Institutional News, In Memoriam

Remembering Donald Hall

Donald Hall, former United States poet laureate, longtime Bennington Writing Seminars writer-in-residence, and dear friend of the College, has died at age 89.

Donald Hall and Barack Obama

Hall’s involvement with the Seminars extends to the program’s very beginning. Hall was an old friend of Liam Rector, the Seminars’ founder and first director, and he remained deeply involved with the program.

“Don has been so much more than a writer-in-residence,” said former Associate Director Victoria Clausi MFA ’96. "He is one of the seminal and abiding forces: animating, haunting, buoying, challenging the Seminars. Sometimes he’s been at the fore as one of our most preeminent residency guests and literary treasures. Sometimes he has stayed behind the scenes as a guide, supporter, and friend."

Hall and his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, lectured at the first residency in January 1994. Shortly after returning home from that visit, Jane was diagnosed with leukemia. She died on April 22, 1995.

“After Jane died, it felt like we went through his grieving with him,” said former Director and essayist Sven Birkerts.

In the early 1990s, as Hall faced his own battle with colon cancer, Rector and his wife, Tree Swenson, supported him.  

“It was amazing, a kind of resuscitation of spirit, when Don returned and brought his new energies,” said Birkerts. “Bennington saw Don get old, and we were grateful every time he decided to come to the residency and read, talk, be interviewed.”

Hall frequently returned to the College to lecture, read his work, and engage with questions and discussions at each iteration of the Seminars, never missing a residency until winter travel became difficult for him later in life.

Still, Hall continued to visit the Seminars annually in the summer until June 2016, when he read from his forthcoming collection of essays A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety, which will be released on July 10.

“Over the years, Don lectured on many poets he’d known personally,” said Seminars faculty member and novelist Alice Mattison. “He also frequently talked about prosody and read aloud from the poetry of the past. He seems to have read everything and met everyone who wrote in the twentieth century.”

Hall enjoyed a close friendship with the poet and essayist Robert Bly, with whom he would often share the Seminars stage, forming, as Birkerts remarked, a “stand-up poetry duo who brought their strong presence to the residencies and served beyond the call of duty each time.”

 “He and Bly had been close friends and friendly rivals all their adult lives, and their joint events here were full of outrageous old stories and mutual teasing,” said Mattison. 

Though best known for his poetry, Hall’s literary work and interests spanned multiple genres and forms. He passed on his advice and love of language and great literature as he lectured, always encouraging his audience to strive for their best, regardless of the challenges incumbent with being a writer.

Don told audiences to read great literature, to try writing great literature too—to take themselves seriously as writers—and to revise and revise again.

Alice Mattison

“He’d brag about how many drafts he wrote—sometimes hundreds. He’d speak openly about hardships he’d faced as a writer: rejections, bad reviews, books that didn’t do well," said Mattison. "He never talked as if he was more important than our students—he was one writer talking to other writers, all of us doing the best we could at a difficult profession.”  

Hall passed away on June 23 at his home in Wilmont, New Hampshire. He had been in hospice care for some time.

“Don came to stand for the idea of ongoingness itself,” said Birkerts. “And to think that he might not be ongoing is a hard thing.”


By Natalie Redmond, Associate Writer