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.