This classic program profiled Donald Hall and his wife, Jane Kenyon, two celebrated American literary figures. Kenyon, who died in 1995, was an award-winning poet and translator; Hall is the author of more than a dozen books of poetry and was named U.S. Poet Laureate in 2006.
DONALD HALL, Poet: [reading] Great blue mountain! Ghost. I look at you from the porch of the farmhouse where I watched you all summer as a boy. Steep sides, narrow flat patch on top - you are clear to me like the memory of one day. Blue! Blue! The top of the mountain floats in haze. I will not rock on this porch when I am old. I turn my back on you, Kearsarge, I close my eyes, and you rise inside me, blue ghost.
BILL MOYERS, Host: [voice-over] Beneath the looming, New Hampshire mountain called Kearsarge, the poets Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon make their home. Rare it is that two poets marry and make a life together. Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon are an exception. Hall's career stretches back 40 years. He is the honored author of more than 20 books of poetry, as well as volumes of plays, essays, short stories, and children's books. Kenyon is an award winning poet and translator. They met in Michigan, but have come to live in New Hampshire in Hall's ancestral farmhouse at Eagle Pond. Hall and Kenyon are deeply connected to community life. Hall is a deacon in the local church, where his grandparents and great grandparents also worshipped.
DONALD HALL: [reading] And old shadows stand among dowels and raisins.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] And both he and Kenyon often read their poems in the local town hall, and in cities and towns all over America. But most often, you can find them in their New Hampshire farmhouse at the foot of Mount Kearsarge.
[interviewing] Your poems are marked, someone has said, by either the pleasure of sound or the spirit of place and, sometimes, by both. And this one to me is the one that combines both the pleasure of sound and- and the spirit of place- "Mount Kearsarge." Now, talk to me about the sound in that poem.
DONALD HALL: Place and sound, yes. The sound of it is something- I remember very well working on it, improvising. Not knowing what I was looking for and then finally getting it so, I said, yes, that's it. Later I looked back and tried to find what it is, you know. I remember toward the end, working on where the lines broke. I had Kearsarge. “I closed my eyes.” I had an “it” ending one line. And then I changed it so "I close" is the end of one line and "My eyes" begins another line. Now that means you hold onto O's. With the long O and the Z sound, you can hold onto it. Instead of saying "I close my eyes," you say "I close" - "my eyes." That's what I'd expect with the line; that people will hold onto that. So the way I end the poem is Oh, I, I, I. Ooh, Oh. I say you read poetry with your mouth, not with your ear, and that they taste good. Mind you, when I read a book silently sitting in my chair, my throat gets tired. I mean, my mouth is really working - listening, hearing, chewing on these sounds.
BILL MOYERS: And now with that explanation, read it again.
DONALD HALL: OK, sure.
Great blue mountain! Ghost. I look at you from the porch of the farmhouse where I watched you all summer as a boy. Steep sides, narrow flat patch on top - you are clear to me like the memory of one day. Blue! Blue! The top of the mountain floats in haze. I will not rock on this porch when I am old. I turn my back on you, Kearsarge, I close my eyes, and you rise inside me, blue ghost.
I have to conduct myself with my hand, you notice? This is a poem written about where I live now, but it was written when I didn't live here and when I thought I couldn't live here. So it's a poem saying I can never live there, damn it, you know? And reading it now, I realize I was wrong and how wonderful to have been wrong about that.
BILL MOYERS: This is your ancestral home.
DONALD HALL: That's right. I had a great grandfather, who's up on the wall there with the white beard. In 1865 he bought this valley farm. And that's where my grandmother was born and then her daughter, my mother Lucy, [was] born in 1903.
BILL MOYERS: Your mother was born here and your grandmother was born here?
DONALD HALL: And I came here all my summers when I was a kid.
BILL MOYERS: As a boy.
DONALD HALL: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: But then you said I will not rock on the porch when I'm old.
DONALD HALL: Well, I thought-
BILL MOYERS: Maybe I won't come back there. DONALD HALL: I wanted to write poems, rather than having an apple orchard or a strawberry farm, and I pretty much gave up the notion of coming here. And then, amazingly, I was able to do it.
BILL MOYERS: What do your neighbors think of having a poet around?
DONALD HALL: You know; it's marvelous compared to the colleges, the universities. You go around the university and somebody will have a couple of martinis and say, "And how is our great poet today?" You know. Crazy, drives you nuts. Around here, I meet somebody and he says, "Nice piece about you in the paper," and that's the end of it.
