Remembering Former Poet Laureate Donald Hall

Jun 29, 2018
Originally published on July 5, 2018 1:15 pm
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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Before we begin today's show, we want to acknowledge yesterday's attack and tragic shooting at the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Md. Five people were killed and two others wounded after a gunman invaded the newsroom and began firing a shotgun. Our thoughts are with the victims, their family, friends and colleagues.

On today's show, we remember Donald Hall, former poet laureate of the United States, who died last weekend at age 89. He lived for most of his life in a 19th century farmhouse in rural New Hampshire and lived, by his own account, much longer than he or anyone else expected. About 30 years ago, Hall lost half his colon to cancer and began working on a memoir called "Life Work." Midway through writing that memoir, his cancer reappeared and metastasized to his liver. His memoir ended just as his chemotherapy was about to begin. And doctors gave him a 1 in 3 chance of living more than five years. That was 25 years ago, in 1993.

In "Life Work," Donald Hall wrote about how important work on the family farm was to his parents and grandparents and how important his own work as a poet was to him. I see no reason to spend your life writing poems, Hall wrote in one essay, unless your goal is to write great poems. The Harvard graduate also wrote in his memoir about how close he was to his wife of then-22 years, Jane Kenyon. They met while he was teaching and she was a student at the University of Michigan. And she became a highly-regarded poet in her own right. Terry Gross interviewed them both in 1993 and began by asking Donald Hall to read from his memoir, "Life Work."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

DONALD HALL: (Reading) If all goes well, as it were, I will by inches recover the morning glow, the coffee, work on poems and work on prose, walking the dog, love with Jane and the continual or recurrent dread exacerbated every three months by checking my CEA that a black cell multiplies. It's a common condition for millions of people - old ones dropping off and new ones entering the mode. The cancer club, the death watch. Heaven knows I have moments of anxiety. Magic thinking knows no let or hindrance. They are reading everything I write on this yellow pad. I'll take it. I'll take it. The nature of this book alters. Shall I change the title from "Life Work" to "Work And Death"? Box office, he said, sneering.

Oh, let me return to my theme. I've worked all this pre-operation week but not on "Life Work." Absorbedness has helped, and absorbedness is incomplete. This morning, as I write this medical report for "Life Work," I find that work remains the matter not only in defiance of death but in plain sight of it. It absorbs me to write these pages. It absorbs me more nearly than anything else has done for the past week or 10 days. Writing about cancer allows me to transcend my cancer by the syntax or rhetoric of dread and suffering. If work is no antidote to death, nor a denial of it, death is a powerful stimulus to work. Get done what you can.

TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Donald Hall, thank you for reading that. Let me just paraphrase something that you wrote in - at the end of the reading that you gave at the beginning of our talk. You were saying that you were thinking that your death could be the worst thing that ever happened to your wife, Jane. Let me introduce your wife, Jane Kenyon, the wonderful poet who is with us as well. And, Jane, can I ask you what your reaction was when you read that passage?

JANE KENYON: Well, I had to agree with it. It really is the worst thing that could happen to me. We're extremely close, both as human beings and as writers. We share so many of the same joys and difficulties. We're extremely close. We live and work in the same building 24 hours a day. And we're very much in each other's pockets. So it really would be devastating for me to lose my pal.

GROSS: I'd like to ask you to read a poem, and this is a poem about your husband after surgery. And the poem is called "Chrysanthemums."

KENYON: Right. This one is about the first round we had before he had metastases to the liver. So "Chrysanthemums."

(Reading) The doctor averted his eyes while the diagnosis fell on us as though the picture of the girl hiding from her dog had suddenly fallen off the wall. We were speechless all the way home. The light seemed strange. A weekend of fear and purging. Determined to work, he packed his Dictaphone, a stack of letters and a roll of stamps. At last, the day of scalpels, blood and gauze arrived. Eyes closed, I lay on his tightly-made bed waiting. From the hallway, I heard an old man whose nurse was helping him to walk. That Howard Johnson's, it's nothing but the same thing over and over again. That's right. It's nothing special.

(Reading) Late in the afternoon, when slanting sun betrayed a lot wad of dust under the bed-side stand, I heard the sound of casters and footsteps slowing down. The attendants asked me to leave the room while they moved him onto the bed. And the door remained closed for a long time. Evening came. While he dozed fitfully, still stupefied by anesthetics, I tried to read, my feet propped on the rails of the bed. Odette's chrysanthemums were revealed to me, ranks of them in the house where Swann, jealousy constricting his heart, made late-night calls. And while I read, pausing again and again to look at him, the smell of chrysanthemums sent by friends wavered from the sill, mixing with the smells of drastic occasions and disinfected sheets.

