Tag Archives: Alan Ansen

Remembering Alan Ansen

12 Nov

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On this day in 2006 we lost Alan Ansen.

Today we celebrate his life and work. Ansen, a graduate of Harvard, was secretary to none other than the great W. H. Auden, who had come to New York City in 1939. He hung out with Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs,  Allen Ginsberg, and Gregory Corso, and is even written into their works. By the 1960s, he had moved to Greece, where he lived on Alopekis Street in Athens, and hung out with other expatriate poets such as James Merrill (who went on to get the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry in 1977), Chester Kallman (one of Auden’s lovers), and Rachel Hadas (who went on to receive the Guggenheim Fellowship).

Ansen passed away in Athens at the age of eight-four, but leaves behind his poetry and prose. Check out:

I think reading someone’s work is one of the best way to celebrate their life. Do you have a favorite poem by Ansen?

Who Is Rollo Greb in “On the Road”?

6 Feb

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Some names are practically synonymous with Jack Kerouac’s On the Road: Dean Moriarty/Neal Cassady, Old Bull Lee/William S. Burroughs, and Carlo Marx/Allen Ginsberg, for sure.

But what about Rollo Greb? Who was he?

The character Rollo Greb in On the Road was based on Alan Ansen. Kerouac renamed him in other books. He was Irwin Swenson in Visions of Cody and Book of Dreams, Austin Bromberg in Big Sur, and Amadeus Baroque (love that name!) in Doctor Sax. Burroughs called him AJ in Naked Lunch and Port of Saints. Gregory Corso named him Dad Deform in American Express. (See Beat Book Covers’ excellent character key.)

But who was he in real life?

Born on January 23, 1922, and raised on Long Island, Ansen attended Harvard University, which incidentally was also William S. Burroughs’ alma mater.

After college and back in New York City, in 1948, Ansen became a research assistant/secretary to W. H. Auden. The English poet had come over to the US with author Christopher Isherwood (The Berlin Stories) in the first month of 1939. Auden dedicated his 1950 book of lectures The Enchafèd Flood to Ansen. Based on the notes he took while working with the poet, Ansen published Table Talk of W. H. Auden. Here’s the write up on Amazon:

In New York, between 1946 and 1948, the scholar and poet Alan Ansen made rapid notes of Auden’s inimitable conversation. This book is a record of Auden’s private, offhand and sometimes wayward remarks and opinions about art, literature, music, politics, religion and sexuality.

 

Sounds like a must read! I’m adding it to my Goodreads list.

By the time Ansen was working for Auden, Kerouac was already in the early stages of the work that would become On the Road. Poet Ted Joans went so far as to say:

Without Alan Ansen there would be no William Burroughs.

Ansen himself went on to become a poet and playwright, but never reached the same heights of fame that his mentor and Beat contemporaries did.

If you’re looking to read one of Ansen’s works, Contact High is a good place to start. Here’s the copy from Barnes & Noble:

“Alan Ansen’s first book,” James Merrill has noted, “Disorderly Houses (1961), dedicated to both W. H. Auden and William Burroughs, was also his last to be published commercially. Since then this prolific and unpredictable poet’s work has been available only in editions of his own devising, distributed to friends at his own caprice. As one of the happy few, I can report that his gifts remain as brightly unnerving as ever.”
Though perhaps best known as the model for some of the most flamboyant characters in Beat fiction (Rollo Greb in Kerouac’s On the Road, A. J. in Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, Dad Deform in Corso’s American Express) and as Auden’s secretary (he helped Auden with the syllabification of The Age of Anxiety), Alan Ansen is an accomplished poet in his own right. Having affinities with both the Beats and the New York school of poets, Ansen fuses Beat sensibility with formalist rigor. Contact Highs is the first comprehensive collection of his poetry, and includes a biographical introduction, an afterword by poet Rachel Hadas, and a bibliography of Ansen’s elusive works.

