Washington DC, 2011, at the entrance to the White House. Poet Donald Hall, about to receive the National Medal of Arts, saw novelist Philip Roth, whom he had not seen in fifty years.
Roth : How are you doing?
Hall: (after saying he was fine) I’m still writing.
Roth: What else is there?
Former U.S. Poet Laureate Donald Hall is still writing, prose, not poetry. In Essays After Eighty, he writes of times past, when “[W]omen wore girdles; the jacket pockets of men’s gray suits showed the fangs of handkerchiefs,” and ashtrays overflowed. Hall speaks of his life as a poet, as husband to poet Jane Kenyon, about how he came to live with her in his ancestral home in Wilmot, New Hampshire. There are stories of an earlier marriage, of Kenyon’s death and the grief that followed. The most moving passage in the collection may be this. In contrasting his wakeful reality with a dream in which he struggled to leave his home but could find no exit, he writes, “ This farmhouse has a door, and I remember when Jane’s body was carried out. I shut Gus (the dog) into my workroom so that he would not see her leave.”
“Not everything in old age is grim,” Hall says. Some of the essays are quietly amusing, a few will make you laugh loud enough to disturb your napping spouse. There is humor even in contemplation of death, where Hall lists many euphemisms for dying and observes that according to obituaries, people either die "peacefully" or "after a courageous struggle." Apparently those are the only two options.
And there is an “else” apart from writing. Hall reports on his current life, how he spends his days. He treasures those he loves, persists in his smoking, engages in physical exercise with the same reluctance as most of us. The first essay, Out the Window, is a soft and engaging meditation on what he sees from a favorite blue armchair. He writes, “[G]eneration after generation, my family’s old people sat at this window to watch the year.” What they saw is familiar to all who live in New England and for that, this essay captures a sense of place: snow, birds at the feeder, the “robin who returns every year to refurbish her nest after the wintry ravage.”
The cover photo shows Hall in his present bearded state, with eyes looking directly into your own. Many books have been written about growing older, some more upbeat (and suspiciously so) than Hall’s. They often seem to require some superhuman efforts at aging, featuring 90 year-old marathon runners, or centenarians who are still working full-time. Donald Hall’s essays are grounded in a reality that is more comfortable for its candor. His take on growing older is closer to truth and as steady as his gaze. Magazine cover photo by David Mendelsohn, courtesy of Poets and Writers, Inc.