GROSS: When you write a poem that's about Don or, Don, when you write a poem that has to do with Jane, do you show it to each other right away?

KENYON: Not right away, but we always work together on poems.

GROSS: Even the poems about each other?

KENYON: Oh, yes. Yes. We also work with other friends. Each of us has our own committee, you might say. And we work very closely with other friends. But we do indeed work on each other's poems. And there are times when we just - I simply have to say to Don, well, I can't tell you that this because I just can't get far enough away from it to have much judgment about it.

GROSS: And then, Don, did you work on that poem at all?

HALL: I can't remember. I mean, almost always, I have something to say. It's famous in our house that Jane will show me a poem and I'll say, this is going to be good. And Jane will say going to be, eh (ph)? You know, I mean, I love her poems. But, oh, I'm always telling her to take out the word and there and take the comma out here. Take this line from the end of one line and put it at the beginning of the next. And she tells me the same things, of course, endlessly. And we often do what the other says but not always.

I don't remember what in particular I said about this, but the fact that it was about me and my illness would not keep me from having ideas about the sound of it, the style of it, the poetry of it. I mean, at first, I read it. It's a poem about me. Kabump (ph). I'm struck by it. And then I - by that fact. And then I start hearing the cadences and looking at the images. And if I see anything that doesn't sound quite right to me, I'll tell her. That's what we're useful for to each other in this particular way.

GROSS: Is there ever any friction between the two of you of who has ownership over a certain experience that you both shared, you know, and who has more of the right to write about it?

KENYON: Well, sometimes, when something particularly piquant happens to us, one of us will say, jump ball.

(LAUGHTER)

HALL: Or dibs.

(LAUGHTER)

HALL: I remember being with a bunch of poets years and years ago back at Ann Arbor. Jane was one of them. And somebody said something terrific, you know, a good phrase, just an adjective, a noun or something. And everybody started yelling, dibs, dibs on that.

GROSS: (Laughter).

HALL: I don't think that we've really had any friction on this. We have written about the same thing, but we write differently enough we can do that. It's all right.

BIANCULLI: That joint interview with Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon was conducted in 1993. Two years after that, at the age of 47, Jane died suddenly of leukemia. In the 11 days before she died, she and Hall finished editing a book of her new and selected poems. That book called "Otherwise" was published in 1996, which was when Terry next spoke with Donald Hall. She asked him to read the final poem in the book, which is the final poem Jane wrote. It's called "The Sick Wife."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

HALL: It's an extraordinary poem to end the book with, and it's quite a story. At the very end but before we knew she was going to die, her fingers didn't work. She couldn't write really. She had a - it was an anti-rejection drug called ciclosporin which disabled her fingers. On March 8 - six weeks before she died but when we were still hopeful - I left her for about six hours. I hated to, but I wanted to do something with my son. And she was doing all right. And the neighbor came in, of course, and stayed with her.

When I came back in the middle of the night, here was this poem written out in the neighbor's handwriting. And Jane had dictated a poem. It was about her sitting in the car while I went in shopping just, I think, the day before I went away. The next day, I typed it up - had it typed up. And then she would look at it from time to time and tell me change X to Y. So she revised it a little bit. Then when she was dying, we knew this was not a finished poem. She would have made it better. I know. She knew, too. But she couldn't face it then, and we chose the 20 finished poems to begin the book with. And then I said - and I'm so glad I thought of it - if I can find a way to print "The Sick Wife" and call it an unfinished poem, would that be all right? You know, she was very particular (laughter) about how she represented herself. And she thought about it a minute. She said yes. If you can call it an unfinished poem, you can print it. Well, it's a pretty good unfinished poem, and it's the last poem in her book.

"The Sick Wife" - (reading) The sick wife stayed in the car while he bought a few groceries. Not yet 50, she had learned what it's like not to be able to button a button. It was the middle of the day as only mothers with small children or retired couples stepped through the muddy parking lot. Dry cleaning swung and gleamed on hangers in the cars of the prosperous. How easily they moved with such freedom, even the old and relatively infirm. The windows began to steam up. The cars on either side of her pulled away so briskly that it made her sick at heart.

GROSS: I really like that poem. And I particularly...

HALL: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Like the image of the dry cleaning as it swung and gleamed on hangers in the cars of the prosperous.

