Many readers will fondly recall the earlier incarnation of Their Ancient Glittering Eyes (the title is taken from Yeats’s Lapis Lazuli), published in 1978 as Remembering Poets. That book contained Donald Hall’s reports of his close encounters with four giants of modernism—Robert Frost, Dylan Thomas, T.S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound. When Hall began revising for a new edition he decided, happily for us, to add his reminiscences of three more poets—Marianne Moore, Archibald MacLeish, and Yvor Winters—plus two interviews with Moore. The result is doubly valuable in that it returns a splendid collection of short memoirs to print and adds Hall’s recollections of three other key figures in the history of modern poetry.
Hall has been fortunate in his career in several ways. He decided on his vocation while still in high school, and after his Harvard years, during which he was editor of the Advocate, he went to Oxford, where he won the Newdigate Prize and made the contacts that would aid him in coediting the two editions of The New Poets of England and America, one of the most influential collections of its type ever published. Later he returned to Harvard for three years as a junior fellow, then spent a year studying at Stanford before settling in at the University of Michigan as poet-in-residence. Unlike most contemporary tenure-hugging poets. Hall left a successful academic career behind in the mid 1970’s to live on a family farm in New Hampshire, and that bold career move gave him the freedom to write on a remarkably wide range of subjects, from poetics to baseball.
Through most of his life, Hall has been blessed with the company of poets of several generations. He attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference at 16 and encountered the formidable Robert Frost there. At Harvard, his contemporaries included John Ashberry, Adrienne Rich, and Robert Bly, and he took a writing class from MacLeish. While studying in England, he met T. S. Eliot, whom he had encountered through correspondence as a result of an undergraduate faux pas (the Advocate had reprinted Eliot’s juvenilia without permission); went pub-crawling with Dylan Thomas; and later traveled to Italy to interview Ezra Pound for the Paris Review. Back in the States, he studied for a year with Yvor Winters and later interviewed Marianne Moore twice. His book is filled with fascinating glimpses of many other poets: the young John Hollander “sitting on both sides” of Eliot at a Harvard dinner; the anthologist Oscar Williams receiving a chilly greeting from Eliot; Winters worrying whether the British poet Thom Gunn would be able to manage California highways; Theodore Roethke calling Hall in the midst of one of many celebrated episodes of mental illness, offering to do a reading with money that existed only in his manic fantasies. Not surprisingly. Hall manages to tell a good deal of his own story as well; indeed, the stages of his poetic rites of passage often provide the necessary tensions in his relationships with his mentors that make the prose come alive, as when he finds himself reading a satirical poem on “preachy political poets” in the presence of one of his obvious targets, MacLeish, who during the performance stared “at the floor with his mouth a straight line. ‘An interesting social document,’ he said.”
Readers too young to remember the members of this remarkable generation when they were alive may find it difficult to believe that poets could have been such visible cultural figures. But Frost, who relished playing his role, what Randall Jarrell once called “the Only Genuine Robert Frost in Captivity,” was almost constantly on the public stage for the last 30 years of his life, ending his career with an appearance at a presidential inauguration and a visit with Khrushchev in the U.S.S.R. Eliot, as a Nobel laureate and author of The Waste Land, was a chief arbiter of literary taste both here and in his adopted England. Pound and Thomas were best known for their notoriety—Pound for his pro-Mussolini broadcasts from Rome and postwar incarceration in a mental hospital; Thomas for his outrageous, self-destructive behavior on American reading tours that led to his premature death. MacLeish, who has recently been the subject of a full-length biography, combined a successful literary career with important posts in business and government. Even the eccentric Moore, the least likely of the group to court the crowd, became something of a media celebrity in the last decade of her life, unsuccessfully lending her talents to Ford Motor Company to name a new automobile (it turned out to be the Edsel!) and appearing on the Today Show to discuss baseball with Joe Garagiola. Of the seven, only Winters was a fulltime academic who never appeared in the public arena, but even he carried the aura of secure reputation about him. Hall’s account of their first meeting reveals the man’s essence, which Hall terms “pugnacious and nuts”: “‘You come from Harvard,’ said Winters. . . . ‘where they think I’m lower than the carpet.’ A moment later he added, ‘Do you realize that you will be ridiculed, the rest of your life, for having studied a year with me?'” One of the most memorable moments in the book is when Hall, afraid of becoming yet another slavish disciple of the strong-willed Winters, decides to bail out of Stanford: “We attended a party at Winters’s house late in spring. In a crush of students and faculty. Winters asked a small favor: Would I fill the ice bucket from the bag in the kitchen? Asking the favor, he addressed me as ‘son.’ When I heard the monosyllable, I went weak in the knees. Geronimo!”
