Saturday, October 11, 2014


Having been during my long life a teacher of Humanities and critic of most of the arts, it would be a reasonable assumption that as their reviewer, as well as an occasionally published poet, I might have known a number of famous people.

And so I did, meeting some in passing, and even befriending a few. Unfortunately, I never kept a diary, and so never wrote up any conversations or other recollections. By now I don’t even have my former good memory, and what remnant of it I have is quirky and tends to summon up a trivial detail or two, but few if any essentials.Nevertheless, here goes.

Surely the most celebrated person I ever met was Jose Luis Borges, with whom and his translator, Norman Thomas di Giovanni, I had lunch at the Terrace Restaurant near Columbia University. The translator was present not because Borges had the least trouble with English, but because by that time he was very nearly blind. The great Argentine—I remember his pointing out that the proper adjective was Argentine and not Argentinian--was an amazing lunch companion.

I also remember his speaking the most beautiful English, without a trace of a Spanish accent, in a gentle, melodious voice. This writer of some rather wild things was civilized in the utmost degree and said some memorable things I have managed to forget. One of our subjects was the Pre-Raphaelites, for whom he had a great affection.

I don’t recall how it came about, but I arranged--on a subsequent visit of his to New York, accompanied by the lady who was his sighted guide--to have them stay with a woman fried of mine at her large Park Avenue apartment and so be spared hotel costs. They stayed for a couple of nights, but I, stupidly, failed to make renewed contact with Borges, easy as it would have been.

There was also Yves Bonnefoy, on the way of becoming France’s leading poet, though at that time not yet quite there. He had something to do with Harvard, where I was a graduate student in Comparative Literature. His friend Alain Bosquet—poet, novelist and critic, but chiefly remembered as translator--was teaching at Brandeis.The three of us had some good times together. I was working on my doctorate, and Bonnefoy asked to see the some of my Ph. D. thesis on the prose poem as art form, on which I was currently working, the chapter being the one on Rimbaud.

I remember only his disapproving of my contention that Rimbaud went in for deliberate ambiguity. Bonnefoy insisted that ambiguity did not come into French poetry until Valery. He may have been right. I did not see him again till many years later, by which time he was at the height of his fame and guest lecturing at Hunter College. After one of his public lectures, I accosted him, but he barely recalled me, was extremely cold, and showed no interest in any sort of rapport.

In my graduate student days, I had a girlfriend named Joan, a Bennington graduate living with her parents in Newton, and not doing much of anything. At Bennington, she was somehow involved with the visiting poet Pierre Emmanuel, whom I met through her. All I remember of him, alas, is his preference for women with powerful rather than slender legs, like the ones in Maillol’s statues, a taste I did not, and still do not, share.

Joan definitely did have an affair with the distinguished German poet and essayist Hans Egon Holthusen, who was lots of fun, and later ran the Goethe House in New York, where I attended numerous events. Before that, however, Joan came to live in New York, where she had a couple of jobs, including one at Esquire, all of which she promptly lost. Although I moved in with her, her heart was really with Holthusen, the heroine of whose only novel, “Das Schiff,” she was. The poet was teaching in Chicago or somewhere else, but expecting him to come stay with her, she kicked me out. By the time he did come to New York, she had committed suicide.

What do I really remember of Holthusen? Only two trivial things. He liked pointy shoes, which he rebuked me for not going in for. Also his warning me not to call certain people in print idiots, which is allegedly actionable, but assholes, which definitely is not.

In later life, Louis MacNeice has become one of my favorite poets. I met him much too early after a reading he gave at Harvard, and I was deputized to escort him from the Yard, where he read, to Eliot House, where he was to stay. I remember our walk: he was taciturn and I was shy; very little was spoken. What a chance missed!

Another time, walking on Massachusetts Avenue with one of my advisers, the charming Renato Poggioli, we ran into one of my idols, Edmund Wilson. The two men started a conversation, but Poggioli never introduced me, and I stood by mute and frustrated. Some years later, friends of mine at a late night joint got to talk to Wilson, who was trying to learn Hungarian. They mentioned me as a friend who knew the language. It seems that Wilson envied me without my being able to benefit from it.

I was one of three section men in a lecture course on Yeats, Rimbaud and Rilke taught by Archibald MacLeish. In my section was Adrienne Rich, who had just been chosen a Yale Younger Poet. She complained that the course was too elementary; could I get MacLeish to make it more advanced? Needless to say, that wasn’t up to me, and Rich haughtily dropped the course.

In my section, however, remained future novelists Rona Jaffe and Harold Brodky. Jaffe, a B minus student, would later insist that she had not been my student but my fellow instructor. Brodky was a real nuisance, who never heeded assignments and wrote instead vaporous surreal fantasies. I spent a couple of hours with him on the steps to Widener Library, trying to make him understand and comply. In vain, as he, having become a famous but impossibly abstruse writer, would smilingly relate to one and all.

