for John Ashbery
Two stories from the mid-1960s.
When I was an English major at Columbia, I took a creative writing course from Kenneth Koch, who changed my life. Actually it was a class in modern literature with some creative assignments. I have never met anyone who knew so much about modern literature. He assigned books we had never heard of, like Svevo's Confessions of Zeno, Pasternak's Safe Conduct, and Machado de Assis's Dom Casmurro (which became my favorite novel and which I've taught for years; a student told me recently that Woody Allen likes it too, which makes perfect sense). He sent us out to review The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. He had us read Borges's Ficciones and the latest issue of Art and Literature. And he told us stories. One of them dragged me into a labyrinth, made me part of it.
As a way of explaining "Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote" and "An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain," Koch told us that he had been sitting on a New York park bench with Borges when Borges said that the way one could tell that the Koran was an authentic document was that there were no camels in it. If someone had wanted to create such a book and then plant false, artificially aged documents that appeared to establish its existence in the 7th century C.E., that person would certainly have included some Arabic local color, such as camels. Koch wanted to show us how Borges could read even the Koran as a potentially false text and how the fact that there were no camels in it could prove the Koran was authentic if one was in a Borgesian mood.
At the time I was also taking a class in what was then called Oriental Humanities, and the assignment for that week was the Koran (trans. A. J. Arberry). I read it with Koch's Borges story in mind. There are two camels in the Koran.
The question is, did Borges know that? Koch apparently did not. If Borges did know about the camels, then he was doing an advanced Borgesian number on Koch and anyone to whom Koch might tell the story, expecting that someone who heard the story and knew there were camels in the Koran would have reason to doubt its authenticity. That was the trap that he set, and the story ends with my hearing the story, finding the camels, and wondering what I had been led to wonder. Or it ends today, with my writing this.
Because Borges may not have known about the camels. He could simply have been raising the issue that the Koran could be a faked and planted and falsely substantiated book. I don't know whether Koch was in on the joke (I never discussed this with him; I was mostly too intimidated to go to professors' office hours), and I don't know whether Borges knew he was setting a trap. I met Borges a decade later when he visited the University of Colorado at Boulder, and I got a chance to ask him about the paradoxical final sentence of "Borges and I" ("I do not know which of us has written this page"). He said there was no paradox and that "Borges and I" was a simple record of how he felt when he got mail addressed to Borges. So readers may have made up the ultimate Borges, the one who lays out labyrinths for careful readers, the one who knew Koch would someday have a student who would hear the story, read the Koran, and be convinced that its existence was a literary conspiracy, a student who never would guess that Borges might just have been careless and missed the camels.
When I was taking Koch's class and for a few years afterward, I had a show on Columbia's student radio station, WKCR-FM. It was called Literary Workshop, and every week a writer from the New York area or who happened to be in the city at the time would come to the station, which was in the student union, and read and talk about his or her work for just under half an hour. Koch was one of the first to accept my invitation. I asked the poets not only to give a reading, but also to go through one or two poems line by line, because my New York/New Jersey audience was diverse and included many people who were not students but liked to read. Koch talked about how and why he kept his work fresh. Kenward Elmslie came too, and Allen Ginsberg (just back from India and Vietnam with "The Change"), and John Ashbery.
The Ashbery interview, dated 1966, is available online, from PennSound: http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Ashbery.php. Ashbery thoroughly answered the charge that some people might consider some of his poems incomprehensible. I knew I was talking to the best living American poet, and I wanted people to overcome any rumors about "difficulty" and read his work. His line-by-line reading of "These Lacustrine Cities" was brilliant and clear, and I've often played the tape to poetry classes. He had just published Rivers and Mountains. I still think "The Skaters," which was in that book, is the best poem of the period. When Ron Padgett read it, he told me that John had shown us what to do, that the future of poetry started with "The Skaters." In my opinion, that poem and what Ron saw in it were the real beginning of what they now call "postmodern" poetry, even if Charles Olson made up the word and even if Ashbery's "A Boy" ("It had been raining but / It had not been raining.") anticipated it.
Frank O'Hara made an appointment for a live show (most of them were taped) but had to cancel at the last minute, so my friend Les Gottesman and I read some of O'Hara's poems from The New American Poetry and the latest issue of Ted Berrigan's magazine, C, which also included "The Change." Les was the one who'd asked Ginsberg to do my show (in 1964), and Ginsberg had agreed on condition that we buy him dinner. Ginsberg was living on the Lower East Side on a dollar a day. He and Les and I ate in the Columbia student union, of which Ginsberg had many memories. He'd worked on the campus humor magazine, which was in the same building as that grill and the radio station and the Columbia Review, the literary magazine on which Les and I worked with such then-student poets as David Shapiro and David Lehman, Aaron Fogel and Alan Feldman, and many more; the year I joined the Review as a freshman, Phillip Lopate (the editor) and Ron Padgett were seniors on the editorial board. After dinner, the interview lasted an hour, which was way too long, and the station refused to broadcast it (ever) because "The Change" began with the word "Shit" and went on from there.
I asked novelists and nonfiction writers to appear as well, and one day Ayn Rand contacted the station and said she wanted to talk about the romantic novel, by which she meant Sir Walter Scott and her own work. She showed up in a fur coat with two young bodyguards, and when I asked her about Romanticism and mentioned someone's altruism, she said "You have not read Atlas Shrugged!," threw me off my own show, and was interviewed by one of WKCR's student directors. I was more comfortable with Seymour Melman, who talked about The Peace Race, mainly remembered now as a reference in Dr. Strangelove but a book with a good idea.
Anyway, O'Hara called me and, to make up for missing the show, invited me to lunch. I asked whether I could bring my girlfriend, Marilyn Rivchin, who was an art history major at Barnard. He said sure and would we meet him outside the museum. Marilyn's interest was in his work at MoMA. I thought he was a great curator too and had gone to some of his exhibits, but mostly I knew the poems.
He was short and he walked very fast. He wore pointed shoes and a tan suit. One of the first things I noticed was his beautiful nose. He asked us whether it would be OK if two friends of his joined us for lunch. They had just flown into town and were about to fly out. We said sure. While we were walking from MoMA to a bar on the East Side, I forget which avenue, he told me he was putting together a book of poems that were all written on his lunch hour. It turned out to be Lunch Poems.
And the people he was meeting turned out to be Joan Mitchell and Jasper Johns. They were just back from President Johnson's inaugural ball and were full of stories about meeting people they considered famous, like Barbra Streisand. In the presence of people we considered famous, Marilyn and I were floored. I don't know whether O'Hara knew that and appreciated the irony of the conversation (I'm sure that Mitchell and Johns did not) or was just enjoying the company and being host, as I don't know whether Borges knew about the camels. O'Hara had a double bourbon. I don't remember eating or what anybody ate. It wasn't long enough after that that O'Hara died, horribly young. His artist friends made prints to accompany his poems in a great MoMA book called In Memory Of My Feelings. Jasper Johns and Joan Mitchell were contributors. That book, Koch's classes, the Columbia Review, Ted Berrigan running C Press in his apartment and typing up mimeos in the days before Xerox, and a city park in which Borges could make a Borgesian remark are keys to a decade that most people remember for its politics but that was also a labyrinth of clues to the nature of writing.