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A Viking Cruise for Old English Majors

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A Viking Cruise for Old English Majors

Donald Hall’s Old Poets, newly reissued, offers delights for those inclined. December 29, 2021
Arts and Culture

Old Poets: Reminiscences & Opinions, by Donald Hall (Godine, 296 pp., $27.95)

In Old Poets, the late poet Donald Hall opines on everything literary (“I suspect that Emily Dickinson, bipolar like most poets, was as eccentric as Marianne Moore”), and readers will vicariously experience outings with eminent poets, including a pub crawl through Wales with Dylan Thomas and a baseball game at the Polo Grounds with Moore. Old Timers’ Day—that’s the spirit of this book.

“[Even] when I was a child, I felt closer to octogenarians than to children my own age,” wrote Hall. Old Poets is, itself, an old book. The first version came out in 1978, titled Remembering Poets. Hall liked to revise and could rework a poem upward of 70 times. In 1992, he added chapters on Moore, Ivor Winters, and Archibald MacLeish. Godine’s posthumously published 2021 version is a reissue of the 1992 edition.

Chockful of Hall’s reminiscences, opinions, and gossip, Old Poets contains more about him than all the other poets combined. Its key players are Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, and Ezra Pound—all old men when Hall met them.

I studied under Hall in the early 1970s at the University of Michigan. He once told me that scissors is the longest word in the English language. (When you say scissors, the “z” sounds seemingly go on forever.) When Hall’s first book of poetry came out, in 1956, he was an “iambic reactionary,” as he described himself. He loosened up over the years, but he was always mindful of syllables and beats. In Old Poets he writes about a Pound poem: “the diphthongs and long vowels moved together, in a slow march down the page, dip and pause and glide.”

Hall housed many poetry-reading circuit riders—Robert Bly, Allen Ginsberg, Galway Kinnell, Ted Berrigan—during his years in Ann Arbor. While attending Harvard (class of 1951), he met George Plimpton, Robert Creeley, Kenneth Koch, Frank O’Hara, Adrienne Rich, and John Ashbery, to name a few. Hall was the Zelig of twentieth-century American and British poetry. Thanks to George Plimpton, Hall was the first poetry editor of the Paris Review, lugging a clunky reel-to-reel machine to record interviews. “When writers are interviewed, they have answered two thirds of the questions before, and much of the time play a prerecorded tape for answer,” Hall writes in Old Poets. “But Pound undertook the interview with seriousness and anxiety.”

Hall’s book is subtitled Reminiscences & Opinions for good reason—it is rich in anecdotes. Hall says that Frost ridiculed verse without meter: “I’d just as soon play tennis without a net.” Dylan Thomas liked a huge breakfast. “He was an eater when he was not drunk.” In a 1948 letter, Eliot wrote, “Mr. Hall, I wish that you would date your letters.” Hall took the advice. “I dated every letter, note, and postcard I have written since.”

That is not entirely true. The Paris Review online archive contains a facsimile of a letter from Hall to Plimpton, circa 1960, classified as “undated.” Nevertheless, Hall told his students to date everything, and I have done so since 1973. He also told students to take daily 20-minute naps. He got that health tip from poet Robert Graves. In Old Poets, Hall tells Graves, “I can’t do that [nap],” and Graves answers, “Have you ever tried?”

Hall liked to discuss money. After giving up his tenured job at Michigan in 1975, he became a freelance writer. When I visited him at his farm in New Hampshire in 2000, he announced, “I’m rich.” He made most of his money from his textbook Writing Well and his award-winning children’s book Ox-Cart Man. In Old Poets, he writes about the “stock market” value of Archibald MacLeish: “From the 1930s into the 1960s, MacLeish’s poetic reputation flourished, but by the time he died in his ninetieth year in 1982, the literary stock market had devalued him.” Hall repeatedly invited Eliot to read at Michigan, but Eliot invariably said no. “I never mentioned payment when I asked him to Ann Arbor,” Hall writes. “I suppose I feared that mention of money might sound vulgar. (It was my vulgarity to fear that I might sound vulgar.)”

Hall attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference at age 16, went to Phillips Exeter, Harvard, Oxford, Stanford, then back to Harvard for a three-year fellowship. He won a slew of prestigious awards and fellowships. I once accused him of being spoiled like a baby boomer, which annoyed him. He wrote me in 2015: “Baby-boom? Believe me, there was no baby-boom in 1928 [when Hall was born]. There were lots of only children at my school! We were not rich at all. My father started work at $25 a week, and I think it got as high as $40 a week during the war. He did have a steady job, so he might as well have been rich.” Hall grew up as an only child in suburban New Haven, Connecticut. His father ran a dairy, started by Hall’s grandfather.

The chapters on Moore, Winters, and MacLeish are the weakest in Old Poets, containing a great deal of abstruse line-by-line poetry analysis. The book’s final chapter, about Pound, is its best. “Wearing his yellow scarf, carrying his stick, he [Pound] led me four or five blocks to a stationery store,” Hall writes. “Pound extolled the Bic pen to me, widespread in Europe but not yet arrived in Ann Arbor [1960].” There is also talk of carbon paper.

Hall doesn’t forgive Pound his anti-Semitism but writes, “I have never found it difficult to split poems from poet. Perhaps it is nasty that it is not difficult, but I do not find it difficult and often I find it essential. If a poet is great, the poem is the poet at his or her greatest, and the man or woman in daily life will never equal the intelligence or sensitivity of the poem, which is created by concentration and revision (or manic ecstasy) in solitude.”

Always, Old Poets circles back to old age. Hall writes, “One problem for the old poet arises from loss of short-term memory. Some poets write well in their fifties, even in their sixties, but few later: Hardy, Landor, maybe Frost.” (William Savage Landor was an early-nineteenth-century English poet.) In 2013, Hall wrote me: “I’ll be 85 this week. No energy, bad legs, and I’m still smart as hell. There will be an essay book coming, maybe a year from now. Of course, I don’t know whether I’ll be around to read it, but what the hell, obituaries would probably sell the book.” He died in 2018 at 89.

I wonder: What is the stock market report today on old poets? Who talks about Frost, Thomas, Pound, or Eliot outside of an English classroom—or even inside one? Who takes English? Hall writes, “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—‘Boost, don’t knock’—should sell Toyotas. To be a poet, as Frost was wont to say, you’ve got to have a snout for punishment.”

Old Poets is no punishment. It’s a Viking cruise for old English majors.

Photo by James Paterson/N-Photo Magazine/Future via Getty Images

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