HALL: You know, as I said it just then, I remembered that one of the words she changed was gleamed. I don't remember what it was before, but I remember her saying try gleamed in there (laughter) in - sometime in March or February - maybe early April.

GROSS: This poem was written in the third person. She's not saying I. she's saying she.

HALL: Yes.

GROSS: Did she often write about herself in the third person like that?

HALL: No, I don't think she did very often. And I think here the word I seemed possibly to ask for pity, and that putting it in the third person was putting it away a little bit. I don't think Jane said that, but I - that's my notion.

BIANCULLI: Poet Donald Hall speaking to Terry Gross in 1996. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 1996 interview with Donald Hall, the poet laureate who died last weekend at age 89. In this interview from 1996, she was speaking to him after his wife, poet Jane Kenyon, had died of leukemia at age 47.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: We talked - you, Jane Kenyon and myself - on FRESH AIR a couple of years ago. It was in September of 1993. And at the time, you were in remission from liver cancer. Things were looking pretty good. And, you know, we were talking a lot about how - what it was like for Jane to take care of you. Had you always assumed that you would out - that she would outlive you?

HALL: Oh, yeah. We totally assumed it. I was 19 years older than Jane. And according to actuarial tables, she was my widow for 25 years. So we planned on it a lot. Why we talked - when we were courting, we thought we shouldn't get married because she'd be a widow so long. So much for that.

(LAUGHTER)

HALL: And then, of course, I had - her salivary cancer was, of course, terribly scary, but it was totally encapsulated. And in retrospect, it was not much of a threat really. Though, of course, we worried then about her death, but then we put it off. And I had statistically poor chances. And we assumed that I would die, and she would outlive me a long time. We made lots of plans that way. And then extraordinarily and horrifyingly, it happened the other way. But I did take care of her as she took care of me. Maybe she was my model in that as in so many things. In the program that we did with you three years ago, I had you - you had me read something where I said that - I said it seemed egotistical of me to think that my death would be the worst thing that could happen to Jane. And then I realized, well, my death would be (laughter) the worst thing that could happen to Jane. And she agreed.

But then, of course, her death has been the worst thing that could happen to me. But I'm saying this because I want to say something else that may sound a little odd. Taking care of her for 15 months was one of the best things in my life. I loved taking care of her, and she loved being taken care of. There are strange compensations. There's no compensation for Jane's death at the age of 47. But taking care of her was wonderful and wonderful for both of us. As a depressive, I'm not sure she could ever really believe I loved her as much as I told her I did. And I think she knew. I think she knew. She said she knew after all that taking care. I've been writing everyday for a year and not about any other subject but Jane. I've been writing her a lot of letters, keeping her up with things. But when I'm in the middle of a poem or in the middle of a revision sometimes, I catch myself thinking, what would Jane have done here? And I couldn't really be like her if I tried, you know? But I'm sort of consulting her, as it were, even when I'm writing.

GROSS: Well, it's interesting 'cause you were her college teacher. That's how you met.

HALL: Yes, but that's a long time ago. Right. Yeah. She was my teacher as much as I was hers in the long run. We started out that way. Sure. I was the old guy. I was 19 years older than she was. But she led me - if - I mean, I would try to argue she led me more than I led her. But maybe it's a - maybe it was a tie. When we talked about it, we just argued back and forth without rancor, taking opposite positions. She taught me a great deal - I'm sure of that - about poetry and about - I don't know - kindness, charity.

BIANCULLI: Donald Hall speaking to Terry Gross in 1996. When they spoke again in 2002, he was still writing about his late wife, the poet Jane Kenyon. By then, he had written two collections of poems related to her death, one called "Without" and another called "The Painted Bed," from which he read a selection.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: Let's start with the poem "Barber." Feel free to introduce this in any way.

HALL: Yep. This poem "Barber" is one that took place - the scene took place not long before Jane's death but when we still had some hope that she might live. And we were getting rid of some of the chemotherapy materials that we had had before. That's enough I think to say.

"Barber" - (reading) Jane's brush cut looked like a Marine recruit's as she sat skinny and pale at the table, interrupting our chore to vomit in a china bowl. We picked through jumbles of medical supplies, filling two garbage bags with leukemia's detritus. When I lifted up leftover disinfectant or DuoDERM, she shook her head no, and I tossed it away as I did with the Ziploc of her massy hair cut off the year before when it started to shed. The young barber trembled.

GROSS: Donald Hall, are you surprised at what moments actually stick in your memory and what moments you remember enough to use them as starting points for poems?

