Poetry, Aging, and Loss: An interview with Donald Hall

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Donald Hall, former poet laureate of the United States, is the author of WithoutThe Painted Bed, and many other books of poetry. He has won many awards, including the National Medal of Arts and the Robert Frost Medal, and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Jane Kenyon was the author of Otherwise and Let Evening Come; she won the 1994 PEN/Voelcker Award for poetry. 

Hall gave up a tenured professorship at the University of Michigan in order to move to Wilmot, New Hampshire, where he and Jane Kenyon lived and wrote for many years—and where he still lives. In this interview, Hall discusses his recent collections Selected Poems and Essays after Eighty; his experience of aging; his creative and intimate life with Jane Kenyon; his grief over her untimely death of leukemia; and their poetry. 

 This interview began as an exchange of letters; it has been edited for publication.

Credit: Jane Kenyon, excerpts from “Having It Our with Melancholy” and “Back” from Collected Poems. Copyright © 2005 by The Estate of Jane Kenyon. Reprinted with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc. on behalf of Graywolf Press, www.graywolfpress.org.

Excerpts from “The Porcelain Couple” and “Independence Day Letter” from WITHOUT: Poems by Donald Hall. Copyright © 1998 by Donald Hall. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

Acknowledgment: the interviewer thanks Teresa Gorman for her help in typing portions of the interview.

 JMJ: In your most recent essay collection, Essays after Eighty, you call old age a “ceremony of losses.” As a psychiatrist, if I can start with a shrink-like question, what did you mean by that?

DH: I chose ceremony partly because I want to make the progress of old age a positive thing, for me anyway. Also because its progression is more or less orderly.

JMJ: You lost Jane Kenyon in 1995, and you yourself survived cancer. Yet at eighty-six, the books keep coming.

DH: Poems stopped, because poems are erotic. The sound and density of poems require more testosterone. But without writing, my life would be empty. When I can write, it is a joy to be alive, and I can look forward to writing more. Now I need a nap after writing much, but that does not stop the necessity. I continue.

JMJ: Your new Selected Poems is out now. What does it include?

DH: It contains the poems that I feel best about, and also represents phases of my life. It is short; less is more. I have done three selections before, and the last one (ten years ago) was outrageously long.


JMJ: You and Jane Kenyon have written more powerfully than anyone else I know about the experience of grief and intense loss—and of depression. May we talk about her experiences, and yours?

DH: I’m happy to speak of our experiences of grief and loss—and of depression.

JMJ: Poetry was a passion and a calling for each of you, starting early. Did depression find you and Jane early as well, or did it evolve in different ways for each of you?

DH: I think that Jane was depressive from childhood on, but it was a long time before she realized that and sought help in calming it. I’m not sure that I was depressive, really, ever. Certainly, I became depressed, at Jane’s death, and could write about nothing else for many years, and screamed and yelled, and had many thoughts of violence—but I believe this was reactive.

Jane had depression with no apparent cause. I believe I was hypomanic. I rose early and took care of things, brought Jane coffee in bed. She went to sleep early and woke up late. As she walked the dog, I was already writing. It took her a while to get upstairs and get to work. Sometimes she was so depressed that she could not work—and neither she nor I thought that it was in response to anything in her world. She felt that her father was also depressive.

I remember the first time she went over the cliff. (Much of the time, she was mildly depressed. I speak of something more extreme.) We had supper at a diner in Bristol, then drove home. In the car she wept. At home she threw herself on the sofa, and depression covered her like a blanket. She told me, “It’s not your fault, Perkins!” (My pet name.) She could not bear to have me touch her. I wanted to rub her head or anything.

Twice in her depressions she used doctors—a general practitioner and a psychiatrist—to tell me that it was not my fault! Obviously, she instructed them. They stood and made a short speech to me. I had never thought that it was my fault!

JMJ: How difficult was it for her to get help?

DH: When Jane and I first lived together in Ann Arbor, she wanted psychiatric help. I asked a friend who was a psychiatrist, and it was delicate, because my ex-wife Kirby was a therapist, I believe a very good one. Jane ended up seeing a therapist from the academic specialty at University of Michigan, clinical psychology. They explored, they explored. Jane felt better. I’m not sure the word depression had yet been used.

After depression struck so painfully here in New Hampshire, our general practitioner consulted a psychiatrist at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, Dr. Charles Solow, and eventually Jane went to him. He was able to provide antidepressants, but he was also a talker. He was supportive rather than analytic, but he was empathetic and intelligent. He helped her a lot. Sometimes a new chemical would keep her steady for quite a while, maybe mildly depressed but not acutely. Then she would need to increase the dosage until they could increase it no more. But there were many times when a chemical, or class of chemicals like the Prozac bunch, would not seem to touch her.

