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The Newdigate prize


Enjoying Oxford
Donald Hall Poet
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I felt very strange at Oxford at first, never having traveled out of the country, except a little bit that summer.  And in that society of Wykehamists and so on... but I had a wonderful time finally and got to know them... got to know lots of people. At the beginning, I felt very lonesome. I would go to hall... I wouldn't see anybody otherwise much, and if I sat down and asked somebody to pass the salt, it seemed as if somebody was always rude in answering me.  And it's just the Eton rag as we called it and so on. I mean being rude was kind of a language, that's all.  And there were frequent remarks about American habits, and this's and that's you know, but it was nothing... nothing to worry about. The thing they were suggesting to... being more time in the vast prosperity of America, and one heard about that of course, all the time. Everything was so cheap in England to me, at that time... no longer... but I loved pubs and pub food.  And, for four years at Harvard I had gone to lots and lots of lectures, and in two years at Oxford, I never attended a lecture. I... I did a BLitt not a BA, because... well I had a BA... but it would have been totally different to have the Oxford BA, but I wanted to write about something, and I wanted to... to have a good time and to write poems all I could, and it was really the easiest thing. I spent two years there, which was the minimum for a residency for a BLitt, but I actually only worked on it from the first note to the final draft for about 18 weeks out of that whole time. I didn't work at all the first year, except that you had to take a qualifying exam. A qualifying exam's pretty ridiculous, but it just meant that you were serious... you wanted to take it... you weren't just hanging around Oxford.  And there was a three hour exam on Locke, Berkeley, and Hume. I've never been any good at philosophy, but I managed to get by. I got only one reprimand in my oral, where a philosophy Don said that I had called Samuel Johnson an intelligent man, in which case I was of course mistaken. I was quoting Johnson about kicking a stone to refute Berkeley's idealism, you know, that's all.  And then for the other three hour exam, you had to do sources, methods, and authorities in the study of oh... Elizabethan literature, 18th century literature, or 19th... the 19th was the closest so I took it. And what I did was read a book about the history of the Macmillan company [sic], and recite it. The main essay was, you know, that was one of the subjects you could take... so it was mickey mouse really. And that's all I did. I went to parties. Oxford was the greatest party school I'd ever known anything about. At first, there weren't any, but then I published poems in The Isis - the weekly magazine there - and I discovered that poetry could be a means of social climbing at Oxford. I was immediately invited to parties all over the place, and oh, I remember the first party I went to, right after it came out, and I had fallen down and hurt my knee - I had a migraine that knocked me down.  And my scout had, of course, found me a cane, so I came to the party with a cane, and sat down with my leg extended, and a very attractive woman, named Anne Younghusband who was engaged to Simon Broadbent... I loved their names... came to me and said, 'Do you need that cane, or is it affectation?' And that was the kind of thing, of course, that was all over the place, but by this time, I was innured to it... I didn't, I wasn't... didn't have feeling... it was just the way we talked. There were bottle parties all the time, and I, oh, you know, I went to those straight gin parties, and missed the time the gates close.  Had the classic experience of climbing in, fell into a drainage ditch. Two policemen pulled me out, and took me around to wake up the night porter and let me in, and the policeman said, 'This man says his name is Donald Hall', and the night porter said, 'So he is, so he is', and let me in.  And the next morning when the scouts were serving breakfast, they were all sort of giggling that word had gotten around. Shortly thereafter, I won the Newdigate prize. The disciplinary officer of Christ Church was oh, Trevor-Roper - The Last Days of Hitler man, and he had to see me about climbing in, but he didn't fine me, and when I won the Newdigate, he wrote me a note saying he had been regretting not fining me, but now that I had won the Newdigate for Christ Church...

The 14th US Poet Laureate Donald Hall (1928-2018) was educated at Phillips Exeter Academy, then earned a bachelor's degree from Harvard in 1951 and a BLitt, from Oxford in 1953. He published many essays and anthologies of both poetry and prose including String too Short to be Saved: Recollections of Summers on a New England Farm, White Apples and the Taste of Stone, Without: Poems, and Ox-Cart Man, a children's book which won the Caldecott Medal. Hall was editor of the magazine Oxford Poetry, literary editor of Isis, editor of New Poems, and poetry editor of The Paris Review. He won many awards, including two Guggenheim Fellowships and a Robert Frost Medal. At the end of his first Oxford year, he also won the university's Newdigate Prize, awarded for his poem Exile.

Listeners: Kendel Currier

Kendel Currier started working for Donald Hall in August of 1994 as his correspondence typist. Later she took on his manuscript typing as well, and in October of 1998 moved 100 meters down the road from Donald and became his personal assistant, adding many various new tasks to her work. As well as working for Donald for the last 10 and-a-half years, Donald Hall and Kendel Currier share a set of great (or for Kendel great-great) grandparents, making them distant cousins and part of a similar New Hampshire heritage.

Tags: University of Oxford, Wykehamists, Eton College, American, England, Harvard University, Macmillan Publishers, The Isis, Newdigate prize, The Last Days of Hitler, John Locke, George Berkeley, David Hume, Samuel Johnson, Anne Younghusband, Simon Broadbent, Hugh Trevor-Roper

Duration: 5 minutes, 35 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008