On Two Poets


I first met Ford in 1937, a year or so after the publication of Buckshee, and two years before his death. Reading these poems is like stepping back in time to Ford in his right setting, France, to a moment when both he and Europe between the wars were, imperceptibly, miraculously, a little younger, hopeful, and almost at a pause in the onrush. When I knew Ford in America, he was out of cash, out of fashion, and half out of inspiration, a half-German, half-English exile in love with the French, and able to sell his books only in the United States. Propped by his young wife, he was plodding from writers’ conference to writers’ conference, finally ending up as writer in residence at Olivet College in Michigan. He seemed to travel with the leisure and full dress of the last hectic Edwardian giants—Hudson, James, and Hardy. He cried out, as if wounded, against the eminence, pomp, and private lives of Tennyson, Carlyle, and Ruskin, the false gods, so he thought, of his fathers. He was trailed by a legend of personal heroism and slump, times of great writing, times of space-filling, past triumph and past humiliation, Grub Street drudgery, and aristocratic indolence. He was the friend of all good writers, and seemed to carry a concealed pistol to protect them and himself against the shoving non-creative powers of editors, publishers, business men, politicians, college presidents, literary agents—his cronies, his vultures.

Always writers and writing! He was then at work on his last book, The March of Literature, and rereading the classics in their original tongues. At each college stop he picked up arm-loads of Loeb classics, and reams of unpublished manuscript. Writers walked through his mind and his life—young ones to be discovered, instructed, and entertained, contemporaries to be assembled, telegraphed, and celebrated, the dead friend to be resurrected in anecdote, the long, long dead to be freshly assaulted or defended. Ford was large, unwieldy, wheezy, unwell, and looked somehow like a British version of the Republican elephant. His conversation, at least as finished and fluent as his written reminiscences, came out in ordered, subtly circuitous paragraphs. His marvelous, altering stories about the famous and colorful were often truer than fact. His voice, always sotto voce, and sometimes a muffled Yorkshire gasp, made him a man for small gatherings. Once I watched an audience of three thousand walk out on him, as he exquisitely, ludicrously, and inaudibly imitated the elaborate periphrastic style of Henry James. They could neither hear nor sympathize.

LARGENESS IS THE KEY WORD for Ford. He liked to say that genius is memory. His own was like an elephant’s. No one admired more of his elders, or discovered more of his juniors, and so went on admiring and discovering till the end. He seemed to like nothing that was mediocre, and miss nothing that was good. His humility was edged with a mumbling insolence. His fanatical life-and-death dedication to the arts…

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