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Poetry awards and conflict of interest (not what you think…)

Apparently, Canada isn’t the only place where poets get their dander up about awards and perceived conflict of interest. The New York Times‘ Paper Cuts blog points out a particularly vitriolic exchange in the Telegraph between Jascha Kessler, a poet who was passed over for the Yale Younger Poets award in 1956 (and apparently harbours a long-standing grudge.) Kessler was one of 12 finalists for the prize, which was adjudicated by W.H. Auden. The prize was eventually won by John Ashbery, who is, erm, slightly better known nowadays than Kessler.

According to the loser erstwhile finalist, Auden chose Ashbery “ who was not among the dirty dozen, but whose work the elder poet specifically requested for consideration “ due to a combination of what Paper Cuts calls “anti-Semitism” and “homophilia.” (Describing a bizarre dinner party he, Auden, and Ashbery attended in the 1950s, Kessler suggests that Auden made comments “about the Will-to-Live he thought innate in the Jew per se, that inner strength needed for survival, and such bosh,” and goes on to write, “What with Ashbery’s mewling, mincing manner and self-deprecatory modesty, his very speech manifested the goy gay persona par excellence.”)

No shrinking violet, Ashbery lashed back at Kessler the following week (December 3), calling the other author “seriously delusional,” and stating that Auden was uncomfortable with the prize’s vetting process, because he felt that many of the poets who were chosen as finalists were unworthy of recognition. Ashbery closes his letter with an example of the “self-deprecatory modesty” about which Kessler wrote:

As for John Ashbery, his manuscript had indeed been weeded out, along with that of another New York poet, Frank O’Hara. Auden contacted them both and asked that they re-submit their work directly to him. He received the manuscripts in little more than a week and made up his mind within days. The winner was Ashbery, salvaged from the slush pile to become in time one of the best-known poets the Yale series has ever published.