Donald Hall, a former poet laureat of the United States, broaches difficult subjects in his latest book “Essays After Eighty.” (Linda Kunhardt/Courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Reading these essays feels like being in your company, talking over a glass of wine.

I loved writing them, and I’m amused by what I came up with, and they kept me going. Poetry had left me — I had 60 years of it; I can’t regret it — but I love to work, and I did not know what I’d be doing. One day I looked out the window and began writing about being an old man looking out the window at the year going by. And it was all kind of positive, until I went to the National Gallery and a crazy guard said to me, “Did we have a nice din-din?” But I’m grateful to him! In anything you write — in a short story, a poem — there has to be a counter-motion; it can’t go all in one direction. And all of a sudden came this funny condescension to old people, the invisibility of old age and the assumed mental frailty. Of course, I felt the same way 20 years ago. I never said, “Did we have a nice din-din?” to anybody, but I’m sure I condescended to the old.

Is the prose enough, or do you miss writing poetry?

I can’t say I do. I think my very best work came out when I was about 60, not when I was 20. I was publishing all the time when I was in my 20s, and some of those poems I still like. And there were a few after 60, and in my 70s, that I like. But they became fewer and fewer. I watched it sliding away. If it had happened suddenly, I might feel more loss. Thank goodness I retained the ability to write prose. Some of these essays took 80 drafts! Most of them took about 30. I’ve always been slow. I didn’t mind taking more time. I’d heard of writers who say they hate to write. Not me. I love to do it.

In one of your poems, “Affirmation,” you write, “To grow old is to lose everything.”

That was when I was 70, and I was approaching old age. In reality, I thought I was old. I remember writing it and when I sent it in to the New Yorker. I almost didn’t because I thought the poem went all in one direction, and it had no counter-movement in it. They took it immediately, and I got letters from everywhere; people were putting it up on their refrigerators. And I realized it was sufficiently complex. I just didn’t see it myself. Many times I have written something, and after it was published, I understood what I was saying. For me, poems aren’t exactly a saying, they’re a doing. The poem is a bodily object. When I was in my mid-20s, I had the ridiculous idea that before writing or finishing a poem, I had to understand its statement. I got over that.

Are you growing wiser?

Yes, I think so. It might be self-deceit. Actually, I feel better and more energetic and more positive at 86 than I did at 76. That seems very strange to me. I have an increase in confidence and the ability to concentrate and so on. How come? I know it will go away some time — well, I’ll die; everybody does.

Burns’s story collection, “The Missing Woman,” will be published in April. She teaches at the University of Southampton in England.


By Donald Hall

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 134 pp. $22