Life Work

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Overview

Distinguished poet Donald Hall reflects on the meaning of work, solitude, and love

"The best new book I have read this year, of extraordinary nobility and wisdom. It will remain with me always."—Louis Begley, The New York Times

"A sustained meditation on work as the key to personal happiness. . . . Life Work reads most of all like a first-person psychological novel with a poet named Donald Hall as its protagonist. . . . Hall's ...

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Life Work

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Overview

Distinguished poet Donald Hall reflects on the meaning of work, solitude, and love

"The best new book I have read this year, of extraordinary nobility and wisdom. It will remain with me always."—Louis Begley, The New York Times

"A sustained meditation on work as the key to personal happiness. . . . Life Work reads most of all like a first-person psychological novel with a poet named Donald Hall as its protagonist. . . . Hall's particular talents ultimately [are] for the memoir, a genre in which he has few living equals. In his hands the memoir is only partially an autobiographical genre. He pours both his full critical intelligence and poetic sensibility into the form."—Dana Gioia, Los Angeles Times

"Hall . . . here offers a meditative look at his life as a writer in a spare and beautifully crafted memoir. Devoted to his art, Hall can barely wait for the sun to rise each morning so that he can begin the task of shaping words."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"I [am] delighted and moved by Donald Hall's Life Work, his autobiographical tribute to sheer work—as distinguished from labor—as the most satisfying and ennobling of activities, whether one is writing, canning vegetables or playing a dung fork on a New Hampshire farm."—Paul Fussell, The Boston Globe

“Donald Hall’s Life Work has been strangely gripping, what with his daily to do lists, his ruminations on the sublimating power of work. Hall has written so much about that house in New Hampshire where he lives that I’m beginning to think of it less as a place than a state of mind. I find it odd that a creative mind can work with such Spartan organization (he describes waiting for the alarm to go off at 4:45 AM, so eager is he to get to his desk) at such a mysterious activity (making a poem work) without getting in the way of itself.”—John Freeman’s blog (National Book Critics Circle Board President)

From his grandparents, poet Donald Hall learned that craft--be it canning vegetables, writing poems, or carting manure--creates its own "absorbedness" that no wage can equal. His affecting memoir on life and the American family's propensity for work, solitude, and love is a treasure.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
The best new book I have read this year, of extraordinary nobility and wisdom. It will remain with me always.—Louis Begley, The New York Times

"A sustained meditation on work as the key to personal happiness. . . . Life Work reads most of all like a first-person psychological novel with a poet named Donald Hall as its protagonist. . . . Hall's particular talents ultimately [are] for the memoir, a genre in which he has few living equals. In his hands the memoir is only partially an autobiographical genre. He pours both his full critical intelligence and poetic sensibility into the form."—Dana Gioia, Los Angeles Times

"Hall . . . here offers a meditative look at his life as a writer in a spare and beautifully crafted memoir. Devoted to his art, Hall can barely wait for the sun to rise each morning so that he can begin the task of shaping words."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"I [am] delighted and moved by Donald Hall's Life Work, his autobiographical tribute to sheer work—as distinguished from labor—as the most satisfying and ennobling of activities, whether one is writing, canning vegetables or playing a dung fork on a New Hampshire farm."—Paul Fussell, The Boston Globe

"Donald Hall’s Life Work has been strangely gripping, what with his daily to do lists, his ruminations on the sublimating power of work. Hall has written so much about that house in New Hampshire where he lives that I’m beginning to think of it less as a place than a state of mind. I find it odd that a creative mind can work with such Spartan organization (he describes waiting for the alarm to go off at 4:45 AM, so eager is he to get to his desk) at such a mysterious activity (making a poem work) without getting in the way of itself."—John Freeman’s blog (National Book Critics Circle Board President)

