Poet, essayist and children’s book author Donald Hall looks back over his richly textured 89 years of life in his latest memoir, A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety. Most of his reflections here are blithely inconsequential, keen observations about nature, career and relationships. They expound no end-of-life wisdom, detail no significant literary trends or feuds and offer no general assessment of the state of poetry today. But it is this very lack of utility—the knowledge that we need not underline or take notes—that makes the book such a joy to read.
This is not to suggest that the book lacks weight. Whether Hall is describing the passage of the seasons or mulling over the comforts of friendship, he is always worth hearing out. He is especially moving when writing about his love affair and home life with his second wife, Jane Kenyon, a respected poet in her own right. Among his “carnival of losses”—his mobility, old friends, an ancient tree in his front yard—her death in 1995 at the age of 47 looms largest.
It is a shrinking pool, to be sure, but English majors who came of age academically in the 1960s and ’70s will especially relish Hall’s recollections of other big-name poets, among them Theodore Roethke (“exuberant, loud, and funny”), Stephen Spender (“talked well on any subject other than poetry”), James Dickey (“the best liar I ever knew”) and T.S. Eliot (“spoke like a member of Parliament”). He met them all.
Many contemporary poets make their living as teachers, but Hall has made his mostly as a freelance writer, packaging and selling his verbal wares wherever he could. This collection of well-crafted bric-a-brac demonstrates that he’s still not inclined to let any of his words go to waste.
Editor’s Note: Donald Hall died on June 23, 2018.