WILMOT, N.H. — "There were times when I thought I'd never be published," Donald Hall was saying, just days after learning, by fax, that he had been named poet laureate of the United States. "Times when my reputation sank." After his 1978 collection "Kicking the Leaves," some critics argued that it was poignant to read a poet who had once shown such promise.
Hall, though, is having the last laugh. For two solid days last week the phone, which sits on a ledge in the living room of Eagle Pond, his 141-year-old New Hampshire farmhouse, rang with requests for interviews and photographs, and with friends calling to say congratulations. Thelma and Louise, his two cats, came to the door to meet each new visitor. Hall, who is 77, admitted to being a "bit overwhelmed."
Eagle Pond was built by Hall's great-grandfather in 1865 and it's been in the family ever since. Sitting by the window, wearing a red and black checked shirt and khaki pants, the poet gestured at the stuff of personal history: manuscripts, a red folder of poems-in-progress, a stack of freshly typed letters, a Dictaphone and an art collection, including a small Henry Moore sculpture, several Warhol prints, a signed De Kooning and a Picasso etching, each of which, in any other home, might command their own rooms. In this quiet house, with its painted floorboards and rooms full of books, they play second fiddle to the old maple trees outside the windows and the walls that are saturated with memories.
Eagle Pond has long played a central role in Hall's work, which is nakedly autobiographical. He remembers his grandfather telling stories here and reciting poems. He remembers summers haying in the morning and reading in the afternoon. Hall, in fact, remembers just about everything. Reading his latest collection, "White Apples and the Taste of Stone," is like reading a novel. Fathers, grandfathers, children, lovers, fields and trees form a great lapidary continent.
Hall wrote his first poems about this house when he was 12. At 16, he was a fellow at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference in Vermont. Robert Frost was in residence. "I was kicked out for chasing the ladies," Hall remembered in a mock-confessional tone, eyebrows raised and a gleeful look on his face. Actually, he'd been invited to have a drink at the faculty house, where someone gave him a tall, neat glass of whiskey and spent the rest of the evening walking the young poet up and down the road, "hoping he wouldn't go into a coma." Next evening he returned for a second glass and was roundly reprimanded for his impertinence.
Hall has never deviated from the path of poetry. In 1951, he received a bachelor's degree in literature from Harvard -- where he dated poet Adrienne Rich and knew Robert Bly, Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch. After Harvard, he earned his B.Litt. at Oxford, freelanced for the BBC and the New Statesman and served as poetry editor of the Paris Review. In England, he spent four days with poet Ezra Pound. "He had lost it without knowing it," Hall said. "And he was feeling regret for his anti-Semitism and other things. He said things like, 'I guess I was off base all of the time' and 'Do you think they should have hanged me?' "
After coming back to the United States, Hall went to Stanford for a year as a creative writing fellow, then returned to Harvard for three years in the Society of Fellows. In 1957, at 29, he was invited to teach at the University of Michigan, where he remained until 1975. "I liked teaching," said Hall, who wanted to be an actor when he was young. "It gave me a chance to perform. Sadly, the most talented go onto something else. Poetry becomes something they used to do."
In Michigan, Hall met poet Jane Kenyon, then 19 and a student of his. They married in 1972, and soon thereafter Kenyon persuaded Hall to make one of the most significant decisions of his life -- to stop teaching, move back to Eagle Pond and support himself freelancing. "I was terrified about money. Jane had grown up in a family of freelancers; she was ready to chain herself in the root cellar if necessary. We wrote magazine pieces on everything: Gertrude Stein, Henry Moore, you name it." Kenyon worked on translations of Anna Akhmatova's poetry and wrote her own poems. Their love was almost as famous as their poetry; in 1993, Bill Moyers made an Emmy-winning documentary about the couple called "A Life Together." In 1984, Hall was appointed poet laureate of New Hampshire, a post he held until 1989.
That year, Hall learned he had colon cancer. By 1992 the cancer had metastasized to his liver. After chemotherapy, he went into remission, but was told he had a 1 in 3 chance of living three years. In 1994, Kenyon was diagnosed with leukemia. Fifteen months later, at 47, she died. Almost all of Hall's work since has been about her, about their love and her dying.