Donald Hall: Work, for the Night is Coming

Donald Hall Life Work
Donald Hall’s Life Work

“What is the secret of life?” the poet Donald Hall once asked the eighty-year-old sculptor Henry Moore. “With anyone else,” Hall commented, “the answer would have begun with an ironic laugh,” but Henry Moore answered the question in straight-forward, pragmatic terms:

The secret of life is to have a task, something you devote your entire life to, something you bring everything to, every minute of the day for your whole life. And the most important thing is—it must be something you cannot possibly do!”

Now fifteen years after that interview, Hall has attempted to answer his own impossible but provocative question. His engrossing new book, Life Work, is difficult to classify but impossible to put down. Part essay, part autobiography, part family history, the volume straddles commercial genres.

Although the book unfolds like a writer’s journal, it never feels like a private diary. Described on its most literal level, Life Work is a sustained meditation on work as the key to personal happiness. Written over a period of three months in 1992 (when its author was 63 years old), the book moves forward in undated daily entries. Hall discusses his life and work while constantly comparing his own activities and attitudes with those of his parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. Although the book unfolds like a writer’s journal, it never feels like a private diary. Indeed the book so successfully creates a sense of Hall’s inner life in all its intricate dailiness that Life Work reads most of all like a first-person psychological novel with a poet named Donald Hall as its protagonist.

Hall deepens the novelistic effect by rooting his narrative in a real place, Eagle Pond Farm in Danbury, New Hampshire. (The location will be familiar to readers of the author’s popular memoirs like Seasons at Eagle Pond.) Inheriting the family farm from his grandparents, Hall moved there in 1975 with his second wife, the poet Jane Kenyon. Giving up the security of academic tenure, Hall took the opportunity to reinvent his life. Content in a small circle of friends and family, he centered his new existence on the labor he loved most—writing.

Many men attempt to create new, more fulfilling lives in middle age—usually with unimpressive results. In Hall’s case, however, something marvelous happened. In New Hampshire his work deepened. Long an accomplished poet, he now became an irreplaceable one. By fifty most poets have their best work behind them. Hall’s verse grew better with each volume, culminating in The One Day (1988), a book-length poem published on his sixtieth birthday, which ranks as one of the few unquestionable masterpieces in contemporary American poetry.

Hall’s prose also developed. Always a smart and snappy stylist, he now seemed to slow down his narrative line slightly—just enough to catch the often evanescent human sense of each situation. His incisive literary essays continued to be required reading for poets, but Hall’s particular talents ultimately proved to be for the memoir, a genre in which he has few living equals. In his hands the memoir is only partially an autobiographical genre. He pours both his full critical intelligence and poetic sensibility into the form. His best books like Fathers Playing Catch with Sons (1985), a celebration of baseball, Seasons at Eagle Pond (1987), a mixture of nature writing and autobiography, and Their Ancient Glittering Eyes, a 1992 expansion of his 1978 collection of literary portraits, Remembering Poets, are all surprisingly different. Hall broadened his range as well as achieved greater depth.

Life Work is not only the latest in this distinguished series of memoirs: it is also the book that shares the secrets of how Hall managed his mid-life transition from minor to major artist. As the book’s title suggests, part of his secret is hard work — passionate, constant, and uncomplaining. The other was the good fortune or good sense to plant his new life on his grandparent’s farm where nature, memory, and tradition nourished his imagination.

Hall’s considerable literary skill is demonstrated in how appealing he makes his unabashedly workaholic life appear. He is by any standard a driven man. He rises at 4:30 a.m., and by 10:00 a.m. he has spent at least four hours writing. With occasional breaks and brief recreations, he spends the rest of the day reading, revising, proofing, and writing. In the evening he watches baseball via satellite dish while dictating into a small tape recorder some of the five thousand letters he writes every year. A life of extraordinary discipline? Definitely not, Hall insists. His life is one of happiness and self-indulgence. Early on he realized that “because I loved my work it was as if I did not work at all.”

When genuine artists discuss their working lives, they often alternate between sublime speculation and practical specifics. Hall proves no exception. Life Work intermittently grapples with ideas about work’s place in society at large. When Hall examines his native New England, he congently weaves his family history into a broader historical fabric. Occasionally, however, Hall unexpectedly lurches into ideological issues. A well-intentioned digression on feminism, Emile Durkheim, and Karl Marx founders overloaded with unassimilated data and windy generalizations.

More convincing is Hall’s practical advice on how he manages to publish a yearly average of four books (“counting revised editions of old books,” he adds modestly) plus numerous poems, essays, articles and book reviews, not to mention the five thousand letters. Productivity is in itself no recommendation for a writer; most hacks are prolific. But Hall’s ability to write splendidly as well as plenteously makes his candid advice worth noting.

He delegates the inessential but time-consuming paperwork—typing, fact checking, and the like—to free up more time for real writing. “I love being a writer,” the late novelist Peter DeVries once quipped, “what I can’t stand is the paperwork.” Hall would agree. Two secrets of his productivity are delegation and dictation. He delegates the inessential but time-consuming paperwork—typing, fact checking, and the like—to free up more time for real writing. He dictates whatever possible and employs two to three typists at a time to transcribe it. All writers will find his remarks on dictation—the technique by which both Stendhal and James created some of their best work—particularly interesting.

Halfway through Life Work the high spirited narrative takes a sudden turn. Hall discovers he has liver cancer. We share the agonizing tests and diagnosis. The book stops for two and a half weeks while he recuperates from surgery. Faced with the news that his chances of living five more years are only one out of three, Hall’s tone becomes more urgent. His meditations and memories darken.

And yet what one notices most vividly is how consistent Hall’s ideas and attitudes are both before and after this death sentence. His commitment to work always came from a sense of his own mortality. The book’s epigraph from the Gospel of John summarizes his theme. “We must work . . . ” Jesus said, because “night comes, when no man can work.” Life Work is in prose, but the book reflects a lyric poet’s sense that time and death are always a writer’s real subjects.

Hall’s stark confrontation with his own mortality, however, does not leave him self-absorbed. The prospect of his own extinction increases rather than contracts his humanity. His imagination and memory turn increasingly to other people, especially his eighty-nine-year-old mother, who defiantly keeps her own house despite multiple infirmities. On an earlier, happier visit, when Hall first described Life Work to her, she responded, “I think your book will be inspirational to people,” Few will disagree.

First published in The Los Angeles Times Book Review (January 23, 1994).