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Working on Without (Part 2)

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Working on Without (Part 1)
Donald Hall Poet
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I had already written, of course, a good deal about her illness, and about three or four weeks after she died I... her... her flowers, her beloved flowers were starting to come up... end of April, beginning of May, daffodils and so on, and I wrote a poem called Weeds and Peonies, which eventually I printed last in Without, that was about her loss. I went back and worked over the poems that I had already started. I discarded most of what I had written, I wrote more. And then a few weeks after Weeds and Peonies, I found out that Maggie Fisher was pregnant. Maggie Fisher was a nurse of ours out in Seattle who had just married a second time and had never had children, and I found out she was pregnant.  And the first thought... this is... everyone who loses someone close does this... oh I must tell... can't do it. Well, I wrote her a letter. I wrote her a letter in the form of a poem... the poem I'd been working over for 50 years, and when I wrote... when I was writing the first letter... I mean each of the letters was gone over a hundred times, but I would write her a letter, and I realized I was going to write her more letters.  So that the second half of Without is a series of letters to her for the first year.  And in that first year when I wrote to her, I addressed her as you. I felt... I did not feel her spiritual presence or a spooky presence but that was the only way I would address her. Thereafter, it became Jane... it... she became Jane or her, it was a greater distance. Poems didn't stop, but they changed their nature. When I was writing Without, I was sort of saving my life, and people have said, how can you... how could you bear to write them or how could you bear to read them aloud? It was happy for me to write those letters... it was... to write those poems in the form of letters... it was the only time I was happy in the day. I could work on them about two hours in a day, and then I'd have to be miserable for the next 22 hours, but, I knew that the following day, I'd get back to work on them again. There's one point in one of the letters when I tell Gus the dog, 'We're going to the desk... poetry man is suiting up'. I felt... it was as if I was doing something about her death to record my feelings about it, and of course also my memories of things we had done - our marriage and so on - writing the kind of letter you might write somebody, telling her about her friends, what they were up to, what was going on. It felt natural. I knew it was poems, and I tried to make them as good poems as I could. I wasn't writing just for my sake, you know, I was writing for poetry's sake too, so that I wrote them over and over again. I revised them endlessly, and I knew that I wanted to make them good poems - why not? I mean I always wanted to make good poems and I knew that I had to do it to occupy myself in order, as it were, to forget the misery, I had to write about the misery, and it worked. I also knew that if it worked... if it were... if they were good poems, they would help other people, but I cannot say that I did it for altruistic reasons... I was aware that altruism was a by-product of my necessity, and I knew it partly because Jane and I had used poems when somebody died. There's a magnificent 17th century poem called The Exequy that I would read aloud to Jane whenever someone dear to us died... a beautiful poem written by the poet Henry King when his wife died actually.  And there were wonderful poems by Thomas Hardy written after the death of his first wife. His marriage and Emma's marriage were not like our marriage, but they were beautiful poems of lamentation - a sort of too late lamentation on his part - but also many poets.  There's an English poet, Douglas Dunn, wrote some excellent poems when his wife died, and there's an American poet named Jack Gilbert... but there are many poets, poems, over the centuries... poems of elegy, and they were often... when there were wives that died, that I happened to read to her when we were both well and happy. But we felt what you had there... what can... what can grief... what can assuage grief? People will tell you all sorts of things...she's in a better place or you know, whatever, it's better her suffering is over. None of that helps in any way. What helps is a hug and a tear - a kind of companionship in grief - a sense of co-feeling and that is what we had from the poems, and that is what some other people have had from Without, as well. I get many letters from people who have lost a spouse, lost a child, lost a parent, who have found Without helpful to them, sad but helpful because you're sad together, with someone... with someone else.  And this is something that I guess I've always known that poetry did, but I never know it... knew it so intimately and poignantly as when I lost my wife.

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: Without, Weeds and Peonies, Seattle, Gus, The Exequy, Thomas Hardy, Maggie Fisher, Jane Kenyon, Thomas Hardy, Henry King, Emma Hardy, Douglas Dunn, Jack Gilbert

Duration: 5 minutes, 44 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008