Despite the appearance of several full-length biographies since Remembering Poets was first published, Hall’s memories add some lively brush strokes to the official portraits, for he is a master of the telling anecdote that reveals character. Frost, if not quite the egotistical monster of Lawrence Thompson’s biography, remains a complex, overly sensitive man whose sometimes vicious competitive streak was at odds with his carefully maintained public image. Still, he could let the mask down. Hall’s final meeting with him was during the last summer of Frost’s life, when he and his wife and children visited the poet in Vermont. As he pulled off, he looked in the rearview mirror and spied the 88-year-old poet jogging after the car, wanting to remind Hall not to mention one of his remarks in order to spare the feelings of another young poet. Pound, already wrestling with the silence that closed around him in his last years, seems almost desperate to set the record straight. I recall reading Hall’s Paris Review interview almost 25 years ago, thinking then that this poet who could recall Yeats and the young Eliot so painstakingly was far from mad; however, Hall’s memoir indicates, if not insanity, at least severe depression and occasional megalomania, and his account of how he edited the interview into coherence is like an account of someone trying to assemble a Cubist jigsaw puzzle. Those who know Eliot chiefly from his desiccated early poetry will be happily surprised to encounter him in his last decade, when the success of his stage plays and a fortunate second marriage had changed his appearance radically: “When I first talked with him at Faber he had been an old sixty-three, pale and stooped with a hacking cough. Now, at seventy—but with a new young wife—he looked like George Sanders; now he looked debonair, sophisticated, lean, and handsome, with a deep tan just acquired in the Caribbean.”
Marianne Moore is the sole woman here, and she usually occupies a similarly lonely shelf in the hierarchy of the modernist canon. Hall says that he omitted the section on her from Remembering Poets because he felt that his “recollections added nothing to common knowledge.” After reading Charles Molesworth’s generally unsatisfying 1990 biography of Moore, one is still likely to want to get at the mystery, if indeed there is a mystery, behind her militant spinsterhood and the writing that she begrudgingly called poetry “because there is no other category in which to put it.” Hall says, “Of all the poets I recollect here, Marianne Moore is the one who remains the most mysterious, and—not incidentally?—looms larger in her poems every time I read her.” Hall never quite arrives at a solution to the puzzle, but he makes it plain that Moore’s eccentric poetry and life were all of a piece. At an interview with Hall, during which she kept her hand over her mouth to cover the absence of a broken denture, she served him an idiosyncratic lunch that seemed to come straight out of one of her poetic catalogs:
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 a tinfoil-wrapped wedge of processed Swiss cheese. There was something sweet, cake-like, and stale. . . . In a moment, she left the room and returned with something to fill me up, but which she could not herself chew. From the package she poured on my tray a mound of Fritos. “I like Fritos,” she croaked, covering her mouth. “They’re so nutritious,”
Readers of these poets will find the nutritional benefits of Mr. Hall’s prose more than adequate, I suspect.
[Their Ancient Glittering Eyes: Remembering Poets and More Poets, by Donald Hall (New York: Ticknor & Fields) 348 pp., $22.95]