[This was the intro to my Feb. 9, 2022 e-mail. I liked it, so now it’s a standalone post. Drawing of Pound by me.]
“You — find me — in fragments,” said the old poet to the young poet, on the threshold of a doorway in Rome.
Or so goes Donald Hall’s recollection of the first words Ezra Pound spoke to him, as they met for several days of conversation that would become a Paris Review Writers At Work interview. It was 1960; two years earlier Pound had been released from a hospital for the criminally insane, after 13 years of confinement.
Hall wrote about his week with Pound and its aftermath in his book Old Poets (previously published in 1978 as Remembering Poets, then expanded in 1992 as Their Ancient Glittering Eyes and now reissued as Old Poets). It’s the culmination of a series of essays about poets whom he interviewed or under whom he studied: Robert Frost, Dylan Thomas, T.S. Eliot, Archibald MacLeish, Yvor Winters, Marianne Moore and Pound.
Reading the book last week — alternating between Kindle of Old Poets, and hardcover of Their Ancient Glittering Eyes bought at Faulkner House Books in New Orleans — I was transported by Hall’s prose, but I also found myself comparing our experiences of meeting & interviewing our literary heroes. The comparison breaks down because Hall was an accomplished poet by the time of these literary encounters while I’m some zhlub from New Jersey, but I felt such empathy for his anxiety before these sessions, his desire to win their approval. The recollections — of a man in his early 30s by a man in his mid-50s and 60s — are never tinged with regret at his youthful behavior, and capture the reverence with which Hall held the great poets of his lifetime. He also found time to conduct literary analysis and to dish hot goss. (The Marianne Moore essay in particular is unforgettable, for the sheer weirdness of Moore’s life, the effect she had on poets & editors, and the depth of Hall’s examination of her poems.)
The book captivated me in a way I haven’t felt for quite a while, and in a way I didn’t know I haven’t felt. Even when I disagreed with some of Hall’s takes — particularly around Pound’s antisemitism, which he attributes to Pound’s insanity — I was utterly immersed in the world he was recounting, one where poems and their writers mattered.
“When a stranger wanted to come calling, I told him I was almost dead,” wrote the old poet.
I like to think Hall wrote those words about me. They’re in his final essay collection, A Carnival Of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety, published weeks after his death in June 2018.
In 2015, I pitched Hall via intermediary, offering to drive up to New Hampshire for an hour or so of conversation. He turned me down, citing a litany of health issues, concluding that if he talked for an hour, he “would spend two days in bed.” He concluded, “I’m actually not on the brink of death, at least I don’t think I am, and surely that’s what I must sound like. . . . I do a little, in order to be able to do anything!”
The essay where he mentions the stranger — Way Way Down, Way Way Up — covers much of 2015. The dates don’t match up neatly — I wrote him in May, but that line crops up while he’s recounting a mid-January hospitalization — but if anyone was entitled to poetic license, it was Donald Hall. Maybe I’m a stranger, if not thestranger.
After Hall’s death, I mentioned to our mutual friend, Sven Birkerts, that he’d turned me down for a podcast a few years earlier. Sven told me I shouldn’t have taken no for an answer, and that he surely could have convinced Hall to record with me. Now that I’ve read Old Poets, I — let’s not say regret — rue not following up or otherwise cajoling Hall into a conversation at his home. Of all people, the man who interviewed those great poets in his youth would have understood my impulse in wanting to talk with him.
But I’m struck by those words with which Pound greeted him: “You — find me — in fragments.” Pound referred to his shatteredness, the 13 years in a hospital, the madness, the notion that the alternative was execution for treason.
Hall copes with the reality of Pound’s fragments over the course of his essay, both Pound’s exhausted, disintegrated persona and the bits of poetry and prose he tries to assemble in his wake. Hall draws parallels to the self-destructions his other poet-subjects wrought on their loved ones: Frost, Thomas, Eliot.
But was Pound saying that fragments are all that was left of him, or that he is only truly findable within those fragments? “You find ME in fragments.”
Fragments imply a whole. In Judaism, we have the concept of Tikkun Olam, repairing the world. To our mystic brethren, this is symbolized by vessels that were shattered when they were filled with the light of the divine, and became the world. Each fragment contains a spark, and restoring the shattered vessels, separating good from evil, is the aim of mankind.
Where else do we find one other, but in the fragments?
“There are thresholds or shelves where we go from having incremental change to systemic moments of transformation.”
In the ’90s, Sven Birkerts cautioned us about the impact of technology on reading with The Gutenberg Elegies. In 2017, we mute our iPhones to talk about his new book, Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age (Graywolf Press). We dive into the impact of digital technology on perception and identity, but also get into the way life becomes a thematic puzzle in middle age, why he stepped down from his role directing the low-residency MFA program at Bennington, the joy of bringing his favorite writers in as instructors (and the ones he regrets not getting), the challenge of interviewing fiction writers, his big literary 0-fer and what I’m missing about Virginia Woolf, how he’s adapting to a year-long sabbatical and how he understands his writing life, what he’s learned editing the literary magazine AGNI, and why the prerequisite for anything he’s reading is that it has to be more interesting to him than whatever it is he’s vaguely brooding about. Give it a listen! And go buy his new essay collection, Changing the Subject!
“When I was your age, I discovered the doubling over of one’s own experience. . . . Themes, recurrences and motifs in my life began to manifest. Then as if on command, the whole sunken continent of memory began to detach from the sea-floor.”
About our Guest
Sven Birkerts is the author of Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age and nine previous books, including The Other Walk: Essays, The Gutenberg Elegies, The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again, and My Sky Blue Trades: Growing Up Counter in a Contrary Time. He recently stepped down as director of the Bennington Writing Seminars, and he also edits the journal AGNI based at Boston University. He lives in Arlington, Massachusetts, and he’s on Twitter as svenbirkerts and Instagram as cyberbirk.
Credits: This episode’s music is Nothing’s Gonna Bring Me Down by David Baerwald, used with permission from the artist. The conversation was recorded at Mr. Birkerts’ home on a pair of Blue enCORE 200 Microphones feeding into a Zoom H5 digital recorder. I recorded the intro and outro on a Heil PR-40 Dynamic Studio Recording Microphone feeding into a Cloudlifter CL-1 and a Mackie Onyx Blackjack 2×2 USB Recording Interface. All processing and editing done in Adobe Audition CC. Photo of Mr. Birkerts by me. It’s on my instagram.