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Hall, winner of the 1988 National Book Critics Circle Award for his poetry ( The One Day ), and the author of children's books ( The Ox-Cart Man ), memoirs and a collection of biographies of poets ( Their Ancient Glittering Eyes ), here offers a meditative look at his life as a writer in a spare and beautifully crafted memoir. Devoted to his art, Hall can barely wait for the sun to rise each morning so that he can begin the task of shaping words. His discovery that a supposedly arrested cancer has now metastasized to his liver drives him to write with even greater urgency and to reflect on the gift of ``absorbedness'' in work that was given to him in his boyhood by his farmer grandfather. Complementing his passion for writing is the love he and his wife feel for each other; a love which enables him to face a liver operation--undergone during the writing of this book--and the possibility of imminent death with courage and hope. 25,000 first printing; major ad/promo; first serial to the New York Times Sunday Magazine; author tour. (Sept.)
Library Journal
Trust a poet to write a memoir that is not a memoir but a series of reflections organized around a theme--in this case, the pleasures of work. Hall, a winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and author most recently of The Museum of Clear Ideas ( LJ 2/1/93), opens by making a distinction between jobs, chores, and work. He then explains himself by detailing the dedicated lives of his sturdy New England ancestors, his decision to leave the security of teaching for full-time writing, and his struggle with recurrent cancer--most annoying because it keeps him from the ``absorbedness'' that working on a poem allows. Along the way, we learn something of the poet's creative processes, which are nourished by a disciplined and almost overfull work schedule. Hall writes cleanly, crisply, and with a gentle conviction that will push readers out of their easy chairs and set them to working, too. He inspires such absorbedness that the task of reading is done in an instant. Highly recommended.-- Barbara Hoffert, ``Library Journal''
Booknews
Noted poet, essayist, critic, and children's book writer Hall provides a personal glimpse into the work of art and the art of work. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Kirkus Reviews
From well-known poet and memoirist Hall (Their Ancient Glittering Eyes, 1992, etc.), a meditation-memoir on the theme of work that becomes something much more when, midway through the writing, the author learns he has cancer. At 63, Hall is mightily productive in poetry, memoir, essay, letter, story, and review, and he sets out to devote part of each working day (for Hall, there are seven of these a week) to writing this book, its title bespeaking its theme. In 1975, we learn, Hall gave up teaching and became a full-time writer, retiring to the farm in Vermont that had once belonged to his grandparents. As the book begins, Hall mourns the recent death of a close friend, preacher, and hard worker; settles on a definition of productive work as a state of "absorbedness"; touches on history, family, his own literary output, his great love of the work he does, the number of revisions he puts poems through, what time he gets up, what he eats for breakfast and lunch, even when he walks the dog and drops manuscripts off with the typist. A phone call changes the tone of all of this when a routine blood test shows a recurrence of cancer and sends the poet into surgery. A couple of weeks later, facing both chemotherapy and newly diminished odds for living more than another few years, Hall picks up his narrative and—keeps going. Under the deepened shadow of mortality, he writes with eloquent simplicity about the old-fashioned working farm-life of his Vermont grandparents, the declining health of his aging mother, and—with a consummate and moving poise—his father's unhappiness in his own work, and his early death from cancer. History, life, work, art, dedication, love, andcourage—all without becoming saccharine or smug or maudlin, in a treasurable small book, poetic in its plainness, about how to live well. (First printing of 25,000)
The Barnes & Noble Review

Fortunate are those who love what they do. But in today's corset-tight job market, fortunate are those with steady, full-time employment, even if it's an uncomfortable squeeze. This is especially true for recent graduates. Commencement ceremonies imply the beginning of something, but for many graduates (and their parents), the big question is: The beginning of what? Years ago, when a friend complained about the drudgery of her poorly paid, entry-level job in publishing, her mother said, "They don't call it work for nothing." Now, they call work for nothing "internships," and jobs without benefits "freelancing."

Is it unreasonable to hope to love one's work? Should you expect to "pay your dues" before reaching this holy grail of occupational satisfaction? How much does monetary compensation compensate for tedium? Poet and essayist Donald Hall's Life Work, an inspiring paean to absorbing, fulfilling work, raises questions well worth discussing. This beautifully written ode to impassioned productivity, first published in 1993, is the book I've given more than any other to new graduates and friends launching midlife career changes. In graceful, conversational prose that evokes the homespun good sense of American icons like Pete Seeger and Garrison Keillor, Hall considers "the dignity of utility" and his satisfying literary toil as a poet and essayist, comparing and contrasting it to his grandparents' long, productive days on their New Hampshire farm and his father's miserable desk job at the family's Brock-Hall Dairy business in Connecticut.

Not everyone is lucky enough to have a clear calling like Hall's — or to be able to pursue it. And even the best occupations have their less appealing aspects. Hall makes a distinction between jobs, chores, and work. For him, work represents not drudgery but his highest privilege: "Work is my obsession but it is also my devotion." He's less crazy about fact checking and proofreading, which he considers chores. His college teaching job was "a lark because I got to show off, to read poems aloud," but it also involved correcting papers, a chore.

Hall's bold first line isn't strictly true: "I've never worked a day in my life." He means physical labor, but, as we later learn, he actually "wukked" (New Hampshire pronunciation) for ten boyhood summers on his maternal grandparents' subsistence farm — pitching, loading, and raking hay. It was toil made pleasurable by the companionship of his adored grandfather, Wesley Wells. In his loving descriptions of his grandparents' endless cycle of chores — milking, mowing, weeding, harvesting, repairing, logging, baking, canning, darning — Hall nostalgically evokes a simpler world of waste-not-want-not frugality. He dramatized this sensibility in Ox-Cart Man, his celebrated children's book, about a farmer who prepares all year for market, where he sells everything he makes, including his ox and his cart, and then repeats the process all over again. Some people, Hall notes, find the Sisyphean nature of the ox-cart man's routine discouraging. Not him.

