Excerpt: The Songs We Know Best: John Ashbery's Early Life

From Chapter 6: “Undergraduate Reflections” (1945-1947). Note: This excerpt begins just before John Ashbery’s sophomore year at Harvard (Fall, 1946)

The “strange melancholy” Ashbery felt all summer made him especially eager to “plunge...back into the Harvard routine.”1 “Fiddling” with the Harvard Catalogue, he contemplated courses in Slavic or “Greek...so that I will be able to write poems with little Greek quotations at the top like T.S.Eliot.”2 As the start of John’s sophomoreyear drew closer, he had an “apocalyptic flash...that I am badly read.”3 He searched for a course on Pope, Swift, Dryden or Spenser. (During his senior year, he nally took a year-long Spenser tutorial.) On the one hand, he wished to “go into retirement in a delightful inner world,” and do nothing but read and write, but he felt “always dependent on my friends for ideas, entertainment,and affection.”4 He arrived at his Dunster House dorm room (G-46) to discover no chance for either. A stranger, an upper-crust returning GI from Boston, who introduced himself as Abbot Montague Geer, lay on a newly installed bunk bed in John’s former single. They were immediately uneasy roommates: “I continue to lead a monastic existence, hardly disturbed by the presence of Geer, who makes no demands on one’s mental or conversational powers.”5

He moved out of the room as soon as he could. Leslie Wallwork (Dunster House, G-14) invited him to stay. Although Leslie’s noisy, messy, flamboyantly gay style became “very trying” at times, it was preferable to Geer’s insulting silence.6 Leslie was also supportive of John’s emotional dramas. Their room was on the first floor directly across from the building manager’s room. Homosexuality was grounds for expulsion at Harvard and no overnight guests of any kind were allowed in dorms, so John’s new boyfriend had to sneak out the window late each night.7 He began to get a reputation, but he wrote to his friend Sandy Gregg that he didn’t care: “I don’t give a healthy damn.... I have been living rather dangerously of late... feel saturated with vice.” He actually felt increasingly ill from late nights and “depressed.” His mother wrote with more bad news. John’s paternal grandmother, Elizabeth Ashbery, very ill since her stroke three years earlier, had passed away.9

 

John found solace in reading poetry. The previous summer, he had written to Sandy, mentioning in a postscript that “you should investigate the poetry of Wallace Stephens (or Stevens, maybe) [Louis] Untermeyer’s selections of it are poor!”10 Between his uncertain spelling in the summer of 1946 and the spring of 1947, his appreciation for Stevens’s work rapidly grew. This shift began when he discovered “The Emperor of Ice-Cream,” a poem from Stevens’s first book, Harmonium, which Untermeyer had not included in his Anthology.11 The poem’s subject is a dead woman lying on a bed “cold” and “dumb,” but this fact is revealed primarily through other descriptive details. That a poem about the ordinary things we live with could be so powerfully about the strange experience of witnessing death was astounding to John; he felt as though he had nally discovered an extremely good version of what he had been long trying to express about the experience of death. By the time Wallace Stevens made a very rare public appearance at Harvard on February 11, 1947 to read his poems, John was in the front row, a good thing, because “nobody could hear him beyond the fifth row.”12 He was surprised that Stevens “stood like a statue and wore an overcoat and scarf the entire time.” Despite the nearly inaudible, stiff reading, John loved his poems even more after hearing them.13

Stevens’s poetry was an exception; Ashbery often felt repelled by contemporary writers. The previous summer Aldous Huxley’s Point Counter Point (1928) had angered him as “somehow vulgar. It ain’t art.”14 He increasingly looked to earlier models.15 In his otherwise “dull” fall course, “English Literature: 1630 to Restoration,” Kenneth Murdock remarked that “Donne is trying to discover a poetry that will fit the needs of men of his age.”16 In the class, “English Literature Since 1890,” Theodore Spencer ar- gued that “Hardy, James, and Conrad” tried “to investigate all of life.” In John’s favorite fall class, “The Epic,” classicist John Finley emphasized “what in [literature] transcends history and is valid for all time.”17 In an essay on the Inferno that Finley judged “intelligent and well-written,” Ashbery concluded that Dante’s depiction of the relationship between contemporary experience and eternal truth was crucial for modern writers to understand:

