Set to Verse: Donald Hall Is New Poet Laureate

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Donald Hall is to be the nation's new poet laureate, Librarian of Congress James Billington will announce today. And like many of his recent predecessors, the 77-year-old Hall intends to make his position more than an honorary one.

"It's an opportunity to plug poetry," Hall said. "Other laureates have done a good job, and I'm trying to figure out what I should do."

The New Hampshire resident has published 15 books of poetry in his six-decade writing career, most recently "White Apples and the Taste of Stone: Selected Poems 1946-2006," which includes what Ted Kooser, the current poet laureate, yesterday called "two of my favorite poems" -- "Names of Horses" and "Maple Syrup."

Other poets and critics cite a complex, book-length poem called "The One Day" -- published in 1988 but composed over 17 years -- as Hall's greatest achievement.

"In a sense, it is the last masterpiece of American modernism," said National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Dana Gioia, noting that as such, it is unlike the bulk of Hall's generally more accessible work. David Lehman, reviewing "The One Day" in The Washington Post, called it "loud, sweeping, multitudinous, an act of the imperial imagination," and cited a climactic line suggestive of the poet's fundamental take on life:

"Work, love, build a house and die. But build a house."

But Hall is perhaps best known for the edgy, anguished poetry and nonfiction he has written about death and love -- specifically, the early death from leukemia, in 1995, of his beloved wife and fellow poet, Jane Kenyon. This work includes "Without," a book of poems, published in 1998, and "The Best Day the Worst Day: Life With Jane Kenyon," a memoir that came out last year.

He and Kenyon met in 1969 at the University of Michigan, where he taught for many years and where she was his student. In 1975, not long after their marriage, they decided to give up his tenured position and move into his grandparents' 1803 farmhouse in Wilmot, N.H. They devoted themselves to writing and each other, and Hall's work evolved as he reconnected with his grandparents' world.

"Contentment is work so engrossing that you do not know that you are working," Hall once wrote, and rural New England life seemed to foster contentment. Kenyon gained confidence as a poet. Hall supplemented his own poetry with a wide range of more reliably income-producing genres, among them essays, memoirs, textbooks, short fiction, plays and children's books.

"He's one of the last people around living the full life of the man of letters," said critic Sven Birkerts yesterday. But he's now doing it alone: Kenyon's death at 47 opened what Birkerts called a "vein of pain."

"His writing about Jane Kenyon has been striking -- and helpful to many people," said Hall's friend Liam Rector, a poet who directs graduate writing seminars at Bennington College. "There's a bloody-mindedness in him that looks unflinchingly at his subjects."

What would his wife have thought of him being dubbed poet laureate?

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