BILL MOYERS: Do they ever get the idea that you might be hovering, listening for something -looking for material?
DONALD HALL: Sure, and I get teased about it. I get teased about a lot of things. Teasing is a big thing in the country here. I wrote a prose book in which I invented an abandoned railroad on Ragged Mountain up here, and I get teased about that every day still. I mean, I wrote that 30 years ago and I still get teased about it. And I remember talking to Gifford Wiggin - I put this in a poem - but Gifford Wiggin was the man's real name who reminisced a lot for me. And then as I was leaving said, ''You going to put this in a book?" And I said, "Well, maybe, Gifford." And he said, "Told you a lot of lies." This is a poem out of how we talk in New Hampshire. And I kept taking notes on things that people had actually said, and finally assembled them into a poem written in short lines so that I could note where the pauses came and everything, just to try to imitate our speech. And in it at one point I say, "Wes said something," and I'm lying a little bit, it was Les. Les Ford said it. So I just arbitrarily changed it into Wes. Then there is reference to a restaurant called Blackwater Bill's, now called M&R's, but you can understand why we still call it Blackwater Bill's. I mean, who wants to call it M&R's when you can call it Blackwater Bill's? So this is "Speeches." It's in a bunch of parts, but I'll just pause a little bit from speech to speech.
[reading]  Two old men meet at the lunch counter
of Blackwater Bill's after the first hard
frost: "And how did your garden fare?"
 "Sherm never was afraid of work."
 Chester Ludlow told me stories about my
two great-grandfathers Chester remembered,
about frogging one hundred bullfrogs,
about his old steam-tractor Greta
that blew up on the Fourth of July
and when I stood to go, Chester asked, ''You
going to write this down in a book?"
"May be." "Told you a lot of lies."
DONALD HALL: All of you who've driven on Route 91 know where I got the name Chester Ludlow. That's an exit, you know. I love the name. I think I've used it before somewhere. But it's really Gifford Wiggin from Danbury, who was the subject there. I like to lie. "Told you a lot of lies," right. Then a little exercise in prepositions.
"It's down to the store up by Wilmot way." DONALD HALL: Then my grandmother's characteristic decisiveness. [reading]
If you asked, "Does it look like rain?"
during the year's worst downpour, Kate said,
"Maybe, I guess, perhaps, I suppose so ... "
Wes said, "Saw a piece about you in the paper."
I told him, "Oh, I turn up everyplace."
"Yup," said Wes. "Just like horseshit."
DONALD HALL: See, that's why I changed Les to Wes, it was Les Ford.
Lila dialed Bertha to tell her go
look out her parlor window east:
"It's as pretty as a picture postcard."
"Fellow lost his bobhouse, works
down to Henry's, 's he the Budd boy's wife
ran off with the bread driver hates beaver?"
"Blows up dams with TNT? No, that's not him."
At Blackwater Bill's, Jenny yells to Claude
in the kitchen, "Hey, Froggie, nuke us some beans."
DONALD HALL: Each of us is going to read one poem by the other. So I'm going to read one poem by Jane. It's a poem I particularly love to read. It's called "Twilight: After Haying." [reading]
Yes, long shadows go out from the bales; and yes, the soul must part from the body: what else could it do?
The men sprawl near the baler, reluctant to leave the field. They talk and smoke, and the tips of their cigarettes blaze like small roses in the night air. (It arrived and settled among them before they were aware.)
The moon comes to count the bales, and the dispossessed - Whip-poor-will, Whip-poor-will - sings from the dusty stubble.
These things happen ... the soul's bliss and suffering are bound together like the grasses ..
The last, sweet exhalations of timothy and vetch go out with the song of the bird; the ravaged field grows wet with dew.
JANE KENYON, Poet: I want to read Don's poem called "The Long River." It's a poem I've loved for many years.
The musk ox smells in his long head my boat coming. When I feel him there, intent, heavy,
the oars make wings in the white night, and deep woods are close on either side where trees darken.
I rowed past towns in their black sleep to come here. I passed the northern grass and cold mountains.
The musk ox moves when the boat stops, in hard thickets. Now the wood is dark with old pleasures.
BILL MOYERS: It was you who persuaded Don to come back here. It was you who imagined a future here.
JANE KENYON: Well, I did, strange to say. I guess I didn't know what I was saying when I said it.
BILL MOYERS: Did writing poetry help you to settle in?
JANE KENYON: I'm sure it did. And it was natural for me to write about these things that were going on in my own soul.