Dante’s value for us lies, then, not in his conception of the universe, for it is one in which we can no longer share, but beneath it. It is rather the fact that Dante was able to create an idea of the universe applicable to his own time that is important. For just such an idea is what we desperately need...Dante is a constant incitement to the creative minds of our century, for whether or not we believe in any religion, we cannot gainsay his assurances that eternal truth, harmony, and proportion continue to exist in spite of man.18

He argued that “what we desperately need” is “an idea of the universal applicable” to our own time. He read Dante’s “assurances that eternal truth, harmony, and proportion continue to exist in spite of man” as an “incitement” for his own poems. He had always worried that if he used details from his present life in his poetry, he would cheapen the moral emotional universe his poems described. Dante’s Inferno, however, includes specific details of moral failings in fourteenth-century Florence in service to the story of a awed man’s journey toward enlightenment, a poem still so powerful that Ashbery viewed it as an ideal poetic model.

He skipped classes and read modern poetry with increasingly critical fervor. He regularly updated his assessment of modern poets in letters to Sandy: “Did I tell you about the new additions to Ashbery’s Denitive list of major modern poets (which Frost would give his right tit to be on)—John Berryman, Byron Vazakas, Wallace Stevens.”19 John’s brief enthusiasm for Byron Vazakas, an American of Auden’s generation who had recently moved to Cambridge, was primarily a rejection of Robert Lowell, whose poetry John disliked. (Lowell won the 1947 Pulitzer prize for Lord Weary’s Castle, for which Vazakas’ first book of poems had also been nominated.) Ashbery complained that Lowell “commits the common fault of stringing together a lot of images so overweighed with meaning that they cancel each other out and mean nothing.”20 He composed a parodic stanza—“Mudgulping trawler, / Truro in the ooze / Past Peach’s Point, with tray of copper spoons / For Salem’s Mayer Caldecott to suck, / For his doll’s calico corpse, red-needled in the book”—to prove that “anybody can write like” Lowell.21 Although he praised several modern poets—“Robert Frost is good. So is Patrick Anderson (Canadian), William Empson (English) and John Berryman. Auden really is the best of all forever and ever. I just read Caliban’s long prose speech in Sea & Mirror for the first time. Brilliant and exhausting. I cried a little”—he soon after revised his list.22 Eliminating several favorites since he was a teenager, he concluded:

My opinion of [Frederic] Prokosch as a poet is not high. At the age of 16 I cherished one of his poems—“The Birdwatcher.”...Perhaps Berryman isn’t as wonderful as I’d thought. ...As long as I’m on the subject of writers I hate, I may as well go on with the complete list: George Barker (ugh!), John Malcolm Brinnin, Henry Treece, Nicholas Moore (when is someone going to puncture his balloon), Howard Moss, William Abrahams, Oscar Williams, Edith Sitwell. Why not be brave and throw in T.S. Eliot too... a coldly intellectual juggling of symbols appar- ently not contrived to move the reader, but written with some other mysterious end in view.23

He reserved his deepest and most consistent praise for just four writers: “The only modern poets within whose portals I occasionally stand awed are Marianne Moore, Auden, F.T. Prince, and occasionally Stevens.”24 

The Harvard Advocate, “a literary mag which is currently being exhumed from a well- earned grave,” accepted Ashbery’s “A Sermon: Amos 8:11-14” for its first post-war issue.25 Despite the undergraduate magazine’s illustrious literary history, which had published student work by T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens, it had been suspended for several years ostensibly due to soaring costs. Its April, 1947 cover celebrates the magazine’s rebirth dramatically in a drawing of a phoenix rising out of the fire. A Harvard Crimson reviewer criticized the magazine’s first new issue as “thrown together haphazardly,” but praised Ashbery, the only undergraduate among three exceptional writers, including “Richard P. Wilbur...and Ruth Stone.”26 To friends, John downplayed his excitement about the Advocate’s reappearance, but his first contributor’s note—“...he had two po- ems in the November, 1945 issue of Poetry under the pseudonym Joel Michael Symington”—proudly repossessed his stolen poems. He began spending more time at the Advocate ofces on the second oor of 40 Bow Street, especially if Kenneth Koch was around. Three of Koch’s poems were published in the same November, 1945 Poetry issue as Ashbery’s stolen poems, and John had read and admired them.

