Donald Hall served as The Paris Review’s first poetry editor from 1953 to 1961. His vast knowledge of contemporary poetry and demand for excellence helped set the Review’s poetry standards high from the beginning. In this undated letter, which is an ars poetica of sorts, he argues with our founding editor George Plimpton about several Beat poets, what makes a poem good or “fake,” and the importance of poetic history.
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You are quite unlike anything else on the planet. Open up Vogue, and there is George among the yachts at Newport. Open up my Paris Review envelope, and there is George among Corso, Ginsberg and Kerouac. Dear Podhoretz would probably say that it follows, but I am not so sure. I believe in the sincerity of most of these people. I happen to agree with what most of them feel about America, and I expect that when the war comes Ginsberg and I will be in the same concentration camp. (Forgive me, but I don’t think you’ll be there; it gives me, true or not, some feeling of authority.) But sincerity is easy; it means that you’ll say something and stick to it, even to the point of suffering for it; art isn’t easy, and sincerity never helped anybody to be a great artist. Wait; maybe it helped, but let me say this: the ratio of sincere people to even merely good poems is about a hundred million to one. A sincere person can write a fake poem because he lacks the skill or intelligence or the intense self-knowledge which is necessary; because he is not an artist.
Let me say something else. I have never believed that you could make any equation between a person’s behavior and the value of his poetry. I am not saying that a person’s behavior is irrelevant to his poetry. It’s obviously relevant, but it’s even trivial to say it’s relevant because you never know how it’s going to be relevant. Stevens is in insurance but that doesn’t mean that Ginsberg should be. Auden is homosexual but that doesn’t mean that I should be. Married or single, straight or queer, Catholic or drunk, Yoga or Communist, free or bound, football player or teacher—all of these categories are, in their mere significance, irrelevant, since poets are all of them. In the present age, some of the best poets are everything. The beat people try to say that behavior is a predictable factor: I mean that if you behave in a certain way you will write better—how bloody comfortable. Parnassus is a safe and somebody knows the combination. It’s not true and it’s never true. I’ll print anybody, no matter what he is or does, if his poems are any good, and that should go without saying. Yet from the nervousness of your letter and some of what you say, you seem to think I would not. Why? You see whom I have printed.
You say, “I’ve suffered the criticism of so many (mostly from these poets themselves) that we don’t give these far-out birds a chance.” Please explain. None of “these poets themselves” has ever submitted to the Paris Review. I trust you’re not thinking of that antique fraud Villa. I have printed (and accepted but not printed) a lot of far-out stuff. Look at Bly, who is scarcely as derivative as any of these poems. I haven’t had much from this particular party, and nothing at all from these three or from Gary Snyder or Duncan (both of whom I have somewhat liked) or Levertov, who isn’t as bad as these three, but isn’t very good either. It’s true that I just returned two poems to Michael McClure. They were very very bad. I printed Broughton, though I regretted it by the time it came out.
You also say “I do think we’re making a mistake not keeping in very close touch with (Logue’s) work.” Who’s not? I read it every chance I get. I have accepted from each of the batches he submitted. Please explain encore. As you know, I don’t agree with you about Logue because I have never thought that he was sufficiently original. But he is highly competent, and I don’t mind printing him. (In England, he is inferior to Gunn, Tomlinson and Hill; I suppose to Larkin, ultimately; but not to much else. In this country he is inferior to half a dozen.) I would like to have more poems from Logue, but I didn’t intend to solicit them. Why don’t you solicit them? I’m not much interested in translation (are you?) unless it’s reworking a la Pound’s Propertius.
Another thing. Take a look at the poems in The Dark Houses which are not in iambics; say the ones which use lower case at the beginnings of the lines. You see I think I am talking about originality and so on from a position of strength. Esp: “These Faces” “The Adults” “Residential Streets” “Religious Articles” “Three Poems from Edvard Munch” and “Waiting on the Corners.” Logue (and these others, really) are old because they are rhetorical, and I can say lyrical too—and that schmaltz belongs to The Management. (See Exiles and Marriages, for that matter.) (For schmaltz, I mean.)
I have been warming up to these beat people, for the reason that all the bandwagon goons are so down on them. I suppose they are less chic than Robert P Tristram Coffin now. I think Simpson’s “Squeal”, which put the ridicule in the right places, probably started it. It had to be started. Malcolm’s thing on The Subterraneans was pretty funny. Now Podhoretz calls them right wing (which they are, mind you; have you ever read the fascist dark-blood-of-the-guts business?) and its unnecessary. But what is really revolting is big daddy Rexroth trying to get in on the act and ridicule them by coing cheap, advertising gimmicks like the word “beatnik”—utterly vulgar; not even Time would stoop so low; it sounds like Red Skelton—in the S.R. Rexroth is the same man who compared the beat poets to the Hungarians fighting Russian tanks two years ago; the idiot-barbarian practically made me like Kerouac by sneering at him.
But three poems reaffirm my original feeling. They are fake. Here is a recipe for faking: you are not quite sure who you are and what you mean, but you know that the poems you like best (Yeats, Whitman, Thomas) make a big noise, so to be a poet you decide that what you need is a big noise, ignoring the identity and motive behind the big noises of great poets. You make something that sounds like greatness the same way that American bread looks like bread or television looks like life. Corso’s BOMB is the best here. It starts out with a good kind of apostrophe, but it degenerates into nothing but posture. Poor Don Allan is welcome to it, and welcome to the ridicule he is accumulating. The end is very bad, and a fine example of faking by using emotive words without the motive of an artist.
You must understand that art is nothing to these men, nor history. The penalty for ignoring two thousand years is that you get stuck in the last hundred. They have the specious present of the barbarian. Art in this century demands a sense of the tragic dignity of history. These poor bastards are stuck in the last third of the 19th century and I swear they don’t know that anything happened before that. And I totally lack the sense, reading their poems, of the love of the art, of art, of the muse, that you feel in Yeats or even in a minor man like Hart Crane. (minor but lovely)
Ginsberg’s Lion for Real is terrible. That Mexican thing in Evergreen is the best poem he ever wrote, and not bad. He should never try to publish this thing, and he shows his contempt for us by submitting it. Of course Ginsberg is slicker than the other two and he knows how to make lines move and he swings it at the end when he wants, but it’s a silly poem and a fake. The Kerouac is hurt by the fact that he hasn’t a clue about where to break the line. He has an ear like a golden bantam. He isn’t very good at prose and his poetry has no swing to it, no feeling, and no words. It’s transparent, like a cookbook.
I might be around next month. Write.