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The Poets – Donald Hall

Donald Hall
Donald Hall

WHEN DONALD HALL MET WESLEY McNAIR, he was forty-seven and newly married to his second wife, the poet Jane Kenyon. The year before, he had left a tenured position at the University of Michigan to live in his ancestral farmhouse in Wilmot, New Hampshire. The move marked a turning point in Hall’s career. While at Michigan, he had become an established poet praised for his technical skill, but he had yet to achieve the full depth and variety of his creative work. This was about to change. As McNair wrote in his prose book Mapping the Heart, “Soon he would publish Kicking the Leaves, laying claim to his New Hampshire property through new poems about family and the past that grounded him at last as a poet and made his later and best work possible. These were the poems he was working on as we exchanged our [first] letters.”

Donald Hall & Jane Kenyon

The older poet’s relationship with McNair in this correspondence had a benefit for the mentor as well as for the student. As Hall encouraged McNair, he renewed his belief in his own development, making his way toward the deeper, more mature poetry of later collections which included not only Kicking the Leaves (1978), but The Happy Man (1986) and The One Day (1988) — poems from which he was also writing during the eight years of the correspondence. Moreover, Hall discovered in McNair an insightful critic for his poetry in progress.

Working as a freelance writer in this period, Hall expanded his repertoire as a writer and his reputation grew, with requests to read his poetry from colleges around the country. He published a new version of his earlier textbook Writing Well, teaching a course at Colby-Sawyer to complete it. He wrote a textbook for introductory literature classes and a volume of literary anecdotes. He wrote about sports and completed a children’s book, The Ox-Cart Man, which won the Caldecott Medal. He also received the Sarah Josepha Hale Medal for distinction in literature, and in 1984 became the poet laureate of New Hampshire.

There were sorrows for Hall as well as triumphs, including the death of Jane Kenyon’s father, Jane’s bouts of depression, the illness of his mother, and a car accident suffered by his son. Yet the sorrows were counterbalanced by his ongoing dedication as a writer, and in some part by his relationship with McNair, which by the end of this correspondence had grown beyond mentorship to a friendship of peers.