Review: A tenuous link to an excellent read | Book reviews and short stories

J.KEMPER CAMPBELL

“Old Poets: Reminiscences and Opinions” by Donald Hall, Godine, 270 pages, $27.95.

A book containing a dead poet’s descriptions of equally dead poets is not likely to fly off the shelves of Nebraska. However, the reviewer agrees to reward Nebraskans able to continue to the end of this review with an obscure, synchronic connection to their home state.

Author Donald Hall was America’s Poet Laureate after Nebraska’s Ted Kooser served two terms. Hall passed away in 2018 at the age of 89, and his posthumously published book, “A Carnival of Losses”, was favorably reviewed in this space on August 4, 2018. The present book was originally published in 1978, updated in 1992 and relaunched for it. 30th anniversary edition.

At this point, a disclaimer should be inserted. The critic is not a connoisseur of famous 20th century poets. In fact, a 1966 edition containing the complete poetry of Robert Frost was the only book of poetry in his personal library prior to the discovery of Kooser’s aforementioned work. TS Eliot, Ezra Pound and Dylan Thomas, although sampled, could just as easily have written in Sanskrit. An appreciation of obtuse verse is not necessary to enjoy this book as it reads more like a gossip column than a literary review.

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Hall’s long and productive life as a poet, educator and critic for literary magazines has exposed him to the iconic lions of “modernist poetry” mentioned above as well as lesser-known writers such as Archibald MacLeish, Yvor Winters and Marianne Moore.

His intimate portraits of all those poets Hall interacted with until their deaths reveal that they were flawed, eccentric, and selfish individuals whose poetic genius ruled their lives and transcended normal social interactions with friends and family.

Particularly poignant are Hall’s depictions of Pound, whose life ended in madness and disgrace following his support of Benito Mussolini, and of Thomas, who was wrecked by alcoholism. Readers wishing to delve into a dark exploration of the poetic muse will find this book fascinating.

And now, persistent readers, here’s the originally promised Nebraska connection. Just stay with me a little longer. Archibald MacLeish, who was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Librarian of Congress and one of Hall’s professors at Harvard, created the first position of United States Poet Laureate in 1937. He was the maternal great-uncle of actor Bruce Dern, whose paternal grandfather, George Dern, was twice Governor of Utah and FDR’s Secretary of War. George was also captain of Nebraska’s 1894 Bugeater football team. Dern’s memoir was reviewed favorably in this space on April 14, 2020. Voila!

J. Kemper Campbell, MD, is a retired Lincoln ophthalmologist who wrote his own book of poetry (still available for a bargain price on Amazon).

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