Postcard from America: On the Road, Alan Ansen, part one

I started re-reading Keruac's On the Road during our travels, not so much because we are on the road (travelling in a rented car to hotels with a three-year old is not exactly hitch-hiking, though it has its own challenges), as because of glimpsing a piece in the October 1 New Yorker, and because it got me thinking, again, of our old friend Alan Ansen, who passed away a little more than a year ago.
When I met Alan, he was in his late 70s, and had been housebound in Athens for 15 odd years--visiting him, which involved his passing a key through the difficult-to-reach ground-floor window, was rather like visiting the Onceler. I didn't know him in his youth, when he was a friend of the Beats, and the model for Rollo Greb in Keruac's famous novel.
(Alan's 80th birthday party, with me and Rosemary Donelly. Photo by John Psaropoulos.)

Here is Keruac on Rollo Greb:
'We found the wild, ecsatic Rollo Greb and spent a night at his house on Long Island. Rollo lives in a nice house with his aunt; when she dies the house is all his. Meanwhile she refuses to comply with any of his wishes and hates his friends. He brought this ragged gang of Dean, Marylou, Ed, and me, and began a roaring party. The woman prowled upstairs; she threatened to call the police. "Oh, shut up, you old bag!" yelled Greb. I wondered how he could live with her like this. He had more books than I've ever seen in all my life--two libraries, two rooms loaded from floor to ceiling around all four walls, and such books as the Apocryphal Something-or-Other in ten volumes. He played Verdi operas and pantomimed them in his pajamas with a great rip down the back. He didn't give a damn about anything. He is a great scholar who goes reeling down the New York waterfront with original seventeenth-century musical manuscripts under his arm, shouting. He crawls like a big spider through the streets. His excitement blew out of his eyes in stabls of fiendish light. He rolled his neck in spastic ecstasy. He could hardly get a word out, he was so excited with life. Dean stood before him with head bowed, repeating over and over again, "Yes. . . Yes . . . Yes." He took me into a corner. "That Rollo Greb is the greatest, most wonderful of all."'
I just read this aloud to my husband, who was also a friend of Alan's in his last years, and we laughed with surprise that this was in fact totally recognizeable. True, the man we knew was physically frail, but the walls of books (a true polymath, he had mastered a dizzying array of languages), the enthusiasms, and the blithe cantankerousness were all things we had experienced. He still pantomimed operas in his ripped pajamas. There are stories of his spryer days in Athens when, during a dinner disagreement, Alan got under the table and continued the argument loudly from that vantage.
I had actually resisted meeting Alan on first moving to Athens. He lived only blocks from us, and I had a letter of introduction to him from Rachel Hadas. But for some reason I avoided making contact until we had been living in Greece over a year, and there was a freak snow fall. I knew he was housebound, and worried he might need groceries or assistance. I timidly phoned him up, and he delightedly accepted our offer, giving us a detailed if odd grocery list (heavy in cookies). So out I trudged in the snow to meet this legendary character. He was still able to walk then, though it took what seemed hours for him to shuffle to the door in his outlandishly filthy slippers and bathrobe.
What I quickly learned about Alan was that he was absolutely at ease in an awkward silence, and it was incumbent on the visitor to initiate and sometimes to prosecute a conversation. But once he got going he was a wealth of wit and anecdote (he had known positively everyone--he had been a secretary to W.H. Auden--beloved Wystan--his notes were vital to the recentish volume of Auden's Shakespeare lectures--friend of the Beats, James Merrill, Peggy Gugenheim, etc.), though he was apt to sprinkle conversations with quotations from German, which I never got, or bursts of song (usually Wagner), or poems in Ancient Greek. His laughter was sudden and raucous. If he were startled, he uttered various creative oaths, among the most memorable was probably, Shit on God!
I started to feel our visits were actually tutorials. I would look up poems or poets he had mentioned in one visit to be better prepared for the next. A look was enough to shame me into reading books I casually mentioned not having read. I tried to come in with a conversation starter--an article on Wystan, for instance, or a book review, or a piece of poetry gossip. His knowledge and enthusiasm for poetry was encyclopaedic and catholic. He admired Longfellow and Ashbery. He was an expert on Alcman and Pindar. You might think that being a housebound ex-pat poet in Athens would have been depressing for him. But he truly lived through his books, and could not have been happier than being among so many centuries of excellent company, speaking to him in French and Greek and German and Farsi.
Only towards the end, when he had been moved to an old-folks home (with an excellent view of the Parthenon) did melancholy really seem to get the upper hand. In physical discomfort and only able to read his beloved Agatha Christies, he would sometimes answer our question if he wanted anything with the Eliotically Sibylline "I want to die." But he would say this wryly, and with a twinkle of mischief, and we were able to ask teasingly if there were anything else we could do for him. His longtime friend John Zervos, who wrote an obituary of him for the Athens News, remarked that towards the end when he would close his eyes he claimed he was "practicing."
Besides Alan's humbling breadth of knowledge, curiousity and reading, I always found his attitude towards poetry itself inspiring. He was ambitious for poetry, but utterly without vanity for his own career. I think his work may now be out of print, though I hope that will someday be remedied.[Corrected per Don's remarks--Contact Highs, his selected, is still available.] Here is one of my favorites, his disappearing Sestina, which is also, elegantly, a history lesson of the sestina itself:
A Fit of Something Against Something
for John Ashbery
In the burgeoning age of Arnaur when for God and man to be
Shone a glory not a symptom, poetry was not austere.
Complicated laws it followed, generosity through order,
Dowered acrobats with hoops trapezing laurels undergone.
Fountainlike gyrations earned the free trouvere the name of master,
And the climax of his daring was the dazzling sestina.
When love the subject-object of Romance sestina
Left gay Provence for learned Italy to be
The guide and gaurd and graveyard of a supreme master,
The plaything followed, intricate turned more austere,
And doubled in and on its tracks, now woebegone
Began to learn its place and kiss the rod of order.
Petrarch and Sidney, time's woodsmen, reorder
To pastoral the still pregnant sestina
With history and logic come to be
The inspissations of its present master
Landscapes that turn upon themselves have gone
To shape a shining surface to austere.
The pious young would be austere;
They pant and puff pursuing order
(Within a shorter-breathed sestina
The fewer true). Those that have gone
The masturbatory course must be
In doubt if they or it is master.
New rebels will not master
Forms pointlessly austere.
They feel that they will be
Screwed by that alien order,
That Gestapo sestina,
Cats, it's the most ungone.
Its zing's all gone,
It's no master.
Get lost, sestina,
Go way, austere.
You'll always be
Out of order.
Sestina order,
Austere master,

