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Unpacking the Boxes: A Memoir of a Life in Poetry

3.79  ·  Rating details ·  320 ratings  ·  82 reviews
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,” a
Hardcover, 208 pages
Published September 2nd 2008 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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Average rating 3.79  · 
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 ·  320 ratings  ·  82 reviews

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Diane Barnes
Jul 03, 2019 rated it it was ok
Shelves: bedtime-books
The more I read Donald Hall, the less I like him. A name dropping, narcissistic, self promoting man, who never gives anyone but himself any credit. Aptly chosen as a bedtime book, because it certainly put me to sleep. 110 pages in, I've had enough.
Sam Schulman
Dec 25, 2009 rated it it was ok
A good beginning - an interesting if somewhat incurious (about his parents, grandparents, etc.) account of his childhood in familiar Hamden and Whitneyville, CT, prosperous in the Depression - and a better account of wartime years at Andover and postwar years at Harvard, and then a completely gripping narrative of social/literary success at Oxford in the Korean war years - one begins to notice some things that are wrong.
First of all, Hall seems unable to appreciate his immense good fortune in s
Dec 13, 2008 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Hall’s prose is always a good companion, whether he is recounting seasons on Eagle Pond, musing on work and life, or holding a reflective glass to his suffering through illness and tragedy, or merely recalling his childhood as the first part of his professional journey to his twilight years of diminished powers but heightened perceptiveness and understanding. Unpacking the Boxes is a philosophical look back, a frank one, remarkably free of self-pity or self-congratulation. He has lived his chose ...more
Milton Brasher-Cunningham
Jan 03, 2017 rated it really liked it
In less than two hundred pages, Donald Hall, poet and Red Sox fan, tells the story of his life. Early on, he writes,

"The first word I was taught to read, after weeks of memorizing the alaphabet, was 'that.' Did my life begin with 'that'? One's life begins on so many occasions, constructing itself out of accident derived from coincidence compounded by character." (16)

The book is not an exhaustive account of his life, nor a sentimental one, but it is full of rich imagery an
Jun 21, 2009 rated it it was amazing
This book is so beautifully written and skillfully crafted, I read passages over and over again and took copious notes. Donald Hall's poetry has been a gift to me since I began to read his poetry in the early 1970's; he changed how I thought of poetry. To read how he came to be the writer he is...his love of reading and writing, his introduction to authors, his childhood, school and teaching experiences put an intimate face on his poetry for me.

“One’s life begins on so many occasions, construct
Dec 17, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: To anyone who love poetry, the poetry greats and want a since of culture.
Recommended to Quanda by: A friend of mine (Jackie Angiuli)
First I have to say that I really enjoyed this man's since of humor, he was quite funny. Bluntly funny. LOL!!!

But I loved this book becuase it offered, innocence, newness, sweetness, and a subtle and shocking sadness. It's about his beginning of life, his traveling journey to becoming who he is today. But I must say that involves you, as if you were there and his personal side kick in his story.

However I must say that his life encounters were amazing and eye opening and it's also fu
Feb 07, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: poetry, biography
Over the years I have read an occasional Donald Hall poem, but I can’t say I’m familiar with his work. But he appeared on a recent cover of Poets & Writers, so I thought it was time I corrected that. While looking for his work in the poetry section of a used bookstore, I came across this book, one of his memoirs. That seemed like a good place to start, so I bought it.

