Unpacking the Boxes: A Memoir of a Life in Poetry

Unpacking the Boxes: A Memoir of a Life in Poetry

by Donald Hall

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Donald Hall’s remarkable life in poetry — a career capped by his appointment as U.S. poet laureate in 2006 — comes alive in this richly detailed, self-revealing memoir.

Hall’s invaluable record of the making of a poet begins with his childhood in Depression-era suburban Connecticut, where he first realized poetry was “secret, dangerous, wicked, and delicious,” and ends with what he calls “the planet of antiquity,” a time of life dramatically punctuated by his appointment as poet laureate of the United States.
Hall writes eloquently of the poetry and books that moved and formed him as a child and young man, and of adolescent efforts at poetry writing — an endeavor he wryly describes as more hormonal than artistic. His painful formative days at Exeter, where he was sent like a naive lamb to a high WASP academic slaughter, are followed by a poetic self-liberation of sorts at Harvard. Here he rubs elbows with Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, and Edward Gorey, and begins lifelong friendships with Robert Bly, Adrienne Rich, and George Plimpton. After Harvard, Hall is off to Oxford, where the high spirits and rampant poetry careerism of the postwar university scene are brilliantly captured.
At eighty, Hall is as painstakingly honest about his failures and low points as a poet, writer, lover, and father as he is about his successes, making Unpacking the Boxes — his first book since being named poet laureate — both revelatory and tremendously poignant.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780547247946
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 09/01/2009
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 1,199,582
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

DONALD HALL (1928-2018) served as poet laureate of the United States from 2006 to 2007. He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a recipient of the National Medal of the Arts, awarded by the president.