Originally Published: October 25th, 2007

A. E. (Alicia) Stallings studied classics in Athens, Georgia and has lived since 1999 in Athens, Greece. She has published three books of poetry, Archaic Smile (1999), which won the Richard Wilbur Award; Hapax (2000); and Olives (2012). Her new verse translation of Lucretius (in rhyming fourteeners!), The Nature of Things,...

  1. October 25, 2007
     Alicia (AE)

    PS--I put "part one" because I am hoping to come back with some Alan Ansen table talk. But we'll be travelling over the next couple of days, so I may be scarce for a bit...

  2. October 25, 2007
     Don Share

    A lovely tribute, Alicia. It's a great pity that Alan Ansen's fascinating Table Talk of W.H. Auden is hard to find nowadays, but happily, Dalkey Archive still makes available his own work, in the volume Contact Highs: Selected Poems, 1957-1987.

  3. October 25, 2007
     Steve Mackin

    Two things Jack related:
    1. Here is a link to Jack in 1959, at his height, in fighting trim, reading on TV, with piano accompaniment by Steve Allen -
    2. Here is something I take to heart, though I could never think or write this way, and I've tried, believe me. "First thought best thought." I try but it doesn't work for me. Anyway, here is Jack's poetic statement:
    Jack’s thirty rules of Bop Prosody (on his 85th birthday):
    Belief and technique for modern prose
    1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy
    2. Submissive to everything, open, listening
    3. Try never get drunk outside yr own house
    4. Be in love with yr life
    5. Something that you feel will find its own form
    6. Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind
    7. Blow as deep as you want to blow
    8. Write what you want bottomless from bottom of mind
    9. The unspeakable visions of the individual
    10. No time for poetry but exactly what is
    11. Visionary tics shivering in the chest
    12. In tranced fixation dreaming upon object before you
    13. Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition
    14. Like Proust be an old teahead of time
    15. Telling the true story of the world in interior monolog
    16. The jewel center of interest is the eye within the eye
    17. Write in recollection and amazement for yourself
    18. Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea
    19. Accept loss forever
    20. Believe in the holy contour of life
    21. Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind
    22. Don’t think of words when you stop but to see picture better
    23. Keep track of every day the date emblazoned in yr morning
    24. No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge
    25. Write for the world to read and see yr exact pictures of it
    26. Bookmovie is the movie in words, the visual American form
    27. In Praise of Character in the Bleak inhuman Loneliness
    28. Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better
    29. You’re a Genius all the time
    30. Writer-Director of Earthly movies Sponsored & Angeled in Heaven
    As ever,

  4. October 26, 2007
     Don Share

    Interesting to compare Jack's advice to writers with Auden's, which I assume Alan Ansen would have heard in one form or another:
    1) In addition to English, at least one ancient language, probably Greek or Hebrew, and two modern languages would be required.
    2) Thousands of lines of poetry in these languages would be learned by heart.
    3) The library would contain no books of literary criticism, and the only critical exercise required of students would be the writing of parodies.
    4) Courses in prosody, rhetoric and comparative philology would be required of all students, and every student would have to select three courses out of courses in mathematics, natural history, geology, meteorology, archaeology, mythology, liturgics, cooking.
    5) Every student would be required to look after a domestic animal and cultivate a garden plot.
    – W. H. Auden
    By the way, here's a brief guide to Ansen's work.

  5. October 27, 2007
     rachel hadas

    Alicia, In your lovely tribute to our mutual friend Alan Ansen there were a couple of points I found
    personally relevant and helpful, though notdoubt they weren't intended for me - but isn't that how poetry itself often works? One, that AA's attitude toward poetry - lack of personal vanity or careerism but ambtition for and love of the art itself - is something we should all come back to and ponder as we can. And two, your point about Alan's comfort with awkward silence. Living with my husband, whose dementia keeps him from being able to speak much and from initiating any conversation at all, I have found it helpful not to fear silence; and I have learned that sooner or later poetry will provide some good news, shed some light - not necessarily poetry as a conversation piece, though that too sometimes but poetry as "a friend to man," as Keats puts it. I can absolutely count on poetry to come to my aid sooner or later. I believe Alan felt the same way, and that was part of what in his tutorials he had to teach.