Donald Hall Their Ancient Glittering Eyes: Remembering Poets and More Poets.
Ticknor & Fields, 348 pages, $22.95 r
eviewed by Robert Richman
In 1978, Donald Hall published, to much acclaim, a book called Remembering Poets, memoirs of Dylan Thomas, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and Robert Frost. (The book also reprinted, in an appendix, interviews Hall had conducted with Eliot and Pound for The Paris Review.) Hall did not have much to go on: he had met Pound in the course of a few days in Rome in 1960 during his interview assignment, and Eliot a few times in Cambridge in the early 1950s, twice at Eliot’s London office a few years later, and then in New York in 1959, on the occasion of the interview. Thomas and Frost, too, Hall had met only occasionally over the years. Hall’s lack of intimacy with his poets, which might have daunted another writer, turned out to be a boon. Free from the facts that sometimes encumber biographers, Hall instead relied on his own powers of speculation and general shrewdness about poets and the poetic life. This can be seen on every page of Remembering Poets but especially in Hall’s account of Frost’s dismissal of a student’s weakly imitative poem at a writing conference that the sixteen-year-old Hall attended in 1945. (Frost said that Eliot, not the student, had written the poem.) Rather than use the episode to further the myth of Frost as an unspeakable ogre, as his official biographer, the philistine Lawrance Thompson, would have done, Hall argues that Frost’s competitiveness—he wished the student had imitated him, not Eliot—provoked his behavior.
It may be wrong to call the pieces in Remembering Poets memoirs at all. Each essay contains much literary criticism as well as snippets of autobiography. Indeed, images of Hall as an overeager Harvard undergraduate encountering T. S. Eliot for the first time through correspondence or as a young man driving across Europe with his family in a rented Morris Minor in search of Pound are as memorable as anything his poets say or do. There seems to be a democratic impulse behind Hall’s wish to insert himself: for every imperfection he reveals in his subjects, he wants to expose one in himself.
Their Ancient Glittering Eyes—the line is from Yeats’s “Lapis Lazuli”: “Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay”—contains more than the revised, expanded text of Remembering Poets. Two previously unpublished memoirs —one of Marianne Moore and one of Archibald MacLeish and Yvor Winters—are also included, as are two interviews with Moore, one from 1960 and one from 1965. As with Eliot and Pound, Hall met Moore mainly through his Paris Review assignment; he came to know MacLeish and Winters while he was enrolled at Harvard and Stanford, where the two men taught.
Hall calls his kind of writing “literary gossip, reminiscences by friends and acquaintances of authors,” and cites William Hazlitt, the nineteenth-century English essayist, as a literary ancestor. Hall admires Hazlitt’s recollections of Coleridge and Wordsworth because they remind us that poets are people—people, as Hall writes, “with small noses or Roman ones, voices that never stopped talking or voices with northern burrs.” One of Hall’s principal ambitions, to be sure, is to show that even the formidable modernists were human beings very much in possession of faces and voices not all that different from everyone else’s.
And yet, much of what Hall divulges in these essays goes against the equalizing effect that Hazlitt sought and that Hall admires. For just as often Hall’s revelations show us how unlike these great poets are from the rest of mankind. Frost’s superhuman vanity, Thomas’s pathological womanizing, Pound’s acute self-hatred (“Everything that I touch, I spoil,” he said), Eliot’s candid self-doubt (he told his interlocutor that he didn’t know whether his work had any lasting value): Hall everywhere confirms that many poets possess crippling quirks that most other people either curb or manage to shed before it is too late. Hall thinks that poetry is to blame: “At the end of the lives of poets,” he writes in the conclusion to the essay on Pound, “the domestic life is a desert of anguish… . [F]or some poets … life’s hell is a self-inflicted wound.”
