Wednesday, December 3, 2008

TLS Letters: Auden & Ashbery

I'm fond of letters to the editor in all publications as both correctives and, as well, as a sort of 'how not to' manual. The in-fighting and bickering of big egos and back-stabbing of nobodies is something we would all be wise to avoid. This week, however, in the Times Literary Supplement, is one of the better letters I've ever read. It relates a tale of WH Auden and the young John Ashbery, their first meeting, and Ashbery's subsequent receipt of the Yale Younger Poets award. Quoted in full, with my regards to the TLS:

'Sir, – Sean O’Brien’s excellent review of Volume Three of The Complete Works of W. H. Auden, Prose, 1949–1955 (September 12), requires a bit of historical clarification, at least as regards O’Brien’s comment on the “very funny story” in Edward Mendelson’s Notes. O’Brien says that Auden “could be assiduous in his role as gatekeeper” for the Yale Younger Poets Series; and “as a result no collections appeared in 1954, nor in 1955”. Auden, he says, knew “that Ashbery had intended to submit a collection”, but found “it had been missed off the shortlist”. Further, that “Chester Kallman had helped overcome Auden’s own doubts about the work” (which was selected and published as Some Trees). The matter is more complicated than that, and Mendelson may be excused for knowing nothing about what happened.

What happened was this: I had submitted for the 1956 competition a collection (Whatever Love Declares). I had been informed that the work was on the shortlist of twelve poets. In about late March of that year my wife and I were invited to dinner by Naomi and Arnold Weinstein, whom I had met when we joined the English Department of New York University a year earlier. The guest of honour was Auden, and it was to be an evening for the five of us. At the last moment, while we were having aperitifs, John Ashbery showed up, new to New York from Buffalo, as I recall, and recently acquainted with Arnold. The evening commenced oddly, after Auden had asked about my wife’s cheekbones: “Are you Hungarian, by chance?”. To which she replied, “Yes, Hungarian by affiliation, I suppose, since my parents were Jewish, luckily off to America in 1921 on their honeymoon. Their people were, after 400 years in north-eastern Hungary, gathered up, all but one who survived Auschwitz in 1944, and sent into the sky in smoke and ash”. That didn’t cause Auden to miss a beat; he went right on to say he’d surmised as much – from her fine eyes, lidded with that epicanthic fold of the Jews, as he put it, at least, like the Hungarians out of the Asian East. Our chit chat went on, as he tried to recover himself, maundering about the Will-to-Live he thought innate in the Jew per se, that inner strength needed for survival, and such bosh, followed by “. . . whereas we pagans, we weakling goys, we just lie down and die too easily”. Rather a strangely indirect sort of apology, I thought.

Then the doorbell buzzed and Ashbery, a late invitee to make us six at table, was admitted and introduced. Shaking his hand, Auden took in at a glance a fine instance of his soft-spined “pagan”. What with Ashbery’s mewling, mincing manner and self-deprecatory modesty, his very speech manifested the goy gay persona par excellence. During our meal, Auden asked if he had any poems, if he knew about the Yale Younger Poets first book series? Did he not! Ashbery replied that he might not really have enough poems to assemble for an entry, and in any case the Press’s deadline for submission was several months past. Auden told him never to mind that nonsense about application forms and deadline procedures: just staple the stuff together and send directly to him. He wrote out his address in south Greenwich Village. It didn’t need an epiphanic blaze of insight to see that the game was over for twelve shortlisted finalists – the fix was in. We’d been trashed, just like that! So I kept my trap shut. I knew it was wrong; it was unfair; it was “Greek” morals, if you will. It would have taken a strange miracle to ensure that those twelve books containing, say, seventy-five years’ worth of scribbling in all, were even to be looked at. O’Brien cites Auden’s “most fantastic difficulties” with that parcel of poets’ vain hopes. Difficulty with the Italian postal service? In a pig’s eye. Nothing about that contest appeared or was announced; nothing was ever returned by Yale’s Press. Ashbery, for his part, reticent or not, ran on the inside track against us from hour one: he had Auden’s lover Chester Kallman to vet the MS of Some Trees. The rest is history. — Jascha Keseler, 218 16th Street, Santa Monica, California 90402'

This is apparently falsified, or, at the very least, exaggerated in its most offensive parts by the backward eye of a wounded ego, but the scene is hilarious regardless. Oscar Wilde could not have come up with better. Check out the rebuttal by John Ashbery.