Read an Excerpt


At fourteen I decided to spend my life writing poetry, which is what I have done. My parents supported my desire, or at least did not attempt to dissuade me. My father hated his work, and it was his passion that I should do what I wanted to do. My mother was prevented by her gender and her era (born 1903) from exercising her intense aimless ambition, which settled on me. They worried how I would make a living at poetry, but would not pressure me to join the prosperous family business, the Brock-Hall Dairy in Connecticut, where my father added columns of figures from Monday into Saturday. Their support was affectionate, _passive, and generous. Beginning when I was a freshman in high school, they gave me for Christmas and birthdays the many books of poetry I listed for them.
Why did I come to poetry at such an age? A few years ago in Nebraska, talking about my beginnings to high school students, I told about wanting to write because I loved Poe and Keats, later Eliot and Yeats. A skeptical boy asked, "Didn't you do it to pick up chicks?" "Yes!" I answered. "How could I forget?" In the absence of athletic skill, I found that poetry attracted at least the arty girls if not the cheerleaders. Ambition exists to provide avenue for the libido. This notion begets another, less flattering to the peacock male ego: Maybe all women are the one woman, and everything gets done to woo Mom.
My mother died at ninety, in 1994, while my wife Jane Kenyon was sick. I emptied my mother's house, and a moving van left seventy or eighty boxes at our house and at a cottage we owned down the road. For a long time I could not open them. Three years after Jane died my assistant Kendel Currier moved into the cottage and helped me unpack the boxes. Most of the books would go to the library at the University of New Hampshire. From other boxes my childhood rose like a smoke of moths: a 78 of Connee Boswell singing "The Kerry Dance"; all the letters I ever wrote my father and mother; photographs of my young parents on the boardwalk at Atlantic City; my father's colorless Kodachromes of Long Island Sound; snapshots of cats dead for fifty years; model airplanes and toy cars and a Boy Scout manual, a baseball, and a baseball glove with its oiled pocket chewed by mice. I felt the shock and exultation of exhumation.
For weeks I unpacked the boxes, releasing the beginning decades of a life that was concluding its seventh: There were reams of manuscript, a thousand poems, novels I wrote at seventeen and nineteen; high school magazines with my poems and stories—the antique tracks of poetry and ambition. I found a high school theme called "The Wild Heifers." I found a verse play called The Folly of Existence. The unpacked boxes laid out my childhood and adolescence as if they assembled a model train, Lionel Standard Gauge, complete with a miniature village set beside the tracks, a hill for the train to tunnel through, a semaphore, mirror glass for a pond. I recollected earliest childhood, seeing a solemn child, three years old. He looks lonely, discontent, bored. At the height of summer he stands, wearing shorts with socks sliding down ankles over indistinct shoes, holding an indistinct toy beside a gray clapboard house, in heat and dust, under a sun that will not relent. The image resembles a black-and-white photograph, but I don't believe it's a remembered snapshot. In family photographs Donnie is spiffed up with his hair combed and water-slicked, his arms stiff at his sides. Donnie was spiffed up and photographed many times: not merely an only child but an only grandchild. Perhaps I was discontent as the focus of the family lens, standing under a sun of singular attention and expectation.
In childhood nothing happened. Born in 1928 as Mickey Mouse was—Thomas Hardy died that year—I breathed the air of the Great Depression. Men stood on street corners selling apples and pencils; tramps came to the back door—but my father had a secure job. My mother and father had married on September 10, 1927, and rented the second floor of a house on Coram Street near Lake Whitney in a neighborhood of Hamden, Connecticut, that developers called Spring Glen. Although my mother had been told that she was unlikely to bear a child, I was born a year and ten days after the wedding. When I was one, my parents moved, renting a small house two miles away in another part of Hamden called Whitneyville, originally the site of housing that Eli Whitney made for workers at his gun factory. (A dam at the end of Lake Whitney supplied waterpower.) By the time my father was born, in 1903, near Whitney Avenue, Whitney's village was becoming a New Haven suburb, and soon a trolley line ran four miles to the city's green. The family business thrived a few blocks from our Winette Street house. The Brock-Hall Dairy's horses and wagons delivered milk seven days a week to the back doors of New Haven and its suburbs. Hamden was my father's place, far from my mother's rural New Hampshire. Sometimes my grandmother Kate visited from the farm, a day's journey by train. My grandfather Wesley came rarely; he needed to stay home and tend to the animals. The generations were close in age: My parents were twenty-five when I was born, and Kate was only twenty-five years older.
Nothing happened. Some stories of childhood are tales that grown-ups repeated. I must have been three when I pulled the carrot, and my mother told everyone what Donnie did. She kept a vegetable garden at the bottom of the back yard, and every night before supper she took me with her to pull a fresh carrot for my supper. One evening I walked into the kitchen, a little early, holding my carrot of exemplary intelligence. Memory is stronger when it recalls transgression. I played with a neighbor boy while a repairman worked on the kitchen refrigerator, which had a white coil at its top. The repairman's dented Model T, cut down to a pickup, stood beside the kitchen door on two narrow strips of breaking-apart cement. My playmate and I lifted chunks of concrete onto the pickup's bed. My mother, peeking out the screen door, issued a reprimand, and my friend and I set to undo the crime. I stood in the truck bed lifting chunks down to my accomplice, who wore an Indian headdress. I stood above the boy looking down on his head surrounded by feathers, and carefully dropped a large lump of concrete onto his skull. Oh, the bliss of targeting a head circled by feathers! He howled and ran home; I was sent to my room. Nothing happened. I was small when I wandered a block or two up Augur Street, and sideways into one of the short blocks that paralleled Winette, with no notion of how to get home. Desolation. A tender deliveryman in a red truck returned me to my distraught mother. When I was four I saw my first nude female body. The three-year-old daughter of friends of my parents, who also lived on Winette, came dashing naked out of her house as I walked up the street. I remember my wicked joy as I watched a flustered grandmother run from the house and grab Molly back into privacy. License and rapture began with this vision. My father's parents lived nearby. After a blizzard, my grandfather Henry Hall, who loved horses, had his picture in the New Haven Register because he saddled up and delivered Brock-Hall milk to customers with babies. (He kept a saddle horse with the milk-truck workhorses in the dairy's long stable.) Yet, Henry and Augusta were frightening figures to me—because they were frightening to my parents. Their house was always dark; it felt like held breath. When we visited them, often on Sundays, I picked up my parents' anxiety. Would my mother be mocked for her New Hampshire accent? Would my father be found wanting, and be chewed by his father's sarcasm? My father was first child of Henry the self-made man, known at the dairy as H.F., who left school after fifth grade and by hard, honest work built up a business. My father was raised to understand that he could never do anything right, and when he died at fifty-two still labored in vain for his father's approval. On the other hand, my mother grew up eldest of three girls—she was forever the older sister; even in her eighties she was older sister to the universe—on a farm in rural New Hampshire, oil lamps and church Sundays and an outhouse with five graduated holes. Brought together by the chance of college, in their backgrounds my parents were diverse. Hamden was alien in its gentility and sophistication, and my mother felt intimidated by the manners and mores of Whitneyville and Spring Glen. If she pronounced "Coca-Cola" as "Coker-Coaler," she was teased. Her mother-in-law Augusta had the habit, at our house, of trailing a white-gloved finger across the ledge invisible on top of a doorjamb, then displaying a digit of dust. Doubtless Augusta, daughter of unschooled German immigrants, had needed to establish her own credentials.
