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Donald Hall, former US poet laureate who wrote of nature and loss, dies at 89

Donald Hall, then the U.S. poet laureate, at a poetry reading at the Library of Congress in 2007. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

Donald Hall, a former U.S. poet laureate who drew on his years of living in the woods of New England to craft plain-spoken poems centered on natural beauty and personal loss, died June 23 at his home in Wilmot, New Hampshire. He was 89.

His literary executor, Wendy Strothman, confirmed the death but did not give a cause.

Erudite and witty, with a mossy, gray-flecked beard, Hall published more than 50 books, many of which ranged far beyond poetry. He wrote a celebrated guide to writing, “Writing Well” (1973), with essayist Sven Birkerts, as well as plays, memoirs, short stories, essays, children’s books and biographies, including works on sculptor Henry Moore and on one of his favorite baseball players, pitcher Dock Ellis.

Yet he remained best known for his poetry, which he began writing when he was 12, after his interest in horror movies shifted to the works of Edgar Allan Poe. He scratched out a few morbid lines – “Have you ever thought / Of the nearness of death to you? / It reeks through each corner, / It shrieks through the night . . .” – and within four years had published his first poems and played softball with Robert Frost, one of his chief inspirations.

Hall went on to become one of his generation’s most celebrated and durable poets, writing into his 80s until he said that the ability to write poetry “abandoned” him, leaving him only with a capacity for prose. His most acclaimed works included “The One Day” (1988), a book-length meditation on aging that received a National Book Critics Circle Award, and “Without” (1998), written after the death of his second wife, poet Jane Kenyon.

Her death, from leukemia in 1995, came to define much of his work in recent years, in poems that featured a forthrightness that was often heart-rending, and very frequently breathtaking, in its evocation of grief. In the poem “Ardor,” from “The Painted Bed” (2002), he wrote:

I long for the absent/woman of different faces/who makes metaphors/and chops garlic, drinking/a glass of Chardonnay,/oiling the wok, humming/to herself, maybe thinking/how to conclude a poem./When I make love now,/something is awry./Last autumn a woman said,/”I mistrust your ardor.”

In an email, Poetry magazine editor Don Share wrote that Hall’s work “ran the gamut of human feeling, but he expressed emotions from joy to sorrow with a formal wit that has never been excelled, or even matched, in American poetry. In every kind of darkness he brought light, and humor, too; but even where things seemed funny, there was always a qualifying philosophical seam in his work that ran as deep as the wisdom of antiquity.”

Donald Andrew Hall Jr. was born in Hamden, Connecticut, on Sept. 20, 1928. He was an only child, and his father worked for the Brock-Hall Dairy Co. – “hated his job at the Dairy, working for his father, and came home weeping,” Hall wrote in one poem. His mother was a homemaker; Hall later speculated that she suffered from anorexia and depression.

He attended Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and, after publishing his first poems, was admitted to the prestigious Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Vermont, where he met Frost, whose New England settings and plain diction served as a model for Hall.

Enrolling at Harvard University, he sat on the editorial board of the Advocate, the long-running literary journal, alongside Robert Bly, John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch, before graduating in 1951. He received a second bachelor’s degree two years later from Oxford University, where he was awarded the Newdigate Prize for best poem by an undergraduate and also became drinking partners with George Plimpton, the founding editor of the Paris Review.

Hall went on to serve as the literary quarter’s first poetry editor, a job that led him to undertake celebrated interviews with writers including T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. He later edited books including “New Poets of England and America” (1957), an influential anthology of under-40 writers whom he selected with poets Robert Pack and Louis Simpson.

He established himself as an ambitious poet in his own right with the 1955 collection “Exiles and Marriages,” which became a finalist for the National Book Award in poetry and helped him land a faculty position at the University of Michigan.

While there he met Kenyon, a student, who took his class on “An Introduction to Poetry for Non-English Majors.” They married in 1972 and three years later moved to Eagle Pond Farm, a 215-year-old clapboard farmhouse where Hall had spent childhood summers with his grandparents.

The change of pace and setting seemed to revitalize his career, as he and Kenyon established a rhythm of writing early in the morning – “at close quarters because we had no heat except for a single woodstove,” he later wrote – and reading poetry aloud to one another in the evening.

His subject matter turned increasingly bucolic, in his poetry and in children’s books such as “Ox-Cart Man” (1979), which featured illustrations by Barbara Cooney and told the story of a man who travels the countryside selling and acquiring goods to care for his family. It received the Caldecott Medal for best picture book and marked the first major commercial success for Hall, who supported himself in part by writing articles for Sports Illustrated and Yankee magazine.

Hall was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1989 and had recently overcome the disease when he learned, in 1994, that has wife had leukemia. She died 15 months later.

In the aftermath of her death, he told the Christian Science Monitor, writing the poems that became “Without” was “all I could do at the time. I worked on those poems for two hours every morning for a year. I’d sit down at the desk with a heavy heart, a heart heavy with grief, and my heart would lighten as I wrote. And I knew if I could do it right, the poems would help others as well.”

Despite his geographic isolation, Hall was one of America’s leading ambassadors for poetry. “He must have given 5,000 readings in his life,” his friend Richard Ford, the novelist and short story writer, said in a phone interview. “He wanted to write and advocate for poetry that was accessible.”

He received and responded to so much mail – about 4,000 letters each year, The Washington Post reported in 1990 – that the local post office awarded him his own Zip code.

Hall served as U.S. poet laureate from 2006 to 2007, and in 2010 was awarded the National Medal of the Arts from President Barack Obama. His work, the White House said in a statement, “has inspired Americans and enhanced the role of poetry in our national life.”

He also received two Guggenheim fellowships, and the 1991 Robert Frost Medal and 1994 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, two of the top lifetime achievement awards in American poetry.

His marriage to Kirby Thompson ended in divorce. Survivors include two children from their marriage, Philippa Smith of Bow, New Hampshire, and Andrew Hall of Belmont, Massachusetts; five grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.

Hall released “The Selected Poems of Donald Hall” in 2015; an essay collection, “A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety,” is scheduled to be published in July.

“One does write, indeed, to be loved,” he told the Boston Globe in 1985. “Fame is another word for love, an impersonal word for love. One wants people 200 years from now to love your poetry. The great pleasure of being a writer is in the act of writing, and surely there is some pleasure in being published and being praised. I don’t mean to be complacent about what I have some of. But the greater pleasure is in the act. When you lose yourself in your work, and you feel at one with it, it is like love.”

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