An Interview with Donald Hall
elimae: You have, it seems to me, managed to straddle the poetry of this century. You are old enough to have had contacts with many of the great modernists as well as with figures from the generation just after them, Winters and Thomas, for example. You have had close relationships with a number of the most important writers of your own "generation." As a teacher and lecturer, as well as an editor and editorial consultant, you have affected younger writers. I wonder if you might generalize about the movements of poetry after the modernists: i.e., have we made any progress since 1930, or are we holding still or even losing ground? Are there major trends that are actually worth noting, or have the past 60 years been too diffuse?
Donald Hall: Recently I read an essay by a psychoanalyst asserting that there was
no progress in psychoanalysis. For this reason he declared that psychoanalysis was an art
and not a science. You ask, "Are we holding still or even losing ground?" Without the
possibility of progress, I don't think the question applies.
elimae: You have written incisively and movingly about such figures as Eliot, Pound and Frost. I'd like to play the "desert island" game with you. If you could take only one book by one modernist poet with you into exile, which book would that be? Why is that book so important to you? What should younger writers and readers seek to find in reading that book themselves? Now, if the emperor in his mercy, told you at the last minute to grab two more modernist books, what would those be? Why?
Donald Hall: I would take Pound, but I am playing a trick. I would take Pound
because he is the more inexhaustible. (I am counting on a lengthy stay on my desert island.)
I feel I could exhaust Eliot and Frost more quickly than I could exhaust Pound. Doubtless I
would be more bored by portions of Pound. . . but even the boring parts can stand attention.
elimae: You have spoken fairly harshly against "scholars" trying to characterize and write about poets whose work they can read only in translation. Frost, of course, claimed that poetry is what is lost in translation. And yet we have any number of "younger" poets who claim as influences foreign poets whose work they have read only in the translations of Bly or Merwin. Why are translations so potentially dangerous? Does a reader coming to Bly's Kabir come to Kabir or to Bly or to some weird amalgam? Are we better off not knowing even an approximation of Cavafy, or Rilke, or Jimenez?
Donald Hall: Where have I spoken harshly against "scholars"? I never remember putting
scholars down. I like scholars who do research in libraries and manuscripts and provide texts.
elimae: In the seeminlgy endless dispute about whether American poetry is in sharp decline or rather is flourishing wildly, you and Louis Simpson often seem to be on opposite sides--you arguing for the positive, Simpson for the negative. And yet I suspect that if the two of you compiled a list of contemporary works--works published since 1970, say--that deserve to stand alongside Whitman or Dickinson or--heck--even Stephen Crane, your list would probably not be much longer than Simpson's. What writer, born since 1940, has most excited you? If there were a bully pulpit for poetry, which "younger" writer would you most like to trumpet? Why? What is this writer doing that others are not?
Donald Hall: Louis and I are both right. There is much more bad stuff around than there has ever been. But then, there is more stuff. Probably I like more contemporary poets than Louis does. I cannot answer the question about a poet born after 1940 because there is only one answer I want to make, and it is an answer that disqualifies the answerer: Jane Kenyon, born in 1947.
elimae: I wonder if you might comment upon the influence of modernism upon your own work. You began your career when the New Criticism was dominant, the Black Mountain poets were resisting it, and the Beats were about to erupt. You would certainly have been aligned, by any outsiders at the time, with the New Critics. Yet The One Day  and The Museum of Clear Ideas  clearly reveal modernist influences: the latter in its overlay of the past and the present; the former perhaps most obviously in its fractured structuring and multiple voicings. How do the modernist works still effect you? Is modernism still valid as an antidote to the slack language and rhythms of so much contemporary "plain speech" poetry?
Donald Hall: My poems began in technical contradiction to modernism, and grew out of
the soil of the 1940's--when leading new poets were Karl Shapiro, John Ciardi, Howard Moss,
Howard Nemerov, John Frederick Nims. . . . Therefore I wrote in six line stanzas of iambic
pentameter rhymed ABABCC. When I began to change in 1957, it was toward the style of international
modernism, expressionist or even slightly surrealist. For me, this vein exhausted itself after
six or seven years, and I floundered for a long time. When I began The One Day, I was
reaching back to English-language modernism, probably affected by my own reading of Ulysses,
over and over again--as I taught it, when I was a teacher.
elimae: I once suggested to you that, in my opinion, Wallace Stevens' Harmonium  rendered the conspicuous modernism of The Waste Land, published one year earlier, obsolete. You were, more or less, aghast. Would you compare for us the achievement of Eliot against that of Stevens? And would you comment upon Eliot's assertion, whether honest or sly, that Yeats was certainly a greater poet than himself?
Donald Hall: Harmonium, insofar that it is new ("Sunday Morning" is perfectly Tennysonian),
comes out of France and resembles international modernism. It is ahistorical, and--in lovely small things
like "Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock"--expressionist. Oh, Stevens is a great poet, but Eliot is better.
What's wrong with Stevens? Remember what Frost accused Stevens of: "bric-a-brac."
elimae: You have written that Geoffrey Hill is the greatest English poet since Hardy. What are American poets losing by not reading Hill? Is Hill's dense mannerism a style which can be a model to younger writers, or is he a being unto himself, like Hopkins or Dickinson?
Donald Hall: Maybe Geoffrey Hill is the greatest English poet since George Herbert. I don't think that American poets can learn by reading Hill, or at least not more than they can learn by reading Herbert or Dryden. They cannot use him as a basis. They cannot imitate him and depart from him because he is too alien. He comes out of the centurion-thick soil of England. I suppose he is largely a being unto himself, yes. We can learn from him--as from Donne or Marvell or Jonson--by absorbing his ambition and his meticulousness, not his style or his strategies.
elimae: Do you see anything going on in American poetry right now, anything larger than a single writer, that is, that excites you measurably? Does the new formalism or the new narrative do anything for you? Do you enjoy L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry? Or are we in a fin-de-siecle decadence?
Donald Hall: I cannot generalize. I'm too close to generalize. I am not evading anything--because
as I approach seventy I find myself feeling less intensely about what the young do, or perhaps I am merely unable
to connect. Certainly the new formalism does not seem to me yet to have produced any good poems. For the most
part, the new formalists do not know how to scan. I like narrative poetry which has never quite left us.
elimae: Who, of the poets born in this century, can you not live without? Whose poetry most involves and moves you? From whose work do you come away, every time, grateful for the time spent reading?
Donald Hall: I cannot live without Geoffrey Hill. I admire twenty-five others, and this is not dismissal-by-admiration. I would not do without any of them, but I would probably keep on breathing.
elimae: You are noted of course for your work in poetry and the criticism of poetry, but you have also read a great deal of prose. Whose novels or short stories do you treasure? Is there any prose writer whose work, for you, approximates the position of esteem Chekhov holds in Simpson's heart?
Donald Hall: Alice Munro. Milan Kundera. When I go backward in time, which you permit me to do, there are prose writers I would not wish to live without. James Joyce and Henry James are English language mentors. Chekhov is central. But I think that Thucydides, in The Peloponnesian War, might have made the best book ever written. I love Tacitus. I love Gibbon, right down to the last footnote. Over the last twenty years, Gibbon has probably had more influence over my own writing--poetry and prose--than any other writer.
[December 1996-January 1997]
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