Donald Hall on Writerly Failure and Teaching

“Where I sit today, working at my desk, there are shelves behind me that are dense with abandoned or unfinished work… Behind my neck roosts a rookery of bad manuscript. To write as much as I have done, I have needed often to fail. There is another book-length poem behind my neck, ten-line stanzas that look like surrealism but are actually bad dada. Rooting around, I recently found another long collection, written in the sixties in a time of fret and distress. It is what Robert Bly has called light-verse surrealism, and nothing fit to print. … There are also attempts at more prose pieces for The New Yorker, never completed. There are bad short stories, children’s books, and maybe hundreds of poems that never worked out. Every now and then I do an inventory. Every now and then something that appeared to be dead comes gradually to life. Often it dies again.” (Unpacking the Boxes, 136-138)

Everyone who loves teaching has the same experience: Someone asks a question; it’s something you never thought of, but the moment you hear the question you know the answer. Ninety percent of what you say is something you didn’t know until you said it. If you are teaching the best literature—I could choose the books I taught—you spend your working hours increasingly intimate with the art you love. You learn by teaching. Those early years, when I felt that I knew a particular book, I would stop teaching it in order to learn about another work that was still mysterious. (Unpacking the Boxes, 125-126)

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