Unpacking the Boxes: A Memoir of a Life in Poetry By Donald Hall


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.

Hall’s invaluable record of the making of a poet begins with his childhood in Depression-era suburban Connecticut, where he first realized poetry was “secret, dangerous, wicked, and delicious,” and ends with what he calls “the planet of antiquity,” a time of life dramatically punctuated by his appointment as poet laureate of the United States.
Hall writes eloquently of the poetry and books that moved and formed him as a child and young man, and of adolescent efforts at poetry writing — an endeavor he wryly describes as more hormonal than artistic. His painful formative days at Exeter, where he was sent like a naive lamb to a high WASP academic slaughter, are followed by a poetic self-liberation of sorts at Harvard. Here he rubs elbows with Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, and Edward Gorey, and begins lifelong friendships with Robert Bly, Adrienne Rich, and George Plimpton. After Harvard, Hall is off to Oxford, where the high spirits and rampant poetry careerism of the postwar university scene are brilliantly captured.
At eighty, 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 — his first book since being named poet laureate — both revelatory and tremendously poignant.
Unpacking the Boxes: A Memoir of a Life in Poetry

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Hall’s prose is always a good companion, whether he is recounting seasons on Eagle Pond, musing on work and life, or holding a reflective glass to his suffering through illness and tragedy, or merely recalling his childhood as the first part of his professional journey to his twilight years of diminished powers but heightened perceptiveness and understanding. Unpacking the Boxes is a philosophical look back, a frank one, remarkably free of self-pity or self-congratulation. He has lived his chosen life, can without apology find the charm and the presumption in his callow years of yearning for love and poetic accomplishment, and the dignity and embarrassment that comes with the imbalances of old age—loss, absences, old friends, falls both physical and emotional, hospital visits, anniversaries, honors, journeys, lust, and work. He doesn’t blink, not even back tears. He writes clear, unadorned prose, poignant, powerful, and direct. Unpacking the Boxes: A Memoir of a Life in Poetry The more I read Donald Hall, the less I like him. A name dropping, narcissistic, self promoting man, who never gives anyone but himself any credit. Aptly chosen as a bedtime book, because it certainly put me to sleep. 110 pages in, I've had enough. Unpacking the Boxes: A Memoir of a Life in Poetry This book is so beautifully written and skillfully crafted, I read passages over and over again and took copious notes. Donald Hall's poetry has been a gift to me since I began to read his poetry in the early 1970's; he changed how I thought of poetry. To read how he came to be the writer he is...his love of reading and writing, his introduction to authors, his childhood, school and teaching experiences put an intimate face on his poetry for me.

“One’s life begins on so many occasions, constructing itself out of accident derived from coincidence compounded by character.” He writes of his Connecticut childhood in which dark times overshadowed his comfortable means, his privileged education at Exeter, the “feeble intelligence” at Harvard, his loneliness at Oxford where “rudeness was a mating call. If you responded to rudeness with rudeness, you might begin a friendship,” his views on the England of his youth, “the collapsing empire of power and art,” and teaching at Michigan.

His peers and colleagues read like a table of contents in an anthology: Frank O’Hara, Robert Bly, Kenneth Koch, Robert Lowell,and T.S.Eliot just to name a few. His love of his children, his wife, Jane Kenyon, and wonderful friends and the stories about them were personal revelations that resonated with me. His reflections about how poetry changed over his long life were thought-provoking as are most of his insights on reading and language. Reading his poetry aloud to audiences made him more mindful of the sound in writing, but he warned, “Performance can paper over bad writing, or substitute for the best language.”…”We never hear a line break and seldom a new metaphor.” Acknowledging he moved poetry to a larger audience, he thought he did so at a cost.

“To write as much as I have done, I have needed often to fail.”

“Young poets sometimes fear, as they begin a life in art, that personal history may become mere material, as if one lived one’s life in order to write about it.”

“Eventually, the writing is not only for the writer’s sake. A poem is nothing if it is not beautiful, a work of art that pleases the senses…Poems may comfort the afflicted – by their beauty of sound, by humor, by intelligence or wisdom, by the pleasures of resolution, by exact rendering of emotion, and by the embrace of common feeling.”

Reading literature had destroyed my reading of junk, he wrote of his own experiences. Reading this memoir did this for me as well.

The death of his poet wife, Jane Kenyon, from leukemia at the age of 47 in 1995, was devastating, his grief captured in perhaps some of his best poetry…”I believe in the miracle of art but what prodigy will keep you safe beside me.”

And in the final pages, he writes, ”I left grief’s house and middle age for the thin air of antiquity’s planet…For many years impulse became mobility without the intervention of thought but now one lives the thoughtful life on antiquity’s planet.” May I be so graceful in my thinking when I am 80 years old.

