Auden & Kallman for Dinner
8 Feb. 1962
Johnny Kronenberger was one of my closest friends at Dalton. When Marilyn and I got married and moved into 629 East 5th Street, Johnny came to our wedding party. He had mentioned that W. H. Auden used to babysit for him and his sister Eliza in their Lexington Avenue townhouse. He told me Auden currently lived at 74 St. Mark’s Place, and very shortly, I took some of Marilyn Hacker’s poems and left them with Chester Kallman, who came to the top of the stairs when I rang. Either I took them up or he cane down for tem. I did not go into the apartment. The MS had our address and our phone number on it, and shortly after that, we got a phone call while we were painting the apartment. It was Auden, who wanted to speak with Marilyn, so I turned the phone over to her. I was at the top of a ladder when the phone rang, and I was the one who answered the phone. She made an appointment to go to St. Mark’s Place and speak with Auden about the sheaf of poems I had delivered. The day after her visit, Marilyn wrote these lines:
We sit in a cold room. A. pours the tea.
A gaudy twilight helps us hide ourselves.
I try to read the titles on the shelves
and juggle cup and saucer on my knee.
A. tells me anecdotes that I have read.
I poise a studied ambiguity.
A. wonders will I turn my head and see
The crumpled blue kimono on the bed.
I pick up a crystal ashtray to watch
its slow rotation slap a waterfall
of iridescent limbs across a wall,
fumble with cigarettes. A. strikes a match
as the enormity of darkness swells
upward in a cacophony of bells
A poem she showed him was “The Song of Liadan,” whose origins in Grave’s White Goddess, he recognized. Either then or shortly afterward, Marilyn sent him a note, inviting him and Kallman for dinner, and he called back and accepted, though there apparently was a trip to Europe that intervened. February 8th was the first evening they had free. We invited them for 7:30. I cooked paella—lobster tails, chicken, sausage, and yellow rice. We had bought a bottle of red wine, but they arrived, wisely, with a small bottle of gin, and we all started out with martinis before we got started on dinner, which was a success. On the four-legged bridge table where we dined, when they arrived, there was a hardcover version of Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers, which they recognized, and briefly, we talked about it. I had several of Auden’s books, though none of Chester’s. I had hidden them, however, and we did not ask for autographs or anything of that sort. Homage to Clio was one, and I had read For the Time Being and The Sea and the Mirror. (Back then I preferred to the former.) They seemed to be extremely interested in the two of us—they wanted to know all about the Bronx High School of Science. Since then, I have read that Auden tended to dominate all conversations he took part in. Certainly this wasn’t the case that evening. Basically, Auden and Marilyn talked, and Chester and I went on about cooking together. At a bit after 10, there was an unexpected knock on the door, and it was a friend of ours who had simply decided to drop by, Cary Rheinstein, who came in, was introduced, and sat down. Just before that, I had emptied Auden’s several-times-filled ashtray in the garbage sack in the kitchen, and something inside had started smoldering. There was a hole in the wall, and the smoke went directly into the hole and into the apartment above. In the middle of things, there was a knock on the door, and an Asian couple, terribly excited, who apparently lived upstairs, began to exclaim, “You have fire! You have fire!” By this point, Auden had come up behind me and said, “I don’t think so . . .?” But then I looked back and realized there was some smoke coming out of the garbage sack, so we doused it. A few moments later, I don’t think it was much after 10:30, Auden and Kallman said goodnight, and we did not see them again for several months. Indeed, the next time we saw them was at a reading Auden gave. Marilyn and I went to hear him with our friends Dick and Alice Enten, and afterward, Marilyn went up to congratulate him on the reading. Dick asked, “Did he remember you?”
Marilyn chuckled and said, “Of course not.”
Before this, on several occasions, I had seen Auden read his own poems on Camera Three, a culture program early on Saturday mornings. Some of his poems were read on the same program by actors:
Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.
Soul and body have no bounds:
To lovers as they lie upon
Her tolerant enchanted slope . . .
This particularly famous poem was read by a woman to a man, which I guess was as close as they came to suggesting one man writing to another, in this case Auden to Kallman. Auden’s own feelings, I guess, were that it was simply a love poem, and who loved whom was not particularly important.
Very soon after, I got my own copy of his “pornographic” poem, “The Platonic Blow,” probably almost immediately after Ed Sanders published it in Fuck You in 1965:
It was a spring day, a day for a lay, when the air
Smelled like a locker-room, a day to blow or get blown;
Returning from lunch I turned my corner and there
On a near-by stoop I saw him standing alone. . . .
I think the poem is rather enjoyable, and apparently there was letters back and forth about Kallman writing a similar poem about anal sex. It never got done.
I was in England in 1973 when the news of Auden’s death in Vienna reached us over the radio. He was only 66, but the man smoked and drank, and though a good argument can be made for Joseph Brodsky’s assertion that Auden was the greatest mind of the mid-twentieth century I feel it might be extreme.