DONALD HALL AND U
I was in the grocery store parking lot, listening to Terry Gross interview poet Donald Hall on the radio.
Gross asked Hall how he liked being old. Hall couldn’t complain, he said, but then he did for several minutes. He talked about how he had recently published a story in the New Yorker in which a security guard at the National Gallery had treated 83-year-old Hall like a child; the guard had leaned over to Hall, who was in a wheelchair, and asked, “How was din-din?” (Hall is poet laureate emeritus of the United States and a recipient of the 2010 National Medal of Arts.)
I could listen to Hall talk about aging all day. I didn’t really want to get out of my car and shop for prunes, yogurt and salmon.
I used to be younger. Take 50. In 2000 my then-teenage son attended a New Hampshire summer camp an hour from Hall’s house. I visited the camp on parents’ day. Should I look up Hall, my old English professor? I had studied with Hall 30 years earlier.
Maybe Hall lived way back in the woods. Maybe he sat on his front porch with a shotgun. I didn’t know.
Hall’s house was not deep in the woods. It was about 50 feet from a federal highway and across from a summer camp. (There are a lot of camps in New Hampshire.) He could sometimes hear “Reveille.”
Hall was happy to see me, and said quickly, “I’m rich.” He had made his money mainly from royalties, from a how-to-write college textbook and his award-winning children’s book Ox-Cart Man. Only a poet would ask, “Are you rich?” He added, “How about you?”
“I’m doing OK,” I said. Look, I had a kid at a New Hampshire summer camp. Enough said.
When I had graduated Ann Arbor in 1973, Hall had discouraged me from returning to Cleveland. He had said, “Why do that — to sell insurance?”
Nevertheless, I returned home and “sold insurance.” I entered my family’s real estate biz.
In New Hampshire, Hall took me to a fancy restaurant near his farm. I said, “I own and manage apartment buildings. I’m a landlord. And I play clarinet.” Meaning I can improvise. I’m still in the arts!
My first year at Michigan, Hall had looked like a stock broker. He went hippie about a year later, I think. In New Hampshire he wore a dye-tied shirt, and I was the guy in the polo shirt.
Hall quit his tenured job at Michigan in 1975 and moved to his grandfather’s farm near Wilmot, New Hampshire. Hall did freelance writing.
At the New Hampshire restaurant, Hall said he had traveled to the Amazon River on a private jet with a Michigan grad who had made it big in the movie business. The student owned a movie company. Hall said, “His family was in the grocery business in Detroit, until I warped his mind.”
Hall warped many minds. He told me to guard against bitterness. His late wife, poet Jane Kenyon, had died five years earlier at 47. I had known her from English classes.
Hall had endured colon cancer, which was supposed to have killed him, but didn’t. Instead, his wife died from leukemia. He said, “Every generation thinks they know more than the next generation. Schopenhauer was writing about this in the 1700s. You don’t know more than the next generation.” Hall wouldn’t even let me pay the tip.
The next day I drove to Manchester, New Hampshire, and flew back to Cleveland to evict people, fix leaky faucets and collect late rents. It was not poetic.
Eleven years later (2011), I mailed several of my published articles to “Donald Hall, Eagle Pond Farm, New Hampshire.” (He didn’t use email.) I wrote: “From your student — your 61-year-old student.” I dated the cover letter. Hall was always big on dates.
Don wrote back, “I know you know I know that you feel old and know you are not.”
I bought my prunes, salmon and yogurt at the grocery store, plus a couple beers. I want to make it to Hall’s age. On the radio he sounded spry and happy.
Attention, Michigan residents. Please come to the Klezmer Guy show at The Ark, Ann Arbor, Feb. 15. 8 p.m. $20. Features Bert Stratton on clarinet and prose, Gerald Ross on ukulele and Hawaiian lap steel guitar, and Alan Douglass on piano, sunglasses and vocals.
Attention, Clevelanders. Attend Purim at Park Synagogue, Cleveland Heights, Feb. 23. Yiddishe Cup becomes Sly and the Family Stein on Purim. We’re going to play Jewish music and soul music. Free. Open to the public. 7:30 p.m.