JMJ: When I teach medical students about depression, I try to convey something about the experience itself. I’ve found nothing that connects more powerfully with students than Jane’s “Having It Out with Melancholy” and “Back.”

DH: Jane wrote many poems about depression or at least out of depression, and gradually worked toward doing the Big One, “Having It Out with Melancholy.” It was difficult for Jane to face her illness head on, in that poem, and so extensively. She had that figure of depression raping her. “Having It Out with Melancholy” was the hardest poem for her to write.

Incidentally, “Back” was originally the last poem in the big poem. She sent the big poem to Alice Quinn at the New Yorker, and Alice accepted “Back” for the magazine, appearing not to understand that it was part of a sequence. I suspected that Jane would perhaps have withdrawn it from the New Yorker, but as it happened she wrote a different ending, which was perfection, so that “Back” became a separate poem.

JMJ: It might be a cliché to call writing of this intensity therapeutic, yet it has meant so much to so many people who suffer from depression. Did Jane ever speak about what this poem meant to her?

DH: Jane first read her long poem at the Frost Place in Franconia, New Hampshire, one of Frost’s summer houses. After she finished it, there was a great line of people who needed to talk to her—depressives, people from the families of depressives. She wept when she read it.

JMJ: There is a point in the poem where she conveys something like absolute bleakness:

A piece of burned meat

wears my clothes, speaks

in my voice, dispatches obligations

haltingly, or not at all.

It is tired of trying

to be stouthearted, tired

beyond measure.

I’m just stunned by that passage whenever I read it. Somehow, a vibrant, creative person has shriveled to a thing, an impersonation—not a person but an “it.” Yet there is a part of her that is able to observe it all, almost clinically.

DH: I’m devoured by that section.

JMJ: The passage seems so simple and direct, so heart-rending, that it’s easy to overlook how the poetry actually works.

DH: Notice how “A piece of burned meat” could be hamburger left on the stove, but the enjambment into “wears my clothes” works by careful surprise. Note the line breaks in general. Note the assonance of “trying” and “tired.”

JMJ: In “Back,” she depicts what seems to be an unexpected remission. All at once the poet’s self begins to come back:

We try a new drug, a new combination

of drugs, and suddenly

I fall into my life again . . .


I can find my way back. I know

I will recognize the store

where I used to buy milk and gas.


I remember the house and barn,

the rake, the blue cups and plates,

The Russian novels I loved so much,


and the black silk nightgown

that he once thrust

into the toe of my Christmas stocking.

JMJ: That last stanza always catches me off guard. Many of us doctors are uncomfortable talking about sex, so we never learn just how devastating depression can be for our patients’ love lives—and how joyful it is when sexual interest returns.

DH: When she was acutely depressed, there was nothing. When she was mildly depressed, orgasm gave her immediate excitement and energy. Afterwards, I would want to cuddle. She would run upstairs to her study in order to work on some poems!

The ending of the poem has something amusing. Every year at Christmas I would put something sexy at the bottom of her stocking. This time it was not a “black silk nightgown.” That was not lewd enough! This time it was a teddy—obviously erotic, something in which a girl might strut to arouse her boyfriend. It was sexy and it was comical. When she wrote the poem, she knew the name of the garment—but she was embarrassed to use it. She used something a bit more classy.

JMJ: Had Jane recovered from her depression by 1994?

DH: Jane had not recovered by 1994. She never had, entirely, and she never would. But it was remarkable—she noticed it as much as I did—that in the great pain of her treatment for leukemia, fifteen months of pain and the knowledge that death was more probable than life, she was not deeply depressed. She was hardly happy. There was one time, maybe two weeks, when she was flat-out depressed, as much as she had ever been. The Hutchinson Research Center in Seattle, the bone-marrow place, had a psychiatrist who treated her, and it seemed to help.

On another occasion in Seattle she had a psychotic episode, probably the result of a medication. It began when she was not in the hospital but back in the apartment with me for a bit, and decided one day that I was dying of a heart attack. I merely had vertigo. The phone rang from the clinic, and she told the nurse that I was dying. In minutes, the medics came roaring in. I asked them to give me a quick electrocardiogram, and she simmered down.

The next day she was frantic. We went to the clinic. Suddenly she fell and could not use her legs. The nurses put her into a psychiatric section of the hospital, and she kept muttering depressed but demented thoughts. I offered to stay with her, but she sent me away. When I came back in the morning, it was terrible. She had been awake all night, and had convinced herself that she had no leukemia, that she was a malingerer, that the insurance company would find out and take our house away—and she continually said that she was “wicked.” She was, of course, miserable in her conviction. The psychiatrist gave her two pills. Haldol? She slept for two or three hours and woke up sane.