Their new friendship furthered a conversation about poetry that each had already been having alone. As John said to Kenneth much later: “[W]e seem to have been work- ing along parallel lines as usual.”27 Two-and-a half years older, a veteran of the Army who had served as a rieman in the Ninety-Sixth Infantry Division, and an ambitious, condent junior, Kenneth had irrepressible intellectual energy.28 He already held a position on the Advocate staff and encouraged John to enter into competition to become literary editor. John, however, had heard that no homosexuals were allowed on the literary board. Assuming that Kenneth did not realize he was gay, John said he could not apply. Kenneth was aware that neither blacks, Jews, nor homosexuals were welcome on the board and had already ignored these rumors for his own sake. In fact, Advocate administrative records show that in the year leading up to the reopening of the magazine, all these scenarios for exclusion were discussed but never ofcially enforced.29 John was not chosen, even after completing “funny stuff like my having to paint the office door (I actually did that).”30 The rejection stung: “No goddamn you, I did not make the Advocate as I am in the habit of acidly replying to numerous inquirers.”31 A few months later, he took a different tack: “The A is really quite a stylish little Mag; I was assured by a reliable source that only sheer graft kept me from getting on the lit board, and that if I try again in the fall it’ll be a pipe.”32 

 

ENDNOTES CHAPTER 6

1 Letter from John Ashbery to Bob Hunter, July 27, 1946 and September 3, 1947. Robert Hunter Private Collection. Thetford Hill, VT.
2 Letter from John Ashbery to Bob Hunter, July 27, 1946. Robert Hunter Private Collection. Thetford Hill, VT.

3 Letter from John Ashbery to Bob Hunter, August 15, 1946. Robert Hunter Private Collection. Thetford Hill, VT.
4 Letter from John Ashbery to Bob Hunter, July 27, 1946. Robert Hunter Private Collection. Thetford Hill, VT.

5 Letter from John Ashbery to Sandy Gregg, Nov 26 1946. Richard A. “Sandy” Gregg Papers. Houghton Library, Harvard University.
6 Author interview with JA August 2, 2011. Judson, NY.
7 Author interview with JA, March 17, 2014. New York City.

8 Letter from John Ashbery to Sandy Gregg, March 8, 1947. Richard A. “Sandy” Gregg Papers. Houghton Library, Harvard University.
9 His grandmother died on February 20, 1947.
10 Letter from John Ashbery to Sandy Gregg, August 13 1946. Richard A. “Sandy” Gregg Papers. Houghton Library, Harvard University.

11 Author interview with JA, June 4, 2014. Hudson, NY.
12 Letter from Richard Eberhart to Kenneth Rexroth, February 16, 1947. Box 31 Folder 38 “Correspondence 1947.” Eberhart Papers. Rauner Library, Special Collections. Courtesy of Dartmouth College Library.
13 Harvard Crimson February 11, 1947; Author interview with JA December 31, 2011. Hudson, NY.
14 Letter from John Ashbery to Bob Hunter September 6, 1946. Robert Hunter Private Collection. Thetford Hill, VT. Typographic errors on the word “its” in the letter have been corrected so as not to distract from the point.
15 Ashbery’s note-taking system was such that the largest number of notes created and saved were for science courses that he found difcult to pass. He rarely took notes in English class unless he was working out an idea, disagreed with the lecture (in which he usually included a wry aside in parentheses), or did not know the information.
16 “Dull” from author interview with JA, January 1, 2013. Hudson, NY; notes on Donne from AM6 Box 31. Ashbery Papers. Houghton Library, Harvard University.
17 JA notes on the courses: Humanities [in General Educations] 2a The Epic. September 26, 1946. AM6 Box 31. Ashbery Papers. Houghton Library, Harvard University.
18 Essay: “Modern Implications of Dante’s Inferno.” Fall, 1946, for Professor John Finley’s General Education Course Humanities, 2A (“The Epic”). AM6 Box 31. Ashbery Papers. Houghton Library, Harvard University. 19 Letter from John Ashbery to Sandy Gregg, March 8, 1947. Richard A. “Sandy” Gregg Papers. Houghton Library, Harvard University.
20 Letter from John Ashbery to Sandy Gregg, July 9, 1947. Richard A. “Sandy” Gregg Papers. Houghton Library, Harvard University.

