by Donald Hall


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Donald Hall's poignant and courageous poetry speaks of the death of the magnificent, humorous, and gifted Jane Kenyon. Hall speaks to us all of grief, as a poet lamenting the death of a poet, as a husband mourning the loss of a wife. Without is Hall's greatest and most honorable achievement-his gift and testimony, his lament and his celebration of loss and of love.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780395957653
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 02/02/2012
Pages: 98
Sales rank: 742,653
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.25(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.


On Tuesday, April 7th, barnesandnoble.com welcomed Donald Hall, author of WITHOUT.

Moderator: Welcome to the barnesandnoble.com Auditorium. Today we are pleased to host renowned poet Donald Hall, author of WITHOUT, a stirring collection of poems celebrating his late wife, Jane Kenyon. Welcome to barnesandnoble.com, Mr. Hall.

Kate from NYC: The titled poems are separated by the shorter, untitled poems between them, in which you speak of yourself in the third person rather than the first. Is this distancing for yourself as the person who lived it? Does it reflect the way you approached those poems at the time you wrote them? Or does it serve a different function both structurally within the type of poem it is, and within the collection as a whole? What I mean is, is the difference between first and third person a consideration of form or a personal, more experiential decision for you as the poet?

Donald Hall: When I first wrote the shorter, untitled poems -- anecdotes of Jane's illness -- I used the first person. When I had completed a draft of WITHOUT, knowing that it wasn't finished, but that it could be read by my friends, I sent it to ten people -- mostly poets, some others who had been good readers for me in the past and I'd benefited from their reading and criticism. One of them said that the letter I was overpowering, that it was too insistent, more or less unbearable. She did not mean that she felt it was egotistical, but that the "I" was so insistent that the poems became unbearable to read. She suggested that I try the third person. I was skeptical, but I tried it...and I became daily less skeptical as I worked over the book every day for some months. Then, when I had an altered draft, benefiting from criticism, I tried the new draft on ten different people. It was perfectly clear that "he" is "I," and I expected people to find it too obvious a device. It turned out that people much preferred it. I think that the effect for the reader, of the poet distancing himself, is a relief. Then I wanted to preserve the lyric "I" in the poems inserted among the narrative anecdotes. So it is a difference in the structure of the poems, a difference in tone, and perhaps a strategic distancing.

Chris from Portland, Maine: I was just browsing through your backlist posted on the site, and FATHERS PLAYING CATCH WITH SONS seems like an unlikely book for a poet -- okay, given, that's a rash generalization! What brought this book about? Are you a big sports fan?

Donald Hall: I love baseball, and I have written about it quite a bit. I had a literary agent who was a great fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates and arranged for several of us to try out for the team -- as it were -- in spring training. I think it was 1973. I wrote a long essay about that experience, which is the title essay of that book, then I took every opportunity to write more essays and magazine pieces, supporting myself as a freelance writer, by exploiting my joy in the game. Also, writing about baseball was the only way I would ever make the Major Leagues. I loved hanging around the ballplayers. After that boo,k I wrote another called DOCK ELLIS IN THE COUNTRY OF BASEBALL. No, it wasn't after that book, but it was after that title essay. I remember because I reprinted part of the DOCK book in FATHERS. I also wrote about basketball. My poet friends fall into one of two categories. Half of them think I'm insane to be so interested in professional sports. The other half envy me to the point of murderous envy for having conversations with Kevin McHale and Pete Rose.

Elise from NYC: In many of your poems, for example, in "The Ship Pounding," you speak of "Today,/Months later at home," and in others, such as "A Beard for a Blue Pantry," you write in the present. Were these poems written or begun in those actual scenes, or did you recollect them and write them in the present tense?

Donald Hall: I did, in fact, write many of these poems sitting at Jane's bedside while she was ill. Whenever I could do anything -- like finding a warm blanket or bringing her some liquid, or reading aloud to her -- I would, but much of the time she was sleeping or resting, unable even to concentrate enough to listen to me read a Dave Barry column. The most absorbing thing I could do was to write. I wrote some stories, two children's books, and worked on some old poems, but I also began the poems that you mentioned -- and, I suppose, virtually all of the poems that speak of Jane's illness before her death. Sometimes when she felt relatively strong, she would ask me to read her what I was writing. We never concealed our feelings from each other, even when those feelings were painful. I know that if she had lived, she would have written poems out of her illness. I think that she was pleased that I was trying to do it at the time. I remember reading her "Without" -- the poem, not the book -- and how she agreed with me. "That's how it is, Perkins."

