I want to write a beautiful thing that will last forever
July 1996 Writing at the highest levels of accomplishment has sometimes been described as a daunting process of finding excruciatingly precise words to fit unusually demanding situations.
Donald Hall a true man of letters whose passion for seemingly endless revision is legendary not only agrees with that premise, but goes further when he is writing poetry to consider cadence, structure, and nuance, even the specific number of syllables that will appear in every line of verse.
As the calendar continues its inexorable countdown to the next millennium, and as increasingly powerful computers usher in what has been celebrated as the Information Age, it is instructive to examine the labors of a consummate craftsman who typically spends four or five years working on individual poems for no reason other than getting the words right and in the proper order.
The thought of producing a completed work in the first attempt is almost laughable for Hall, whose latest collection of four highly personal poems, The Old Life (Houghton Mifflin, 134 pp., $19.95), is a perfect case in point.
The longest poem in the book, the title poem, is a 96-page narrative that embraces the full sweep of Hall’s life, from his earliest memories growing up as a child some fifty-five years ago, to the death last year from leukemia of Jane Kenyon, his wife of twenty-three years, and also a poet of considerable renown.
Read in a single sweep, the title poem offers what amounts to an autobiography in verse, a memoir of eventful times recalled with enviable economy of language. A close examination shows that there are 15 syllables in every two lines of the poem, an unusual construction that Hall imposed upon himself simply because I like the shapes I could make with it, and because it pleased me, he said during a recent interview in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
I don’t expect anybody to ever notice this, which is why I took special pains to disguise it, he explained. Generally, when you’re working with syllables in poetry, you do it with each line, but here I took every two lines, and allowed myself to split them up at any point. So sometimes there may be lines of sevens and eights, other times there may be tens and fives but they always add up to fifteen for every two lines.
Hall said that the benefit of imposing such a rigid structure on himself is that it helps the creative process by forcing him to be inventive within the guidelines he has established. Part of the process of revision is to force you to think over every single word. So a form like that, which basically is a constraint, actually becomes a liberation, because it requires you to think every word through until every one is perfect.
This poem, like virtually every other poem he has written over the past forty years, was deemed publishable only after he had produced scores of drafts. I write in longhand, and I have a typist who types up fresh versions for me every day. People say to me, ‘How do you know when a poem is done?' I tell them, ‘Well, I don’t.' Because after a book comes out, I begin to make changes in the margins.
During the 1950s, Hall was poetry editor of the Paris Review, editing numerous anthologies that showcased the work of younger poets. A graduate of Harvard College and Oxford University, he taught at the University of Michigan for 20 years before moving into his ancestral farm at Eagle Pond in New Hampshire with Jane Kenyon, his second wife.
In addition to the twelve volumes of poetry he has published over the past forty-one years, Hall has written many essays on subjects ranging from baseball to the sculptor Henry Moore. He also is the author of numerous children’s books, including the hugely successful Ox-Cart Man, a story of New England farm life and winner of a Caldecott Medal in 1980.
Now 68, Hall has survived several frightful encounters with cancer. In January of 1994, Jane Kenyon, his wife and 19 years his junior, was diagnosed with leukemia. A good deal of The Old Life deals with grief, particularly the eight-stanza poem, Without, which is entirely devoid of capital letters and punctuation, and concludes the volume; it deals frankly with disease and the ominous prospect of imminent loss.
It’s not an especially hopeful poem, Hall agreed. It is a poem written out of illness, not out of death. It is about how it was to live with this disease for fifteen months. I began it about six months into the disease. I’d never written a poem before that was so asyntactical and unpunctuated, but that was what I wanted at the time. It is a poem that came out of thoughts.
As a rule, Hall continued, poems do not emerge from his considered thoughts, but more subconsciously from a variety of subtle sources, seemingly forgotten experiences among them. That year was without seasons, without compartments, without divisions, and then I thought, without punctuation, and that of course brought me to the poem. That one probably went 80 or 90 drafts, something like that, and I read it to Jane several times along the way.
Since Kenyon’s death, Hall said he has done nothing but write poems about her, and has begun writing her letters in verse, telling her what’s happening, remembering things. Some of the letters, he added, have gone through 120 drafts, and that he will continue revising until he feels they are ready for publication.
I do this because I want to write a beautiful thing that will last forever, he said. I’m not telling you that I believe I will do that, but that’s what I want to accomplish. A beautiful thing that will last forever is directed outward. It comes from you but it goes elsewhere.”