When poet Donald Hall, who died Saturday at age 89, was on Terry Gross’s Fresh Air radio show in 2012, he said that he wouldn’t complain about being old, then proceeded to do just that. He had just published a piece in The New Yorker, in which he related how a security guard at the National Gallery had treated Hall, then 83, like a child; the guard had leaned over the older man, who was in a wheelchair, and asked, “How was din-din?”
In 2000, my younger son attended a summer camp an hour from Hall’s house in New Hampshire. I visited the camp on parents’ day and wondered if I should look in on Hall, who had been my English teacher at the University of Michigan 30 years prior. I hadn’t seen him since college. Maybe he lived in the woods. Maybe he sat on his front porch and aimed a shotgun at trespassers.
Hall’s house was about 50 feet from the New Hampshire state highway and across from a summer camp (not my son’s camp). Hall could hear “Reveille” every morning in the summer. He was glad to see me and said right away, “I’m rich.” He said he had made most of his money on a college writing textbook and his award-winning children’s book, Ox-Cart Man. He asked how I was making out.
“I’m doing OK,” I said. I was in my family’s real estate business in Cleveland, fairly removed from the literary world of The New Yorker. Hall had always encouraged me, and many other students. Back in 1973, when I graduated college, Hall had discouraged me from returning to Cleveland. “Why do that—to sell insurance?” I disregarded his advice. I went home and “sold insurance” for decades, and wrote some essays on the side.
Hall took me to an upscale restaurant near his farm. “I’m a landlord, but I play in a band, too,” I said, to impress him. In other words, I was still in the arts. In 1968, at Michigan, Hall had looked like the prototypical businessman in his suit and tie. He went hippie about a year later. In New Hampshire, he now wore a tie-dyed shirt. Now I was wearing the polo shirt.
Hall quit his tenured position in Ann Arbor in 1975 to move to his late grandfather’s farm near Wilmot, New Hampshire, to try to make a living as a freelance writer. At our dinner, Hall told me that he had once traveled to the Amazon on a private jet with a former Michigan student. “He became a movie producer,” he said. “His family was in the grocery business in Detroit until I warped his mind.” Hall warped a lot of minds. He ran a poetry series at the Undergraduate Library, where some of the visiting poets included Allen Ginsberg, Ted Berrigan, Robert Bly, Anne Waldman, and Galway Kinnell. Hall’s taste in poetry was eclectic. He liked Gary Snyder and Ginsberg’s “first thought, best thought” spontaneous poetry, but Hall himself sometimes did 30 revisions to his own poems, he said. Whenever Ginsberg visited Ann Arbor, he stayed at Hall’s house on South University Avenue.
Donald Hall was a poet—poet laureate emeritus of the United States—writer, and freelancer. He was especially proud of the “freelance” part. He didn’t do insurance (like poet Wallace Stevens), but Hall did do business in the Lit game.