BILL MOYERS: What was going on?
JANE KENYON: Well I felt quite disembodied for a while. Someone said that when you move it takes your soul a few weeks to catch up with you. And when we came here, of course, this house is so thoroughly full of Don's family, his ancestors, their belongings, their reverberations, that I - at times I felt almost annihilated by the otherness of it. [reading]
"From Room to Room." Here in this house, among photographs of your ancestors, their hymn books and old shoes ...
I move from room to room, a little dazed, like the fly. I watch it bump against each window.
I am clumsy here, thrusting slabs of maple into the stove. Out of my body for a while, weightless in space ...
Sometimes, the wind against the clapboard sounds like a car driving up to the house.
My people are not here, my mother and father, my brother. I talk to the cats about weather.
"Blessed be the tie that binds ... " we sing in the church down the road. And how does it go from there? The tie ...
the tether, the hose carrying oxygen to the astronaut, turning, turning outside the hatch, taking a look around. BILL MOYERS: How does the mind go from singing "The tie that binds" down the road of the church to the astronauts in the heavens?
JANE KENYON: Well it's really a visual image of the astronaut floating out with this umbilical cord from the mother ship. BILL MOYERS: Oh, yes. There's your metaphor. This is one of your short, but beautiful ones.
JANE KENYON: [reading] "Finding a Long Gray Hair."
I scrub the long floorboards in the kitchen, repeating the motions of other women who have lived in this house. And when I find a long gray hair floating in the pail, I feel my life added to theirs. BILL MOYERS: I really like that there's the connection between the generations, the transformation of tradition and making theirs your own.
JANE KENYON: Yes, dust to dust. And one called "The Suitor," about settling in, coming back to yourself again.
We lie back to back. Curtains lift and fall, like the chest of someone sleeping. Wind moves the leaves of the box elder; they show their light undersides, turning all at once like a school of fish. Suddenly I understand that I am happy. For months, this feeling has been coming closer, stopping for short visits, like a timid suitor.
BILL MOYERS: Why did you choose poetry as a way of life?
DONALD HALL: Oh, I loved it so much. There's no question. I think, you know, what other reason would you have for choosing poetry? I loved other people's poems I wanted to make something like what I loved. And this is how it started when I was a kid. I mean, I started writing when I was 12, but I really got serious when I was 14. That's when I decided I'd be a poet the rest of my life.
BILL MOYERS: At 14?
DONALD HALL: At 14. And I never changed my mind.
BILL MOYERS: Do you remember one of your early poems at 14? Do you have any of those?
DONALD HALL: I don't remember any of those. I remember one at 12. I remember the first one I wrote. This was when I was reading Poe, and it doesn't sound like Poe. It doesn't have the sound, but it has the morbidity.
Have you ever thought of the nearness of death to you? It reeks through the day. It shrieks through the night. It follows you through the city until it calls your name in monotones loud. Then, then, comes the end of all.
BILL MOYERS: From the mouth of a 12-year-old.
DONALD HALL: Or the end of Hall anyway. I don't know. Right, a 12-year-old. Right, a morbid 12-year-old.
BILL MOYERS: You weren't a morbid kid, though?
DONALD HALL: I think I was. I think I was. I don't know why. I mean, I have thoughts about why. I know that when I was nine years old, a bunch of the Connecticut great aunts and uncles died in a row. Within a year maybe three of them died; cancer. And I remember lying in bed when I was nine years old saying a sentence over and over again to myself. "And now death has become a reality." I was a rather literary nine-year-old, I suppose.
BILL MOYERS: Yes, you were.
DONALD HALL: And vain, sort of writing my own biography. For Hall, at the age of nine, death became a reality. But, the feelings were real, all the same.
BILL MOYERS: There are some other clues to why you became a poet, or at least, they seem to me, the sleuth, that they might be clues. This- The opening of “Conduct and Work” here.
DONALD HALL: "The Question." Canto one. These are little epigrams I wrote long ago.
Mirror, mirror on the wall, Who is Donald Andrew Hall?
DONALD HALL: I wrote that first when I was a freshman at college, and I went on and answered it. That was my mistake. You know, finally, by the time I'm in my 50s I know better. I know to leave it alone.
BILL MOYERS: Right.
DONALD HALL: Leave it at that. Here's another one. [reading]
I am no Faust: unsalaried my sin; It is from love I ask the devil in.
