by Deb Aronson
Poet Laureate Donald Hall’s love of poetry grew from his fascination with horror movies.
“I enjoyed the morbidity of them,” says Hall of his favorite flicks. Hall, who was named poet laureate last year, was born and raised in New Haven, Connecticut. When he was just a school boy, a friend and fellow movie aficionado observed that, if Hall liked horror movies, he’d like books and poems by Edgar Allen Poe. Hall had never heard of Poe, but he found a volume of the author’s works in his parents’ library.
“That was the best stuff I’d ever read,” remembers Hall.
Hall’s first poem, written when he was 12, was titled, “Have You Ever Thought of the Nearness of Death to You.”
Later, reading a biography of Poe, Hall learned that Poe read and admired the work of Keats and Shelley, two other poets new to Hall. He saved his allowance money and bought a volume of poetry by those masters. When Hall was 14, he met a fellow poet at a Boy Scout meeting.
“I was a lousy Boy Scout,” says Hall. “I just did it to get out of the house.” However, Hall’s Boy Scout friend introduced Hall to some Yale students who were poets. Those poets, in turn, introduced him to the works of T.S. Eliot, continuing his self-guided education.
Hall laughs when he recounts his growing interest in poetry because once, when telling these stories at a Nebraska high school, a boy stood up and asked, “Didn’t you write poetry to pick up chicks?”
“Of course, I did,” Hall answered. “I was a terrible athlete but I wanted to do something romantic and attractive.”
Hall, who attended the esteemed Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference at the age of 16, also earned a B.S. from Harvard in 1951 and a B. Litt. from Oxford in 1953.
His role as poet laureate has garnered Hall more attention than many of his activities over the last 78 years. He will be particularly busy come April, National Poetry Month. Despite what he calls “PMS” (poetry month syndrome, which concentrates poetry readings in a single month), he applauds the resurgence of poetry in this country.
“If you care for poetry, you care for the resurgence,” he notes.
Much of the attention, says Hall, may come from the growth of poetry readings, which hardly existed when he was a young man in the 1950s.
“I remember the first time someone called to ask me to do a reading and how amazed I was,” says Hall.
While he began his poetry career dreaming of being like Poe, “mad, addicted, obsessed, haunted and cursed, with deep eyes that burned like coals — profoundly melancholic, profoundly attractive” (from Donald Hall in Conversation with Ian Hamilton; Between the Lines, 2000), Hall’s poetry has been more frequently compared to the work of Robert Frost.
“His reliance on simple, concrete diction and the no-nonsense sequence of the declarative sentences gives his poems steadiness and imbues them with a tone of sincere authority,” wrote fellow-poet Billy Collins in The Washington Post (April 16, 2006). “It is a kind of simplicity that succeeds in engaging the reader in the first few lines.”
Deb Aronson is a freelance writer based in Urbana, Illinois.
This article appeared in The Council Chronicle (March 2007).
More details on Hall’s life and poetry are available on the following websites:
The Library of Congress Web page
Academy of American Poets
National Public Radio
Hear an interview with Donald Hall from June 2006: