I am perhaps too polite to give my opinion of the new magazine 02138, and yet it seems to have some very good things in it; in this issue, a great little piece by John Ashbery as told to Greg Atwan about his literary activities as an undergraduate at Harvard.
The funniest part concerns my late colleague Kenneth Koch, but here are the central paragraphs in any case (makes me think J.A. would be an absolutely delightful person to have a conversation with, I like the flavor of the talk):
I applied to Harvard in order to study with some poets who were teaching there, particularly Delmore Schwartz, who was one of my favorites, and Theodore Spencer. I never ended up taking a course with Schwartz, probably because he would cancel his classes and go back to Greenwich Village to drink. He left Harvard permanently in the spring of ’47. Robert Creeley and John Hawkes were, as it happened, also in my class with Spencer, though I didn’t get to know them. Both looked rather intimidating. Creeley always wore black, sort of anticipating the Goth look—he had his eye-patch, of course, and always walked by himself. Most of my literary or intellectual conversations with friends were held at Cronin’s bar, where I went practically every night.
Kenneth Koch was on the staff of the Advocate and he had decided that he and I were the poets, and was very reluctant to admit anyone else, though finally he allowed Frank [O’Hara]. Robert Bly and Donald Hall were also on the Advocate at that time. There was a gay culture associated with the Advocate that was very underground—it could have been grounds for expulsion from Harvard then, and in fact I knew two people who were expelled for being gay. In private, though, most people didn’t bother to pretend. I was open with some of my friends, but not with Koch. Kenneth used to have what he humorously called “HD,” homosexual dread, and only surmounted it after living in New York and knowing O’Hara and me better. In fact, the Advocate had been closed down for several years before I got to Harvard because of the war and also some sort of homosexual scandal—there were rumors of orgies in the office and that sort of thing—and it only reopened in the fall of 1947 when some wealthy alumnus persuaded the administration, but on condition that they have a policy against gays on the staff. Kenneth had trouble getting me elected, in fact, because of rumors about me, but (not knowing that there was truth to the rumors) he threatened to resign if I was indeed gay. As it turned out, there were already several gays on the staff, including the chief literary editor, who became a good friend.
I met Frank O’Hara shortly before I graduated. He was rooming with Edward Gorey in Eliot House, but they weren’t particularly close—they had perhaps been forced together by the housing shortage. One day I went to an exhibition of Gorey’s drawings at the Mandrake Book Shop, no doubt his first show. O’Hara was there, talking about a concert he’d been to where they played a little-known piece by Poulenc called Les Sécheresses. I heard him say “Let’s face it, Les Sécheresses is greater than Tristan.” And I recognized my own hyperbolic way of talking and also my own nasal voice, and was sort of amazed. O’Hara had majored in music for a while, and I was fascinated by modern music, of which little had so far been recorded. I would go over to Eliot House now and then and he would play me works by Krenek and Satie, and once one of his own works, a sonatina that he said lasted three seconds. He was also a very precocious reader—he was reading Beckett, whom nobody had heard of—this was before Godot— as well as Jean Rhys, Ronald Firbank, Flann O’Brien, Ford Madox Ford, and Horace McCoy. Frank was very competitive, and in my own passive-aggressive way I was too. After we moved to New York, we were rivals socially and poetically. I was envious not so much of the famous painters and writers he got to know, but of the fact that they tookup so much of his time and I rarely got a chance to be alone with him and talk about poetry.