Donald Hall, a prolific, award-winning poet and man of letters widely admired for his sharp humour and painful candor about nature, mortality, baseball and the distant past, has died at age 89.
Hall’s daughter, Philippa Smith, confirmed Sunday that her father died Saturday at his home in Wilmot, New Hampshire, after being in hospice care for some time.
“He’s really quite amazingly versatile,” said Hall’s long-time friend Mike Pride, the editor emeritus of the Concord Monitor newspaper and a retired administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes. He said Hall would occasionally speak to reporters at the Monitor about the importance of words.
Hall was the nation’s 2006-2007 poet laureate.
Starting in the 1950s, Hall published more than 50 books, from poetry and drama to biography and memoirs, and edited a pair of influential anthologies. He was an avid baseball fan who wrote odes to his beloved Boston Red Sox, completed a book on pitcher Dock Ellis and contributed to Sports Illustrated. He wrote a prize-winning children’s book, “Ox-Cart Man,” and even attempted a biography of Charles Laughton, only to have his actor’s widow, Elsa Lancaster, kill the project.
But the greatest acclaim came for his poetry, for which his honors included a National Book Critics Circle prize, membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a National Medal of Arts. Although his style varied from haikus to blank verse, he returned repeatedly to a handful of themes: his childhood, the death of his parents and grandparents and the loss of his second wife and fellow poet, Jane Kenyon.
“Much of my poetry has been elegiac, even morbid, beginning with laments over New Hampshire farms and extending to the death of my wife,” he wrote in the memoir “Packing the Boxes,” published in 2008.
In person, he at times resembled a 19th century rustic with his untrimmed beard and ragged hair. And his work reached back to timeless images of his beloved, ancestral New Hampshire home, Eagle Pond Farm, built in 1803 and belonging to his family since the 1860s. He kept country hours for much of his working life, rising at 6 and writing for two hours.
For Hall, the industrialized, commercialized world often seemed an intrusion, like a neon sign along a dirt road. In the tradition of T.S. Eliot and other modernists, he juxtaposed classical and historical references with contemporary slang and brand names. In “Building a House,” he begins with the drafters of the U.S. Constitution leaving Philadelphia, then shifts the setting to the 20th century.