Nevertheless, my mother tried to do everything as it should be done. She embraced Hamden's suburban culture with the appearance of enthusiasm. When she rode the trolley into New Haven, to shop at Malley's or Shartenberg's, she wore a hat, a veil, and gloves. My father earned thirty-five dollars a week, yet they spent five of the dollars to hire a full-time maid. Aggie (for Agnes) O'Brien, ten years younger than my parents, was not servile. She sat at the kitchen table with my mother, smoking cigarettes and chatting. I loved Aggie and cuddled with her, listening to her favorite radio programs. She agreed to wait, to marry me when I caught up with her. When my mother felt required to put Aggie in a black dress and black stockings with a white apron, like the French maid in the play, Aggie turned sullen. My mother costumed Aggie when she invited three women friends for bridge in the afternoon. I peeked as the women arrived, one with a fur piece, all lipsticked and powdered, smelling of perfume, three wives in their late twenties or early thirties, wearing dresses and girdles, wearing silk stockings and fancy shoes, wearing hats with veils: tea, cookies, and cakes.
Although my mother struggled to conform to Hamden, she returned as often as she could to the New Hampshire farm where she grew up, and to my maternal grandparents. Before I started school, she took me with her by train, and quickly I came to love the farm more than I loved Hamden's blocks of six-room houses. Preferring the one place to the other was choosing my mother over my father. A suburban child, I was all the more Connecticut in preferring rural New Hampshire. (Real New Hampshirites don't prefer the state; they are it.) My conflict of geographies—two parents, two cultures—shaped the devices and desires of my heart. It wasn't until I was fifty, and had moved to the empty maternal New Hampshire farmhouse for good, that I understood how assiduously my mother had determined my preference. Upstairs, Kate kept a fold-down desk of treasures, and there I found my mother's penny postcard, forty-eight years earlier addressed to Kate and Wesley from Connecticut. My mother wrote after she and I had returned to Hamden from a visit: "Donnie's been shouting 'Gale, Gale'" — which was the name of the Boston and Maine depot a mile from the farm — "and then saying 'Oh, there's Grampa.' He plays 'Go to New Hampshire on the choo-choo train.'"
Kate Wells was a fierce conservative of family, farm, and church. Nothing in this house was thrown away; everything connected to the departed was preserved and cherished. Kate had been the beloved youngest child of Ben and Lucy Keneston, born when her father was fifty-two. She loved them back, and would never part with their detritus. The family's history is preserved in this house—in mothholed sweaters, fragile quilts, broken chairs, mildewed books—like Lenin in his tomb. Kate lamented that her eldest daughter had settled so far away, as I might complain if my son relocated with the grandchildren to Ulan Bator. My mother Lucy felt mildly treacherous because she had abandoned her family, even as she tried to adapt to Hamden: Automobiles, cigarettes, Scotch whiskey, bridge, and restaurants were none of them available or acceptable back home. As a propitiatory donation she gave my soul to New Hampshire, to house and landscape, family and culture. My grandparents accepted the gift, and my grandmother continued to cherish it into her nineties. I spent most of my young summers on the farm, in love with my grandparents and the disappearing countryside. I wrote my first prose book about these summers, String Too Short to Be Saved. I married; I provided Kate two great-grandchildren. When I lived and taught in Michigan, I returned every summer for a few days to the farm and the old woman who still kept sheep. In her nineties she asked me if, when I was far away and spoke of this place, I called it "home."
From Connecticut we visited New Hampshire off and on all year. Just before Christmas and in August, my father drove the family to the farm in the Studebaker. Otherwise, my mother and I took the train, climbing into the great steel cars that puffed steam at the New Haven station, sitting at a window on the right side of the aisle to look out on seagulls and oyster flats during our journey. The long links of our train aimed for the hive of enormous South Station in Boston, hub of the Hub. A man came through the car hawking magazines, cigarettes, chewing gum, candy, and cheese sandwiches. We were already provisioned. My mother opened the shoebox before New London, Connecticut—exposing a chest (ingots and gold coins) of half sandwiches on decrusted soft bread, each in its own waxed-paper jacket: cream cheese and pineapple, egg salad, chopped ham and pickle; also a stuffed deviled egg; also a frosted cupcake. The New York, New Haven, and Hartford slid past the Connecticut shore, up along Rhode Island to Boston, where we alighted to take a taxi to North Station. The yellow cab beeped through Boston traffic. The station pointing north was smaller, less busy, not so shiny as South Station. From here we set out on our journey backward in time. The locomotive was old, the cars rickety, cloth seat covers ripped and sewed together. The train journeyed through suburbs for half an hour, then reached open country. I looked from my window seat at herds of Holsteins grazing in pastures among the shut-down mill towns (shoes, textiles) north of Boston. The conductor called out "Lowell," "Lawrence," "Nashua," "Manchester" at the brick stops between farmlands. The conductor was old, with a bright red face and a white handkerchief tucked between his neckskin and his loose collar. When he called out "Concord" — "Con-CUD" — we were coming close. "Boscawen" was pronounced "Bahs-COIN." (For years I assumed it an Indian word but it is Cornish, the name of an English admiral who fought in the French and Indian War. The resolution of that war opened this part of New Hampshire to settlement from Massachusetts.) "Frank-LIN." (Ben Franklin wasn't born there but Daniel Webster was, and it was to Franklin that my mother and her sisters journeyed by train to high school, as their mother had done before them.) "Halcyon" was the depot at East Andover, followed by the town of Andover, the hamlet of Potter Place, and at last West Andover where the depot was "Gale." My grandfather, wearing a cloth cap over his bald head, waited beside Riley harnessed to the buggy. The conductor helped my mother down the big step from the train, as we descended into the era of small farms subsisting, nations of independence one family small. I have written all this before; enough, except to acknowledge that on each trip I visited with my mother an embodied lost domain.