BILL MOYERS: All right, now, what do you think, looking back, you meant by that, "It was from love you asked the devil in?"
DONALD HALL: Well I'm partly making a joke and making a little couplet and finding pleasure in putting unsalaried into its metrical shape. I mean, don't ever discount that. I mean, there, just the wit of making a couplet, the pleasure of the wit in making a couplet. But, also, I'm at college. I mean, I think it goes way back then and I'm sowing my oats and, with my Puritan background, wondering about that a bit.
BILL MOYERS: What does that mean "unsalaried?"
DONALD HALL: The devil doesn't have to pay me a nickel. I'll go and do all the bad things I want, just because I love it. I love to do it. You don't have to pay me for it.
BILL MOYERS: Somewhere there's a passage where you write, [reading]
Bullied, found wanting, my father drove home from his work at the lumberyard weeping, and he shook his fist over my cradle: "He'll do what he wants to do."
BILL MOYERS: You quote your father. Did that really happen?
DONALD HALL: Yes, it did. He didn't work at a lumberyard. I mean, that's my fiction there, but it did. The family stories that you grow up with make you. They actually build you, they create you. And I remember being told about that from a very early age, indeed. But it was repeated endlessly, that he had come home when I was a baby in the crib and said, "He'll do what he wants to do." And the implied matter is he is not doing what he wants to do. My father had wanted to be a teacher, but he went to work for his father. His father, the tough, self-made man; for whom he could never do anything quite right, and he was miserable in his work. He was miserable in the business, and he died there.
BILL MOYERS: There's a haunting reference to your father in "White Apples."
DONALD HALL: I've written about him a great deal.
BILL MOYERS: "White Apples."
DONALD HALL: “White Apples." [reading]
when my father had been dead a week I woke with his voice in my ear I sat up in bed and held my breath and stared at the pale closed door white apples and the taste of stone if he called again I would put on my coat and galoshes
DONALD HALL: Let me tell you about this poem. I did, indeed, have the experience I write about; hearing him call me after he was dead and not getting out of bed to go see him. It was clear that he was calling by the front door, outside in the cold and it was snowing. And I was scared to go, and he didn't call again. So I wrote it down and I wrote it and I wrote it and I wrote it. And one day I was crossing the yard of the house where I lived in Ann Arbor and a line came into my head, "White apples and the taste of stone," and there was a little tag on that line that it belonged with this poem. And I ran up to the attic and the desk and reached into a drawer and pulled out this poem and wrote in "white apples and the taste of stone," which, syntactically, is disconnected -
BILL MOYERS: Yes.
DONALD HALL: -from the rest of the poem and spatially disconnected. It just stands there in the middle.
DONALD HALL: What is a "white apple?" It's perhaps an apple made of stone that you'd break your teeth on, maybe a snowball. It certainly is not nutrition. I mean, "white apple" is oxymoron, really. And it is frightening to me.
BILL MOYERS: Well, I thought of - I mean, I couldn't figure it out just reading it as a layman - "white apples and the taste of stone." And I thought of a cemetery and white apples that are sometimes on the frieze of some of the big mausoleum and the taste of stone. And I thought a little boy writing this poem-
DONALD HALL: Why not?
BILL MOYERS: -would be thinking about his father lying there.
DONALD HALL: This is just one of those things where you find out something more about a poem years after you've finished it. That house where I was living-
BILL MOYERS: Yeah.
DONALD HALL: -that was backed up to the cemetery. I could look - when that line came into my head, I could look and see monuments-
BILL MOYERS: Well, there you are.
DONALD HALL: -behind the stone. Thank you.
BILL MOYERS: What a poem is, even though it tries to capture what was, is a living phenomenon because of what it brings out of the reader. [crosstalk]
DONALD HALL: But that's where it came from, I'm sure. It's related.
BILL MOYERS: That's what I thought of. That one stumped me. I sat there thinking why'd anybody-
DONALD HALL: Sure, but you know, the things I said are true also. And it's not logical. It's not syntactical, it's not logical. It is like a piece of color in the painting that draws your eyes to it, and that makes everything else march in the painting. Poetry is playing with words. It's playing with the sounds of words. It is arranging them on the page, so that they might be read aloud the way you hear them. It's arranging the syntax and the punctuation, so that it will be read with the pacing and the rhythm that you want. It's all sorts of hard work with language on the page, and I find it wonderful fun. Over the many years I've written in many different styles, many different kinds of poems, and I'll begin with one I wrote when I was 25 called "My Son, My Executioner."
