“Old Poets: Reminiscences & Opinions” by Donald Hall; Godine, Boston, 2021; 296 pages, paperback, $30.

“When I met Donald Hall in 1976, I knew little about his poetry,” former Maine poet laureate Wesley McNair says in his introduction to Hall’s “Old Poets: Reminiscences & Opinions.” I think this may accord with the experience of a good many literary people. Hall, who had by then made his home in New Hampshire, was famous less for his poetry, and more for his associations with writers. At least, this was how I knew of him.

“Old Poets” is a new version of Hall’s 1992 book “Their Ancient Glittering Eyes,” which was an expanded version of the 1978 book “Remembering Poets.” In it, he recounts his encounters with, and assessments of, some of the poets we all learned to vaunt in the 1960s and ’70s. His excursions to Italy to interview the aging, regretful Ezra Pound. His bureaucratic duties and friendships formed while shepherding Marianne Moore, Archibald MacLeish and Robert Frost on visits to his various university campuses. His association with Dylan Thomas toward the end of Thomas’s life of “public suicide.” Audiences granted him by T.S. Eliot.

Many English majors of the past 20 years might not recognize some names, such as Yvor Winters or even Thomas. Winters was a teacher of Hall’s and a big controversial deal among literary critics in our time, and also wrote poetry. Dylan Thomas was practically a household name in the 1950s and ’60s. Now, I think, Winters is one among thousands of literary critics read only by specialists, and Thomas’s poetry is generally regarded as having little redeeming sociopolitical value. But they were prominent literary heroes 60 years ago.

Hall’s mission seems to have been to tell a sort of unvarnished truth, as he saw it, about the poets. His pictures are by and large not terribly pretty. MacLeish is depicted as a sort of hapless butt of jokes and taunting by colleagues and students. Moore was quirky almost beyond belief, sometimes offensively. Frost, to summarize obtusely, seems in private life to have been an egotistical bastard, and like Pound, seemed to have regrets by the time Hall befriended him. Winters was loved by some, reviled by others, and Hall seems shocked to find him just a normal, if somewhat cranky human being.

Pound, accused rightfully of anti-Semitism and angrily of treason for his radio broadcasts during World War II, is described as basically a broken, regretful man during Hall’s visits to him around 1960. It is sad and depressing. But Hall also emphasizes that Pound’s poetry was uniquely beautiful, and his influence on modern poetry enormous. You have to assume that Hall, living in New Hampshire, knew that UMaine professor Carroll Terrell made Orono the world’s center of Pound studies in the 1970s and ’80s, but he doesn’t mention it in the essay.

Maybe because Hall had no story to tell about himself there. Each of the book’s six essays is shaped around loose personal narratives filled with scenic and incidental details of his intersections with the lives of the poets, and seem aimed at providing literary historians with information that might go into their hour-by-hour biographies. You could make a catalog from this book of literary names most often spoken in the mid-20th century. There are also divagations on Hall’s ideas about poetry, how it’s important, how it works, how it’s written, and how he appreciated it so much from adolescence on that he found ways to turn it into a lifelong career.

Donald Hall wrote prolifically, publishing more books of prose than of poetry. He died in 2018 at the age of 89, having made himself a central figure, a sort of grand old hero, of Northeast literary scenes. “Old Poets” is definitely worth this new edition, for its picture of how Hall’s literary generation related to their modernist forebears, and what that relationship, era and its ambitions felt like.

“Old Poets” is available from Godine and online and local book sellers.

Off Radar takes note of poetry and books with Maine connections the first and third Fridays of each month. Dana Wilde is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Contact him at universe@dwildepress.net.

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