CivilizeMe said...

The book Auden gaily overlooked appears at the Contemporary American Poetry Archive. I cannot say whether it is the same version which Kessler submitted to the Yale competition. A quick skim revealed for me that, regardless of Auden's reportedly instantaneous preference for a fellow traveler, this submission at least would not have deserved first place. But there's first place and then there's solid writing -- there certainly are some lovely lines.

Don Share said...

From the TLS:

Auden and prizes

Sir, – Jascha Kessler’s letter (November 28) about W. H. Auden and the Yale Younger Poets Series is seriously delusional. Kessler describes a mid-1950s New York dinner party that I do not recall, where supposedly Auden and I first met, and where he was so entranced by my effeminate, Waspy charms that he invited me to send him a manuscript for the Yale competition, of which he was the judge, thereby robbing Kessler – or another of the twelve “finalists” – of the prize.

Kessler has a careless way with facts. He says I was “new to New York from Buffalo”, where I’ve never lived, and “recently acquainted with [the host] Arnold \[Weinstein\]”, whom I had known since 1949 when I moved to New York City. Also, I had first met Auden as an undergraduate around 1947 after a reading he gave at Harvard, and often seen him in New York as a result of knowing his lover Chester Kallman. If he was going to be swept away by my “mewling”, “mincing”, “goy gay persona” he had already had almost a decade to be so (and wasn’t). To suggest that the notably ethical Auden would propose circumventing the Yale contest rules to someone he had just met is ridiculous. In any case he would have had no need to give me his address, as Kessler says he did, since I had been to his apartment on a number of occasions (including for one of his famous birthday parties).

The “history” to which Mr Kessler refers at the end of his letter is hardly supported by the easily verified record. George Bradley has written the history of the Yale series in the introduction to his Yale Younger Poets Anthology (1998). This is from the part about me (p lxviii):

As usual, Auden was on Ischia that spring [1955], where he had been sent twelve manuscripts. After he went through them, he sent [Eugene] Davidson [at Yale University Press] an unhappy letter. Not only had he not found anything he liked, he had not found what he was looking for:

“I am very worried because, for the second year in succession, I do not find among the mss. submitted to me one that I feel merits publication. It so happens that there is another poet staying here, and I have asked him to read them also as a check on my own judgment. He came, however, to the same conclusion.

“What bothers me particularly is that a young poet (John Ashbery) whom I know personally told me he was submitting a manuscript this year. I have reservations about such of his poems as I have seen, but they are certainly better than any of the manuscripts which have reached me. I don’t know how or by whom the preliminary sieving is done at the press, but I cannot help wondering whether I am receiving the best.”

The other poet reading manuscripts with Auden was Anthony Hecht, who had been travelling in Italy and had met Auden by chance. As for John Ashbery, his manuscript had indeed been weeded out, along with that of another New York poet, Frank O’Hara. Auden contacted them both and asked that they re-submit their work directly to him. He received the manuscripts in little more than a week and made up his mind within days. The winner was Ashbery, salvaged from the slush pile to become in time one of the best-known poets the Yale series has ever published.

c/o Georges Borchardt Inc, 136 East 57th Street, New York 10022.

Daniel E. Pritchard said...

Thanks Don – I hadn't had time to pull and post John's response. (I did mean to link it though, and forgot.)

Oh, egos. Let's be fair, we're all guilty of this type of self-aggrandizement, to some degree.