“Alan Ansen occupies a specialized evolutionary niche in twentieth-century letters, and his poetry has unjustly been too long obscured by its unfashionable classicism and its author’s self-effacing stance towards a poetic career. His writings achieve the scarcely possible: transmuting existence into life.” (William Burroughs)

“Ansen is the most delicate hippopotamus of poets with his monstrous classical versifications—he gets conversational fatness ‘into stricter order’ by use of weird echosyllabics, polyphony, strict rhymeless pindarics, self-annihilating sestinas, mono-amphisbaenic and echo rhyme, skeltonics, versicles & alcaics coherent Palindromes & such like master eccentricities—a hangup on Forms which interestingly pushes academic models beyond polite limits into the area of lunatic personal genius—This is an amazing book, with many sad poems.” (Allen Ginsberg)

“Whatever the styles, the cadences are powerfully relentless and informed by an intellectual complexity rare today. As witty as O’Hara, Ansen also plunges into the depths of the human condition. This may be one of the more significant poetry publications of the decade; four stars.” (Library Journal)

“[Contact Highs] careens in voice from a tone of bravado—an unwavering insistence on seeing the universe in all its mockery and injustice—to one of unabashed tenderness. And such conflict implies the poetry’s central tension: a desire to be immersed in life’s drama, rather than merely to judge it. Ansen . . . is a vivid creator of worlds with words, but never too sober in his verbal wizardry. Sly and wild in the manner of Gregory Corso or Allen Ginsberg, the poet marries exultant anarchy to traditional forms. Dismissing ‘shameless lyrists’ who ‘warble their hearts’ content,’ like an ‘eerie oddity’ Ansen ‘retails his uniqueness’ with some bitterness but more brio, and many readers will be grateful.” (Publishers Weekly 10-20-89)

“Ansen’s poetry . . . joins Apollonian reserve and formal skill to Dionysiac drug taking and homoeroticism. Between those poles, however, he creates a space of truly living poetry. Recommended.” (Booklist 10-1-89)

“Beautifully wrought formal (though outrageous) verses. . . . His poems speak for themselves, combining playfulness with astonishing erudition, in the fashion of the better poets of what was in my mind ‘the Ginsberg nucleus.'” (Carl Solomon, American Book Review Nov-Dec 90)

Just goes to show you, just because the other characters in On the Road became more notorious doesn’t mean the lesser-known characters aren’t equally as fascinating.

“That Rollo Greb is the greatest, most wonderful of all. That’s what I was trying to tell you – that’s what I want to be. I want to be like him. He’s never hung-up, he goes every direction, he lets it all out, he knows time, he has nothing to do but rock back and forth. Man, he’s the end! You see, if you go like him all the time you’ll finally get it.”

~On the Road

100 Facts on William S. Burroughs for His 100th Birthday

5 Feb

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The title say it all, and I’ve got a lot of ground to cover so let’s just get on with it!

