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Unpacking the Boxes : A Memoir of a Life in Poetry
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.
This brisk and likable new memoir by the prolific and plainspoken former U.S. poet laureate Hall (White Apples and the Taste of Stone) covers the years before and after the period he and the late poet Jane Kenyon famously shared. After a childhood divided between his beloved rural New Hampshire and frustrating suburban Connecticut, he devoted himself in high school to poems, composing lines (Dead people don't like olives) at all hours. He felt out of place at a prestigious boarding school, but at home at 1940s Harvard, where he met Frank O'Hara, Edward Gorey, John Ashbery, and Robert Bly (who would become Hall's closest friend). Over a series of moves--back and forth between England and the U.S. (he considered Oxford University a party school), he finally left academia to live in New Hampshire with Jane Kenyon. He became a successful professional poet and a prolific freelance writer, meeting and working with George Plimpton and with the widow of the actor Charles Laughton, Eva La Gallienne. The memoir's last segment is by far its most affecting: the afflictions of grief and of old age--a stroke, trouble driving and walking, a scary manic episode--join up with the pleasure and ironies of late-life fame. (Sept.)
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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
September 10, 2009
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