U.S. Poetry's New Chief: Donald Hall Newly announced Poet Laureate Donald Hall says he will work to improve poetry's standing the United States, seeking to provide new inspiration to the medium. Hall reads from three of his poems: "Old Roses," "Man in the Dead Machine," and "Weeds and Peonies," which is about his late wife, the poet Jane Kenyon.
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U.S. Poetry's New Chief: Donald Hall

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U.S. Poetry's New Chief: Donald Hall

U.S. Poetry's New Chief: Donald Hall

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

A talk now with poet Donald Hall, who has been picked by the Librarian of Congress to be the next poet laureate. Donald Hall is now in his late 70s. He has lived for years on the New Hampshire farm that his grandparents used to own. He writes in a room that he slept in as a boy. When we spoke today, he began by reading a poem from White Apples and the Taste of Stone. That's his latest collection. The poem is called Old Roses.

Mr. DONALD HALL (Poet): Old Roses.

White roses, tiny and old, flare among thorns by the barn door. For a hundred years under the June elm, under the gaze of seven generations, they lived briefly like this, in the month of roses, by the fields stout with corn, or with clover and timothy making thick hay, grown over, now, with milkweed, sumac, paintbrush. Old roses survive winter drifts, the melt in April, August parch, and men and women who sniffed roses in spring and called them pretty as we call them now, walking beside the barn on a day that perishes.

SIEGEL: Donald Hall, welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED and congratulations on your -

Mr. HALL: Thank you so much.

SIEGEL: This is a position you're about to assume in which it's really up to you to make it what you will, I gather.

Mr. HALL: Really it is, yes.

SIEGEL: Have you been thinking about this? How you would try to promote poetry?

Mr. HALL: I have barely begun thinking. And I don't know the staff yet at the Library or what is possible, but I've been thinking about radio, NPR. And I'm thinking about possibly a regular program. I'm thinking about television, public television and some of the cable networks.

SIEGEL: What's your sense of the state of poetry today in the country?

Mr. HALL: Well, it's flourishing compared to any other point in my life. When I was beginning as a poet and first publishing, the numbers of poets and the numbers of books, the numbers of sales of books were far, far less than they are now. So I've seen it grow enormously.

Mainly I think because of the engine of the poetry reading. And when the poetry reading began to get hotted up in the late ‘50s, I thought, well it's a fad, I'll enjoy it while it's here. But it's not just a fad. It's persisted for 50 years and there are more readings than ever.

SIEGEL: What do you find that you're writing about most nowadays?

Mr. HALL: I was ill last autumn and ill in a way that I'd never been before. Not a mortal illness, just a disturbance in my blood. And I was fatigued all the time. But I've been writing out of that, trying to get the language for that feeling. And I've also been writing some memories from way back, bits of childhood. Childhood on the farm, which I've written about many times, but there are always new poems that's come out of that experience.

SIEGEL: I'd like for you to read another poem for us. There's a poem called the Man in the Dead Machine.

Mr. HALL: Sure, I'll read that one.

The Man in the Dead Machine.

I should say that the dead machine in question is in the second line and it's an American fighting plane, the Grumman Hellcat, that fought during the Second World War.

The Man in the Dead Machine.

High on a slope in New Guinea, the Grumman Hellcat lodges among bright vines as thick as arms. In 1943, the clenched hand of a pilot glided it here where no one has ever been. In the cockpit, the helmeted skeleton sits upright, held by dry sinews at neck and shoulder and by webbing that straps the pelvic cross to the cracked leather of the seat and the breastbone to the canvas cover of the parachute. Or say that the shrapnel missed me. I flew back to the carrier and every morning take the train, my pale hands on a black case, and sit upright, held by the firm webbing.

I remember so well how that poem began. I was driving in the car by myself and it was a time when I was quite depressed in my life and I suddenly had kind of a waking dream in which I saw the crashed airplane run over with vines and then zoomed down to see the skeleton in the cockpit.

I knew that that was how I felt at the moment, like that skeleton in the cockpit, trapped, moveless, lifeless. It took me a long time before I could begin to put it into lines, but I did put that vision into lines and then continued with a passage which had him alive and he was in the same condition.

SIEGEL: Although -

Mr. HALL: Like a skeleton.

SIEGEL: Commuting back home as a skeleton. There is a depression that we see as a feature of our personal mental health and there are experiences in life, the loss of a wife, for example.

Mr. HALL: Yes.

SIEGEL: Is it the same thing or is there something different when you speak of depression?

Mr. HALL: Oh, the loss of my late wife was another thing from any kind of ordinary depression. It was such a constantly public absence in the house where I live and where I lived with her for 20 years. And for the first years I wept a great deal. I went to her grave and talked to her. But I also came back home and wrote poems. But I didn't do it as an act of public help for other people. I did it for myself and it did help.

SIEGEL: Well, why not read us one of the poems about Jane Kenyon, about your late wife.

Mr. HALL: Ok. Jane was a great gardener and I wrote a poem after she died. She died in April and, of course, her flowers came up after her death. This one is called Weeds and Peonies.

Weeds and Peonies.

Your peonies burst out, white as snow squalls, with red flecks at their shaggy centers in your border of prodigies by the porch. I carry one magnanimous blossom indoors and float it in a glass bowl as you used to do. Ordinary pleasures, contentment recollected, blow like snow into the abandoned garden, overcoming the daisies. Your blue coat vanishes down Pond Road into imagined snowflakes with Gus at your side, his great tail swinging, but you will not reappear, tired and satisfied, and grief's repeated particles suffuse the air, like the dog yipping through the entire night, or the cat stretching awake, then curling as if to dream of her mother's milky nipples.

A raccoon dislodged a geranium from its pot. Flowers, roots and dirt lay upended in the back garden, where lilies begin their daily excursions above stone walls in the season of old roses. I pace beside 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.

SIEGEL: That's beautiful.

Mr. HALL: Thank you.

SIEGEL: I can't let you go without asking you about one topic that I've noticed of great concern to you that some might consider prosaic, but I know that no one in New England does. It's the Boston Red Sox.

Mr. HALL: Oh, indeed. Now they're up in Minnesota and I can't stay up late enough to watch the end of the games, but I watch them every night.

SIEGEL: You do.

Mr. HALL: I love them. And I love the long, long season of baseball. It's better than the summer itself.

SIEGEL: Well, I hope that your idea of doing poetry on public radio bears fruit, because we would certainly enjoy hearing you quite often.

Mr. HALL: Well, good. I'll count you in my corner.

SIEGEL: Ok. Thank you very much, Donald Hall.

Mr. HALL: Ok.

SIEGEL: Good luck to you.

Mr. HALL: Thank you so much.

SIEGEL: That's Donald Hall, who will assume his duties as poet laureate of the United States this fall. You can read more of his poems at our website, NPR.org.

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