Sunday, January 15, 2012

Donald Hall and a Step in the River

No man ever steps in the same river twice, so Heraclitus philosophized, and it was a hot, dry summer that I happened to step into that proverbial river at just the right moment.

I was living in Los Angeles and I had just come home one evening from my job as a library assistant at UCLA.  I turned on the television and by chance landed on a documentary about two poets, a husband and wife, who lived in an old ancestral farm house in New Hampshire.  Later I would come to find out that this was the Emmy award-winning documentary Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon:  A Life Together, but for that hour or so I was entranced.  Perhaps I was just homesick for New England or perhaps it was simple the wonder of hearing how extraordinary poetry can sound when it is spoken by its creator.

A couple of years later, back on the East Coast, I was reading an issue of the New Yorker and was shocked to see Jane Kenyon's birth and death dates listed after her poem.  Unbeknownst to me she had just died of leukemia at age 47.

I immediately wrote to Mr. Hall.  I think I addressed the envelope something like "Donald Hall, poet, Wilmot, New Hampshire".  I'm sure my letter was incoherent and I think it contained several typographical errors.  I received a note back from him barely a week later.  It had even been postmarked on my birthday.  He was kind, caring, gracious and personal in his letter, mentioning his wife Jane and mentioning my comment about naming horses.

Years later, when my son was born, I sent Mr. Hall a copy of his book Ox Cart Man (together with a self-addressed stamped envelope, of course) asking would he please autograph it for my son.  Sure enough, in just a couple of weeks the book was literally signed, sealed and delivered to my doorstep.

He did the same for my daughter, when she was born, signing a copy of Old Home Day.

I own almost every book that Mr. Hall has written.  I read in the news recently that at age 83 he has proclaimed himself done with poetry.  

When he was selected as United States Poet Laureate in 2006, I went to see him at the National Book Festival on the National Mall.  As I stood by while he signed one of his books for me, I mentioned that he had once signed books for my children.  He didn't respond for a moment but then he looked up at me and said, "I'm glad I did that."  So am I.

How fortunate for me that I stepped into the river at that exact moment in time, that warm, jacaranda-scented night in Santa Monica.  A step in the river that changed my life.


  1. I love how Donald Hall helped to inspire your journey back across the country, and how he became entwined in your life and even helped you to celebrate the births of your children. May I suggest that if you are this susceptible to being inspired by literature, that you absolutely do not read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. It is an amazing book, but I fear it could be dangerous for you. It is about the journey of her family, who also move to Virginia, but they decide to eat only locally grown food for 1 year.... Thanks for sharing.

    1. Hi Marilyn,
      Thanks for the warning but...too late!! I've read it and we have a huge vegetable garden! I did, however, draw the line at a food dehydrator!


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