Learn From a Poet Who Spent His Life Stopping Time
A prolific author, Donald Hall, wrote about life and loss with exquisite care.
Posted Aug 05, 2018
Today I will share an interview I did some time ago with a writer who died recently. In the book Writing in Flow, I scattered my subjects' comments about their creative process under different headings, whereas here you will read a full transcript of responses to my flow-related queries.
Donald Hall, a former U.S. Poet Laureate, was the author of over 50 books, including children's literature, biography, memoir, essays, and 22 volumes of poetry. Much of his work took his rural New England location as an inspiration. He died recently at age 89. Much of his work has a melancholy air, a sense of pre-grieving the inevitable losses we all encounter in our lives.
Hall's second, and much younger, wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, died of cancer in 1995 when she was only 47. He then wrote a poignant book of poems called Without. My husband bought a copy. I saw it on his night stand, but avoided it because I knew that reading these poems would stir up my own deep fears. I did finally dip into it, and as expected, the poems were profoundly moving.
Hall's most recent work is a prose memoir called Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety. I knew such a book by such a superb writer would bring up for me all sorts of painful feelings about dying and loss. One paragraph called "Depravity" speaks of one of Hall's most awful memories, when, trying to bypass his three-year-old son to get back to his desk, he yelled to the little fellow that he was a bad boy. Those human errors we make, the ones we can never undo and never forget, leave a special kind of pain. Hall is a master of unsentimentally describing those, and I recommend this poignant memoir without reservation.
My correspondence with Donald Hall took place when he was 67. I sent him a batch of questions and he responded in writing. My first question was always about whether the author had experienced what I was describing as flow. Hall began his response by disputing my central metaphor.
I don't like the metaphor of "flow" for "the activity" that is "self-rewarding and in which time feels altered." "Flow" sounds too passive, the force is in the stream, or in gravity.
But I know a good bit about absorbing activity. Look at a book called Life Work (1993), in which I talk about work most of the time, and use the word "absorbedness," taking it from a conversation I had with an Indian in Bombay.
I do have moments of passive receptivity in which I don't know anything about the passage of time, but they are fairly rare. When I was younger, I received drafts of poems from the mothership, often a little group of them in one period of inspiration, hours or days or weeks, and then needed to work on the poems daily for a couple of years to get them right.
It is the daily work that I want to talk about. I enter the page in front of me. Time stops. I am utterly absorbed in the task, in the language, in the attempt to make an art—by metaphor, by cadence, by precision of language--everything I have learned in fifty-five years of trying to write poems.
It is also true, but less so, when I write essays or headnotes for an anthology or children's books. The common denominator is the immersion in the struggle with language.
But it is a struggle. It is not a flowing. It is incredibly concentrated mind work.
It is also like a place, a country I live in or a house that I enter.
FLOW AS A COMFORT
Since Jane's death, I suppose it has been the only place in which I have been comfortable. For eleven months I have written about no other subject, and it is the only thing I look forward to—the hour or two in the morning, or three, when I can work on poems out of her death, and also a prose narrative that I am writing about her illness and death. It is typical that the prose is less absorbing—because there is less to attend to, less to take care of...but also it is not so far along. I am working on the fourth version of the prose. Some of the poems are up to more than a hundred drafts.
I work every day of my life. I suppose that is about 355 days a year. Maybe a little more. I suppose that this has been true since about 1972, and that it was true from 1949 to 1963. I went through a bad patch there. There were two years when I could not work on poems, when I was about 35. Then there were years of depression and drinking when I wrote only at intervals or only when I felt like it. Now I feel like it every morning at about six a.m..
So, more to the questions: I have the experience every day of losing track of time, though I do not want to be represented as having agreed that it is "flow."
My pre-writing rituals are waking up, reading the paper, drinking coffee, and having breakfast.
I become absorbed the moment I look at the first manuscript, typed up from its revision the day before.
I look forward eagerly when I go to bed at night to waking up in the morning and getting back to the desk.
THE FLOW OF REVISION
Sometimes when I am looking at a manuscript for the fiftieth day in a row, say, I become very excited when I see a way to make a good change, when I notice that I need another image or movement there and have a notion of what it might be—it is no greater absorption but it is a greater excitement. A feeling of elation, perhaps mania. In writing prose, sometimes I can scratch away on dutiful filling out of the narrative for a while and then feel suddenly that I am hot—this is the closest thing to "flow"—and then write with greater speed and greater excitement for a while. Usually, these passages—passages written under this condition—need more cutting (mania?) but less rewriting for color. (Much of my prose is gray and gradually acquires color during revision.)
The audience is always implicit. I write for the possible other. When I revise (which is every day) I need to think of what can possibly get through to another human being and what cannot possibly get through. I need to think of another human being when I remove repetition. I don't want to be boring—and the concept of being boring involves a potential reader. Everything does.
I write longhand. I dictate the results and get something back that looks typed and neat, and then I mess it up. I dictate the changes, et cetera. Day after day.
I don't have writing blocks. Sometimes I need to get up at four o'clock in order to take a seven o'clock airplane and thus I do not sit at the desk at six a.m. I usually scribble a bit in the airport or on the airplane. I hate a day without work.
(c) 1996, 2018 by Susan K. Perry