When I asked Wallace
Stevens permission to reprint poems
    he published in the Advocate,
he acceded with a note
    that set me thinking: “Some
of one’s early things give one the creeps.”

    Later I went up to him
at a brunch before The Game, where
     he stood with friends
I deferred to the poet;
     the businessman blushed and muttered.
I asked if he could stay
     in town through Monday; the Advocate
was giving a party
     for Mr. Eliot—“or maybe
for you both?” “Shit,” he said,
     “fuck. Got to get back to the office.”

                               *

   Mr. Eliot at
sixty-three—Nobel Laureate and Czar—
   kindly suggested
that I drop by his office at Faber’s
   in London on my way
to Oxford. In dazed preparation,
    I daydreamed agendas
for our conversation. At his desk,
    the old poet spoke
quietly of “the poetic drama,”
    and “our literary
generations,” as if I had one.
    After an hour, he scraped
his chair back. I leapt up, and he leaned
    in the doorway
to improvise a parting word. “Let me see,”
    he said. “Forty years
ago I went from Harvard to Oxford,
    now you from Harvard
to Oxford. What advice may I give you?”
    He paused the exact
comedian’s millisecond as I
    reflected on the moment,
and then with his lilting
    English melody inquired:
“Have you any long underwear?”

                                *

Thomas was thirty-eight,
    rumpled and fat, when I slept over
at the Boat House after
    swilling through Laugharne’s pubs. As we sat
drinking one last
    Whitbread’s, I changed the subject to poetry.
It was clear that his poems
    depressed him. He knew what he’d done,
what he hadn’t done,
    and that he was done for. As I chatted
about critics,
    I laughed at someone who pontificated
in a quarterly about
    “The Death Wish in Dylan Thomas.”
Young and careless, I asked,
    “Who wants to die?” Behind his heavy
lids, Dylan said that he did.
    “Why?” I asked him. “Oh, for the change.”

                                   *

Edwin and Willa Muir
    translated Kafka, working in Prague
for the British Council.
    Edwin reviewed novels for the Times,
did talks for the BBC,
    and advised a small publisher.
They lived by their wits
    as Edwin made poems. When I met them,
they were sixty-odd,
    tender and generous. I asked Willa
how it was to be old
    and she said it was “surprisingly
good … except that one
    will need to close the eyes of the other.”

                                *

I had taught for six months
    when Robert Graves came to Ann Arbor.
“The name is Robert,”
    he told me at the Union when I tried
formal address.
    Ashamed to be a professor, I told him
I envied the way
    he wrote prose for a living. He asked me,
“Have you ever tried?”
    As we finished our coffee and ice cream
in the ratty student
    cellar, I asked, “But how do you write
so much?” Graves published
    three books a year—poems, novels, pieces
for Punch, crank
    anthropology—while I dozed through my twenties.
Robert Graves never lacked
    an answer: “The twenty-minute nap.”
When I protested,
    he repeated, “The twenty-minute nap.”

                                *

    After dinner at Crispi’s
We drove around Rome. “There’s the scene
    of the crime,” he said
as we passed a building, in the accent
    or melody that sounded
like W. C. Fields. “Where you broadcast
    the talks?” “Where I gave ’em—
the scripts.” When he couldn’t remember
    the way to Hadrian’s
Tomb, he sank back in a diffident woe.
    But when, with his yellow
Confucian scarf slung on his shoulders,
    he bought gelati
and we strolled a piazza together,
    old Ezra Pound cocked
his lionish head like a gallantman
    captain of mercenaries
hired by Sforza.
                             Answering
    my knock the first day
I arrived from Thaxted, he addressed me
    in small bursts like sporadic
gunfire: “Mr. Hall—you have come
    —all the way—from England
and you find me—nothing but fragments.”

                                     *

   At his last Ann Arbor
reading—at the age of eighty-eight,
   months before he died—Robert
Frost nodded, smiled, waved, and trembled
    while two thousand people
stood applauding. Drinking Seven-Up
    afterward, he told us
Ezra Pound was effeminate,
    Yeats talked bunkum,
and Roethke was jealous of other poets.
    When he shuffled
from greenroom to limo, a crowd of students
    gathered to catch
sight of him. He V’d his arms like Eisenhower
    and told them, “Remember me.”
In the back of the Cadillac,
    Frost shook his head:
“To think that I wanted only to lodge four
    lines somewhere, to stick… !”
While I watched, his face—full of victory—
    reversed suddenly
to guilty sorrow: “But we were so poor.”

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 14 Number 5, on page 39
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