Issue 77, Winter-Spring 1980
The strength of Mr. Spender’s literary reputation, which is international in scope, has made him something of a nomad as scholar and poet. His homes are in St. John’s Wood, London, and Maussanne-les-Alpilles, France, where he spends his summers; but he is often on the road, giving readings and lectures and serving as writer in residence at various American universities. This interview took place in May, 1978, at the end of Mr. Spender’s stint as visiting professor of English at the University of Houston.
Mr. Spender’s domicile in Houston was a penthouse apartment atop a high-rise dormitory on the university campus. The walls of the apartment are glass and afforded the poet a 270-degree view of America’s self-proclaimed twenty-first-century city. His fellow residents in the dorm were mostly athletes, a fact that especially delighted Mr. Spender at breakfast, for with them he was served steaks, sausage, ham, eggs, biscuits, and grits.
At the time of the interview, Mr. Spender was busy with several projects; besides preparing for his imminent departure and saying goodbye to his many friends, he was completing the text for Henry Moore: Sculptures in Landscape, which was published in 1978. He had also been invited by the university to deliver its commencement address, an event that took place on the afternoon of May 13, just hours after our last taping session. “I’ve never even been to a commencement before. What does one say?” he had asked. “I suppose I will tell them to read books all their lives and to make a lot of money and give it to the university.”
I’d like to begin by asking about some people you may have known. Were you at all close to William Butler Yeats?
I met Yeats, I think probably in 1935 or 1936, at Lady Ottoline Morrell’s. Ottoline asked me to tea alone with Yeats. He was very blind and—I don’t know whether he was deaf, but he was very sort of remote, he seemed tremendously old. He was only about the age I am now, but he seemed tremendously old and remote. He looked at me and then he said, “Young man, what do you think of the Sayers?” I hadn’t the faintest idea what he was talking about—I thought perhaps he meant Dorothy Sayers’s crime stories or something—I became flustered. What he meant was a group of young ladies who chanted poems in chorus. Ottoline got very alarmed and rushed out of the room and telephoned to Virginia Woolf, who was just around the corner, and asked her to come save the situation. Virginia arrived in about ten minutes’ time, tremendously amused, and Yeats was very pleased to meet her because he’d just been reading The Waves. He also read quite a lot of science—I think he read Eddington and Rutherford and all those kinds of things—and so he told her that The Waves was a marvelous novel, that it was entirely up to date in scientific theory because light moved in waves, and time, and so on. Of course Virginia, who hadn’t thought of all this, was terribly pleased and flattered. And then I remember he started telling her a story in which he said, “And as I went down the stairs there was a marble statue of a baby and it started talking in Greek to me”—that sort of thing. Virginia adored it all, of course.
Ottoline had what she called her Thursday parties, at which you met a lot of writers. Yeats was often there. He loosened up a great deal if he could tell malicious stories, and so he talked about George Moore. Yeats particularly disliked George Moore because of what he wrote in his book Hail and Farewell, which is in three volumes, and which describes Yeats in a rather absurd way. Moore thought Yeats looked very much like a black crow or a rook as he walked by the lake on Lady Gregory’s estate at Coole. He also told how Yeats would spend the whole morning writing five lines of poetry and then he’d be sent up strawberries and cream by Lady Gregory, and so Yeats would have to get his own back on George Moore. Another thing that amused Yeats very much for some reason was Robert Graves and the whole saga of his life with Laura Riding. He told how Laura Riding threw herself out of a window without breaking her spine, or breaking it but being cured very rapidly. All that pleased Yeats tremendously.
I remember his telling the story of his trip to Rapallo to show the manuscript of The Tower to Ezra Pound. He stayed at the hotel and then went around and left the manuscript in a packet for Pound, accompanied by a letter saying: I am an old man, this may be the last poetry I’ll ever write, it is very different from my other work?—all that kind of thing—and: What do you think of it? Next day he received a postcard from Ezra Pound with one word on it putrid. Yeats was rather amused by that. Apparently Pound had a tremendous collection of cats, and Yeats used to say that Pound couldn’t possibly be a nasty man because he fed all the cats of Rapallo. I once asked him how he came to be a modern poet, and he told me that it took him thirty years to modernize his style. He said he didn’t really like the modern poetry of Eliot and Pound. He thought it was static, that it didn’t have any movement, and for him poetry had always to have the romantic movement. He said, “For me poetry always means ‘Yet we’ll go no more a-roving / By the light of the moon.’” So the problem was how to keep the movement of the Byron lines but at the same time enlarge it so that it could include the kind of material that he was interested in, which was to do with everyday life—politics, quarrels between people, sexual love, and not just the frustrated love he had with Maud Gonne.
I believe you were an early admirer of Dylan Thomas.
