The Third Thing: Poet Donald Hall on the Secret to Lasting Love

“Third things are essential to marriages, objects or practices or habits or arts or institutions or games or human beings that provide a site of joint rapture or contentment.”

The Third Thing: Poet Donald Hall on the Secret to Lasting Love

“The encounter between two differences is an event,” French philosopher Alain Badiou wrote in his tremendous treatise on why we fall and how we stay in love. “On the basis of this event, love can start and flourish. It is the first, absolutely essential point.”

And yet at the heart of this essential event is often something beyond the two — something often improbable, almost always inessential in itself, which somehow magnetizes the two differences into a unit of belonging.

Poet and essayist are inspired by that magical and mysterious power. Donald Hall (September 20, 1928–June 23, 2018) explores in a gorgeous essay titled “The Third Thing,” which appeared on the pages of Poetry — the world’s most enduring and visionary poetry magazine — in the autumn of 2004.

Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon

Reflecting on his life with the love of his life — the poet Jane Kenyon, herself the keeper and giver of uncommonly clarifying wisdom on writing and life — Hall considers the secret to the kind of lasting love that blooms between the mundane and the magical. An epoch after Virginia Woolf exulted in “the bead of sensation” that punctuates the dailiness of any durational love to make it last, Hall writes:

Jane Kenyon was my wife for 23 years. My family farm in New Hampshire was our home for over two decades. We wrote poetry and enjoyed the beauty of the New Hampshire countryside. At the time of her death, she was only forty-seven years old. If anyone had asked us, “Which year was the best, of your lives together?” we could have agreed on an answer: “the one we remember least.” There were sorrowful years — the death of her father, my cancers, her depressions — and there were also years of adventure: a trip to China and Japan, two trips to India; years when my children married; years when the grandchildren were born; years of triumph as Jane began her public life in poetry: her first book, her first poem in the New Yorker. Our best moments were one day of quiet repetition in the house. Not everyone understood. Visitors, especially from New York, would spend a weekend with us and say as they left: “It’s really pretty here” (“in Vermont,” many added) “with your house, the pond, the hills, but … but … but … How do you make a living?

The result: We got up very early to get ready for the day. Jane had her coffee at night so I made sure she was hydrated. Jane walked her dog while I wrote, and then she climbed up the stairs to write at her desk. Lunch was shared. We sat down together. We rose together and began secondary tasks. Jane read aloud, I read to Jane; they played scoreless game of ping-pong and read their mail. Later we started working again. In the living room we had dinner together, then talked and read books. Then, it was time to go to bed. If we were lucky the phone didn’t ring all day… Three hundred and thirty days a year we inhabited this old house and the same day’s adventurous routine.

The result: We loved.

Art from The Missing Piece Meets the Big O — Shel Silverstein’s allegory of the secret to lasting love

Hall says that everyday love does not have romantic tropes. Echoing Little Prince author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s beautiful insistence that “love does not consist of gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction,” Hall writes:

We did not spend our days gazing into each other’s eyes. When we fell in love or were going through trouble together, that was when our eyes met. But most of the times they looked at something else. The third thing is vital to marriages. It can be objects, practices, habits, arts or institutions that offer a place of shared rapture and contentment. Every member of a married couple is distinct. The two are able to share the same attention. The act of lovemaking does not involve a third person, but is two-in-one. John Keats or the Boston Symphony Orchestra or Dutch interiors or Monopoly can all be considered a third.

Sophie Blackall’s Art, from Things to Look forward to

Hall and Kenyon considered the pond close to their house the third thing. He says:

The pond was our third playground for the summer. It has been there since 1996. After taking a break, we packed books and blankets to walk across Route 4 along the railroad tracks to the bank on Eagle Pond. The soft moss underneath sent tiny red flowers upward. The ghost birches perched on water, with wild strawberries growing beneath them. Over our heads white pines reared high, and oaks that warned us of summer’s end late in August by dropping green metallic acorns. Sometimes a mink scooted among ferns… Jane dozed in the sun as I sat in the shade reading and occasionally taking a note in a blank book. Sometimes we would swim and dry in the heat.

Hall’s most piercing point is that the third thing, rather than being an extraneous adornment of the relationship, is a central form of companionship. But while it is indispensable, it is not irreplaceable — it doesn’t so much matter what the thing is, only that it is.

Mairakalman’s Art of Achieving Perspective for The Universe and Verse

When a landfill leakage destroyed their beloved pond, Hall and Kenyon still had their other third thing — poetry. Reflecting on its unparalleled power of perspective, its power to connect and console in the face of life’s darkest moments, he writes:

We lived in the house of poetry, which was also the house of love and grief; the house of solitude and art; the house of Jane’s depression and my cancers and Jane’s leukemia. After the death of a loved one, we returned to the poets and writers of grief, outrage, and love. Gilgamesh; often I read aloud Henry King’s “The Exequy,” written in the seventeenth century after the death of his young wife. The griever does not get relief from their grief, but rather companionship through it. Poetry captures all the emotions and complexity that can be felt at the most intense and complicated. Jane’s pain and weakness inspired me to write. One day, I saw the leaves turning in a hospital. They had arrived at the trees and I didn’t know about it. I was without seasons. It was also without punctuation. I began to write “Without” to embody the sensations of lives under dreary, monotonous assault. Jane read the draft aloud after I had written it numerous times. “That’s it, Perkins,” she said. “You’ve got it. That’s it.” Even in this poem written at her mortal bedside there was companionship.

Hall’s 1999 poetry collection Without (public library) is the breathtakingly beautiful record of that abiding companionship. You can complement it with Anna Dostoyevskaya about how to have a happy marriage. Wendell Berry talks about what poetry has to teach us about marriage. Adrienne Rich discusses honorable human relationships.

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