HALL: I guess I'm surprised. I - generally they occur and reoccur and reoccur until I can no longer ignore them. And I get to the table and begin sketching out something about them. It's the recurrence that indicates to me that they have some depth or some resonance in me and that perhaps then I should try to put them into the form of a poem.

GROSS: And why did this moment become a poem?

HALL: Jane's hair was terribly important to her. She - losing it was such a cruel thing. And when she had died, we were hopeful at the time I speak of when we threw away the bag of hair. When she died, I wished so much I'd had some of this hair. And I kept thinking about it, thinking about the absence of her hair and then remembered the scene when - early on in her leukemia when she began to lose her hair. And she couldn't stand it clumping in the floor of the shower stall every day as it began to go out so that she arranged - we arranged for a barber to come from the barbershop in the hospital and shave it all off. I remembered he was trembling, the young man. She was very moved by what he had to do.

BIANCULLI: Poet Donald Hall speaking to Terry Gross in 2002. He died last weekend at age 89. We'll hear more of that conversation in a later one recorded 10 years later after a short break. Also, our film critic David Edelstein will review "Leave No Trace" about a father and daughter living secretly in a forest in Oregon. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL EVANS' "GARY'S THEME")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross, back with more of Terry's 2002 interview with former U.S. poet laureate Donald Hall. He died last weekend at age 89. His wife, Jane Kenyon, who also was a poet, died in 1995. After her death, Donald Hall wrote two collections of poems about their marriage and her death. The first, titled "Without," was published three years after she died. The second one, called "The Painted Bed," came out in 2002.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: Donald Hall, I'd like you to read another poem from your new book "The Painted Bed," also a poem about your late wife, the poet Jane Kenyon. And this one was called "Sweater." Perhaps before you read it, you could just tell us something about the moment...

HALL: Yeah.

GROSS: ...That inspired this poem.

HALL: Well, it took me a year before I could gather her clothes and send them off. And I write about that a little bit here. After I thought that I had picked up all her clothes, I kept finding more and more of her. Naturally - lived in the same place together for 20 years, and the remains are still there. There are fewer and fewer now, but even after I had sent her clothes away, I kept finding more. And this is the background of this poem.

(Reading) The second June afterward, I wrap Jane's clothes for Rosie's Place, but I keep on finding things I missed - a scarf hanging from a hook in a tool shed, a green down vest or a sweater tossed on the swivel chair by her desk where her papers pile untouched just as she left them the last time she fretted over answering a letter or worked to end a poem by observing something as careless as the white sleeve of a cardigan.

GROSS: When I read that poem, it made me think about a few things. One is that sense of like a moment frozen when somebody dies, that the whole landscape they left is just kind of frozen in place. And then you, the living, have to decide if you're going to change it at all or how long you're going to leave it as a kind of living monument to them.

HALL: I know. Yeah.

GROSS: How did you know that you were ready to give away the clothes or collect the poetry and manuscripts?

HALL: For upwards of a year, I thought and thought about her clothes. Every time I would look at the back of the door to the bathroom and there was her bathrobe and perhaps a night shirt and so on, I would think, I've got to do it. I've got to do it. I wasn't getting rid of her. I was doing what was necessary after her death. And I steeled myself toward doing it until finally I could. Some people can do it right away, and maybe that's healthier than me, but I just couldn't do it.

GROSS: I'd like you to read another poem from your new collection, "The Painted Bed." And this is called "Ardor." Would you introduce it for us?

HALL: Yes, I'll be happy to. "Ardor" is a poem that I wrote or began - what is it? - a year and a half, almost two years after she died. If anything, things got a bit worse. It seemed hard to imagine that they could get worse a year and a few months after her death. And for quite a while, I got depressed with a kind of violence of depression. "Ardor" comes out of this time. And I worked on it, I know, on a visit down to Florida, which I mention in it. But it came out of a time - perhaps something like a year and a half to two years after her death. Therefore, a state quite different from the poems that I wrote quickly or not quickly but soon after her death. Anyway, I'll read the poem.

(Reading) Nursing her, I felt alive in the animal moment, scenting the predator. Her death was the worst thing that could happen and caring for her was best. After she died, I screamed, upsetting the depressed dog. Now I no longer address the wall covered with many photographs, nor call her you in a poem. She recedes into the granite museum of Jane Kenyon, 1947-1995. I long for the absent woman of different faces who makes metaphors and chops onion drinking a glass of chardonnay, oiling the wok, humming to herself, maybe thinking how to conclude a poem.

