Skip to main content
Listen To Article

The poet Donald Hall died on Saturday after a long, distinguished career, including a stint as US Poet Laureate in 2006-2007.

Though he had been an important, award-winning writer for many years (see here and here for a sense of the magnitude of his career), Hall came to my attention first through his second wife, the poet Jane Kenyon. From the minute I discovered Kenyon while I was in grad school in the early 1990s, I resonated with her commitment to what she termed the “luminous particular,” to her negotiation of the “quotidian mysteries,” and she became–and remains–one of the most significant poets in my personal canon. The 1993 Bill Moyers’s documentary, A Life Together: Poets Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon, then, introduced me to Hall as well, even if his poems did not speak to me beyond the level of appreciation.

That is until I came across his poem, “Distressed Haiku,” in The Atlantic in April 2000. Jane Kenyon had died of leukemia in April 1995–and in the succeeding years, Hall had been immersed in the exploration of his grief, including in places such as his beautiful collection, Without.

Five years after Kenyon’s death, Hall’s “Distressed Haiku” is a masterpiece of the navigations of the grieving. Maybe because my own mother had died quite suddenly only a year before, I found Hall’s lines especially meaningful. I still do. I share it today to honor him.

In many ways, the poem follows on Kenyon’s “Let Evening Come,” which gorgeously consoles in its own closing lines:
“Let it come, as it will, and don’t
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.”

But while Kenyon’s poem is about the preparation for death, Hall’s is about living in the aftermath of loss. It moves in lament through its first ten lines from Hall’s desire to be near Kenyon again, if only at her grave, to the remembrance of their anniversary and his emotional exhaustion (“I finished April/halfway through May”).

And then comes the emotional gut-punch in the center stanza of the poem, one of the most honest articulations of grief I’ve ever read, a line that comes to mind often:
“You think that their
dying is the worst
thing that could happen.

Then they stay dead.”

And yet…even in unvarnished bereavement, the last two stanzas move towards hope, towards the miraculous upending of everything expected (this poem was written before the Red Sox were finally redeemed). The cheeky self-chiding, “Will Hall ever write lines that do anything but whine and complain,” particularly in light of the image of the mountain’s Easter-like rebirth, signals a recognition that all is perhaps not loss. April may indeed be the “cruelest month” in its mixing of “memory and desire,” the yearning for those who are gone and remain gone, but it is also (often) the month of the resurrection when “the dead return.”

Thanks be to God. RIP Donald Hall.

Distressed Haiku

In a week or ten days
the snow and ice
will melt from Cemetery Road.

I’m coming! Don’t move!

*

Once again it is April.
Today is the day
we would have been married
twenty-six years.

I finished with April
halfway through March.

*

You think that their
dying is the worst
thing that could happen.

Then they stay dead.

*

Will Hall ever write
lines that do anything
but whine and complain?

In April the blue
mountain revises
from white to green.

*

The Boston Red Sox win
a hundred straight games.
The mouse rips
the throat of the lion

and the dead return.

Jennifer L. Holberg

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). I also do various administrative things across campus. As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids. I count myself rich in friends and family. I enjoy kayaking and hiking. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I have a bumper sticker on my car that says: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” Which is true.

8 Comments

  • heididejonge says:

    Thank you, Jennifer (and Hall… and Kenyon). A dear friend of mine died this morning. And that he will stay dead sinks my heart to my stomach and anchors me to my couch… I just want to sit here in grief, but I need to ready my kids for the day and write a sermon for Sunday and clear my calendar for a funeral. Knowing I can return to these poems and words later is going to help me get off this couch. Again. Thank you.

  • Thanks so much, Jennifer, for your tribute to Donald Hall. I was first introduced to Hall through, “I never worked a day in my life…” in Life Work. He touched many of us with his words. These navigations are especially meaningful.

  • Jean A. Schreur says:

    Thank you for remembering Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon. Both wrote beautifully. My favorite, “Let Evening Come.”

  • Gloria Stronks says:

    Beautiful. Thank you.

  • “I finished with April
    halfway through March.”

    I finished with August
    half-way through July.

    My late wife died twenty-five years ago this coming August 21.
    My wife’s late husband died twenty-five years ago this past April 1.

    Yes, for twenty-five years we have finished with the month of death
    half-way through the previous month. Ironically, when the date
    arrives, it comes with a sense of serenity. All the anxiety worked itself out
    in the anticipation. “Why am I feeling this way? What’s wrong? Oh, yes.
    the dreaded day of death is approaching.”

    To a late, great poet: Donald Hall, I’m sorry you had to go through it, but thank you for understanding
    and letting me know that understanding through your beautiful, poignant, heart-wrenching poetry.

  • Fred Wind says:

    Thank you!

Leave a Reply