Hall hung with the heavies, starting young; this book supplies a deep-dish, insider tour. Do not skip his wry Introduction: “There is a minor tradition in literature . . . [that] derives from curiosity about writers we admire.” Yes, we love gossip. We also love to quantify quality: “Surely superiority is an awkward idea, even oppressive; but so is death.”
Love him yet? Press on.
Hall makes quick work of the eternal seesaw of literary reputations: “Writers with enormous followings in their own lifetimes go unread and unmentioned a generation later . . . [their] stock market prices declined” for “trivial reasons.” In fact, “popularity always rises from sources partly silly, even when the poet is magnificent. . . . It is sensible to assume that the taste of our own moment will come to seem fatuous, including your taste and mine.”
In these stellar lives, serenity’s elusive. When T.S. Eliot confesses that no poet feels sure he’s not wasting his time, Hall nods: “Maybe no one ambitious, in any line of work, dies with conviction of accomplishment.” But “Old Poets’” elegiac essence is best nailed in Hall’s remark about Eliot’s impact in his time: “No one can assume the center of that stage as Eliot did: There is no longer such a stage.”
Unrepentant passion blends here with droll worldliness: “If we devote our lives to poetry, and take our lives seriously, we must praise and denounce with equal ferocity. People who follow the notion that praise alone is acceptable . . . should sell Toyotas.”
Hall was just 16 when he first glimpsed Robert Frost at Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference: “His face was strong and blocky, his white hair thick and rough. He looked like granite . . . but gifted to walk and speak. . . . Merely seeing this man . . . allowed me to feel enlarged. My dreams for my own life, for my own aging into stone, took on reality.” Hall came to know Frost — and all the icons here — through visits, interviews, outings. Each is ripely, penetratingly chronicled. About Frost, Hall corrects both hagiographers and vilifiers: “He was not simple. . . . He was vain . . . cruel . . . rivalrous . . . but he could also be generous and warm . . . possessed by guilt . . . by the craving for love and the necessity to reject love offered — and by desire for fame that no amount of celebrity could satisfy.”
The roll-call: Frost, Dylan Thomas, Archibald MacLeish, Yvor Winters, Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound. Other stars weave through (William Carlos Williams, Adrienne Rich, etc.). I cannot overstate the pleasure of Hall’s prose — supple, probing, funny; never sparing himself — as witness, interviewer, fan, enabler, editor, critic, philosopher. Of Frost’s written introduction to an early Harvard collection, Hall notes the piece “did little dances among notions of poetry and growing older. The prose was typical of Frost in its eloquent tortuousness,” and “dealt with his doubts by promenading them without calling them doubts. And oh, he could make a sentence; he could make a pun and turn his heel on it for a transition.” Whereas a later Frost piece is “the work of an older man. As I read it now, it talks to me more than it used to talk.”
Antics, grudges, career-wrangling — anguish — are voluptuously recounted, befitting a first-tier noticer. Hall must have taken fabulous notes. Consider what Moore served him for lunch:
“My tray held several little paper cups, the pleated kind used for cupcakes, which she employed as receptacles. In one there were several raisins, perhaps seven, and in another a clutch of Spanish peanuts. There was a cheese glass (from Kraft processed spread) half full of tomato juice. There was a glass dish that contained one quarter of a canned peach. There were three saltines and tinfoil-wrapped wedge of processed Swiss cheese . . . [and] a mound of Fritos.”
Moore's (and the others') works are analyzed in sparkling depth: “The radical strangeness of her mind sponsored the originality of her poetry.”
Hall trailed Thomas around Wales and England while Thomas drank himself sick — an unforgettable portrait. When Thomas told Hall he’d not mind dying, Hall asked why. “Just for the change,” Thomas replied. Thomas also announced he’d resolved to write prose because there was more money in it. This stunned Hall: “It is melancholy to realize that he was talking about earning fifty dollars for a short story instead of twenty-five dollars for a poem. He could have done as well ferrying people across Carmarthen Bay. . . . Even if, when you grew up, you turned out to be Dylan Thomas, life could be neither simple nor easy nor happy.”
Pound’s story — painstakingly laid out; monstrous, generous, wretched — makes a sweeping finish. Released from St. Elizabeths Hospital (deemed mentally unfit to stand trial for antisemitic rants) in part through Frost’s intervention, Pound reportedly sniffed that “it had taken Frost long enough.” Pound may have been an ingrate, but the gratitude of generations will always be due Hall, for remembering. “Old Poets” is an indispensable jewel.
Reminiscences and Opinions
By Donald Hall
Godine. 296 pp. $27.95