(Reading) When I make love now, something is awry. Last autumn, a woman said, I mistrust your ardor. This winter in Florida, I loathed the old couples my age who promenaded in their slack flesh, holding hands. I gazed at young women with outrage and desire, unable to love or to work or to die. Hours are slow and weeks rapid in their vacancy. Each day lapses as I recite my complaints. Lust is grief that has turned over in bed to look the other way.

GROSS: Donald Hall, I just particularly liked that line - she recedes into the granite museum of Jane Kenyon, 1947 to 1995.

HALL: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: Can you say anything...

HALL: It was true that I...

GROSS: Yeah. Go ahead.

HALL: ...Could no longer say you as I did in earlier poems after her death. She was now she and her, just part of the measure of receding that I speak of. And as she recedes into the granite monument, there is a hard stillness about her death. It's no longer vibrant and moving and, I mean, in motion. It is still.

GROSS: You know, this poem is about her receding and her memory receding, do you remember her as she was before she was sick or when she was sick?

HALL: Oh, for so long, I could only remember her when she was sick. It was terrible. My dreams and my daydreams were of the - first, they were of the last 11 days when we knew she would die. And then it was of earlier times and the baldness and the suffering and the pain. Finally, I was able to remember her before. I remember a dream, the first dream where she had a full head of hair. And she was the way she used to be. And that was such a relief. And now, really, when I think of her, I think of her, I guess, almost entirely when she was well. It's much better.

GROSS: One of the lines in that poem, "Ardor," is when I make love now, something is awry - the implication being that you've had relationships subsequent to your late wife.

HALL: That's right, yes.

GROSS: And it's like a reality that's eluded to within these poems about grief. But it's like when I read this book, I just think of you as a man who experiences loss. And I have to keep saying to myself too there's more to your life. You know, that your life goes on. It isn't totally frozen in grief.

HALL: You know, one thing that this book has made clear to me is the distinction between the embodiment of the poems, that part of your life, and then the present life that has continued after the poems are finished. And I am no longer in the places that these poems embody. I don't, of course, renounce them therefore, but it is a bit strange. I am no longer in that place of mourning that many of these poems embody. I work on poems endlessly. I can't do it - can't do them quickly. So I revise them and revise them. Now, by the time they are published, I'm a long way from the moment that started them.

GROSS: Did writing poems of mourning for your wife and then ending that cycle coincide with being able to have relationships with other women afterwards?

HALL: It was, I think, a steady process in both directions. Finally, I have been able to feel love. I did some dating. I had relationships earlier. But probably I had to move along past the place of the poem "The Wish" before I could really let myself go into love of another woman. Jane is not gone. She will always be there, goodness knows, but I am able to look elsewhere.

GROSS: Right. There's a final poem I'd like you to read, and it's the poem that concludes your book.

HALL: Yes.

GROSS: And the poem is called "Affirmation." Would you talk about this before you read it?

HALL: I will. Yes, yes. This is the poem that ends "The Painted Bed." And it may end - I hope, I guess, that it ends the series of feelings that "The Painted Bed" embodies. And it's a possible feeling - and this poem has been - it's a very depressed poem. But it has been a poem that's had a great deal of response. I published it in a magazine. And I've had more letters about it than I think I ever have on any poem I've published in a magazine before. So it must've reached people. For me, it is the - you know, the private past becoming the public present. And I read it aloud to you - happily to read the poem but also very aware that it represents or embodies something that is a long way from where I am now.

Affirmation. To grow old is to lose everything. Aging. Everybody knows it. Even when we are young, we glimpse it sometimes and nod our heads when a grandfather dies. Then we row for years on the midsummer pond, ignorant and content. But a marriage that began without harm scatters into debris on the shore. And a friend from school drops cold on a rocky strand. If a new love carries us past middle age, our wife will die at her strongest and most beautiful. New women come and go. All go. The pretty lover who announces that she is temporary is temporary. The bold woman, middle-aged against our old age, sinks under an anxiety she cannot withstand. Another friend of decades estranges himself in words that pollute 30 years. Let us stifle under mud at the pond's edge and affirm that it is fitting and delicious to lose everything.

GROSS: At the end there, when you say, let's affirm that it is fitting and delicious to lose everything - I was wondering if you meant that as a kind of Zen moment or as a kind of bitter irony.

