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Book Report: Not a waste to read poet’s letters

Twenty years ago, when I was made book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, I wrote a column in which I described to my readers what kind of books and authors I liked and didn’t care for, so they would know my prejudices from the get-go.

In one paragraph, I mentioned that I was a fan of T.S. Eliot’s poetry.

My boss, the managing editor, a New York City transplant, called me in. He said — and I swear this is true — “Dave, I know who T.S. Eliot is and you know who T.S. is, but do you think any of our readers OUT HERE know him?”

I was happy to describe thusly: “Sir, in 1957, Eliot came to the University of Minnesota to deliver a speech of literary criticism at the field house. My English teacher at Eau Claire State hired a school bus, packed us all in and we went to hear that speech. We sat with 12,000 other interested listeners from OUT HERE.”

Boy, that was fun!This anecdote is a good one to introduce a new book just out from Yale University Press, “The Letters of T.S. Eliot, Volume 4,” ($50), edited by Eliot’s second wife Valerie, who died last year and British scholar John Haffenden.

As a Luddite and the last writer of letters on paper in the known universe, I’m abashed to report that as a letter writer, I’m a piker compared to T.S. Eliot.

The sub-title of the book is “1928-1929.” This fourth volume, gentle reader, is 825 pages long.

What’s even more remarkable is that the letters are mostly connected to his work not as a poet, but as a publishing employee of Faber and Faber and the editor of Criterion, a literary journal which he was trying to get off the ground.

It also deals with the mental illness of his wife Vivien and her trials.

These are not letters to Ezra Pound about the nature of poetry, but letters to freelance writers, telling them that he can pay them $200 for second rights to this or that article he wants to publish.

Actually he did write to Pound on Sept.22, 1928:

“Dear EP,

Here’s a proof of my bloody oration (an introduction to Ezra Pound’s “Selected Poems”). As it is for you please make any objections you like, only make ‘em at once.



P.S. Exclnt copy of XVI Cantos received. I like them better than ever.”

At first I figured such stuff would be tough going. On the contrary. I kept reading them like eating popcorn, even when it’s underseasoned. I couldn’t stop. It made T.S. Eliot seem almost human!


On the local scene there’s “The Troll With No Heart in His Body and Other Tales of Trolls from Norway,” retold by Lise Lunge-Larsen, woodcuts by Betsy Bowen (University of Minnesota Press, $19.95 cloth).

I normally don’t review books by people I know without admitting that I know them. Lise Lunge-Larsen is one such writer.

She was a Norwegian exchange student at Augsburg College when I taught there. Like most Norwegian exchange students, she was way ahead of the American kids who sat next to her in class.

She’s still right up there in my estimation, with seven children’s books under her belt and a raft of awards for books like “Race of the Birkebeiner.”

“The Troll” will be no exception.

It’s a beautifully produced work with haunting woodcuts by Bowen. Lunge-Larsen lives in Duluth, Minn., and Bowen in Grand Marais, Minn.

There must be something in the water up there, enabling these two to turn out such charming, and haunting, books.

Dave Wood is a past vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.  Phone him at 715-426-9554.