My son, my executioner, I take you in my arms, Quiet and small and just astir And whom my body warms.
Sweet death, small son, our instrument Of immortality, Your cries and hungers document Our bodily decay.
We twenty-five and twenty-two, Who seemed to live forever, Observe enduring life in you And start to die together.
DONALD HALL: This was a poem written when my first child was born, my son Andrew, some years ago now. I worried about what he, my son, would think of it when he grew up. And when he was about 14, he said to me, "You know, that wasn't really about you and me. That was about you and your father." And I think it was in some ways. That my father was still healthy. Well, he had not contracted his cancer, but he died just a year and a half later. And he was not a vigorous man. He was a man who shook a lot and trembled and was, in that way, an old 51 or 50, when, I guess he was 50 when my son was born. And I think, perhaps, I was worried about him and thinking about him and thinking about myself replacing him. A poem so often, obviously and correctly, pointing south and at the same time something under it is going north.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?
DONALD HALL: There is ambivalence coded into it. You are aware of one half of it and unaware of another half which contradicts the first half, and they're both true. They're both true. They're both there. In order to write it, you cannot be aware of the second part. You couldn't write it if you were. This has been true again and again for poems of mine. And then later I've discovered that I was not only saying north, I was saying south as well, not knowing it.
BILL MOYERS: When I read "February, Thinking of Flowers," I imagine you here in the midst of this gloomy winter which sits on us today, thinking of your garden. Would you read that one?
JANE KENYON: "February: Thinking of Flowers" [reading]
Now wind torments the field, turning the white surface back on itself, back and back on itself, like an animal licking a wound.
Nothing but white- the air, the light; Only one brown milkweed pod bobbing in the gully, smallest brown boat on the immense tide.
A single green sprouting thing would restore me ...
Then think of the tall delphinium, swaying, or the bee when it comes to the tongue of the burgundy lily. BILL MOYERS: Was that, or do you know, if that's a deliberate effort to break through the melancholy of winter to lift yourself out of the shroud?
JANE KENYON: Well, dreaming of gardens is something that always elevates my mood.
BILL MOYERS: You've written a lot about depression.
JANE KENYON: Yes, well, it's something I've suffered from all my life really. I'm manic depressive, actually, and it was not properly diagnosed until I was 38 years old.
BILL MOYERS: Depression is really the land of the living dead, isn't it?
JANE KENYON: It surely is.
BILL MOYERS: Is it hard to read poems about depression to people?
JANE KENYON: It can be.
BILL MOYERS: What's their response?
JANE KENYON: Usually people are moved by them, I find. And many people, even if they've never experienced such unhappiness themselves, know people who have. I read last week in Louisville, Kentucky. And as I was reading this poem, a man in the second row had been looking at me very intently. As the poem went on, and it talks about just unrelenting depression, he took his hand and put it over his heart and then he went - like this - and just looked in my face. And I knew that he also suffered. The following poems are from “Having it Out with Melancholy”.
"From The Nursery"
When I was born, you waited behind a pile of linen in the nursery, and when we were alone, you lay down on top of me, pressing the bile of desolation into every pore.
And from that day on everything under the sun and moon made me sad - even the yellow wooden beads that slid and spun along a spindle on my crib.
You taught me to exist without gratitude. You ruined my manners toward God: "We're here simply to wait for death; the pleasures of earth are overrated."
I only appeared to belong to my mother, to live among blocks and cotton undershirts with snaps; among red tin lunch boxes and report cards in ugly brown slipcases. I was already yours- the anti-urge, the mutilator of souls.
BILL MOYERS: When you say "I was already yours," you are talking about the depression?
JANE KENYON: Yes, there is a genetic component to this. My father had it and, I believe, his mother had it. And I really take after my father's people, and I'm sure that it came down his line.
Elavil, Ludiomil, Doxepin, Norpramin, Prozac, Lithium, Xanax, Wellbutrin, Parnate, Nardil, Zoloft. The coated ones smell sweet or have no smell; the powdery ones smell like the chemistry lab at school that made me hold my breath.
"Suggestion From A Friend" You wouldn't be so depressed if you really believed in God.
Often I go to bed as soon after dinner as seems adult (I mean I try to wait for dark) in order to push away from the massive pain in sleep's frail wicker coracle.
"Once There Was Light"
Once, in my early thirties, I saw that I was a speck of light in the great river of light that undulates through time.
