Monday, June 25, 2018

On the Passing of Donald Hall: Poet, Children's Book Author, Baseball Fan

Donald Hall at work in his office (photo: Tony Cenicola, NYT)
I read in Monday morning's New York Times, that Donald Hall, former Poet Laureate of the United States, a New England poet and writer in the tradition of Robert Frost and Richard Wilbur, had died at the age of 89. Donald Hall and I have a long history. I am sitting here right now pouring over my signed edition of Hall's, Old and New Poems (Ticknor and Fields, 1990). Ironically, though, my first encounter with the great poet wasn't through poetry, but through an extended essay he wrote in the 1970s entitled, Father's Playing Catch with Sons. The essay was, and still is, the very best explication I have read on baseball's special hold on the national consciousness.

...for baseball is continuous, like nothing else among American things, an endless game of repeated summers, joining all the generations of fathers and sons.

Donald Hall, poet, was also Donald Hall, baseball fan, and as a fellow baseball fan, I quickly became a fan of his writing.

I next encountered Donald Hall as a children's book author. His poem, The Ox Cart Man, beautifully illustrated by Barbara Cooney, won the Caldecott Medal in 1980, just as I was launching my second career as a reading specialist. The Ox Cart Man is a little jewel of an exposition on the cycle of the rural life. The poem follows a farmer to market where he sells his honey, wool, leather, and linen and then..

When the cart is empty he sells the cart.
When the cart is sold he sells the ox, 
harness and yoke and walks
home, his pockets heavy
with the year's coin for salt and taxes,

and at home by fire's light in November cold
stitches new harness 
for next year's ox in the barn,
and carves the yoke, and saws planks
building the cart again.

The Ox Cart Man and other children's books by Hall became fixtures in my classroom library and in my read alouds. Other titles include  I Am the Dog I Am the Cat, When Willard Met Babe Ruth, The Farm Summer 1942 (all illustrated by Barry Moser), The Milkman's Boy (illustrated by Greg Shed), The Man Who Lived Alone (illustrated by Mary Azarian), and Lucy's Summer and Lucy's Christmas (illustrated by Michael McCurdy)

Finally, in the 1980s and 90s, I dove into Donald Hall the poet for adults. While much of Hall's early poetry was colored by the same rural themes of his children's books, his later work evoked images of illness and loss. His wife, the noted poet Jane Kenyon, died of leukemia in 1995, and Hall himself fought a 25 year battle with colon and liver cancer.

This is from Stone Walls written in the 1970s:

Stone walls emerge from leafy ground
and show their bones. In September a leaf
falls singly down, then a thousand leaves whirl
in frosty air. I am wild
with joy of leaves falling, of stone walls
emerging, of return to the countryside
where I lay as a boy
in the valley of noon heat, in the village
of little sounds, where I floated 
out of myself, into the world that lives in the air.

This is a later poem from Hall's collection, The Old Life (1996).


          Curled on the sofa
in the fetal position, Jane wept day 
          and night, night and day.
I could not touch her, I could do nothing.
          Melancholia fell
like the rain over Ireland for weeks
          without end.
                                I never
belittled her sorrows or joshed at
          her dreads and miseries.
How admirable I found myself.

For readers wishing for an introduction to the poetry of Donald Hall, I would recommend the collection, White Apples and the Taste of Stone, Selected Poems, 1946-2006. For a teacher's classroom library, I would recommend any of the picture books mentioned above and most especially a collection that Hall edited, The Oxford Illustrated Book of American Children's Poems.

Thank you. Donald Hall for years and years of good reading, good poetry, and good baseball stories.

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