Ann from Louisiana: WITHOUT is profound and moving and utterly beautiful. It has helped me cope with my own sense of loss of a good friend. Thank you so much for this book. Do you have any advice for coping with the loss of a loved one?

Donald Hall: When Jane and I were both well, and we lost someone dear to us, we went to the poets. So much of poetry laments loss, and death in particular. The poetry does not provide consolation for the loss, but companionship in grief. I even read Jane's elegiac poems, after Jane's death, as the companionship with her in my grief over her death. I think of the oldest poem that survives, "Gilgamesh," with its scream of pain over the death of Enkidu. There is a 17th-century poem by Henry King, "The Exequy," which we found particularly strong in its expression of mourning. I'm happy if WITHOUT has helped you as the old poems helped us and have helped me.

Denise from Ann Arbor, MI: If you wanted a reader to see Jane Kenyon as you knew her, which of her poems would you recommend we read? Which of yours?

Donald Hall: There are so many of Jane's poems that seem characteristic of the person as well as the poet. I love some of those that make leaps of the imagination, like "Twilight After Haying" or the late poem "Happiness." But she is present in the humor of "The Shirt," in the sad outrage of "Three Small Oranges," and of course, in her monumental poem about depression, "Having It Out with Melancholy." I wouldn't want anyone to miss "Briefly It Enters, Briefly Speaks" or "Man Eating" or "September Garden Party"...but I'm afraid I could go on forever. I don't feel so comfortable recommending among my own, not from modesty but because it seems to me so difficult for someone to know about his own work. There's a book-length poem called THE ONE DAY which may be my best work. Really, I would prefer it if WITHOUT were the best -- because of its subject matter -- but I'm much too close to it to make any judgment.

William from Brooklyn, NY: Tell us about your mapping and/or structuring of this collection. Could you describe how you organized and arranged the poems, and what you meant to achieve by this arrangement?

Donald Hall: The structure is pretty much chronological, that is, the order of printing is largely the order of initial composition. Actually, "Weeds and Peonies" was the first poem I attempted after Jane's death. One of my friends suggested that it should be the final poem, I think because it makes a kind of coda, almost a summary. The poems about her illness, up to the point when she died, were first noted (in terrible poetry, by and large) at the point described in the poem. One big exception is "Without," which I wrote, to begin with, in the late summer or early autumn of 1994, when, of course, we were still hopeful. I published that poem as the last in a book called THE OLD LIFE (1996), because it was the end of the old life. But when I put WITHOUT together, it was clear that "Without" belonged in this collection. Although I had written it while she was alive, I changed the poem from the present tense to the past and printed it in this volume just after Jane's death. Other people helped me with arrangements, for instance the order of stanzas within many of the Letters. By adhering to this chronological arrangement, from the first sadness and fear of diagnosis and early treatment, through the suffering which her treatment required, through the knowledge that she would die and our last days together, and then through the first year of screaming grief, I wanted to represent or embody my own journey with Jane and after Jane during this terrible time.

Kate from NYC: One more question -- why did you choose to have the untitled poems alternating with indentation, rather than aligned to the left margin, as with the titled ones? What does this form mean for the type of poems they are? Thank you.

Donald Hall: The accidental answer is that I had been working on anecdotal poems out of my life at the very time when Jane became ill, and I had invented a shape for these anecdotes which I continued to use when I was writing the anecdotes out of Jane's illness. But I intend all of my poems by not changing them. That is, if I had not liked the use of indentation for those poems, I would not have allowed accident to determine their shape. It seems to me that when the reader looks at the page, he or she has a visual signal of the kind of poem in front of him or her. You knowThis will be narrative in the third person; or this will be lyric in the first person. There is a difference in tone, I think, between all the indented anecdotes and the lyrics that interrupt them.

Mary from Chicago, IL: Can we expect more illustrated children's books from you? How did you become interested in writing them, and how does writing them differ from writing your poetry?