I was floating with the whole human family. We were all colors- those who are living now, those who have died, those who are not yet born. For a few
moments I floated, completely calm, and I no longer hated having to exist.
Like a crow who smells hot blood you came flying to pull me out of the glowing stream. "I'll hold you up. I never let my dear ones drown!" After that, I wept for days.
JANE KENYON: I'm trying to explain to people who have never experienced this kind of desolation what it is; and I want to ease people's burdens.
BILL MOYERS: What about this poem which you call "Back." It's about drugs.
JANE KENYON: It's really about coming back from a depression and recovering your life, feeling finally, as if you're among the living.
We try a new drug, a new combination of drugs, and suddenly I fall into my life again
like a vole picked up by a storm then dropped three valleys and two mountains away from home.
I can find my way back. I know I will recognize the store where I used to buy milk and gas.
I remember the house and barn, the rake, the blue cups and plates, the Russian novels I loved so much,
and the black silk nightgown that he once thrust into the toe of my Christmas stocking. [Hymn, At Church]
There are things in this life that we must endure, which are really all but unendurable. And yet, I feel that there is a great goodness.
MINISTER: From Matthew, chapter 4, verses 12 through 23. [reading from Bible] And Jesus went about all Galilee teaching in their synagogues, and healing all manner of sickness and all manner of disease among the people.
JANE KENYON: [voice-over] Like John says, "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." There is something in me that will not be snuffed out, even by this awful disease.
[minister sings] BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] Joining other poets from around the country, Hall and Kenyon travel to Waterloo, New Jersey, where they shared their poetry with thousands of people at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival.
JANE KENYON: One year, I made a New Year's Resolution to stop writing poetry that had "I" in it. I began to feel that it was time to talk about something else. And the first poem of the New Year I wrote is this poem, in which every stanza begins with the word "I." So much for human resolution.
[reading] "Briefly It Enters, and Briefly Speaks"
I am the blossom pressed in a book, found again after two hundred years ....
I am the maker, the lover and the keeper ....
When the young girl who starves sits down to a table she will sit beside me ....
I am food on the prisoner's plate ....
I am water rushing to the well-head, filling the pitcher until it spills ....
I am the patient gardener of the dry and weedy garden ....
I am the stone step, the latch, and the working hinge ... .
I am the heart contracted by joy .. . the longest hair, white before the rest ....
I am there in the basket of fruit presented to the widow ....
I am the musk rose opening unattended, the fern on the boggy summit ....
I am the one whose love overcomes you, already with you when you think to call my name ....
DONALD HALL: I'm going to read "Praise For Death," and I just want to give one note on it to begin with. It's a very ironic title, as it's clear in the poem.
[reading] "Praise for Death"
Let us praise death that turns pink cheeks to ashes, that reduces father from son and daughter, that sets tears in the tall widow's eye. Let us praise death that gathers us loose-limbed and weeping by the grave's edge in the flat yard near the sea that continues. Let us praise death
that fastens my body to yours and renders skin against skin sometimes intolerably sweet, as October sweetens the flesh of a McIntosh apple. Let us praise death that prints snapshots, fixing an afternoon forty years ago on a sandy lane. While we stand holding
each other, let us praise death as a dog praises its master, bowing, paying obeisance, rolling over; let us praise death as a spaniel praises a pit bull.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think about your own death?
DONALD HALL: I always have. But I've been quite ill in the last few years, and have more reason to think of it, with cancer. I had three years ago, as we speak - a little over three years ago - I had colon cancer. And then last year, the colon cancer returned two and a half years after the operation. It metastasized to the liver and I lost two thirds of my liver, the right lobe of the liver. And my chances, for I'm already 64, but my chances for living to 70 are not terribly good. At the moment, I have no discernible cancer in me. It's just statistically, people with my history, mostly, don't live very long. I'm very likely to get a return of cancer, and I have thrown all these organs out of the back of the sled, you know, with the wolves following the sled. And I'm going to run out of organs to throw to the wolves before long. So, I'm aware that, probably, I don't have a great deal of time left. The results of this living under the shadow, like it is - which many, many people do, of course. That's not- I'm not unique in this- has been a greater access to joy. Occasional panic and occasional morbidity and tears, but more joy, more intense joy, more living in the moment. And that is true for work, but it's true for love as well.
BILL MOYERS: How did you receive the word of his illness?
JANE KENYON: Well, at first, with disbelief, I mean, it's classic. Then there was a lot of howling around here.
BILL MOYERS: Howling?
