Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Donald Hall, in the introduction to Remembering Poets: Reminiscences and Opinions (1978), his account of Dylan Thomas, Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound, makes the modest claim, “There is a minor tradition in literature . . . [that] derives from curiosity about people we admire.” Hall places his book in the “genre of literary gossip” in an attempt to deflect criticism from those scholars who have tried to separate the written text entirely from the author’s life, but he also asserts that as a writer himself, “this book records a portion of my education”; he goes on to praise Hugh Kenner, “the best critic of modern literature,” who is not “paralyzed by fear of biographical heresy.” Hall’s comments are designed to prepare the reader for a personal response to four major figures in modern literature and for Hall’s description of his participation in their lives. The problem he addresses concerns the degree to which he inserts his own experiences amid his recollections, because the total removal of the “self” that learned from, was inspired by, and even became friendly with a legendary artist would be as great a deception as its elevation to an undeserved central position.

Mary Barnard, whose instinctive modesty is striking, especially among artists whose capacity for self-promotion has been enlarged considerably by modern American society, was faced with the problem of how much of her own life to include when she began to compose a book that would contain previously unpublished letters from Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and Marianne Moore. At the age of seventy, she realized that some of the prominent people she knew were disappearing “not so much into the grave, which would be only natural, but into unwieldy tomes written by people who never knew them.” Her correspondence had grown out of a desire to learn more about literature, and she felt an obligation to younger readers, who might share her desire to learn about the process of a writer’s life.

When Barnard began to write to Pound, Williams, and Moore, these writers were isolated from the central flow of American literary life and they maintained a correspondence, a lifeline connecting them to a circuit...

(The entire section is 913 words.)