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Donald Hall: an advocate for the understanding of poetry

The US poet laureate's desire to help others understand poetry motivates him to speak around the country.

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When Donald Hall, poet laureate of the United States, tells audiences that poetry is not an unpopular art form, people listen intently.

Some do so because of his title and impressive dossier, which includes two Guggenheim fellowships, the National Book Critics Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and 15 published volumes of verse. Others, however, listen because they understand that resurgence is a theme for Hall, both in his poetry and his life.

"A book of poems by a well-known poet used to get a print run of 1,000 copies, and you'd be lucky if you sold out," says Mr. Hall. "Now more publishers are printing 8,000 to 10,000 copies for a first edition." He also notes that many literary magazines are being published, and when you add their modest circulations together, the result is a large readership.

Hall believes this upward trend has been fueled by readings – at colleges, literary festivals, and other venues – which have become increasingly popular since the 1950s. "The poetry reading used to be a rare event," he explains. "Even famous poets such as Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams were rarely asked to read their poems." But hearing a poem read aloud "can be like reading it many times. You have a helping hand to get you into the poem. You have an actual body, an actual voice, and a series of gestures."

The voice many hear in Hall's poetry is almost Frost-like with its concrete diction and unadorned language. It's a voice that is familiar with loss and the cycles of the natural world, a voice that is both engaging and authoritative.

Some of that authority may come from the fact that Hall, like Frost, has been shaped by the New Hampshire landscape. He has lived on his family's farm in Danbury, N.H., since he left a teaching position at the University of Michigan in 1975 to focus on his writing. For 23 years he and Jane Kenyon, his late wife, built a life together on that acreage.

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