ALAN ANSEN 1922-2006
The first poem Alan Ansen and I read together was Dante's Divine Comedy . We got quite far into the Purgatorio before something interrupted our sessions. This was February 1970; and I remember drawing a picture of an allegorical procession as a kind of study aid, and then of painting a mapped and labeled heart and giving it to Alan as a Valentine. He framed it, and for the next few decades it hung over his bed.
The last or next-to-last time I saw Alan, in the summer of 2002, he read (or was it recited? His eyesight was fading) Auden's poem "Herman Melville," whose beautifully valedictory tone ("Towards the end he sailed into an extraordinary mildness") brought tears into his eyes--tears that in turn brought tears into my own.
Any of Alan's many friends and students (categories which surely overlapped to the point of becoming synonymous) could surely tell a similar story of poems bracketing or punctuating their conversations or capturing the mood of the moment. Alicia Stallings, for example, told me of Alan's wistfully reciting Alcman's beautiful lyric about the losses of old age:
No Longer, O honeytongued, holyvoiced maidens,
can my limbs carry me. How I wish I were a kingfisher
who flies above the blossoming foam with halcyons,
fearless-hearted, a holy sea-purple bird.
(translation by Diane Rayor)
Since Alan's limbs had indeed ceased to carry him, the poem was very apposite. But then poems often are--and among Alan's greatest and most enduring gifts was his joy in demonstrating this fact.
Yet, despite reiterated breathless expressions of amazement at his erudition from acquaintances ranging from Jack Kerouac and others in the 1950s to friends in Athens at the end of his life, Alan was not a monologuing bore or a freakish savant. Awe at the range of his knowledge and depth of his memory shouldn't obscure delight in the particular: that kingfisher, or that extraordinary mildness. A literary tradition is not only an epic but an individual exquisite trope: not only a grand opera but the individual aria. Alan's human qualities--his tremendous sympathy, loyalty, and generosity to his friends--took lyrical rather than massive expression, not only in the poems he wrote but in his human responses. Unfailingly hospitable and kind, he often used the language of poetry to express his sympathy--what better way was there? When in 2000 I wrote to him that my marriage was in trouble, he phoned me from Athens, and boomed over the phone: Ailinon ailinon eipe, to d'eu nikato --the refrain from the opening chorus of Aeschylus' Agamemnon , which can be rendered "Sing sorrow, sorrow, but still may the good prevail."
If not a pedant, however, Alan was most certainly a pedagogue. In his long autobiographical poem "Epistle to Chester Kallman," he cites as "proof of the beneficence of providence"
My debut as a teacher on the isle
Of Aegina filling the fresh-faced young
With musing memories of a bibliophile
And metric glories of our mother tongue.
I used to regret that Alan's modest income combined with his idiosyncrasies to prevent him from needing or seeking a full-time job. But what business was it of mine? Being himself was, I now think, a full-time job, if often a lonely one. Besides, Alan taught irrepressibly, not only when the occasion afforded him a classroom, but any time he found himself in congenial company. When John Psaropoulos was conducting a series of interviews with Alan for National Public Radio (interviews one hopes will eventually be aired), Alan always referred to these conversations as "lectures." An eloquent email from Fred Ahl, an American classicist, speaks, I suspect, for many, of this side of Alan:
I had so wanted to show him my Aeneid translation...and to have him read some lines aloud for me. He was in so many ways a final link with the last GREAT poets of the English language, whose love of the melody of words matched with the fire of their imaginations and vast learning, whose knowledge reached across ages and cultures with a speed dazzling the mind and delighting the ears. When I was with him I was with them too somehow. And now he's gone.
Of course he is not wholly gone: there are his remarkable poems, and the pieces of knowledge and memory he passed on. "He had an inherited income, and he had to make it last. He never spent a penny unwisely," writes Steven Moore in his Introduction to the invaluable 1989 Contact Highs , Alan's Selected Poems 1957-1987. But a larger and as it were a more generous form of husbandry was always at work in Alan's work and life: the art of eking out, of making do with what was left.
Elsewhere in "Epistle to Chester Kallman" he muses:
We hope the act of compositions unsays
Unfitness for the journey without maps
We're ultimately doomed to undertake.
Without maps--and perhaps more important, without companions? I would like to let Alan's own voice speak to his loneliness, his economy, his dignity, and his affection, particularly in the distilled form they took in the poems of his later years. "Cats" is included in Contact Highs ; "Constantine Cavafy: A Minimalist Exercise" was commissioned by the Princeton University periodical Paralos , where it was published in 1996.
As the boys fade out the cats fade in
Jumping down from the tree, creeping under the partition, delicately walking the balcony railing
Waiting for food, licking themselves, sleeping, spying, enjoying their state,
Modeling the being of God's creatures for a less satisfied one.
No rough and ready dog may invade the balcony's felinity,
Though an obnoxious bark may alert it.
Here one learns courtesy, patience, self-abnegation
Resigning a favorite chair to a cat in possession
Rather than attempting to justify the logic of proprietorship to a sentience determined not to understand.
But one is tempted wrath when a mother pushes her way in to the interior to stash her newly born kittens;
I didn't make you screech for those kittens;
Let their father, that no-good loafer, go out and rent an apartment for them!
What's the use? Expel the cats with a broomstick they return
Hungry, weary, forgiving, distracting,
An opportunity for love.
Constantine Cavafy: A Minimalist Exercise
Scrumptious bedizened past, historied world laden with useful details and someone
To appreciate your minute particulars, weave them into winsome webs,
The moist spider, their most illustrious if only semiconscious ward,
As he succumbs to the traps that he used to fear, resorts to resorts
To cheer himself up with scribbles, books, antique saws, remembered boys,
The bric-a-brac of an enterprise slowing down, glancing back,
Glorifying a perveiving tininess in the light
Of imperial Rome, with imperial success
Reticently holds the ring between the double
Paradoxes of austere paganism and
Coarse Christianity, steering a bland
Judicious pilot's course through trouble
And strife to his final weakness,
Charted haven, to alight
Unload, cheerfully lack
As ultimate poise
Among the orts
Is a hoard
After Alan's death, I and some others made strenuous efforts to get Alan's obituary into the New York Times --to no avail, though Herbert Huncke had received lots of space on that page when he died. I am reminded of James Merrill's comment that Contact Highs "should win [Ansen] that audience so airily foregone, but from the beginning so utterly deserved." Optimistic, perhaps? But then I think of Alan's master Auden's reminder--also perhaps optimistic?--that
Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and innocent,
And indifferent in a week
To a beautiful physique,
Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives
And thinking of Auden and time and poetry, let me offer a final memory. When, in the early months of 1970, Alan gave me a copy of John Fuller's Reader's Guide to W.H. Auden , knowing I knew far too little of the great poet's work, he inscribed it with characteristic charm, wit, and generosity, "A cart before a heavenly horse."