See my full review here: Review of Unpacking the Boxes by Donald Hall
Sep 16, 2018 rated it liked it
I’ve been reading and re-reading a lot of Donald Hall lately after his death this past summer. I usually prefer his prose to his poetry. The first third of this book, about his childhood, was good—engrossing and honest, full of interesting detail about a certain kind of family life in the middle of the 20th century. The middle third about his years at college and Oxford, were simply boring. Lots of name-dropping and little of substance or interior life. He describes the young Donald Hall as ambi ...more
AJ (Andrea) Nolan
Mar 08, 2018 rated it really liked it
This is a meandering look into the life and mind of Donald Hall. While I love Jane Kenyon more than him, Hall's poetry is likewise powerful and so impeccably crafted. The singleminded dedication he gave to poetry is a lesson in commitment and vocation. In some places I definitely got the feeling that this memoir was written more to pay the bills than because it needed to be written, but despite that it is still generally lovely and a good insight into his life.
Art Morse
Jan 31, 2019 rated it really liked it
Love this book. Extremely personal and eye opening for me. Only thought of him as a poet. Amazing gentleman, but totally human. Guess the one thing to learn from this book is to live according to his quote, “to live in the moment — as you have been told to all your life.”
I’ve already order two of his books.
Jul 02, 2013 rated it it was ok
¬Donald Hall, U.S. Poet laureate in 2006 and husband of poet Jane Kenyon is a favorite poet of mine, which is why I picked up this book – a memoir of sorts about his lifelong passion for poetry (which began, amazingly enough when he was a child and decided he wanted to be a poet when he grew up.) Unfortunately this book left me feeling oddly disappointed – as if I’d been indulging an elderly man by listening to him recount past sorrows and glories. At times I felt a bit embarrassed for him becau ...more
So, this is the second memoir of Donald Hall's I've read, and I still haven't read his poetry. It's not like I actively sought this book out though - it was laid out on the $4.99 table at the Harvard Bookstore when I visited Cambridge last week, and I remember String Too Short to Be Saved with much fondness... and this was only $4.99...

In many ways, this memoir was too personal for me - perhaps an odd thing to say, but what I mean is that Hall assumes a basic knowledge of important literary figur
Feb 20, 2010 rated it it was amazing
The very first sentence of this book explains for me precisely why Donald Hall, despite life's typical sorrows and disappointments, has had, to quote Reynolds Price, "a long and happy life".

Much like figure skater Johnny Weir, who today gave an elegant statement on the grace of having loving parents, Hall's mother and father, from the very outset, believed in him and wished for him the opportunity to do in life exactly what he wanted....and her knew from a very young age that he wanted to be a
Kiri Stewart
Nov 04, 2012 rated it it was amazing
As with any life, some parts of Donald Hall's life in poetry are not quite as interesting or engaging as others, but I have loved this man and his poetry and envied his writing life for more than a decade now. To learn more about his early life and history with all of his powerful and poetic word choices and rhythms in prose was rewarding and satisfying to say the least. I once wrote a very short essay/journal about reading "Letter at Christmas" and weeping openly in a bookstore, and my professo ...more
Sheri Fresonke Harper
What I found most enjoyable in this memoir by Donald Hall is his focus on his life as a poet and what that meant to him. I found it fascinating how he approached the study and explanation of poetry, along with how he viewed poetry readings. For poets, I think that part is especially helpful. Mixed in with this memoir, is how his wife's death and to some extent how his earlier divorce affected him emotionally. I could feel his loss and pain and some of the love he shared with his wife. His connec ...more
James Murphy
Apr 16, 2011 rated it really liked it
This is a wonderful memoir by a man who sees everhing and everybody in his life in the best light. A poet and writer and teacher, beginning in 2006 he served a term as the Poet Laureate of the United States. By far the most interesting sections of Unpacking the Boxes are those in which he writes about his education at Exeter, Harvard, and Oxford. Those chapters earn the highest marks. He spends little time on his marriage and family. Hall's 2d wife was the poet Jane Kenyon. He apparently covered ...more
Delia Turner
Jan 06, 2013 rated it it was ok
Rambling and with odd repetitions and lacunae, this book encapsulates the image of a white male poet of a certain era until the very end, when it becomes a vivid and slightly unhinged image of first, a man grieving horribly for his beloved wife and second, the indignities of becoming an old man. The last chapter, "The Planet of Antiquity," is worth the whole book, especially his account of being pulled over and arrested (and handcuffed) for, basically, driving while old.
Sep 21, 2008 rated it it was ok
Shelves: memoir
I was disappointed by this book. It seems to me that Hall is still more proud of his glory days at Harvard and Oxford than he is of anything else he's ever done. The most interesting portion of this book was the last chapter, in which he describes what it's really like to grow old. The language is beautiful, but the story is just not that compelling.
Feb 26, 2010 rated it it was amazing
I just finished this book a couple of weeks ago , I loved it for it's honesty. Having lived on a farm in Danbury , New Hampshire from where he wrote this book brought extra meaning for me. I am not looking forward though to getting old.
Feb 15, 2015 rated it really liked it
The elegant and touching love story of Poet Donald Hall and his wife, Jane Kenyon, in her last days. I'm preparing to read Essays after Eighty by Donald Hall. I wanted a little bit of his back story.
Aug 12, 2018 rated it it was amazing
When it came time to choose a book of nonfiction, the choice seemed obvious: as Donald Hall—one of my favorite poets—had died just weeks before, it was time to take this off of the shelves, where it lives with his memoir of his marriage to Jane Kenyon, The Best Day, the Worst Day and books of their poetry.

