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Work, for the Night Is Coming : LIFE WORK, By Donald Hall (Beacon Press: $15; 132 pp.)

January 23, 1994|Dana Gioia | Dana Gioia's most recent book "Can Poetry Matter" (Graywolf Press), was a finalist for the 1992 National Book Critics Award in criticism

"What is the secret of life?" the poet Donald Hall once asked the 80-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 straightforward, 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 15 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.

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, N.H. (The location will be familiar to readers of the author's popular memoirs such as "Season 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 50 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 60th 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, such as "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 midlife 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 5,000 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."

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