JANE KENYON: Uh-huh, yep. Not a Yankee trait, but there was a lot of howling around here. And, well, what we have is the present. That's all we ever had really, except for memory, and so we're trying to learn to live in the present.
BILL MOYERS: You write poems, too.
JANE KENYON: Yeah, yeah.
BILL MOYERS: Was this one to Don, "Pharaoh"? Can you read it?
JANE KENYON: I'll try. The first time I tried to read this I embarrassed myself.
"The future ain't what it used to be," said the sage of the New York Yankees as he pounded his mitt, releasing the red dust of the infield into the harshly illuminated evening air.
Big hands. Men with big hands make things happen. The surgeon, when I asked how big your tumor was, held forth his substantial fist with its globed class ring.
Home again, we live as charily as strangers. Things are off: Touch rankles, food is not good. Even the kindness of friends turns burdensome; their flowers sadden us, so many and so fair.
I woke in the night to see your diminished bulk lying beside me - you on your back, like a sarcophagus as your feet held up the covers .... The things you might need in the next life surrounded you -your comb and glasses, water, a book and a pen. JANE KENYON: There really is consolation from sad poem. And it's hard to know how that happens. That there's the pleasure of the thing itself, the pleasure of the poem, and it works against the sadness somehow.
BILL MOYERS: Why the title? Why do you call him pharaoh?
JANE KENYON: Well, this is actually an actual visual perception that he was lying in bed with the covers over him and his feet were holding up the covers at the bottom. And I could see the outline of his body dimly in the dark room. And this was after he was home and recovering from his big surgery, and it suggested to me a pharaoh.
JANE KENYON: A sarcophagus.
BILL MOYERS: A sarcophagus.
JANE KENYON: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: A tomb.
BILL MOYERS: She's written a poem about you called "Pharaoh."
DONALD HALL: Yeah, yeah.
BILL MOYERS: You just going to let it stand there?
DONALD HALL: No, I'm writing an answer to it.
DONALD HALL: She doesn't know this yet. I have pharaoh or the sarcophagus talking back. I love that poem. I mean, it's spooky to read it, of course. This was a poem that Jane wrote when I was just recovering from the lobectomy, the loss of two-thirds of the liver. And I was back home; but I was pretty sick. And it's a - I think it's a very beautiful poem.
BILL MOYERS: There's a poem- Is it in that book, "Tubes"?
HALL: Yes, yes.
BILL MOYERS: Which I think you must have written at that time. Well, I suddenly realized who that is.
DONALD HALL: I wrote that in between the two.
BILL MOYERS: Would you read that one?
DONALD HALL: Sure, yeah.
BILL MOYERS: This is the poem you wrote after you'd-
BILL MOYERS: -been alerted to your mortality, as they say.
DONALD HALL: And I have a- I'm humorous about it here. The man with all these tubes in him is not really going to be making these long speeches. I do know that. But he has a sense of humor too. The first one actually is my favorite of them. There are five little speeches here, but- they're all sort of death bed speeches.
[reading] "Up, down, good, bad," said the man with the tubes up his nose, ‘there’s lots of variety ... However, notions of balance between extremes of fortune are stupid - or at best unobservant." He watched as the nurse fed pellets into the green nozzle that stuck from his side. "Mm," said the man. "Good. Yum. (Next time more basil... When a long-desired baby is born, what joy! More happiness than we find in sex, more than we take in success, revenge, or wealth. But should the same infant die, would you measure the horror on the same rule? Grief weighs down the seesaw; joy cannot budge it."
DONALD HALL: Here's another one of his speeches.
"When I was nineteen, I told a thirty year- old man what a fool I had been at sixteen. Listening, he looked crestfallen: 'We were always,' he said glancing down, 'a fool three years ago.' " The man with the tubes up his nostrils spoke carefully:"! don't regret what I did, but that I claimed I did the opposite. If I was faithless or treacherous and cowardly, there was much to fear - but I regret that I called myself loyal, brave, and honorable."
"We are all dying of something, always, but our degrees of awareness differ," he said offering the vein of her choice to the young woman with many test tubes. "We die of habits, deplorable ones like merely living: finally fatal."
DONALD HALL: The last one's my second favorite of these.
