Donald Hall plaque at Spring Glen Elementary School

Writing Home

Donald Hall’s childhood home stands at the corner of Ardmore and Greenway Streets in Hamden’s Spring Glen neighborhood—as he described it, “a small, dark, well-constructed, mock-Tudor house.” That house was the birthplace of the poet’s long and “illustrious career” as a writer who “has worked to improve poetry’s standing in the United States and provide new inspiration,” as the National Endowment for the Arts proclaimed when he received a National Medal of Arts at the White House in 2011.

It was a long journey from Spring Glen to Washington, DC. In his memoir Unpacking the Boxes (2008), Hall recalls his childhood as the son of a Hamden native and heir to the Brock-Hall dairy business, once located on Whitney Avenue. Nevertheless, Hall’s parents encouraged his poetry early on. “My father hated his work [at the dairy],” he wrote, “and it was his passion that I should do what I wanted to do.” Hall’s mother, born and raised on a farm in New Hampshire—the same farm on which he lives today—reportedly found it hard to fit in with Spring Glen society. She felt, he writes, “mildly treacherous because she had abandoned her family, even as she tried to adapt to Hamden: Automobiles, cigarettes, Scotch whiskey, bridge and restaurants were none of them available or acceptable back home.”

Many of Hall’s poems are autobiographical, and many mention New Haven and Hamden. They recount a melancholy Christmas in Spring Glen, when everything at home was decorated in blue; a string of horror movies watched alone in New Haven; a girlfriend who was “a nurse’s helper at St. Raphael’s.” In one poem, Hall recalls a childhood fear that Sleeping Giant’s

waking arm would break
From the loose earth and rub against his eyes
A fist of trees, and the whole country tremble…

In “Christmas Eve in Whitneyville,” he writes of his father’s burial in 1955 in the Whitneyville cemetery:

The lights go out and it is Christmas Day.
The stones are white, the grass is black and deep.
I will go back and leave you here to stay
Where the dark houses harden into sleep.

In “Spring Glen Grammar School,” Hall writes:

Eight years in this
rectangular brick of the nineteen thirties:
If I survive to be eighty,
this box will contain the tithe
of a long life…

Of Hamden High School, which Hall attended for two years, he writes in his memoir of “detaching” himself from his childhood friends in Spring Glen, who teased him for writing poetry. Instead, “I made friends who came from the State Street district. One was the son of a Calabrian who had charge of the gardens in East Rock Park. My closest friend’s parents were from Poland, his father a short-order cook, and another’s people had fled Bela Kuhn in Hungary. With these friends, who were less conventional than my Spring Glen classmates, I could be a poet without ridicule.”

In 1944, Hall left Hamden to attend Phillips Exeter Academy. He later attended Harvard and earned a degree from Oxford. His first poetry collection, Exiles and Marriages, was going to press as his father lay dying at home. “Everything that I did, toward publication, felt interconnected with my father’s death,” he writes. “I drove to Connecticut to see him once a week, showing him galley and pages… Exiles and Marriages came out early in December, and he held it in his hand.”

The list of Hall’s accomplishments as a poet is long: editor of the Paris Review, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, US poet laureate, author of multiple poetry volumes as well as memoirs, academic essays, children’s books and the perennial manual Writing Well (first published in 1971). Hall also taught at the University of Michigan, where he met his second wife, Jane Kenyon. She, too, became a critically acclaimed poet, but her death from leukemia in 1995 cut her career short and devastated Hall, who later grieved her in poetry and memoir.

The house at Greenway and Ardmore has passed through several families since the end of Hall’s long life there, but Hamden hasn’t forgotten its most literary son. Hall visited his hometown as an honored guest in 2011, following his National Medal of Arts honor and just in time for his 83rd birthday. At that celebration, the outdoor plaza of the Miller Memorial Library as well as a poetry prize at Quinnipiac University were named in his honor. The great poet, in rumpled flannel shirt and flyaway beard, seemed pleased to be welcomed home.

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image depicts a commemorative plaque hung at Spring Glen Elementary School.

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