Hall’s epigraph comes from Henry Adams: “I have long since made up my mind not to seek the acquaintance of poets.” The evidence that Hall has assembled here allows us to understand why. There is Frost, who in his twenties and thirties refused to support his family as he struggled in vain with his writing. There is Dylan Thomas with his famous bouts of self-destructiveness, which finally culminated in a fatal overdose of drugs and alcohol at the age of thirty-nine. There is Ezra Pound in his old age declaring that “I have never made a person happy in my life.” There is the spinsterish Marianne Moore with what Hall calls her “involuntary alienation” from the world. There is Yvor Winters with his obsessive fear of madness. In fact, the only poets who come off as relatively sound of mind and untortured by guilt for having devoted their lives to poetry are Eliot and MacLeish. MacLeish, or course, was bourgeois from the start and never let poetry impose on his personal life. As for Eliot, when Hall met him for his interview, he had only lately overcome, thanks to a fortunate second marriage, the misery of his early life. Hall’s passing remark in the Thomas piece that “[t]he poet who survives is the poet to celebrate; the human being who confronts darkness and defeats it is the one to admire” applies more to Eliot, perhaps, than to anyone else in the book.
But in the end, Hall’s portraits confirm our faith in poetry and its flawed makers. He reveals, for example, that Frost’s wife Elinor remembered the notorious “Derry years”— the period when the family lived in poverty while Robert worked on his poems—as “idyllic.” He shows us a considerate, affable MacLeish, whose kindness the arrogant Harvard student Donald Hall almost didn’t deserve. He reveals the amusing fact that Moore, who was insufferably pedantic and a stickler for detail, published books riddled with errors. And although he acknowledges Winters’s many failings, Hall insists that he “learned more about poetry from [him] than I learned from any other teacher.”
What also offsets the almost celestial panoply of misdeeds is Hall’s recognition of poetry’s fixed, innate value. “Art’s triumph endures in a world separate from the old mire and fury,” he writes in his essay on Eliot. This indeed is a leitmotif of Hall’s recollections: “Trust the poem, not the poet,” he advises, noting that “I have never found it difficult to split poem from poet.” And again in the Pound essay: “By means of the great and noble language of poetry, Ezra Pound assembled the best of himself and of the cultures he loved and studied. We find him forever in this Ithaca.”
The autobiographical element in Their Ancient Glittering Eyes, which often takes the form of Hall exposing his own flaws, also compensates for the parade of ugly revelations. Hall’s main flaw is his astonishing naïveté. We learn, for example, that he failed to tell Frost that the introduction he provided for an anthology that Hall was editing was adequate—Hall assumed that the seventy-year-old poet didn’t need to have his ego massaged, which wasn’t the case. Another instance of Hall’s ingenuousness was his assumption that he could secure readings for Pound in the United States—this at a time when the intense public antipathy for the poet would have made the undertaking impossible. By deflating slightly his own attempt to deflate the idea of the good, gray, and gay old poet—these poets’ eyes glittered, but most were not gay—Hall seems to suggest that he learned from his subjects a lesson in humility. (It is a message, actually, that many of the poets of Hall’s generation seem to have gleaned from their forebears, the modernists.) Ironically, Hall is compelled to introduce himself into his essays—a seemingly immodest tactic—to make palpable his new-found humility.
But even if this autobiographical element were absent, Their Ancient Glittering Eyes would still be a marvelous book. Hall’s observations on poetry and poets are splendid: “[Frost] was a man possessed by guilt, by knowledge that he was bad, by the craving for love and the necessity to reject love offered—and by the desire for fame which no amount of celebrity could satisfy.” Again:
When you’re writing a poem, you carry it with you day and night, for months or even years, often underneath the surface of waking thought; when you walk the dog or drive the car, a word for that poem may enter your consciousness when you do not know that you are thinking of it. When short-term memory fails, you lose that part of your brain that works when you don’t know it’s working.
(Here Hall is speculating on why older poets fail, and his reason—the loss of short-term memory—is the best explanation I have read.) And: “The notion of fame embarrasses us because we confuse it with mere lightness, like primping before a mirror; or we confuse it with celebrity.” One thing is certain: no one will confuse Donald Hall, whose eminence as a poet is already acknowledged, for a pedestrian writer of prose. Their Ancient Glittering Eyes is one of the most insightful and enjoyable books on the art ever written.
Robert Richmans book of poems, Voice on the Wind, was recently published by Copper Beech Press
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