Donald Hall: I hope we can expect more children's books from me. I have some notions that interest me, and I love to write picture books. I love the small audience. But at the moment, it has been difficult for me to concentrate on anything except Jane's illness and absence. I became interested in writing children's books, as many people have, by making up stories to tell my own children. Now I tell them to grandchildren. I find great reward in exciting five and six year olds to write me letters. I get bundles of letters every week, especially about OX-CART MAN. Writing them differs from writing poetry because of limitation of vocabulary and...I suppose sophistication. But writing them resembles writing poetry, because of the pressure to be spare, to say it all in as few words as possible.

Susan R. Kenison from Rochester, NY: I am a poet as well, and I would like to know if you have any advice about how to go about getting a picture book published. Do you work collaboratively with your illustrator? When you approach a publisher, is it with a completed book, or just text?

Donald Hall: If you have a manuscript of a story, I think it is best to approach editors at publishing houses that publish children's books before you enlist the aid of an illustrator. If you submit an illustrated book, the publisher might like the text but not the illustrations. Also, it is my experience that editors of juvenile literature have better ideas than I do about the style of illustration required, and about the range of illustrators who might be interested. Barry Moser and I have worked together from scratch on at least one book, which began because Barry wanted to paint pictures of Babe Ruth. Otherwise, I think I have relied on my editors to suggest and contract my illustrators.

Elise from barnesandnoble.com: This is a rather odd forum for your readers, I can imagine. If we were all at a reading, we would be able to sense, by seeing and hearing you, how you are reacting to discussing and reading your poems to us. So, to give a sense of that to your readers this afternoon, what is it like for you to be discussing WITHOUT online?

Donald Hall: Weird. And I am fascinated because I have never done it before. It is quite unlike anything I have done. I began by feeling as if I were talking into a microphone -- because I have an amanuensis, and do not type myself -- as if I had to pronounce my words distinctly, and get the sentence right the first time. This is easier. I like to read WITHOUT aloud and I like to talk about it. It has been helpful for me to make my feelings public.

Jenny Thompkins from Worcester, MA: Who do you like to read? Do you read mostly poetry, or also fiction and nonfiction? What are you reading now?

Donald Hall: Of course I do read a lot of poetry, and I'm careful to keep rereading the old poets -- who are maybe the best standards -- but I'm fascinated to read my contemporaries, old poets now, and the young following us. I read a great deal of fiction as well. Recently I have been spending a lot of time on airplanes reading Anita Brookner. I suppose that my favorite reading for the last 15 years has been history -- I should say narrative history. I began with Gibbon, that is, I began that at the time, except that Thucydides is probably even better. I read contemporary history also. I love to fill in my gaps of knowledge, which are considerable like everybody's, about a particular historical period, and suddenly I discovered that I knew practically nothing about mid-Victorian England aside from what I have read in fiction. So I read history or biography to discover the more obvious events of the day.

Janine K. from Larchmont, NY: What is your favorite poem in this collection, and why?

Donald Hall: My opinion is probably worth less than anybody else's, and it changes. Sometimes I have thought that "Without" was the best poem here. Lately, I seem to prefer some of the Letters, I think maybe the "Letter at Christmas" is my favorite right now, but probably tomorrow it will be something else. For quite a while, I might have preferred "The Porcelain Couple," and I also like the last poem in the book, "Weeds and Peonies." But I think perhaps it's bad luck to talk about what you like in your own work!

Maryanne from Erie, PA: Where is your favorite place to write? What is your writing schedule like?

Donald Hall: I have a study in the old farmhouse where I live, which I fill with poetry books and huge rolltop desk. This was my grandparents' and even great-grandparents' house. I work in the room that I used as a bedroom when I was a boy. When I feel particularly inspired, I can write anywhere -- even on airplanes and in motels. I love this old room, and I love the early morning. I write every day -- which I recommend to any young writer -- and I begin with poetry because I believe I am hardest on myself early in the morning, more apt to cross things out. When you cross something out, it allows you to invent something new. Trial and error. Many of my poems, and probably all of the poems in WITHOUT, had existed in more than 100 versions. Of course, some of the late versions resemble each other considerably.

Marlene from Cleveland: Mr. Hall, do you have any advice for aspiring poets trying to be published in the world today? Thank you.

