Poet Laureate visits UVM, discusses spirituality’s place in medicine

Ira Allen Chapel filled with students, professors and members of the community last Tuesday to watch United States Poet Laureate Donald Hall read his nationally recognized poetry and share his own life experiences. The lecture, entitled “Poetry, Medicine and the Spirit,” was brought to the University by the UVM College of Medicine, which invited Hall to campus for the Templeton Lecture. The Templeton Lecture is part of a program sponsored by a four-year grant to further the incorporation of spirituality into the study of medicine. Dr. Robert Macauley of the Department of Clinical Ethics organized the lecture and introduced Hall. Hall is a native of Connecticut and spent most of his later life in rural New Hampshire, where he lived with his late wife, poet Jane Kenyon. After a successful and award-winning career in writing and publishing (Hall has published 15 books of poetry) the Library of Congress named Hall Poet Laureate last June, two weeks after he accepted UVM’s invitation. As the poet laureate, Hall serves as a consultant of poetry to the Library of Congress, and joins the ranks of Robert Frost and most recently, Ted Kooser. Hall’s lecture included readings from his most recent collection of poetry, “White Apples and the Taste of Stone: Selected Poems 1946-2006,” which he published in April. “My own connection with medicine has been cancer and a stroke myself, but my chief connection has been the 15 months I spent taking care of Jane Kenyon with her leukemia,” Hall said, referring to his wife who died in 1995. Much of his poetry and comments focused on the death of Kenyon. Commenting on the subject of the lecture, Hall explained that poetry might be created by “poets of spirit and doctrine,” like Kenyon. But Hall is not one of these poets. He identifies himself as a poet “of the spirit, but not doctrine.” According to Hall, much of his work “comes from inwardness,” and the images of his dreams. His poems, as he described them, “focus on the darkness of the human soul.” On this point, he began to read a selection of poems, including some of Kenyon’s works, but soon moved on to his own. He continued to read, transitioning into later poetry, primarily relating to Kenyon’s sickness and death. He comments on Kenyon’s medical treatment in “The Ship Pounding”: “Each morning I made my way among gangways, elevators, and nurses’ pods to Jane’s room to interrogate the grave helpers who tended her through the nights while the ship’s massive engines kept its propellers turning.” In “Weeds and Peonies,” Hall laments the death of his wife, saying, “you will not reappear, tired and satisfied, grief’s repeated particles suffuse the air.” In talking about Kenyon and her death, Hall made many insights into the relationship between poetry, medicine and the spirit. Hall is not a religious man and said he could not bring himself, “to believe in Paradise,” even after Kenyon’s death. He does see, however, the spirituality in medicine. He calls the profession one that “attracts people or changes the people it attracts into creatures of remarkable intellect, sympathy and empathy.” Poetry has been a significant emotional aspect of Hall’s life, especially after Kenyon’s death. “I don’t know how I would have stood [Kenyon’s death] without poetry.” He explained that each time he wrote, “I was happy because I was talking to her.” He was surviving with the art he and his wife loved. Hall’s writing has slowed down since his appointment as poet laureate though, and he said he has very little time to devote to writing at the moment. Still, Hall will have work published in The New Yorker soon, and plans to record his poetry for XM radio.