HALL: When I was writing it, sitting at my desk, when it came out of me - that is, it came out in a different form and then boiled down into this form. I was thinking of it as a bitter irony. And, you know, when you are working on a poem, you intend some things that, you know, you know about. But if the poem is any good - and I will say this about any poem that anybody writes - there are things going on in that poem that you're not aware of at the moment of writing. I think it's almost essential for the poet to be someone who can say things that contain an underside of which he or she is not consciously aware.

BIANCULLI: Donald Hall speaking with Terry Gross in 2002. When we return, we'll hear from their final conversation recorded a decade later in 2012. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF RHYTHM FUTURE QUARTET'S "IBERIAN SUNRISE")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. We're remembering former poet laureate Donald Hall, who died last weekend at the age of 89. The last time Terry Gross spoke with poet Donald Hall was in 2012. By that time, it had been close to two decades since doctors had given him only a slim chance of living much longer. And he had outlived his own younger spouse, poet Jane Kenyon. When he and Terry talked this last time, Hall was 83 years old and had just published an essay in The New Yorker looking back on his life.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: Well, let me ask you to read a short passage from your recent New Yorker article "Out The Window."

HALL: Yes. After a life of loving the old, by natural law, I turned old myself. Decades followed each other. Thirty was terrifying. Forty I never noticed because of a drunk. Fifty was the best with a total change of life. Sixty extended the bliss of 50. And then came my cancers, Jane's death. And over the years, I travelled to another universe. However alert we are, however much we think we know what will happen, antiquity remains an unknown, unanticipated galaxy.

GROSS: So - now, you said before that your attitude has been really cheerful in spite of, like, diminishing physical abilities. And, you know, like, one way of dealing with diminishing physical abilities or illness is to get, like, really angry with your body. And apparently, you don't feel that way.

HALL: Not really, no. No. I lament it - the disappearances, but I can't feel angry about it. It's natural. I am probably older at 83 than some people are at 90 - physically older. But as long as I can do my work and continue to enjoy myself working on words, I feel fulfilled. My body causes me trouble when I cross the room. But I'm sitting down writing, and I am in my heaven, my old heaven. I began writing when I was 12 - I don't mean very well. But I've been doing it my whole life. And it's a kind of center of my life. Together with loves and children, writing is something I have that not everyone has that I adore.

GROSS: Now, you mention in this article that you're not writing poetry anymore. You're writing prose. Why is that?

HALL: I felt poetry slipping away. And I'm not sure why. It was palpable. And I've always felt that poetry was particularly erotic, more than prose was.

GROSS: Do you mean, like, erotic in subject matter or sensual in terms of the language itself?

HALL: In terms of the language itself.

GROSS: OK.

HALL: I say that you read poems not with your eyes and not with your ears but with your mouth. You taste it. This part of poetry which is essential to me seems to have diminished gradually until finally I really don't have it. I don't have so much particular inspiration either. It used to be that phrases, lines would come into my head, often many of them in a period of, you know, five days or a week. And maybe I didn't know what I was talking about. But the words had a kind of heaviness and deliciousness to them. That's decreased, become less frequent until finally for the last few years there's been none of them.

GROSS: So what do you think about the idea of your books outliving you? Does that give you comfort?

HALL: Well, if it gave me - I can't say it does. I have hope, but I do not have anything like conviction or knowledge that they will. I have been alive too long among too many writers whose names I have seen so important who have died and are not speaken (ph) of afterwards. Having some success in your life does not mean that your work will endure. In an almanac, look at the list of the winners of the Pulitzer Prize over the last 60, 70 years and see how many names you remember. It's chilling, really.

So I can hope. I can daydream, but I certainly think that the chances of me being read a hundred years now, 50 years from now are probably not good. But that cannot be your only end. You cannot write in order to be, as it were, immortal because you will never know. It's impossible. Therefore...

GROSS: That's true, isn't it? Yeah, you'll never know.

HALL: Just forget about it.

GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah.

HALL: Just write as well as you can, and don't speculate about whether you will be Chaucer or Shakespeare.

GROSS: Donald Hall, thank you so much for talking with us again.

HALL: Thank you. It's very good to talk with you again after many years.

GROSS: Yes, it's been a long time. (Laughter) It's good to catch up. So thank you, and I'll look forward to more of your writing.

HALL: I hope so.

GROSS: OK.

HALL: Bye-bye.

GROSS: Bye-bye.

BIANCULLI: Donald Hall speaking to Terry Gross in 2012. The former U.S. poet laureate died last weekend at age 89. Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews "Leave No Trace," the new film by Debra Granik, director of the movie "Winter's Bone." This is FRESH AIR.

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