THE MINOR TRADITION or subgenre known in the publishing industry as the "memoir" (or "character study") enjoyed its heyday during the early years of the century when hagiographers like William Dean Howells and Mark A. DeWolfe Howe recorded their reminiscences and public celebrations of life in the hub of the literary establishment.
Comes now Donald Hall -- scholar, critic, poet, editor and educator -- with a collection of remembrances covering the final hours of the lives of a quartet of 20th-century literary giants: Dylan Thomas, Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Although at times poignant, charming, even clever, Remembering Poets suffers from a kind of overall superficiality which is perhaps unavoidable given the nature of the book's composition. Hall himself terms his technique "literary gossip" -- "neither biography nor criticism but a personal revelation of these great men as they neared the end of their lives." As a result what we have here is a manuscript that sits uncomfortably between two disciplines, combining both but satisfying neither.
Which is not to say that the book is a total loss. It is not. Dylan Thomas, for example, that loud, booming divine of a Welsh poet, is probed with considerable skill. Thomas, whose total dependency on drink was a precondition for his verse, serves Hall as an illustration of the same self-destructive drive that in later years wasted the likes of Sylvia Plath and John Berryman. In a series of revealing vignettes, Hall traces the roller coaster existence that led to Thomas's death at the premature age of 39. The life-style is familiar by now. Over the years the poet gradually became less inspired, more famous and drunk, less and less Dylan Thomas, alternately splashing eloquences and insults into the faces of wide-eyed young admirers. He could be a breezy reed talking down a room full of literary auditors or a flash torrid in female pursuit. Sprinted affairs and tumblers of whiskey kept him young while he quickly aged. In a typical exchange, he responded to Archibald MacLeish's "What will you do with the next 30 years of your life?" with "I will write poems, f -- women, and annoy my friends." As it turned out, the versifier had less than a year to live.
If there is a lesson to be learned in all of this it is that suffering is pandemic to poets. Their impulse toward self-annihilation is heightened by their need to feel pain. But there is also, as Donald Hall points out, the other side of the coin: the side that says the man to be admired is the artist who endures; the man of courage is the man who perseres. "Dylan Thomas," writes Hall, "was a minor poet, rather than a major one, because he was a drunk, because the death in him was too strong for the life." In support of the Darwinian tract that insists on the survival of the fittest, Hall takes a passing glance at the lives of Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot. Frost appeals to the author because he looked into his desert places, faced his desire to enter the oblivion of the snowy woods, but disdainfully drove on. Eliot, the originator in poetry of the doctrine of impersonality, likewise courted disaster. Surviving anguish and pain in middle age -- particularly his marriage to Vivienne Haigh Haigh-Wood, a sort of death-muse -- Eliot "paid the price of his art early on and grew into a kind of rectitude and even happiness." None of this material, however, is especially newsworthy, for we have heard it all before.
Roughly half of Remembering Poets is devoted to Ezra Pound, the man Eliot dubbed il miglior fabbro ("the better craftsman"). during the early 1960s Hall conducted interviews with both Eliot and Pound for the Paris Review, of which he was then poetry editor. The Pound interrogation, patched together from drafts and fragments at a time when the ancient mariner was first entering his mysterious "oath of silence," is perhaps the best single Pound interview ever published, a testimonial to Hall's perseverance. It is included, with the Eliot, as an appropriate postscript to the book. But Hall's recreation of the circumstances surrounding the interview, the few days spent with Pound in Rome following the old man's return to Europe from St. Elizabeth's, adds little to what we already know of him from previous biographies and memoirs.
What is worse, the Pound section is marred by a cluster of rather strange literary assertions. At one point Hall informs us that greatly as he admires the poetry of William Carlos Williams, "I am not sure that he would have been a poet without Ezra Pound." The brashness of this contention is easily matched by Hall's outrageous comment that Eliot "fumbled" his way toward The Waste Land, and that Pound "encouraged and cajoled Eliot into further poems." "Fumbled" is a regrettable choice of verb to describe the creation of what is ostensibly this century's most important poem; and no one had to "encourage and cajole" Eliot into his profession: he encouraged himself. There are numerous gaffes where these come from. Although it makes few claims for itself, this volume has little to shout about. None of this detracts from Donald Hall's reputation as one of our best and brightest poets, but in general one might have hoped for more.