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“Former U.S. poet laureate Hall . . . applies his magical way with language to a history of self . . . From his life and the tragedy of [Jane Kenyon’s] loss, Hall has produced a waterfall of poems in works such as The Happy Man and Without; this touching memoir will make you want to read them all. Splendid, poignant prose.” — Kirkus Reviews
“Brisk and likable . . . The memoir’s last segment is by far its most affecting: the afflictions of grief and old age . . . join up with the pleasure and ironies of late-life fame.” — Publishers Weekly
“Lovely, candid, quite poignant.” — Booklist
UNPACKING THE BOXES
A Memoir of a Life in Poetry
UNPACKING THE BOXES (Houghton Mifflin; September 20, 2008) is Donald Hall’s first book since being named poet laureate of the United States in 2006. The boxes of the title are those he went through after his mother’s death in 1994, recovering many objects of his youth. He recalls growing up in suburban Hamden, Connecticut, near New Haven, during the Depression, a time when the family’s Brock-Hall Dairy thrived. Hall’s father worked his whole life in the dairy business, and he hated it. “From an early age,” Hall says about his father, “I was told that he shook his fist over my cradle, saying, ‘He’s going to do what he wants to do.’” This ambition leads his parents to send Hall off to Exeter, “the dysphoric hell that provided access to heaven.” Heaven is Harvard, where the bookish misfit arrives as if returning home. Suddenly, being a poet is not something that separates him from his peers.
At Harvard, Hall meets lifelong friends Robert Bly and Adrienne Rich. In an English class he meets roommates Edward Gorey and Frank O’Hara. He joins the editorial board of the Harvard Advocate, working alongside John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch, among others. Hall calls these “the first years of my best life,” and Harvard “a paradise of poets and theater.” After four years he is off to Oxford, where the high spirits and rampant poetry careerism of the postwar university scene are brilliantly captured. “In my two years [at Oxford],” Hall says, “I did not attend a lecture. Oxford was a place where I wrote poems, went to parties, and carried on about poetry.” Although Hall speaks a lot about memories, places, and social relationships, poetry is always at the center of his book—writing poetry, thinking about poetry, talking about poetry.
In addition to suburban Hamden, the other place of Hall’s youth is his grandparents’ farm in New Hampshire, at Eagle Pond. Following his years at Harvard and Oxford, and after navigating new fatherhood, teaching at Michigan, and divorcing, Hall meets and marries Jane Kenyon, and the two poets return to Eagle Pond. Hall writes movingly about their life together, and about Jane’s illness and death (much of this story is detailed in a companion memoir, The Best Day the Worst Day, published by Houghton Mifflin in 2005).
Some of the liveliest prose in the book comes with Hall’s discussion of his old age, what he calls living on “the planet of antiquity.” At eighty, he has learned “to live in the moment—as you have been told to do all your life.” Hall is as painstakingly honest about his failures and low points as a poet, writer, lover, and father as he is about his successes, making UNPACKING THE BOXES both revelatory and tremendously poignant.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Donald Hall, poet laureate of the United States from 2006 to 2007, has received the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in poetry, the Lenore Marshall Award, the 1990 Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America, and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He lives on the family farm in New Hampshire.
Title: UNPACKING THE BOXES: A Memoir of a Life in Poetry
Author: Donald Hall
Publication date: September 20, 2008
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
208 pages, 5½ x 8¼
Publicity contact: Michael Webb, email@example.com