"Of all illusions," said the man with the tubes up his nostrils, IVs, catheter, and feeding nozzle, "the silliest one was hardest to lose. For years I supposed that after climbing exhaustedly up with pitons and ropes, I would arrive at last on the plateau of Wallling-levelforever- among moss- with-red-blossoms, or the other one of Lolling-in-sun- looking-down-at-old valleys- I-started from. Of course, of course: A continual climbing is the one form of arrival we ever come to - unless we suppose that the wished-for height and house of desire is tubes up the nose." BILL MOYERS: Oh, that's one of my favorites. DONALD HALL: Well, good. Jane likes that one too.
JANE KENYON: "Let Evening Come"
Let the light of late afternoon shine through chinks in the barn, moving up the bales as the sun moves down.
Let the cricket take up chafing as a woman takes up her needles and her yarn. Let evening come.
Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned in long grass. Let the stars appear and the moon disclose her silver horn.
Let the fox go back to its sandy den. Let the wind die down. Let the shed go black inside. Let evening come.
To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop in the oats, to air in the lung let evening come. Let it come, as it will, and don't be afraid. God does not leave us comfortless, so let evening come. DONALD HALL: I'm going now to read a poem that I have read in Wilmot before. A little narrative poem called "Ox Cart Man." This is a poem that came from my cousin, Paul Fenton, who told me the story. And told me that when he was a boy he'd heard it from an old man, and that the old man had told him that he had heard it when he was a boy from a really old man. So I took it from the air and made a poem out of it.
[reading] In October of the year, he counts potatoes dug from the brown field, counting the seed, counting the cellar's portion out, and bags the rest on the cart's floor.
He packs wool sheared in April, honey in combs, linen, leather tanned from deer hide, and vinegar in a barrel hooped by hand at the forge's fire.
He walks by his ox's head, ten days to Portsmouth Market, and sells potatoes, and the bag that carried potatoes, flaxseed, birch brooms, maple sugar, goose feathers, yarn.
When the cart is empty he sells the cart. When the cart is sold he sells the ox, harness and yoke, and walks home, his pockets heavy with the year's coin for salt and taxes,
and at home by fire's light in November cold stitches new harness for next year's ox in the barn, and carves the yoke, and saws planks building the cart again.
DONALD HALL: When I wrote the poem I was conscious of exhilaration about the story, of great excitement. Human life is a circle, and I found it thrilling, absolutely thrilling. So I wrote it with that feeling. I worked on it for a year or so before I had it pretty much the way I wanted it. When I published the poem in a magazine and when I read it aloud, I discovered to my astonishment, that not everybody found the story thrilling. They didn't read a different poem, but they reacted a different way to the same story. That is, it wasn't that they misread or misunderstood my poem. I think that they misunderstood life, you know, not the poem. Not anything as serious as a poem, just something as trivial as life itself. Because for many people it was a story which was all work. And then you have to do it over again. It is a story about work, and a story about a lot of work, and ceaseless work, more or less. But I suppose that's why I found it so exhilarating in my masochism, or whatever. But I don't really mean that, I should say. I don't mean that for a minute.
BILL MOYERS: Were you admiring of the simplicity?
HALL: Oh, yes. BILL MOYERS: And cyclical life of the ox cart? DONALD HALL: Absolutely. A life of work. A life of productive work. A life that sustains itself by expending itself. By putting out everything and waiting for it to fill up again. It's also the life of perennial plants; that die down in the fall and come up again in the spring. But I've often said- somebody told me this later, reminded me of this later, as advice to writers, to young writers: Don't ever hold anything back. Put everything out, everything you know - that can possibly belong in that poem or story, put it there. Don't save anything for the next one. That's the only way to work. It's the only way to live.
JANE KENYON: [voice-over]
I got out of bed on two strong legs. It might have been otherwise. I ate cereal, sweet milk, ripe, flawless peach. It might have been otherwise. I took the dog uphill to the birch wood. All morning I did the work I love.
At noon I lay down with my mate. It might have been otherwise. We ate dinner together at a table with silver candlesticks. It might have been otherwise. I slept in a bed in a room with paintings on the walls, and planned another day just like this day. But one day, I know, it will be otherwise. BILL MOYERS' Journal: A Life Together
Producer .............................................................................. David Grubin
Editor ................................................................................... David Steward
Executive Editors ....................... BILL MOYERS, Judith Davidson Moyers
Executive Producer .................... David Grubin, Judy Doctoroff O'Neill
A Production of David Grubin Productions, Inc. and Public Affairs Television, Inc. A presentation of Thirteen/WNET in New York. Funding for this program provided by the Mutual of America Life Insurance Company, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.
Copyright © 1993 by David Grubin Productions, Inc. and Public Affairs Television, Inc. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.