“Though familiarity may not breed contempt, it takes the edge off admiration.” This saying of Hazlitt’s applies to Donald Hall’s treatment of Dylan Thomas, Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound in Remembering Poets. All four subjects are intimately interviewed and described, and any halos they may have retained they lose—although at the same time they gain in humanity. Donald Hall, himself a recognized poet, is eminently qualified to assess these geniuses; he approaches them with respect but without awe.
The first appraisal is captioned “Dylan Thomas and Public Suicide.” Hall was a student at Harvard when he met Thomas in 1950, three years before the poet drank himself to death. Thomas was thirty-six at the time, and the meeting took place when he was on his first reading tour in America. Hall’s first impression of Thomas was of the poet at the lectern, a small unsmiling figure with a huge belly, pudgy face, bulbous nose, no chin, pop-eyes, curly hair, and a voice like Jehovah’s. Students and professors alike were spellbound, although they had been determined not to be spellbound. Afterwards there was the party at which Thomas disillusioned everyone by playing his role of the Drunken Boor, the Roaring Boy. Hall says he went home and wrote in his journal that he did not like the man.
Two years later in 1952, when Hall was a twenty-three-year-old student at Oxford, he was sent to London to find Dylan Thomas, since the Oxford University Poetry Society (of which he was secretary) wanted Thomas to read his poems. He spent several hours futilely chasing down addresses and then bumped into Thomas in a pub. Hall overcame his initial dislike, and after spending the day drinking with the poet, he felt very cordial. He reported that Thomas started talking about politics and money, or rather the lack of money. Then they talked poetry gossip and poetry business, downing pints of ale, and Hall became Dylan’s “American friend, Don” to all Thomas’ many acquaintances. He agreed to come to Oxford and read his poetry; but he did not show up.
The next fall, Hall went to Wales determined this time to bring Thomas to Oxford. He and his wife spent the day and night pub-hopping with Dylan and Caitlin, Dylan’s wife. The next day they barely managed to drive back to Oxford in time for Thomas to read; he read superbly. The next morning he returned to London, to the BBC, and to drinking, then to be rescued by Caitlin and to suffer his usual five-day hangover. The poet was dead within a year’s time.
In 1953 Hall was in California when he read of Thomas’ death in New York. The public grief disgusted Hall as he continued to hear increasingly outrageous stories of The Merry Tales of Master Dylan. These stories, Hall says, celebrated his drunkenness, and hence his self-destruction; Hall believes Thomas’ death was a precedent for the suicides of poets Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. Like Jack Kerouac and Brendan Behan, Thomas was a public suicide in his alcoholism. Hall discusses at length poets enacting “their self-murders to the applause of crowds.” He believes that the adulation and applause Thomas received encouraged his weakness and was deplorable; he is horrified that his audience should have cheered him when he boasted of drinking eighteen whiskeys in a row before collapsing into a coma.
Donald Hall titles his second recollection “Vanity, Fame, Love, and Robert Frost.” He states that when he was growing up, Robert Frost was The Great American Poet; he had been sold to the American public as witty, rustic, benign and likable. However, soon after his death in 1963 critics began to pick his skeleton and came up with denunciations of his personal character as anything but kindly; he was accused in retrospect of being vain, cruel, deceitful, and hypocritical.
Hall first met Frost when Hall was sixteen and attending Bread Loaf Writers Conference. He was very much in awe of Frost and said that he looked like granite. Hall talked to him a few times during his four years at Harvard; three years later he saw him at Stanford, then at Michigan; he later corresponded with him; and he saw him for the last time in Vermont a few months before Frost died. Over the years between 1945 and Frost’s death in 1963, Hall’s image of Frost changed from monument to public fraud to something more human and complicated than either. He resented the folksy, half-deprecating manner Frost used in his public poetry readings, since it was deceitful in view of his bitingly sarcastic and suspicious behavior in small private...
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