensuality of poetry. You have this great line that - the most erotic poem in English is "Paradise Lost."

HALL: I like that line. Thanks. Yeah. Yeah.

RATH: Explain that for us.

HALL: Oh, the - Milton's beauty of sound and sensuality - it is all a pleasure of the mouth saying it. "Paradise Lost," as we know it, is a - almost a Puritan poem, but not in the mouth. It's not a Puritan poem.

RATH: You've been doing poetry readings for a very long time now.

HALL: I know. I wish I had some notion of how many. I don't, really.

RATH: You have a pretty funny story about how your age has affected how your audiences respond to your readings.

HALL: Yes, yes.

RATH: They gave you kind of the wrong idea about one poem.

HALL: Yeah, that's right. That's right. I began reading with a new poem which eventually turned out to be no good, but I had hoped it was. And it was thinking about what my grandfather would think now to see me. And when I read the poem, I had just entered on the stage so creeping, you know, and bent over and so on. And after that poem, there was a pause, and then there was a standing ovation. And I couldn't believe it. What a wonderful poem I must have written, but no. They felt as if they had seen - I think I wrote - a cadaver gifted with speech.

RATH: (Laughter).

HALL: And they were applauding me - at least, partially - because they knew they'd never see me again.

RATH: (Laughter) You - this book - it's titled "Essays After 80."

HALL: Right.

RATH: You're an old guy now.

HALL: Yeah.

RATH: People, I think, especially in this country, are terrified of aging. But you write that death has kind of become boring for you.

HALL: Yeah, it's strange. I really feel better about aging at the age of 86 than I did at 70. And I cannot drive. I can't walk except by pushing a Rollator. But I feel a great deal of energy and excitement. And obviously, death is ahead of me. I don't look forward to dying one little bit. But, you know, I simply don't worry about it because it's going to happen to me as it does to anybody.

RATH: Is the survival of your poetry - is that - does that give you some immortality?

HALL: At some point in this book, I said that I expect my immortality to cease about seven minutes after my funeral. I have seen so many poets who were famous, who won all sorts of prizes disappear with their death. I write as good as I can and don't try to turn that into some hope for a future that I could never know. But I've had some people tell me that they knew they were great and that they would live in literature forever. And my response is to pat them on the back and say maybe you'll feel better tomorrow.

RATH: (Laughter) Donald Hall is one of America's greatest poets. His new prose collection "Essays After 80" is out now. Donald Hall, thank you so much.

HALL: It's a pleasure to talk with you.

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