Early in April 1995 after one of her weekly bits of blood work, our oncologist and her head assistant took us into a small room and told us that Jane would die. I had a million questions, panic. Jane only said, “Can I die at home?” We had eleven days, and nothing I could tell you would surprise you.


JMJ: Your book Without is powerful and is one of my favorites; yet it is almost too painful to read.

DH: Without kept me alive after Jane’s death. It was as if I could do something about her dying.

JMJ: Yes. In fact, helplessness makes an appearance very early in the book:


                         He hovered beside Jane’s bed,

Solicitous: “What can I do?” . . .

                         . . . when there was

exactly nothing to do. Inside him,

                        some four-year-old

understood that if he was good—thoughtful,

                        considerate, beyond

reproach, perfect—she would not leave him.


JMJ: The husband, or poet, in Without does so much—buys his dying wife a ring, dons an elaborate sterile suit, imagines throwing himself in front of a bus, and helps her choose poems for her last collection and hymns for her funeral.

DH: I could not leave her. Everywhere, I was with her not for twenty-four hours, but at least twelve hours together when she was being treated in hospital. (Since then, I have heard about husbands who could not stand it and left their dying wives alone.) Out in Seattle the nurses kept telling me that I should take time off, take a little trip . . . and it was not thinkable. Since then, I wonder if my constant attention wore on Jane. I never felt it.

After her knowledge that she would die, our knowledge, we talked about everything. We chose poems for her posthumous collection, and wrote her obituary—but I forgot to talk about the shape and manner of her gravestone—“ours.” I regretted it but did the best I could.

JMJ: I just can’t bear to quote from the poem that begins “In the last hours.” There, near the moment of her death, you seem to be choosing the poem’s words so carefully—“hours” is repeated, “Jane” now becomes the more formal and distant “Jane Kenyon.” How does one pay attention to poetic technique when the subject is this wrenching?

DH: When I was writing Without, I wrote about Jane for maybe two hours in the morning, and the only thing that gave me pleasure was writing about my misery and Jane’s suffering. When I finished, I had twenty-two hours to get through. There was no pleasure. If there was “poetic technique,” I used it to try to get my feelings through to a reader.

JMJ: And then, minute by minute, life keeps going on:

Tonight the Andover fireworks

Will have to go on without me

As I go to bed early, reading

The Man Without Qualities

With insufficient attention

Because I keep watching you die.

DH: I held up throughout her illness, as I had to do. After she died, after everybody attended the funeral and then went home, I screamed a lot. Living in the country, not near anyone else, I could scream to my heart’s content and no one would dial 911.

JMJ: One of the painful things about your next collection, The Painted Bed, is the experience the reader has of moving on, with you, to episodes with other women. This is hard after we have lived through your deep connection with Jane—perhaps especially so in “Villanelle,” where a new lover’s suppleness unmakes the bed.

DH: The title poem in The Painted Bed is about Jane and me dying. After half my liver went, in 1992, we both knew I would die. I was sprawled on the painted bed when Jane came in, handing me her poem “Pharaoh” and asking me, “Is it all right? Do you mind?” When I read about my dying, I said something like, “It’s weird, but it’s a wonderful poem.”

The early poems in The Painted Bed are about Jane’s death, including the metrical poems, which are favorites of mine, “Her Garden” and “The Wish,” and also maybe the best poem I’ve ever written, “Kill the Day.” Then there is “Ardor,” which speaks of the other women. Many widows and widowers want nothing to do with anybody else, after their spouse dies. Others—not just me, lots of people—become promiscuous. I had nightmares that she had left me for another man. Maybe I was getting even?

When I was seventy, I fell “in love” for the first time, and it was so ridiculous that it ridicules itself. For seven months I had an affair with a twenty-three-year-old fashion model who was interested in somebody famous. I was interested in somebody incredibly young, with skinny legs and enormous breasts. She was the woman in “Villanelle.”

JMJ: You seem to be saying that you feel loyalty to Jane, after everything.

DH: I think of her—love and loss—every day.

JMJ: You’ve continued to write about her. But her presence in your poetry changes.

DH: I can no longer say “you,” but “Jane” or “she.” In the short-short Selected Poems, I reprint the best of my later Jane-poems.


JMJ: Before she died, had you ever sought out help from psychiatry or psychology?

DH: For several years before Jane and I even met, I took therapy with the Ann Arbor psychoanalyst M. M. Frohlich. He was the only analyst in Ann Arbor (we had more analysts than in Vienna) who did therapy, and by general consensus he was the best analyst in Ann Arbor. My problem was not depression. It was ignorance of my own feelings. As I have often said, “for ‘love,’ read ‘hate’ throughout.”