A high point of my not entirely unclouded relationship with MacLeish was the occasion when he had me before the entire class reading some of Rilke’s poems, so that they would hear how they sounded in German. I had invited to that class Christine Bosshard, a very beautiful Radcliffe girl, who was duly impressed, but not enough so, alas, for any intimacies. The next day, Archie summoned me to his office. I wondered what I had done wrong this time, but all he wanted was to know more about the gorgeous Cliffie who had been my guest.

As an undergraduate, I also had a meeting with W.H. Auden, to whom I showed one of my amateurish poems. It was in a cafeteria, and he was very friendly and nice about it, but averred, as it was a winter poem, that it should avoid metaphors involving ants, because there were no ants in the snow. A good many years later, I and a girlfriend were invited to a dinner chez Auden and Chester Kallman.

A fellow guest was Edward Albee, about whom I recall only his presence. But I do remember Auden, then a Christian proselyte, arguing that Divine Providence wisely harvested people only when they had fulfilled their earthly mission. Thus, if Mozart or Schubert died young, it was because he had accomplished all he had to do. I remember protesting that surely Georg Buechner’s death at 23 was premature for such a genius. The other thing I remember is the bathtub that held the evening’s liquor. It had a black ring around it a quarter way down. I am not sure whether or not that made me a teetotaler for the evening. The reason I had been invited was my being an associate editor of the Mid-Century Book Society, whose editors were Auden, Barzun and Trilling. About this I have written elsewhere.

The one poet with whom I had a close friendship was James Dickey. It began when he, as a subscriber of that book club, had some complaint, and I was in charge of answering complaints. I sent him our apologies, and commented on how much I prized his then still uncelebrated poetry. This pleased him, and he looked me up on his next visit to New York.

It was a lasting friendship, and it survived such things as my being unimpressed by his otherwise much admired novel, “Deliverance,” and my not being able to provide liquor on one of his later visits—just as well, considering his behavior when drunk. After his death, when I briefly but unsuccessfully dated his smart and beautiful but messed-up daughter, Bronwyn, she told me that I had been his best friend in New York.

My happiest memory of Jim is written up in his journal and essay volume, “Sorties.” The page begins, “I have seldom spent such a good afternoon of human time as I had a few years ago with John Simon in New York. . . . We sat around and talked about writing, and about poets. . . . He said, ‘Do you know whom I really like?’ I said I hadn’t any idea, thinking it would be some new French poet I hadn’t heard of. Not att all. He pulled out . . . ‘The Collected Poems of Andrew Young,’ a rather mild English ecclesiastical poet, and read to me for two or three hours. I sat there with my mouth open.” And it goes on in that vein. The time, of course, is an exaggeration of what must have been more like twenty or thirty minutes—but call it poetic license. His death was a terrible shock; he seemed gifted and robust enough to live forever.

My relations with another, similarly robust, poet were less felicitous. That was Theodore Roethke. It was during my relatively brief stint teaching at the University of Washington, where Roethke, a professor, was considered the crown jewel—not to say God. In a casual conversation with someone, I referred to Roethke as a good minor poet. This got back to him, and apparently enraged him, as it certainly did the multitude of his local worshipers.

But there were times when craziness overpowered him and he had to be hospitalized, having become abjectly self-doubting. At such a time he wrote to me upon reading a poem of mine: “. . .  I came across your villanelle in ‘The Paris Review.’ If you will permit me to say so,--I thought it a poem of genuine distinction: some fresh (for me, anyway) effect, in that difficult form. I read the piece with envy. I trust you will not take this note amiss.” Hardly.



  1. So, John Simon's idea of famous people is poets and stuff.

    No movie stars or rock stars. Bummer.

  2. Three art songs by Ken Benshoof, setting Roethke's poetry -- performed by the Suderburgs:

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  4. This is enjoyable reading, John. In part two, I expect we'll hear something about Ned Rorem, Gore Vidal, Harry Levin, and Tennessee Williams.

  5. Speaking of James Dickey, here's a good audio interview with him from around January 1977:

  6. John: I read your post with great interest, but I must take issue--as you yourself would surely do--with the grammar of the opening sentence. In the interest of avoiding a dangling modifier, it should be modified along these lines: "Because, during my long life, I have been a teacher of Humanities and critic of most of the arts, it would be a reasonable assumption etc..." Other than that, I am glad to find you very much "en forme." You may recall that our tenures at National Review overlapped and that we occasionally appear together these days in the Weekly Standard. Best, James Gardner

    1. In my more moronic years, I used to confuse critic James Gardner with novelist John Gardner (1933-1982), the latter of whom Gore Vidal referred to (unfairly?) as a "late apostle to the lowbrows, a sort of Christian evangelical who saw Heaven as a paradigmatic American university." Which is funny to me, because I've always envisioned heaven as a kind of open university....

  7. It might be better if you didn't remember everything exactly. Forget the diary. Just write what should have happened, not what did happen. Remember when you slapped Dickey across the face because he made a play for your wife? Coming back to you? Bastard deserved that shit. Good for you!

  8. Dear Mr Simon,
    I regret to tell you that the first name of Borges was Jorge.
    Nevertheless, reading you is always a pleasure and a lesson in so many things. Thank you so much.
    D. Guma