The Perils of Prizeworthiness
The incestuous nature of the PoBiz—no, I am not talking about the Jorie Graham scandal of some years back, or any other that you might be thinking of. Just a little bit of news (or gossip really) that has let W.H. Auden drop a couple of pegs in my estimation.
I'm looking at The Poetics of Indeterminacy by Marjorie Perloff—the last of her books that I intend to look at at this time (indeed the only other available to me besides her memoir or the one on Wittgenstein, which sounds intriguing, but I've had my fill... for the time being).
John Ashbery is a friend of Perloff—so I have gathered somewhere or another—and he does not escape her critical attention. (Certain names just keep coming up, and up, and up.)
In "'Mysteries of Construction': The Dream Songs of John Ashbery" she writes:
In 1955 both Frank O'Hara and John Ashbery entered the annual competition for the Yale Younger Poets Award. The outcome of this contest is one of the nice ironies of literary history. The judge that year was W.H. Auden, and he originally declared that none of the manuscripts submitted deserved to win the prize.
...someone, a mutual friend, possibly Chester Kallman, told Auden—by that time he'd gone to Ischia for the summer—that Frank and I both submitted. And he asked us through his friend to send our manuscripts, which we did, and then he chose mine, although I never had felt that he particularly liked my poetry, and his introduction to the book is rather curious, since it doesn't really talk about the poetry.
Leaving all undertones of gayness aside—it is only through my recent readings of Perloff that I first heard about Ashbery's or O'Hara's sexual orientation (something Paul Carroll never saw fit to mention)—Auden's original declaration then his subsequent backpedalling on behalf of friends really dispirits me. Early on, as a very young (and very isolated) poet, I compiled a manuscript—well before I was ready—for that same contest on the basis of presumed integrity because Auden had been a part.
Presumed integrity is never a good idea, at least in the PoBiz, I am given to understand—and by his own lights I suppose Auden felt he was merely helping out a friend—but one of the first ("professional") poems which ever inspired me was by Auden and I suppose as a young poet I had an idealized view of him.
Au contraire, Madame Perloff, I do not find it a "nice irony" at all.