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The critical response to my first book


Publication of my first book and my father's death
Donald Hall Poet
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My three years at the Society of Fellows were wonderful. I read everything... I wrote so much. I published my first book, but they were mixed. They were... there was a great big mix about one thing in particular. I'll just say by... by way of a footnote here, that I was writing a great deal, I was publishing... I no longer like many of the poems I was doing then, and... and like some earlier ones more. I got too clever, and I put that partly on the extreme cleverness of the people I was among all the time. And my poems were not so emotional. They, oh... were sometimes more conceptual, and tricky, and right now, I'm putting together a... you know 55 years of poetry, of Selected Poems that will be out in 2006, and I find myself leaving out a lot of those, just picking maybe the... the very best.  So, although I, you know, I had a good time writing a lot, and reading a lot - and it may... it may well have been very important in my later development - still I don't think I did my best work then.  But I did publish my first book of poems, and that is a very big deal. Oh... the circumstances with the publishers are anecdotal, unusual, but probably not worth going into. I assembled a collection... I had started a collection... trying to sell a collection much earlier, when an English publisher, while I was at Oxford, because of the noise about the Newdigate... an English publisher - can't think of his name - wrote and asked me if I had a manuscript.  Thrilling!  Really he wanted to sell sheets to America, and make some money, if we could find an American publisher. He didn't want to publish it in England alone, and so that was not particularly flattering, but that got me started with an American agent. The English publisher contacted an American agent to send a book around, and it wound up with the Viking Press, which was... that was a small, independent publisher at that time - long before it was taken over by Penguin - and had some very good editors there.  A man named Pascal Covici, who's quite a famous editor, and Malcolm Cowley was an editor part-time. We... they saw a couple of versions of it. I kept sending it out in-between to other publishers - it would be a small tight version, and a big sloppy version - each time I'd change it from one to the other. The one that got taken, finally, was the big sloppy version, and it's a long book, a long first book.  And there's very little of that that I will re-print in my Selected Poems now, but it was... it was thrilling.  But it was absolutely enmeshed, the publication of it over the year of 1955 with another event. My father who was 51 had a backache, an X-ray, a spot on his lung. I went down to see him before he went in - it was cancer - and he went in for an exploratory operation to see if they could remove a lung, and my mother and I took him down and went back to wait for the surgeon's call.  And the thing was, if the ... if they were to take the lung out, it would take eight hours or so. The surgeon called in about two hours. It was inoperable, so we knew that my father would die, and I called up my wife who was in Cambridge by the society to tell her that my father was going to die.  And we spoke at length, and wept, and at the end she said, 'Oh, a letter just came for you today from the Viking Press. Do you want me to open it?' And so I said, 'You might as well'. And that letter accepted my first book of poems for publication - just extraordinary. And I called up the... it became a device for cheering up my father who had been leaning toward death. He had no ambition for himself, and it was all put on to me, and everybody knew this was the big thing - to have your first book of poems. I was 27 years old, and I called up the nurses, and they told my father, and he was, of course, in bad shape after the operation, but he knew it, and was thrilled about it. Then I set out to publish all the poems in magazines that were in there, so that, you know every week when I saw him, I could bring him another publication and so on.  And my joy in the book was considerable, but extremely confused, because the book was a device for cheering him up by this point, my first book of poems... but I... of course I was thrilled by the book all the same, but it came out in December, and it came out just before he died. It came out early in the month and he died on December 22nd and was buried on Christmas Eve, but he held the book - he saw it - and he said with his ruined voice, his voice was mostly gone, holding the book, 'My cup runneth over'. And it was good for him. We also watched the Dodgers beat the Yankees in the World Series - it was one other good thing that fall. I was living a couple of hundred miles away, with a little child - a wife and a little child - and I drove down to see him, or sometimes all three of us came down, about once a week, and I missed... I was going down one morning and he died the night before, so I missed being with him at his death.  But he was so much in denial - or he knew he was going to die, but he couldn't speak of it, couldn't possibly speak of it - that was the kind of man he was. He consulted medical dictionaries, and so on - I mean he knew, and, but it was the last time I saw him, just about a week before he did died, he was thinking about the future of course.  And he said, 'If anything should happen to me...' you know, and so on. This was the reverse of the way Jane and I were with in connection with my cancers, over the leukemia that... that killed her - we were always frank and open, but that was how he had to do it - it was his character.

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: Society of Fellows, Selected Poems, English, University of Oxford, Newdigate prize, America, American, Viking Press, Penguin Group, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Dodgers, Christmas Eve, Yankees, World Series, Pascal Covici, Malcolm Cowley

Duration: 7 minutes, 6 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008