January 31, 2012

Review: Donald Hall, Unpacking the Boxes

After the American Century                                                                                                                                                          

I have just finished reading Donald Hall's fine memoir, Unpacking the Boxes (Houghton Mifflin, 2008). It is a fitting conclusion to the autobiographical vein in his work that began with his first book, String too Short to be Saved (1961)That book was about his summers on the New Hampshire farm where he helped his maternal grandparents. This one begins outside of New Haven, where his father worked as an accountant for a milk company owned by his grandfather. As often happens, his two parents came from quite different worlds. In New Haven his mother drank cocktails and sought to emulate the middle class of the late 1920s and early 1930s. In New Hampshire, however, his mother felt at home, and soon her son found that he preferred it as well.

Unpacking the Boxes was written from that same New Hampshire farm, which Hall inherited and moved back to in the 1970s. There he literally unpacked the boxes that contain mementos of his early life. This awakened memories of early childhood and his awakening to poetry. Even before he reached high school, Hall was passionately interested in words and writing, and his descriptions of his early embrace of the Muse is entwined with his equally passionate pursuit of girls. He admits that one of the attractions of being a poet when young was that young ladies found it quite appealing.

Hall proved a seriously productive writer, with, by my count, 15 books of poetry, two biographies, three plays, a dozen children's books, two collections of short stories, and six autobiographical works.

Hall spent two years at Exeter Academy, where his father sent him, determined that his only son should have any career he liked, and not waste another life entombed in the family dairy business. Young Hall was a prodigious worker, who already knew he wanted to be a poet. At Exeter, he steadily rose from almost failing grades in Latin and several other subjects to very high marks, winning a place at Harvard, where he also excelled. From there he had an enviable string of fellowships, with two years at Oxford, a year at Stanford, and then three more years at Harvard. In these student years he met many of the major poets of the generation ahead of him, such as Richard Wilbur and John Ciardi. Already by the time he reached Oxford he was something of a personage, taking on an editorial role as well as writing. He became a close friend of George Plimpton and at a young age was editor of poetry for his Paris Review. (The major poets whom he got to know at this time, notably Robert Frost, are the subject of another Hall memoir, Remembering Poets that I highly recommend.)

Hall might have said more about the confrontation between the Beat poets and the more classical or traditional poets, among whom Hall was a leader. Their differences were more poetical than political. Hall was Left leaning all through his career, and he admired the work of Walt Whitman, even if initially far more drawn to the great English Romantics such as Keats and the metaphysical poets. He belonged to that generation who felt it necessary to have read all the predecessors. At Harvard, for each weekly tutorial with Harry Levin he was to have read ALL the poetry by one person, William Blake for example, and be ready to discuss it intensely for an hour alone with the professor.

Hall's own work did change after his encounter with the Beat Generation, even if he remained closer to the classical tradition. I did not know that Hall became close friends with Robert Bly at Harvard, or that their friendship endured through life. I should have realized, because I did know that each of them went to Harvard, but somehow I never made the connection. Likewise, Hall was close to Galway Kinnell. These writers were closer in sensibility to the Beats, and their connection to him rightly suggests that Hall was not doctrinaire in his aesthetics. He knew and loved quality, and long before they were famous befriended the important emerging writers in the British Isles such as Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney, as well.

In its first half, this is primarily an intellectual autobiography about a poet's coming of age. Then it divides in c. 1970, when his first marriage fell apart. Yet another of Hall's books has already treated this middle period of his life in detail so he skips through it rather schematically, covering his arrival in Ann Arbor (where he taught for the better part of a decade) in far more detail than the decision to leave academia. He liked teaching but he longed to be a writer full time and managed to do it. In good part it was possible because he was so fortunate as to inherit the New Hampshire house and because he had a steady income from a good deal of prose writing. Notably, he wrote a fine book that I used myself in teaching writing, back in the early 1970s. Appropriately titled Writing Well, it remains one of the best introductory texts one can find.

The last half of the book is much darker than the first, colored by the long illness and death of his second wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, who passed away in 1995. She was 19 years younger than he, and Hall was devastated by the loss. The book is not light reading, as it describes how he remains in the house surrounded by constant reminders of her. He visited the grave every day for more than a year, and could speak of little else. At the same time, his own health was failing. Born in 1928, he was 70 by the time he had even begun to recover a normal life. He soon began to suffer frailties, and it was apparently a trial for him to complete the memoir at all.

In part this is because just as Hall reached what he called "The Planet of Antiquity" he received the great, but also greatly demanding, honor of being named Poet Laureate of the United States. This entails many exhausting public appearances and interviews. The gratification of attention was almost outweighed by the demands it made on a man who could not walk without a cane and fell many times when attempting stairs. But he survived the glorious ordeal and this book saw the light.

There is much more in Unpacking the Boxes, which ideally should be read after String too Short to Be Saved. The title of that first book also came from something found in an attic, a box of snippets of string, with a label on the box that read, "String too short to be saved." It is from such detritus that Hall has made this presumably final memoir, and the title might almost have been recycled. Fine as the work is, there will still be something for the eventual biographers, as Hall has not written much in these memoirs about the actual poems he published. This has the "virtue" that one can enjoy Unpacking the Boxes without knowing anything of Hall's poetry, which then awaits as a further literary adventure.