      1. Burroughs was born on February 5, 1914, which would make him 100 years old today!
      2. But he passed away on August 2, 1997
      3. The S. in William S. Burroughs stands for Seward
      4. Burroughs is actually Burroughs II
      5. Burroughs’ father’s name was Mortimer Perry Burroughs
      6. Mortimer ran a gift shop called Cobblestone Gardens
      7. The II comes from his grandfather
      8. William Seward Burroughs I was the founder of the Burroughs Adding Machine company
      9. William S. Burroughs II named his son William Seward Burroughs III
      10. Burroughs’ mother’s name was Laura Hammon Lee
      11. Burroughs’ pen name was William Lee
      12. Burroughs’ maternal grandfather was a minister
      13. In the ’60s, Burroughs joined and left the Church of Scientology
      14. In 1993 he became a member of the Illuminates of Thanateros
      15. Laura Hammon Lee’s family claimed to be related to Confederate General Robert E. Lee
      16. Burroughs’ uncle was Ivy Lee, the founder of modern PR
      17. His family was not very affectionate
      18. He was born in St. Louis, Missouri and lived on Pershing Avenue in the Central West End section of St. Louis
      19. He attended the private school John Burroughs School, named after the naturalist
      20. Burroughs was class of ’31
      21. Burroughs’ first publishing achievement was at the school when his essay “Personal Magnetism” was published in 1929 in the John Burroughs Review
      22. He didn’t graduate from John Burroughs School
      23. On its website, John Burroughs School calls William S. Burroughs a “controversial author”
      24. After John Burroughs School, he attended Los Alamos Ranch School, an elite boarding school in New Mexico
      25. Another famous author later attended Los Alamos Ranch School: Gore Vidal (born 1925)
      26. At the boys boarding school, Burroughs kept a diary about his attachment to another boy at the school
      27. Burroughs was a virgin through high school
      28. Burroughs dropped out of Los Alamos too
      29. Next up, he went to Taylor School in Clayton, Missouri
      30. From there, he went to Harvard to study art
      31. At Harvard, he was part of Adams House
      32. Back home on summer break, Burroughs became a cub reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
      33. His beat? Police docket
      34. Surprisingly, he hated the job and refused to cover gruesome stories
      35. That summer he lost his virginity
      36. He shed his virginity to a female prostitute
      37. It was back at Harvard that he was introduced to gay culture when he traveled to New York City with his wealthy Kansas City friend Richard Stern
      38. Stern was apparently a bit like Neal Cassady when it came to driving: he drove so fast that Burroughs wanted to get out of the car once
      39. Burroughs graduated from Harvard in 1936
      40. After he graduated, his parents gave him $200 a month
      41. After Harvard, Burroughs went to Vienna to study medicine
      42. There he became involved in the gay subculture
      43. He also met his first wife there, Ilse Klapper, a Jewish woman fleeing the Nazis
      44. Burroughs and Klapper were not romantically involved, but he married her in Croatia so she could move to the US
      45. After they divorced in New York, they remained friends
      46. By 1939, he had become so obsessed with a man that he severed his own finger — the last joint of his left little finger, to be exact
      47. In 1942, Burroughs enlisted in the US Army
      48. When he became depressed that he was listed as 1-A Infantry instead of officer, his mother called a family friend, a neurologist, to get him a civilian disability discharge due to mental instability
      49. It took five months for him to be discharged, and he waited at Jefferson Barracks, near his family home
      50. Afterward, he moved to Chicago
      51. In Chicago, the Harvard grad became an exterminator
      52. The Burroughs family was friends with another prominent family, the Carrs
      53. William S. Burroughs II was eleven years old when Lucien Carr was born
      54. During primary school in St. Louis, Burroughs had met David Kammerer, who was three years older than him
      55. Kammerer had been Carr’s youth group leader and become obsessed with him, following him to the University of Chicago
      56. When Carr fled to Columbia University in New York City, Kammerer followed — as did Burroughs, who moved a block away from Kammerer in the West Village
      57. Carr met Allen Ginsberg at Columbia and introduced him to Burroughs and Carr
      58. Burroughs met Joan Vollmer Adams around this time, and he moved in with her
      59. In the summer of ’44, Carr killed Kammerer with his Boy Scout knife, and then went to Burroughs — Kammerer’s friend — for help
      60. Burroughs flushed Kammerer’s bloody pack of cigarettes down the toilet and told Carr to get a lawyer and turn himself in, but instead Carr sought out help from Jack Kerouac