Hall's work also has its repetitive aspects, including frequently recycled (yet richer for the retelling) stories about his grandparents and their memorabilia- filled clapboard 1803 New Hampshire house at Eagle Pond Farm, owned by his family since 1865. This is where he "retired" in 1975, at the age of forty- seven, with his former student and second wife, Jane Kenyon, in order to devote themselves fully to their writing and each other.

It's a feat to write about contentment without coming across as smug, and to tout a simpler way of life without coming across as a scold lambasting shallow values. Hall manages in part by the sheer extent of his literary labors — days that begin before sunrise and proceed from the most demanding writing to the least: poetry to prose to essays, and, finally, letters, dictated while watching evening baseball games brought to him courtesy of his "bliss dish." The self-portrait that emerges is of a graphomaniac: working full tilt, Hall published, by his count, a piece of writing every week, and sent about 5,000 letters and postcards a year. He quips: "Once when the mailman was late I bit his leg." One can't help wondering — with some trepidation — if he's since taken to email.

Although Hall defines contentment as "work so engrossing that you do not know you are working," part of his contentment lies outside work, in his shared domestic routines with Kenyon. After he is diagnosed with liver cancer partway through the book's composition, "losing two-thirds of a liver and nine-tenths of my complacency," he comes "so close to Jane that I feel as if I had crawled into her body through her pores — and, although the occasion of this penetration has been melancholy, the comfort is luminous and redemptive."

Rereading Life Work now is especially poignant, for although we know that Hall, against the odds, has survived, we also know that Kenyon — nineteen years his junior — improbably, heartbreakingly, died of leukemia at forty-seven in 1995, just two years after the book's publication. Rather than putting a halt to Hall's productivity, Kenyon's death led to an outpouring of highly burnished distillations of grief in both poetry and prose. These include The Old Life (1996), Without (1998), The Painted Bed (2002), and The Best Day the Worst Day: Life with Jane Kenyon (2005). Among spousal tributes, few are more moving than Without. In the poem "Letter After a Year," he tells Kenyon that he walks in the graveyard with their dog every day. Sad? Yes. But he lets her (and us) know that his wit is intact: "I'm the one who doesn't / piss on your stone." He has also worked mightily to keep Kenyon's voice alive, editing two posthumous volumes of her work: Otherwise: New and Selected Poems (1996) and A Hundred White Daffodils (1999), a collection of her miscellaneous prose.

For an overview of less lofty forms of employment, Studs Terkel's great oral history, Working (1974), is the bible. In scores of interviews, Terkel explored the search "for daily meaning as well as daily bread" in a wide variety of fields, including mining, sales, carpentry, sports, and nursing. In The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (2009), Alain de Botton observes that it is only relatively recently in human history that work (rather than lineage) has come to define our identity and that self-fulfillment — in addition to money — has become an important motivator. But the peripatetic philosopher's look at some of the increasingly specialized and soul-sapping occupations in the industrialized world, such as cargo shipping and snack food product development, is pretty disheartening.

For better or worse, fiction and drama often color our sense of specific occupations: Arthur Miller's Willy Loman has for many of us become the iconic salesman, and John Updike's Rabbit Angstrom a representative car dealer. For a hilarious send-up of office life, the title story of Daniel Orozco's Orientation, in which a new worker is given an office tour, is a must-read. ("This is your phone. Never answer your phone. Let the Voicemail System answer it.") Joshua Ferris also skewers cubicle culture with his bitingly funny first novel, Then We Came to the End (2007), set in a Chicago advertising agency in 2001 during a period of unsettling layoffs after the dot-com bubble burst. Finally, Kris D'Agostino's recently published first novel, The Sleepy Hollow Family Almanac, plays a Gen-Y slacker's uncertainty about his future for laughs and gasps. His narrator, saddled with massive student loan debt, boomerangs back home and takes a temporary job working at a preschool for autistic kids while desperately trying to figure out what to do with his life and how to escape and/or save his loony family, who are threatened with foreclosure after his father, a pilot, is grounded by cancer and depression.

Sound tough? Hall's advice would probably include: "Diligence vincit omnia." (Diligence conquers all.) Consider it not as a recipe for success, but as a reminder of the rare happiness that can come from finding one's task, and turning to it.

Heller McAlpin is a New York–based critic who reviews books for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Christian Science Monitor, and other publications.

Reviewer: Heller McAlpin

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807071335
  • Publisher: Beacon
  • Publication date: 4/14/2003
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 136
  • Sales rank: 575,064
  • Product dimensions: 5.54 (w) x 8.51 (h) x 0.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Donald Hall is the author of many volumes of poetry spanning forty years, including The One Day, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, essays, children's books, and criticism.

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