Unpacking the Boxes: A Memoir of a Life in Poetry A good beginning - an interesting if somewhat incurious (about his parents, grandparents, etc.) account of his childhood in familiar Hamden and Whitneyville, CT, prosperous in the Depression - and a better account of wartime years at Andover and postwar years at Harvard, and then a completely gripping narrative of social/literary success at Oxford in the Korean war years - one begins to notice some things that are wrong.
First of all, Hall seems unable to appreciate his immense good fortune in so many ways - although he pays tribute to a thousand lucky breaks. His parents adored him - and although they were unhappy themselves, they cossetted him and at one point save his life (by securing an exemption for him from the New Haven draft board). He describes his literary succcess, but again, one begins to notice that he is unable to say anything about what entitled him to deserve it (which I assume he did). A poet, he says nothing about what his poems say or try to say, or what drives or drove them. He speaks of formal influence, but never of what he used his formal experience to express. And yet there are moments - he speaks well of the phenemonology of teaching, - although notably he only taught for half of his pre-retirement life. He crosses paths with dozens of men and a few women that you'd love to know more of - but he fails to convey the individuality of very many with any vividness. He confesses that it is hard to convey the wittiness of men who were witty, such as Frank O'Hara - which he tries to do, admittedly feebly. Is this really true? I don't think so.
And then, sadly, the book descends into a paean to his late wife Jane Kenyon, who deserves her quotation marks not only because he always refers to her by both names, but because for all his grief, so lovingly and meticulously described, she is never alive for us for an instant. She remains as blank for us as his poems. The second half of the book is devoted to his tsuris - Jane Kenyon dies - and he becomes a bore on the subject of Jane Kenyon's death - and he becomes depressed, and ill, and old, yet sexy - and one feels sorry not for him, but for the many women he has bedded by telling them about Jane Kenyon's death, his grief, his depression, his illness and his antiquity. I did not know there were so many lonely women in the world willing to endure this seduction.
Surely Hall must be a better poet and a more charming man than the man he represents here - and a more self-knowing one. But one cannot make his acquaintance by reading this book.
Unpacking the Boxes: A Memoir of a Life in Poetry In less than two hundred pages, Donald Hall, poet and Red Sox fan, tells the story of his life. Early on, he writes,

The first word I was taught to read, after weeks of memorizing the alaphabet, was 'that.' Did my life begin with 'that'? One's life begins on so many occasions, constructing itself out of accident derived from coincidence compounded by character. (16)

The book is not an exhaustive account of his life, nor a sentimental one, but it is full of rich imagery and detail. Hall's life is interesting to read about because he has found it interesting to live and he has paid attention all along the way. Unpacking the Boxes: A Memoir of a Life in Poetry

So, this is the second memoir of Donald Hall's I've read, and I still haven't read his poetry. It's not like I actively sought this book out though - it was laid out on the $4.99 table at the Harvard Bookstore when I visited Cambridge last week, and I remember String Too Short to Be Saved with much fondness... and this was only $4.99...

In many ways, this memoir was too personal for me - perhaps an odd thing to say, but what I mean is that Hall assumes a basic knowledge of important literary figures in America in his reader, and drops names all over the book so casually I found myself a little lost at some parts.

The other thing that confused me is the somewhat disconnected nature of his thoughts within each chapter. There are quite a few digressions even within this short memoir (especially near the beginning), which made me feel a little as though I were reading a long poem (whose meaning I have to work harder to grasp from what seems to be a series of disparate images) rather than a piece of prose.

The life Hall leads as a poet is a fascinating one, though I wonder how poets who are rather more self-made (not participating in literary societies at Harvard/Oxford or belonging to an academic community at Ann Arbor, but more Wallace Stevens-like, perhaps) grow without a community of like-minded people sustaining their creativity. Unpacking the Boxes: A Memoir of a Life in Poetry First I have to say that I really enjoyed this man's since of humor, he was quite funny. Bluntly funny. LOL!!!

But I loved this book becuase it offered, innocence, newness, sweetness, and a subtle and shocking sadness. It's about his beginning of life, his traveling journey to becoming who he is today. But I must say that involves you, as if you were there and his personal side kick in his story.

However I must say that his life encounters were amazing and eye opening and it's also fun. He's met and lounged with a lot of the great poets you know of today.

If you haven't read this book you should if you're in love with poetry and the poetry life of his days.

Quanda R. Graves (Until...) Unpacking the Boxes: A Memoir of a Life in Poetry This is a meandering look into the life and mind of Donald Hall. While I love Jane Kenyon more than him, Hall's poetry is likewise powerful and so impeccably crafted. The singleminded dedication he gave to poetry is a lesson in commitment and vocation. In some places I definitely got the feeling that this memoir was written more to pay the bills than because it needed to be written, but despite that it is still generally lovely and a good insight into his life. Unpacking the Boxes: A Memoir of a Life in Poetry I’ve been reading and re-reading a lot of Donald Hall lately after his death this past summer. I usually prefer his prose to his poetry. The first third of this book, about his childhood, was good—engrossing and honest, full of interesting detail about a certain kind of family life in the middle of the 20th century. The middle third about his years at college and Oxford, were simply boring. Lots of name-dropping and little of substance or interior life. He describes the young Donald Hall as ambitious, egotistical, and self-absorbed, and that certainly comes across in the second part of this memoir. The book becomes engaging again in the last part where he takes the reader into his grief during Jane Kenyon’s illness and death and his slow slog out of the worst of his grief. It was worth sticking with the book to get to this part. Unpacking the Boxes: A Memoir of a Life in Poetry Over the years I have read an occasional Donald Hall poem, but I can’t say I’m familiar with his work. But he appeared on a recent cover of Poets & Writers, so I thought it was time I corrected that. While looking for his work in the poetry section of a used bookstore, I came across this book, one of his memoirs. That seemed like a good place to start, so I bought it.

See my full review here: Review of Unpacking the Boxes by Donald Hall Unpacking the Boxes: A Memoir of a Life in Poetry