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The poetic scene at Oxford


The Newdigate prize
Donald Hall Poet
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The Newdigate is Oxford's annual poetry prize, and it goes for a... they commission a poem with a certain title, and my year... the year before me it was Captain Carlson who was a newspaper name, because he'd stayed with his ship when it was sinking. My year, it was Exile - that fashionable, existential term - and I was out of my country for the first time, and so I took the title and ran with it. I was only slightly disconcerted by the notice that was posted for the exam which said... I doubt that they do it anymore... the poem need not be written in heroic couplets. The Newdigates were always about 300 lines, and the longest poem I had ever written was 48, so I stretched myself. During Christmas vacation, and again at Easter time, I spent the six week vacation in Paris having a wonderful time in a little hotel.  And every morning I would wake up and the petite bonne would bring me coffee and croissant, and I would lie in bed and work on this poem all day - well not all day, all morning.  And I would begin to think about what I'd have for lunch and supper during the day. The afternoon I would usually go to a museum. This was in Paris, but that's where I wrote the poem called Exile, which won the Newdigate, and caused a lot of stir. It caused a stir largely because the Chancellor's Essay Prize [sic] went, at about the same time, to an American, and an American was for the first time elected president of the Oxford Union, so that - Yanks take over Oxford you know... the scene.  And Time magazine wrote a piece about it, printed our pictures, and it kept me out of the Korean War, curiously enough. I had... the Korean War had started when I was a senior, and I was examined and about to be drafted, but students got deferred and then graduate students got deferred, and I was at Oxford, but there were Americans who were rich and went in and enrolled at the Sorbonne and didn't do anything, and got a left-wing professor to sign for them.  So that the Director of Selected Service in America issued a ruling that only Fulbright scholars and Rhodes' would be exempt if they were at a European, foreign university. Without my knowing it, my father took a copy of Time magazine down to the Appeals Board... to the Draft Board in New Haven, and they exempted me from the draft.  So I stayed on for a second year, instead of going to Korea.

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: Newdigate prize, Easter, Paris, Chancellor's essay prize, American, Oxford Union, University of Oxford, Time, Korean War, Sorbonne, Fulbright scholars, Rhodes scholars, European, New Haven, Captain Carlson

Duration: 3 minutes

Date story recorded: January 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008