Donald Hall: Your question is about seeking publication, and I think that persistence is the only recipe. When I was sending things out at the beginning, I would always read over poems that were rejected. Often I would rewrite them, because I saw faults that I had not seen earlier, but if they still looked all right to me, I would get them back into the mail in 15 minutes. Then I could stop feeling sad and start to feel hopeful again.

Harriet P. from Dayton, Ohio: WITHOUT seems to deal not only with the loss of a wife but also the loss of a mother. Did you know when you wrote these poems that the collection would deal with both, or is it something you discovered in writing it?

Donald Hall: When I began the early poems in WITHOUT, my mother had not yet died. She was almost 91, and she was ready. Jane and I had spent a lot of gratifying time with her, in taking care of her. One night when we were coming back from a new infusion at the hospital, Jane was tired, and painful. She knew that within a few days her immune system would be depressed, and so we stopped to see my mother -- in a facility for the elderly -- on the way back. Jane knew she wouldn't be able to see my mother for a while. Really, I tried to persuade Jane not to do it, because I knew she was feeling rotten. I'm glad I failed, because my mother died the next morning. It became inevitable, as I charted the feelings of this time, that I include my mother's death. The poem called "The Porcelain Couple" joins my fears for Jane to my feelings about my mother. They were inevitably joined.

Frannie from Hoboken, NJ: Was there a time period during or after Jane Kenyon's death when you could not write about it? Oftentimes my poetry-writing professor speaks of distancing yourself from the subject matter being as important to being able to get to the heart of it. I would be interested to hear what you think.

Donald Hall: No, there was no time when I could not write about it. Well, I think it was two or three weeks after her death before I began "Weeds and Peonies" and then "Letter Without an Address," so I guess there was a small period when I stayed away from the desk. But then, to work on poems every day that embodied my losses, this seemed to keep me alive, or at least it seemed a reason for being alive. In the past, I have often noticed that I would write out of an event six months or a year after it happened. This event was so enormous in my life that there seemed to be no other subject. I have been writing more poems, many of which concern Jane and her illness and her death -- and they are somehow poems from a greater distance. She recedes in my poems now. She is no longer "you" but Jane. I have not published any of these more recent poems, but I believe that I will, and it is perfectly possible that if I live long enough, I will write about her from a greater distance still, maybe from the distance of five years or ten. I doubt that I will ever stop writing about her -- but I will write about other subjects as well.

Hank H. from Greenwich, CT: What do you think of the current market for poetry? It seems that, for the most part, small presses and literary journals are the only things keeping new poetry published. What does this say for the fate of poetry, and what do you think will save it from suffering in an increasingly limited market?

Donald Hall: My answer will surprise you. I am astonished at the current market for poetry -- and I am astonished at its magnitude. No poet will outsell Stephen King. It is a minor industry -- but it is so much larger than it was when I was young. There are more poets, more magazines, more presses, more poetry readings -- they were virtually unknown when I was in my 20s -- and even more readers. I know that most poets have few readers, but it astonishes me that there are many American poets now, serious in their art, who will always sell at least 10,000 copies of a book. In the 1950s, a book of poems by a fairly well-known poet was issued in an edition of 750 or 1,000 copies. The same poet now -- I am making him or her up -- will be printed in an initial edition of 5,000 to 7,000 copies. A Roper poll conducted for the NEA a few years ago came up with numbers about Americans participating in the arts -- acting, as well as going to the theater, attending a symphony, or playing a violin. They gave a figure for the number of Americans who were writing poems or stories. Do you want to guess how many? I was surprised, although I thought there would be many. The figure was 40 million. None of this speaks to the issue of quality. I don't believe that high numbers indicate lower quality or higher quality. Quality is another issue. I think it speaks to the fate of poetry that an increasing number of people in this country indicate their desire for it, or its necessity.

Moderator: Thank you so much for setting aside time for us this afternoon, Mr. Hall. Your new book is a wonderful tribute -- best wishes for its success. Any final remarks before we go?

Donald Hall: Thank you for allowing me this exercise in an alien form. It is very good to know that there are people out there, not only in the audience for poetry readings, nor in the book buyers, but in the computer-watchers.

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