What's Donald Hall reading?

Poet Donald Hall, 86, received a National Medal of Arts in 2010. His newest collection is Essays After Eighty. Concord Monitor photo/Ken Williams
Poet Donald Hall, 86, received a National Medal of Arts in 2010. His newest collection is Essays After Eighty. Concord Monitor photo/Ken Williams
Published Jan. 4, 2015


Donald Hall

We thought we'd start out the new year with Hall, 86, a former U.S. poet laureate and author of more than 50 books. His newest collection, Essays After Eighty, could inspire resolutions like visiting old houses in the country, growing a long beard or finding goodness in adding extra garlic to your entree. After graduating from Harvard, Hall served as the first poetry editor at the Paris Review and held court with the likes of Dylan Thomas, Robert Bly and Robert Frost. He also taught English at the University of Michigan until he gave up the post to write full time. For 40 years, he earned his living as a freelance poet, critic and essayist. In 1983, he received the Caldecott Award for his children's book Ox-Cart Man, and in 2010, President Barack Obama presented him with the National Medal of Arts. We recently caught up with Hall by phone from his beloved Eagle Pond Farm in New Hampshire.

What's on your nightstand?

A novel by an old friend, Richard Ford, called Let Me Be Frank With You.

Are you enjoying it?

Oh yes. He's dealing with old age. I believe he turned 70, and his characters are 65 and so on. Of course, I remember being that age, and it's enjoyable especially for me to be reading the book after writing Essays After Eighty. This is his fourth book with his character Frank Bascombe, and what's fun is that in the New York Times a few weeks ago, he was asked where he got the name Bascombe, and he said he got it from me. It goes back to when he was writing The Sportswriter, and he first named the character Slocum. At the time, I told him that Joseph Heller already had a character with that name.

I've read that you do not have a computer. Is that correct?

I don't have a computer. I never have had one. I've had someone, my assistant, type for me. I've done it that way for more than 50 years because I type with one finger, although quite rapidly. My present assistant has been my assistant for 20 years, and although my handwriting is terrible (I flunked handwriting in seventh grade), she can read it. She gets everything. So I am able to just hand her the handwritten copy. She types it and then I make my changes. I have lots of revisions.

So you get your news from print newspapers?

Yes, I get the very good daily paper, the Concord Monitor, and the Boston Globe. I get the Globe for one big reason: sports.

Do you think those two papers are doing well in the 21st century?

With all papers, they might seem to be getting frail and smaller. We all know why, computers, and I deplore it, but I put up with it. I think magazines have also diminished. I read the New Yorker, and I like it a lot, but it is not as good as it was years ago. I read the Economist, too, and also the Times Literary Supplement. I've read that for 60 years.

What do the journalists at these publications need to do to make sure you keep reading?

First, it's important to acknowledge that we as readers all have to put up with less language and shorter articles than we did before when there was more opportunity to delve into a subject and stay with it, but if it became abruptly written with poor grammar, poor language, I know I would get too disgusted and irritated reading it.

Planning your weekend?

Planning your weekend?

Subscribe to our free Top 5 things to do newsletter

We’ll deliver ideas every Thursday for going out, staying home or spending time outdoors.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

Where do you see poetry in 2014 on the American landscape?

One thing that is astonishing is there is infinitely more poetry, more poets and more magazines than when I was young. I was at Harvard with a whole bunch of poets and that was very rare. They published a lot of books because there was an excitement after the war that translated into poetry. But, today, the numbers of people trying to write poetry have increased enormously. Back when I was young, there was one graduate program for creative writing for poetry and fiction. It was at Iowa. Now there are 200 MFA programs for both fiction and poetry. I'm not telling you for one minute things are better than they were. I will not generalize and say there are better poems, because there are always more bad poems than good ones at any point. It's just the growth in the numbers is astonishing.

Why do you think there's such an increase?

When it comes to poetry, I think partly the numbers of people attempting to write poems is probably a result or the reaction to technology.

Because poetry lends well to the mind-set faster, shorter?

Yes, I think so.

Contact Piper Castillo at or (727) 445-4163. Follow @Florida_PBJC.