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.
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,...