I knew Dylan from very early on. In fact, I was the first literary person he met in London. Edith Sitwell made the absurd claim that she’d discovered Dylan Thomas, which is rubbish. All she did was write a favorable review of his first book. There was a Sunday newspaper called Reynolds News at that time, and it had a poetry column which was edited by a man called Victor Neuberg. He would publish poems sent in by readers. I always read this column, being very sympathetic with the idea of ordinary people writing poetry. And then in one issue I saw a poem which I thought was absolutely marvelous—it was about a train going through a valley. I was very moved by this poem, so I wrote to the writer in care of the column, and the writer wrote back. It was Dylan Thomas, and in his letter he said first of all that he admired my work, something that he never said again. Then he said he wanted to come up to London and that he wanted to make money—he was always rather obsessed by money. So I invited him to London, and may have sent him his fare. I felt nervous about meeting him alone, which is what I should have done, so I invited my good friend William Plomer to have lunch with us. We took him to a restaurant in Soho. He was very pale and intense and nervous, and Plomer and I talked a lot of London gossip to prevent the meal from going in complete silence.
I think he probably stayed in London—he was a friend of Pamela Hansford Johnson, who became Lady Snow. Then, right at the end of his life, Dylan wrote me a letter saying he’d never forgotten that I was the first poet of my generation who met him. He was thanking me for some review I’d written—this was the most appreciative review he’d had in his life, I think he said, something like that. Mind you, he probably wrote a dozen letters like that to people every day. And he certainly said extremely mean things behind my back, of that I’m quite sure. I don’t hold that against him at all—it was just his style. We all enjoy doing things like that. After those very early days I didn’t see Dylan often; one reason is that I never get on well with alcoholics. Also he liked to surround himself with a kind of court that moved from pub to pub. And Dylan was expected to pay for everyone, which he always did, and he was expected to be “Dylan.” Of course when I was at Horizon with Cyril Connolly, Dylan was always coming in, usually to borrow money. Richard Burton was funny telling me about Dylan. He was a young actor and absolutely without money. He would be playing somewhere and Dylan would turn up to borrow a pound. When he left, Burton would always hear a taxi carrying the pauper away.
How well did you know Ernest Hemingway?
Hemingway I knew during the Spanish civil war. He often turned up in Valencia and Madrid and other places where I happened to be. We would go for walks together, and then he’d talk about literature. He was marvelous as long as he didn’t realize that he was talking about literature—I mean he’d say how the opening chapter of Stendhal’s La Chartreuse de parme was the best description of war in literature, when Fabrizio gets lost, doesn’t know where he is at all in the Battle of Waterloo. Then I’d say, “Well, what do you think about Henry IV, do you think Shakespeare writes well about war?” “Oh, I’ve never read Shakespeare,” he’d say, “what are you talking about? You seem to imagine I’m a professor or something. I don’t read literature, I’m not a literary man”—that kind of thing.
He was very nice when one was alone with him, but the public Hemingway could be troublesome. On one occasion, I remember we went into a bar where there were girls. Hemingway immediately took up a guitar and started strumming, being “Hemingway.” One of the girls standing with him pointed at me and said, “Tu amigo es muy guapo”—your friend is very handsome. Hemingway became absolutely furious, bashed down the guitar and left in a rage. He was very like that. Another time, my first wife and I met him and Marty Gellhorn in Paris. They invited us to lunch, someplace where there were steaks and chips, things like that, but my wife ordered sweetbread. Also she wouldn’t drink. So Hemingway said, “Your wife is yellow, that’s what she is, she’s yellow. Marty was like that, and do you know what I did? I used to take her to the morgue in Madrid every morning before breakfast.” Well, the morgue in Madrid before breakfast really must have been something.
Hemingway always said of me, “You’re okay. All that’s wrong with you is you’re too squeamish.” So he would describe modern war. He’d say, “If you think of modern war from the point of view of a pilot, the city that he’s bombing isn’t all these people whom you like to worry about, people who are going to suffer—it’s just a mathematical problem. It’s like shading in a circle with dark areas where you drop your bombs. You mustn’t think of it in a sentimental way at all.” At that same meeting in Paris, he told me again I was squeamish, and then he said, “This is something you ought to look at, it will do you good.” He produced a packet of about thirty photographs of the most horrible murders, which he carried around in his pockets. This toughened one up in some way. He told me that what motivated him really, while he was in Spain, wasn’t so much enthusiasm about the republic, but to test his own courage. He said, “Only if you actually go into battle and bullets are screeching all around you, can you know whether you’re a coward or not.” He had to prove to himself that he wasn’t a coward. And he said, “Mind, you shit in your pants with fear. Everyone does that, but that isn’t what counts.” I don’t remember quite what it is that counts—but he always wanted to test his own courage. Physical courage to him was a kind of absolute value.