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Working habits, writing for a living, and changes in style


My love of teaching
Donald Hall Poet
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I decided when I was 17 or something like that, that I would probably teach to support my poetry habit, and I intended it as a kind of cynical decision - this way I could have summers off maybe, I can arrange my schedule because I won't be in class more than nine hours a week, so I could write here, and correct papers there and so on. It is, by and large, an easier job, if you are going to be a writer, than a nine to five job, and I remember telling an old teacher of mine, who was a wonderful, ethical teacher, 'Oh, I'm doing it cynically, just to support my habit', which was a stupid and insensitive thing to say. I remember what he said to me, 'Teaching tends to be something in which one develops ethics by teaching if one doesn't have them to begin with'. And I loved... I loved teaching. I was petrified at first, you know. Somebody took me to a class... a professor took me to a class, and said, 'There they are'‚ and I was supposed to walk in, and there were 60 people there or something, and I was the authority. After a year or so, I felt relaxed about it, and I was a good teacher. I worked hard for my students, and I... I kept them amused and on their toes, and always had lots of questions, even with big classes. At the beginning I taught small discussion groups - there were mostly about 30 people - but eventually I did lecture courses too, and in the lecture courses I could keep things lively. I taught Yeats and Joyce a lot... there was a course which was for upper classman in English or even incoming MFA students - an advanced English class - but I also taught an Introduction to Poetry for non-English majors, and that was my favorite of all, and I felt that I was the sort of Billy Graham of poetry - the Evangelist - come to poetry, come to poetry. And I was resolutely non-biographical, non-historical. I would always mix up poems to talk about... during one day might be five poems and... from five different centuries, and different styles, and so on, and the idea was just to develop a taste for... what... what the hell is this stuff that I love so much? And I also think, that I do still - I did then - adore poetry, and I could transmit my enthusiasm, and I think that's maybe the most important thing I had. I said alot about the poems - I told them about tactical matters, but, the gusto with which I praised the poems that I particularly loved, I think, reached many of them, not everybody, but many of them, and I think many of them... they were non-English majors - there were a good many who switched over to an English major - and thus I ruined their lives, you know.  But, anyway, I... I felt really high when I walk into a classroom and get going. Once a year I would feel a lecture go flat and dead, and I'd just say, 'I can't do it today', and I'd walk out, because I was doing on... from the inside out, not by preparation. I prepared, but I prepared only by reading over the work that I was going to talk about - maybe 50 pages of Ulysses or something, and maybe making some marks on a page, but then I was improvising, and I learnt soon enough that improvising was what I did best - it was fun. The first 10 years, they pretty much let me have my head. I had gone there telling them I didn't want to teach creative writing, and... so they abided by that, and I taught freshman English instead.  But if you teach creative writing you don't teach freshman English because you are dealing with manuscript and so on, and after a few terms of freshman writing, which is difficult and emotional - kids are always coming to you, telling you about their suicide attempts and writing about them and so on, and their first... out of high school, maybe, and first away from home, and you are their therapist a lot of time - and I felt I could do that but it was also disturbing, so I took on a writing course, and then most of the years I was there, I taught one writing course a year. Eventually it became a course in writing poetry, for which I could admit people - I mean they could not get in without me reading their work. I taught there about 13 and a half years out of 76 years - it's not that many but it was crucial - you know... crucial time. I would put up a sign on my door in the summer, teach that course in the autumn, saying, if you'd like to get in this course, show me five poems, and then I would list the people I took. I didn't want to interview them, and be charmed or attracted or something, and that's how I met Jane Kenyon, but that's a later story... a later story. Jane was one of the students I took into a writing class in 1969, much later. I taught my first classes in 1957/58. By the spring of '58, I felt at home in the classroom. But also at Michigan, it being so big, and amorphous, I could go home to my house, and feel in another world. Students didn't come knocking on my door to speak of, and I was surrounded by other people who were not professors, and professors of English. When the professors at Dartmouth were trying to get me to go there, they told me something that made sure I would never go there. They said, 'We have no cliques here, we all get together. We are really friendly. In fact we have coffee together every morning at 10 o'clock'.  That was the professors - I didn't want to do that.

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: MFA, English, Ulysses, University of Michigan, WB Yeats, James Joyce, Billy Graham, Jane Kenyon, Dartmouth College

Duration: 6 minutes, 48 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008