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Unpacking the Boxes: A Memoir of a Life in Poetry 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
michaelbartley on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
nice book about the life of a poet. the best and most powerful part of the book was when he wrote about his grief at losing his wife. that part was very moving. i also liked his writing about being old. as i get older it strikes home!
TimBazzett on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Don Hall has been a poet for nearly 70 years, after making a conscious decision to write poetry in early adolescence. This book reveals the inner life of a modest man who has labored at his craft through good and bad times. I admire him tremendously, both as a writer and a man. I have to confess I have not read his poetry; indeed that I don't normally read poetry at all. I'm mostly a memoir person these days. But I purchased, along with this memoir, BOXES, the newest collection of Hall's poems from 1946 to 2006, called WHITE APPLES AND THE TASTE OF STONE, and am now beginning to make my way through it. Maybe Hall will finally convert me to poetry. This is the third of Hall's memoirs I have read, having found and enjoyed STRING TOO SHORT TO BE SAVED more than a dozen years ago. And I recently read THE BEST DAY THE WORST DAY, about his life with poet Jane Kenyon, a beautiful, if heartbreaking, book. In this newest memoir Hall is not simply honest; he opens his soul to us as he speaks of his life, early and late, including his youth, unhappy prep school days, his Oxford, Michigan and New Hampshire years. And always it has been a life filled with books and other people who love books and poetry, both practitioners and readers. It was like a who's who of modern letters from the past fifty-some years. But Hall's openness also makes it a bit like watching someone open a vein - painful and heartbreaking, particularly when he speaks of the loss of Kenyon and his life since then. Here's a passage from near the end of the book I found particularly compelling, initially funny but ultimately, profoundly sad - "When you are three years old and your socks are falling down, somebody says, 'Pull up your socks, Donnie.' Then you are twelve, solitary, reading books all day, then twenty-five and a new father, burping your son at two A.M. When you turn forty, divorced, your life is a passage among disasters. Then you marry again, you are happy, you turn sixty, your wife dies. Then you are eighty and your socks fall down again. No one tells you to pull them up." The multifold indignities of illness and aging are touchingly told here, but through it all, Hall somehow manages to maintain his childlike sense of wonder, his intellectual curiosity, and his marvelous sense of humor. This is, finally, a wonderful story of a life well lived and examined minutely. I relished its art and its beauty.
realbigcat on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I have been interested in poetry for quite some time so when I seen a memoir on a poet with such distinction as DOnald Hall I new I must read it. What I found most interesting is Hall's dedication to the art of poetry from an early age into a life long following. Not many people are fortunate to have found their lifes calling and have been able to persue it. In the book Hall drops the names of a who's who of the most famous names in poetry and literature. He had a fascinating education and career. The book was good but not outstanding until I got to the chapter about his wife the poet Jane Kenyons death. Hall opened up ans shared his innermost private thoughts, pains and struggles with her death. I found this section very moving. He followed this up with the struggles of aging and dealing with loss. Again with brutal honesty. I very much enjoyed this excellant memoir.
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