21 Letter from John Ashbery to Sandy Gregg, July 9, 1947. Richard A. “Sandy” Gregg Papers. Houghton Library, Harvard University.
22 Letter from John Ashbery to Sandy Gregg, June 20, 1947. Richard A. “Sandy” Gregg Papers. Houghton Library, Harvard University.
23 Letter from John Ashbery to Sandy Gregg, July 9, 1947. Richard A. “Sandy” Gregg Papers. Houghton Library, Harvard University.
24 Letter from John Ashbery to Sandy Gregg, July 9, 1947. Richard A. “Sandy” Gregg Papers. Houghton Library, Harvard University.
25 Letter from John Ashbery to Sandy Gregg, Undated. Richard A. “Sandy” Gregg Papers. Houghton Library, Harvard University.
26 John McC. Howison, Harvard Crimson, Tuesday, March 25, 1947; Anonymous, Harvard Crimson, March 27, 1947
27 Letter from JA to Kenneth Koch March 20, 1955. Ashbery Private Collection. Hudson, NY.
28 Letter from Kenneth Koch to Daisy Aldan, August 29, 1953. Koch includes his own biography. Box 3 Folder 7. Daisy Aldan Papers. Harry Ransom Library.
29 Harvard University Archives: Box 18 HUD 3121, Harvard University. Relevant correspondence includes: May 7, 1946 from Samuel H. Ordway to Hoffman Nickerson: “I am inclined to think that if the returning editors can state and enforce a set of objectives and standards and policies which meet the Trustees’ desires... provided the editors are of the right sort”; September 11, 1946 from A.G. Hanford, Dean’s Ofce, Harvard College 4 University Hall to Hoffman Nickerson: “...I am glad to know that a person like yourself is taking an interest in the Advocate and a hand in its present affairs...Recently I have had complaints from students and parents regarding the goings on at the Advocate before and during the early part of the war—the heavy drink- ing, obscene initiations, and over-interest in abnormal sex matters....”; March 1, 1947 from Nickerson: “The one point on which I denitely disagree with you is the Jew-Nigger business. As I am sure you already know, I see no good reason for mentioning that matter in the way that you suggest in connection with the Advocate, and many good reasons for not doing so”; March 29, 1947 from 40 Bow Street, from Donald B. Watt Jr., to Nickerson “...Obviously it will be impossible to write into this constitution anything along the lines which you advised in our private talk. Howison, Gilmour, and I have talked about this matter at some length and have agreed that, as a matter of policy, it would be extremely dangerous to follow the course outlined. We do not feel, in the rst place, that we can support such a principle; but more than that, we know that the Advocate would be wrecked if such a policy became known, for a large part of our public would withdraw support.”
30 Letter from John Ashbery to Sandy Gregg, June 1, 1947. Richard A. “Sandy” Gregg Papers. Houghton Library, Harvard University.
31 Letter from John Ashbery to Sandy Gregg, April 8, 1947. Richard A. “Sandy” Gregg Papers. Houghton Library, Harvard University.
32 Letter from John Ashbery to Sandy Gregg, June 1, 1947. Richard A. “Sandy” Gregg Papers. Houghton Library, Harvard University.