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December 14, 2008

some trees

john_ashbery.some_trees.jpg There will always be researchers and aficionados interested in the Yale Younger Poets series when it was under Auden's editorship in the later 1940s and first half of the 1950s and in particular in the circumstances in which he made his choice for the 1956 award, John Ashbery's book, Some Trees. The title was Auden's suggestion -- Ashbery had originally called the manuscript simply Poems. Time has proved that picking Ashbery was amongst the most spectacular of successes in Auden's many prescient selections.

(When will people stop moaning about their own simple-minded misreadings of what Auden, who had not in the first place wanted to burden Adrienne Rich with an introduction by him to her book, said about Rich in the essay which Yale required him to contribute to A Change of World, and focus instead on the fact that he chose her?)

Recently, one Jascha Kessler, born in New York in 1929 and a professor of English at UCLA since 1961, has sluggishly stirred the Yale Younger Poets pot. In late November 2008 Kessler, a little-studied poet, playwright, novelist and translator, wrote an account for the TLS letters page which explained some of the reaons why Kessler was, in his own view, beaten to the Yale prize by Ashbery. (Kessler had won a Major Hopwood Award for Poetry at the University of Michigan in 1952 but had published nothing in book form in the next few years which is perhaps one reason why he believed himself entitled to the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 1956.) Kessler's TLS explanation of his failing to be selected by Auden has something to do with anti-Semitism on Auden's part and homosexual chauvinism. The ever-interesting Ashbery responded with humour and vigour in the same venue the following week.

In the late spring of 1955 Auden, staying on Ischia, read the submissions, including Kessler's, which Yale University Press had forwarded to him to consider for the 1956 prize. He was dismayed by their quality (as he had been by the submissions the previous year when he had ultimately decided not to award the prize). He consulted with the young Anthony Hecht, who was also on Ischia at the time. Hecht confirmed Auden's opinion, so Auden wired Chester Kallman, who was in New York, asking him to tell Ashbery and O'Hara to send copies of their manuscripts to him on Ischia. Edward Mendelson provides the essential background on the 1956 selection in his notes on pp. 772-773 of volume 3 of Auden's prose in the Princeton edition of Auden's Complete Works. Now, on the New York Times website, Gregory Cowles has an efficient rundown on the recent Kessler contra Auden and Ashbery spat, with links to Kessler's and Ashbery's letters, in "Ashbery and Prizes".

I think it would be fair to say -- speaking figuratively of course -- that during their joust in the TLS lists, the good Sir John unhorsed milord Kessler, then dismounted and rapidly slew his prone and bewildered foe. Finally the white knight took the time to discommode himself sufficiently to be able to, by natural means, irrigate his erstwhile opponent's battered literary corpse, perhaps in the unspoken hope that something rare and beautiful might one day grow from the remains.

There is probably more to be uncovered/discovered at some point about the 1956 Yale prize and, more generally, about Auden, Ashbery, Kallman and O'Hara. But, for the time being, Cowles's account of this impromptu tournament, which took place by an insignificant-seeming crossroads on the way towards the future, bears reading.

Posted by njenkins at December 14, 2008 12:35 AM

With the exception of interspersed quotations, all writing is © 2007-09 by Nicholas Jenkins