      61. Burroughs and Kerouac were arrested as material witnesses, but Burroughs’ father posted bail for him (Kerouac married Edie Parker to get bail money)
      62. Burroughs became involved in drugs around this time, becoming addicted to heroin
      63. When Burroughs got arrested for forging a prescription, he was released to his parents in St. Louis
      64. When he was finally allowed to leave, he went back to New York City for Joan Vollmer Adams, and together, with her daughter, moved to Texas
      65. It was Joan who gave birth to William S. Burroughs III in 1947
      66. After Texas, the family moved to New Orleans
      67. Around this time, Burroughs was arrested after police found letters at Ginsberg’s place that incriminated him
      68. Burroughs, Joan, and the kids went on the lam to Mexico
      69. In Mexico, Burroughs decided to go back to school: he studied Spanish and the Mayan language at Mexico City College
      70. He studied under R. H. Barlow, a homosexual from Kansas City who commit suicide through overdose  in January 1951
      71. He also decided to take up a game of William Tell. It didn’t go so well: he shot Joan in the head, killing her
      72. He only spent 13 days in jail, after his brother bribed authorities to let him out while he waited for trial; witnesses were also bribed so Burroughs would appear innocent. Either way, Burroughs skipped town
      73. Burroughs considers his killing of Joan to be the beginning of his life as a writer; he wrote Queer at this time
      74. Queer was not published until 1985; Burroughs’ first book was actually Junkie, published in 1953 — four years before Kerouac’s On the Road came out
      75. Burroughs III went to live with his grandparents in St. Louis; Joan’s daughter, Julie, went to live with her maternal grandmother
      76. Burroughs himself went down to South America in search of the drug yage
      77. From there, he moved to Palm Beach, Florida, with his parents
      78. His parents paid for him to travel to Rome to see Alan Ansen
      79. They didn’t hit it off romantically, so Burroughs left for Tangier, Morocco
      80. When Kerouac visited Burroughs in Tangier in 1957, he typed up his manuscript for him and edited it into Naked Lunch
      81. In 1959, Burroughs moved to the Beat Hotel in Paris; Ginsberg, Ginsberg’s lover poet Peter Orlovsky, poet Gregory Corso, and photographer Harold Chapman lived there
      82. There, he discovered the cut-up technique of Brion Gysin, which greatly influenced his work
      83. In 1966, Burroughs went to London to seek treatment for his drug addiction and worked there for about six years
      84. Student editor Irving Rosenthal, of Chicago Review, lost his job for publishing excerpts of Naked Lunch and founded his own lit mag, Big Table, where he continued to publish Burroughs’ work. The United States Postmaster General found the work so obscene that he ruled it couldn’t be sent through the mail. This intrigued Maurice Girodias, publisher of Olympia Press
      85. A 1966 case against Naked Lunch remains the United States’ last obscenity trial against literature
      86. Back in the US, Burroughs’ own son had gotten involved in drugs and gotten arrested on prescription fraud (just like dear old dad); Burroughs took him to the Lexington Narcotics Farm and Prison
      87. Burroughs covered the 1968 Democratic National Convention for Esquire magazine; he refused to alter his style to fit Playboy‘s literary demands for another article
      88. Burroughs hated teaching because it expended all his energy and he felt like he got nothing back in return
      89. Bookseller James Grauerholz initiated Burroughs’ reading tour, which helped Burroughs remain in the public eye … and make money for it
      90. In 1976, Burroughs’ son had liver cirrhosis and underwent transplant surgery; Burroughs stayed with him in 76 and 77 to help care for him
      91. Burroughs III cut off his father, writing an article in Esquire that said his father had ruined his life, and died in 1981
      92. In 1978, the Nova Convention took place — a multi-venue retrospective of Burroughs’ work that included readings and discussions by Ginsberg, Patti Smith, Frank Zappa, and Timothy Leary in addition to concerts featuring The B-52s, Debbie Harry, and Philip Glass
      93. Speaking of musicians, in the 90s Kurt Cobain hung out with Burroughs
      94. In the 80s, Burroughs moved to Lawrence, Kansas, where he spent the remainder of his life
      95. Always the gun aficionado, there he created an art form in which he used a shotgun to shoot spray paint bottles that would explode paint onto a canvas
      96. In 1983 Burroughs was inducted into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters
      97. He played a character from one of his own short stories in the 1989 film Drugstore Cowboy
      98. His collaboration with Nick Cave and Tom Waits gave birth to Smack My Crack, a collection of short prose and spoken-word album
      99. Burroughs died from complications of a heart attack
      100. He is buried the Burroughs family plot in Bellefontaine Cemetery