Surprised by the succinctness of this book—its subtitled is “A Memoir of a Life in Poetry”, so that explains its brevity; it focuses on that aspect of Hall’s life—I was equally surpris
Nicola Pierce
Dec 30, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I knew nothing about this man - only read the blurb of the book somewhere and wanted it immediately as I love reading about writers' lives and loves. I read it in two sittings and was fascinated by the amount of graft and single bloody-mindedness that went into the making of a poet. I was particularly looking forward to reading about his marriage and life with poet Jane Kenyon so I was a little disappointed about being directed to an earlier book, 'Best Day, The Worst Day' but - hey ho! - I will ...more
Jul 21, 2018 rated it liked it
Overall, I enjoyed Mr. Hall’s tales of Exeter, Harvard, and Oxford but you can imagine the privilege that allowed his ascent and colored his writing. At one point he asks the poet Adrienne Rich if he had been chauvinistic in the 1950s. She demurs and told him he taught her how to bathe a baby. I am betting there is more to that story and there were many moments like that throughout his polished recollections. Still, I am looking forward to more of his essays.
Jan 20, 2019 rated it really liked it
You know how sometimes someone's writing is so good you say "I'd be happy to read their grocery list"? Near the end of the book some of the essays felt that way. But Mr. Hall's writing is excellent and clear. He makes me more interested in poetry. His life was so very different from mine and reading about his years in college (actually childhood through his divorce) are a delight to read.
Cheryl Crotty
May 25, 2017 rated it really liked it
I love his writing and the story was lovely and so real and raw at times. Some of the poetry studies were a bit difficult for me but I'm a newbie in the learning stages of poetry. Donald Hall is a wonderful poet and a passionate writer.
May 27, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I have read his essays in his other books of musing. What he has to say about old age is to be cherished. Recommended for all , whatever the age.
Sara Woodbury
Oct 31, 2018 rated it really liked it
Similar to Carnival of Losses and Essays after Eighty, but with more (pleasant) name-dropping. Witty and wry, and as he suggests, about love, death and (not so much) New Hampshire.
Aug 02, 2018 rated it really liked it
As I discovered many years ago in Yankee Magazine, I like the way Donald Hall writes. I enjoy that his words flow & that he makes me think.
Meggin Dail
Jan 15, 2019 rated it liked it
An interesting memoir that went a little downhill and lost the theme of "unpacking the Boxes " toward the end.
Mar 24, 2013 rated it it was ok
Was really disappointed in this book after the amazing Without which was the volume of poems that made me want to know more about the man.

Unfortunately, I mostly read name-dropping of famous people that Hall had met over the course of his life and learned very little about the man at all. His children and his first wife, for instance, were mentioned and glossed over. While I appreciate his unwillingness to drag out every sordid detail of his divorce, making so little mention of his p
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Donald Hall was an American poet, writer, editor and literary critic. He began writing as an adolescent and attended the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference at the age of sixteen—the same year he had his first work published. Donald Hall published numerous books of poetry. Besides poetry, Donald Hall wrote books on baseball, the sculptor Henry Moore, and the poet Marianne Moore. He was also the author ...more
“As I read my poems aloud, I paid still more attention to sound in my writing. One morning as I revised, I set down a word that I knew was not right, and I heard myself think: But I can say it so that it’s right. Immediately, I knew that I had understood one of the hazards of reading aloud. Performance can paper over bad writing, or substitute for the best language. Performance is a problem, and most performance poets or slammers are actors or standup comedians and not poets; we never hear a line break and seldom a new metaphor. There are other problems with the popularity of the poetry reading, but largely the reading has been good for poetry because poets watch their own poems come back to them on the faces of listeners. One addresses not only the Muse but actual people.” 0 likes
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