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Unpacking the Boxes: A Memoir of a Life in Poetry

por Donald Hall

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15612134,308 (3.68)5
Donald Hall's remarkable life in poetry -- a career capped by his appointment as U.S. poet laureate in 2006 -- comes alive in this richly detailed, self-revealing memoir.
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This is an older nonfiction book by Donald Hall, about moving to the Eagle Pond farm (his family’s old homestead) in New Hampshire with Jane Kenyon, his wife, and also tells of his youth and how he became the fine man and poet he was. I read the book from the only standpoint I have, that of being a huge fan of his, and I found it all very interesting.

His desire to be a poet started in Connecticut during the Depression. It was then that he realized that poetry could be many things, including, “secret, dangerous, wicked, and delicious,” no wonder he was drawn to it. He described his adolescent poetry as being more hormonal than artistic, which makes me think of many young people in rock bands. His educational track took him through a tough time trying to find himself at Exeter, and then feeling much freer to be himself at Harvard and later at Oxford.

Later, after his first marriage ended, he met Jane Kenyon, a fine poet in her own right. They married and moved to Eagle Pond, a very familiar location to the readers of many of Hall’s books. Before Jane died of cancer, the old house allowed them each a separate office to retire to every day to write their poetry, but within shouting distance. For years, their daily schedule was a curious mix of poetry, correspondence, dog walking, meals, mid-day sex, traveling for professional engagements, as well as entertaining. It was a fine old house filled with books, love, and two great writing minds.

A house stuffed with books with a married couple reading, writing, having sex, and laughing was my primary fantasy for my final years with my late wife, Vicky. But, like Jane Kenyon, my Vicky died of cancer. The difference is that I only write my reviews, and in my journals, while Donald Hall wrote a searing collection of poetry (Without) and a nonfiction work (The Best Day the Worst Day) about losing his spouse.

This book was a nice change of pace from his essay collections written during his final years; Essays After Eighty (2014) and A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety, which was published posthumously in 2018. The cover of Unpacking the Boxes had a blurb that spoke to how finally in his eighties, he finally got to where he learned “to live in the moment—as you have been told to do all your life.”

I started reading Hall’s books because of our shared New England history (him in New Hampshire and me in Vermont), but I continued reading him because of the quality of his prose and poetry. The literary world dims whenever a favorite writer passes, but their fine books live on, waiting for a familiar set of eyes to reread, and a new person to discover them. I so miss having our bookstore and bringing great books to people. It was always so much more than a simple retail enterprise; it was more about enriching minds and creating a community. As I constantly told our customers—Read On. ( )
  jphamilton | Mar 18, 2021 |
Rambling and with odd repetitions and lacunae, this book encapsulates the image of a white male poet of a certain era until the very end, when it becomes a vivid and slightly unhinged image of first, a man grieving horribly for his beloved wife and second, the indignities of becoming an old man. The last chapter, "The Planet of Antiquity," is worth the whole book, especially his account of being pulled over and arrested (and handcuffed) for, basically, driving while old. ( )
  dmturner | Jun 29, 2020 |
A well written, thoroughly incomplete memoir of Jane Kenyon's husband (he's pretty good, she's great). The remebered moments from childhood read well, but do not quite make up for decades worth of gaps, including fully 2 marriages. The grief passages are uncomfortably frank without any real revelations. The book may be best understood as what might happen if you go to Harvard and write poems every day. ( )
  Eoin | Jun 3, 2019 |
A writer on writing and poetry. I'm better acquainted with his prose, and this is first rate. ( )
  unclebob53703 | Feb 19, 2016 |
Of course this book is well written, i.e. nice words and sentences and paragraphs. It is a pleasure to read.

Truth is, I am not a big poetry reader and don't know much about Donald Hall. So certainly I learned a lot about his life in this short book, and even a little about his poetry.

From the pen of a lesser author, this book would reek of name dropping. But Hall doesn't need to drop names. This is just the world in which he moved. Actually I found, in that long list of names, a kind of humility. To what extent are our accomplishments our own product, and to what extent are they a product of our mentors, our friends, our colleagues, etc. Hall lets us see that splendid circle in which he moved. Maybe all those pen pals deserve to share some of the credit. Actually he moves toward a kind of brutal honesty when he confesses how he put together a late book of poetry using a process of extensive reviews by colleagues.

There was one nice paragraph where Hall talked about poetry readings or performance poetry. Slammers are less poets than stand-up comedians. Certainly I am in no position to judge!

What is poetry, anyway, or what should it be, what can it be, what will it be? Just as the author moves in his or her circle, so poetry lives in its world, in its time. And times do differ one from another, times change. Nowadays, apart from rappers and Guggenheim fellows, the soles of the feet and the top of the brow, where is, ah, not just the heart of poetry, but, perhaps, the stomach or the liver. The guts?

Here is a curious vision of the coming world and the place of poetry in it: http://galabes.blogspot.com/2014/08/the-course-nations-run.html - "Abstract rational theories about how the world works don’t matter; what matter are clear, lively, memorable narratives in which colorful figures act out the things that people need to know—and since it’s much easier to memorize speech if it’s full of rhythms and repeated sounds, the myths and legends that emerge from this process are always transmitted in the form of poetry."

Hall shows us some scenes from his world of poetry, without significant reflection or analysis. Which leaves a lot of blank space for the reader to fill in! ( )
  kukulaj | Aug 22, 2014 |
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Donald Hall's remarkable life in poetry -- a career capped by his appointment as U.S. poet laureate in 2006 -- comes alive in this richly detailed, self-revealing memoir.

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