John Gallaher said...

What bothers me, more than the attempt at revisionist history Kessler's going for here, is the way he works the whole gay angle. Thi is not Mr. Kessler's finest hour.

Daniel E. Pritchard said...

Not his finest hour to say the least. I don't know him, though; let's give the poor fool the benefit of the doubt this time: perhaps the scars of his enormous ego precipitated such spite?

Curtis Faville said...

I do not think this a mere circus of egos, Daniel.

It verges on the actionable, which is why Ashbery deigned to clarify.

Reading Some Trees, for the first time, in the late 1960's, I was baffled by some of its techniques, which, even then, were reminiscent of surrealist tricks and games, aspects I was then unfamiliar with. But it was immediately obvious, thought, that Ashbery wrote with authority, even when the apparent subject-matter, or motive, was obdurately obscure.

Auden--whose owns tastes and proclivities, both in his own critical as well as poetical works, were quite apart from Ashbery's--was clearly either taking a big chance on JA, or was simply following the advice of (some) younger advisor(s). No surprise that it would be Chester Kallman, his lover.

Some Trees is like a signpost along an otherwise flat pan landscape of mediocre choices in the YYP chronology. Not only is it more revolutionary, but more polished and hard than one would have had a right to expect.

Decent copies of the first edition of the book now go for $750 and up in the antiquarian trade.

Match that, Mr. Kessler.

Daniel E. Pritchard said...

I'm sure that he is reeling from your mighty blow, Curtis.

Stephen said...

Only dummies write letters to the editor.

Daniel E. Pritchard said...

Hah! Tell us how you really feel, Don.

Stephen said...

Don? You can call me Don if I can call you Christian.

Daniel E. Pritchard said...

You can call me Christian any time I don't pay enough attention.

CivilizeMe said...

I won't continue reading if everyone's going to be a Christian. And Daniel is Catholic, anyway, so two points off for imprecision. Stop ramming theology down everyone's throat.

What I hate more than such name-calling ("What?? Call me a Sufi, onemoretime, you sonufa...") is whingey, self-satisfying letters to the editor. Therefore I make sure any such that I compose are submitted pseudonymously. In a rare departure from habit, I confess: Don, you'll be getting my letter about vispo shortly.

Henry Gould said...

I don't believe that spreading this kind of malice & rumor-mongering around the blogosphere reflects well on blogs.

Daniel E. Pritchard said...

Imagine how it reflects on the most widely-read international publication of literature and the arts then!

Don Share said...

Daniel asks how I really feel. All I did was post JA's response. Don't have any particular feelings about it, myself. Just seemed like a useful thing to do.

Henry Gould said...

That's a little different. TLS is a print publication. Sources of statements and discourse can be traced and verified more clearly.

But adding it to the digital mix invites misattribution, rumor. I understand this is the age we live in. What I'm saying is that ethical choice is also possible.

Daniel E. Pritchard said...

No, Don, I meant Stephen. Read it too quickly.

Kirby Olson said...

The letter Ashbery writes does indicate that Auden went out of his way to circumvent the process, and to invite two poets who had personally known him for some time (Ashbery says he had known Auden for a decade) to move to the head of the line. Foetry would object.

Ashbery may still have been the best poet, and probably was. But the process doesn't strike me as quite kosher, since Auden knew well the work of the two poets from whom he insisted that one win.

I don't quite know if poetry contests can possibly function honestly, but this one was far from fair. The problem with poetry is that it takes SUCH a long time to understand a poet's intentions, and to enter into their aesthetics. Winnowing a manuscript out of 900 or more applicants seems to me to be an impossible task.

This was an interesting story! Thanks!

Henry Gould said...

Kirby is also right. So the story is inherently interesting. If I were doing this blog though, Daniel, I would link to the TLS letter, rather than re-posting it in full on your blog. Why? See my previous comment.

Daniel E. Pritchard said...

Fair enough Henry.