From my early twenties I had read practically everything by Freud and, as you will understand, I started therapy by educating Dr. Frohlich in Freudian doctrine. Often I would confide my understanding to him and he would say that he did not understand anything I said. We took a little sabbatical—and when I hurt enough I came back.

He helped me enormously over the years. I learned that I had never really loved anybody despite a number of “loves.” Toward the end I wept one day and wailed, “I cannot love anyone!” Quietly he assured me that of course I could really love someone. So I fell in love with Jane!

JMJ: You’ve written of how your relationship changed when she became manic.

DH: Jane had brief periods of mania, not many. She loved a ring that she saw in the jeweler’s and bought it for four hundred dollars. If we were going out to dinner, she had one place in mind. (Always otherwise she said, “You choose.”) Dr. Solow added a small amount of an anti-manic chemical to her diet of antidepressants. You won’t be surprised to learn that when she was manic I turned depressed. When I became depressed, on those occasions I understood that I had emotionally profited from being the steady one.

JMJ: Did you seek out help after Jane’s death?

DH: I was down, up, down, up. I noted manic tendencies when I began a four-hour drive after finishing a reading at midnight, and woke up my friends in the morning. I noticed that after a Jane-celebration in New York, I paid for a dinner of twenty-five people. Then I took the most enormous drop down. It was violent depression. Reading my poems, I fantasized about mowing down my audience with a machine gun. As I drove home from the reading, that image continued in my mind—and it terrified me. I called Dr. Solow, Jane’s psychiatrist, and he came to my house and gave me a prescription for a mood stabilizer. At least the violence retreated and did not return.


JMJ: In “Three Beards,” in Essays after Eighty, you describe how a woman you were seeing suggested that you grow an extravagant beard. I’m not sure your current beard suggests steadiness, exactly. But it certainly is intense looking, and it dominates the cover of the book. How do you feel with the beard?

DH: At first the beard was tidy. Finally I let it grow out and stopped combing my hair. I like the crazy look. When I rubbed testosterone into my chest, my beard exploded.

JMJ: What’s your view on what makes for a good essay—and has your view changed since String Too Short to Be Saved?

DH: I’m not sure I know what makes a good essay. I ought to, because with my own work (or anybody’s), I know which essay is better than another. But like everything else to which you might say “I know,” I also know I might change my mind.

I notice total differences in my prose. String and Essays after Eighty are madly unlike—there’s no humor in String—in vocabulary, in sentence structure and paragraph structure and most in tone. Even in Essays after Eighty’s “Out the Window,” much about this farm, the sentences do not resemble the farm sentences of my first prose book. String was fifty or so years ago!

JMJ: Essays after Eighty artfully describes a number of losses, some potentially quite painful. For example, you report that you’re living on one floor of your farmhouse now, but you manage to convey some humor about that—and about the advantages of wheelchairs.

DH: I think I’ve done remarkably well, adjusting to life on one floor. I’m so glad we didn’t put a kitchen or a bed or a bathroom upstairs! Many times I would like to run upstairs and look at a picture or a book or a pile of papers, but I know I can’t. I live largely alone and like it. Yesterday my right knee, all bone, was doing something extraordinary, painful and scary. I thought for a moment of having to have somebody stay in this house with me, or having to go into one of those death hostels. There’s loss!

Actually I use a rollator to get around in this house, not a wheelchair. I have a portable wheelchair which is handy for certain tasks, when of course I have to get somebody to push me.

JMJ: Your first poem was about death, and at the ripe old age of twenty-five you wrote about your newborn son in “My Son My Executioner,” portraying the change of generations as a kind of death. But now you write, “At some point in my seventies, death stopped being interesting.” You don’t seem to be especially afraid of it.

DH: When I wrote my first poem, and “My Son My Executioner,” I didn’t exactly feel afraid of death. It’s certainly turned up in my thinking. When I was ten or so, a whole bunch of great-uncles and aunts died, and in bed at night I said, believe it or not, “Now death has become a reality!” There was a poet waiting to happen.

I’m not remotely afraid of death. Of course I’m afraid of dying, of pain, et cetera. At eighty-seven only an idiot would be afraid of death.

JMJ: I’m afraid that we’re out of time. And we haven’t even discussed your grandparents, tenure, alcohol, football games in Ann Arbor, or the Caldecott room. Let alone your visits to the White House.

DH: Each is worth at least a page!

JMJ: Thank you for being so generous and open about all of this, and for sharing your story with others.

DH: You thank me. Has anybody ever noticed that I like to talk about myself?