Phil Hall was raised on farms in Ontario's Kawarthas region. Following a childhood fraught with intellectual alienation and conflicted emotions about family relationships, he left his rural home to attend the University of Windsor, where he earned an MA in English and Creative Writing. Since Hall began publishing in the 1970s, his critical acclaim has steadily increased. He is now recognized as one of the most important voices in Canadian lyric poetry.
Over the years Hall's poetry has undergone a change. Earlier work focuses on brutal, grotesque subjects of childhood in which "Pretty pretty / was wired wrong from the start." Later poetry questions language's capacity to convey truths with the honesty that Hall hoped might alleviate flashbacks of "deja vu / atrocities." An elegiac tone still infuses these works, but the urgency to confront the past yields to a more tempered outlook and widened field of signification.
Phil Hall's earlier books from the 1980s and 1990s, such as Why I Haven't Written (1985), Old Enemy Juice (1988) and The Unsaid (1992), engage the tradition of confessional poetry. Drawing on painful memories of a dysfunctional family (see Family Violence), Hall explores gender identity, sexual abuse, romantic relationships, alcoholism in his family, his parents' deaths, and his life as a developing writer. He attempts to come to terms with the psychological scars from his past by confronting them in poetry of gritty realism. This approach has earned his poetry the rubric "Ontario Gothic." Hall's years in Windsor working as an orderly in a nursing home also provided him with poetic material. He recounts his ministrations to the residents as he listens to their fading memories, experiences the feigned affection of visiting family, and unflinchingly describes the deterioration and lonely deaths of the elderly (see Aging).
During the 1980s Phil Hall moved to Vancouver, where he was active in the Vancouver Industrial Writers' Union and the Vancouver Men Against Rape Collective. His contributions to "working poetry" in Windsor and Vancouver reflect his involvement with issues of labour and gender equality. Several of his poems were included in Shop Talk (1985), an anthology focusing on the lives of working-class people. Hall's labour poems are related to those exploring personal material: both arise from the desire to reveal truths about the human condition, and both rely on colloquial language and story-telling. He reminisces in his 2009 essay "A Blunt Garde: the False Politics of Honesty:" "I didn't want to put anything into a poem that my uneducated (dead) father couldn't understand.... I wanted to be real & believe in myself as folk, to make progress happen by making poems be tools."
In the pivotal collection Hearthedral: A Folk-Hermetic (1996), Phil Hall's poetic shift becomes more apparent. It shows his transition from relatively accessible poetry using colloquial realism into more complex language reminiscent of James Joyce's wordplay in Finnegans Wake and Gerard Manley Hopkins' richly descriptive poetry. The collection demonstrates a change from the poem crafted as unit to untitled sequential writings valuing process over product. In subsequent books like White Porcupine (2007), The Little Seamstress (2010) and Killdeer (2011), Hall continues in this stylistic direction while retaining his connection to autobiographical material.
Phil Hall's poetry has garnered important awards evidencing his achievements. Trouble Sleeping (2000) was nominated for the Governor General's Literary Award for Poetry. An Oak Hunch (2005) was a finalist for the Griffin Poetry Prize. Killdeer (2011) won multiple honours: it was a finalist for the Griffin Poetry Prize, and was awarded the Governor General's Literary Award for Poetry and the Trillium Book Award.