Poet, playwright, teacher, translator
American poet Alan Ansen (L) in the middle of an animated discussion in the Athens Centre garden
American poet Alan Ansen died in Athens on November 12. He had suffered a stroke several days previously, was hospitalised and died in his sleep. He was 83.
Ansen lived on and off in Greece for the last 40 years and spent most of his time reading, publishing and lecturing. A brilliant Harvard-trained scholar who spoke 17 languages, Ansen worked as WH Auden's secretary for a number of years and was a close friend of the Beat Poets, especially Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Alan Ginsburg and Gregory Corso as well as the poets Chester Kallman and Jimmy Merrill.
He lectured to American university students on the island of Aegina and at the Athens Centre on Pound, Eliot, Yeats and Corso and their poetic visions of Greece. He acted in a number of Greek plays including The Bacchae, Lysistrata and The Strong Men. He wrote numerous masques, two of which were performed in Greece. The Aegina Arts School Masque and the Mount Lycabettus Masque were both directed by Arthur Beer as part of an Athens Centre summer classic theatre festival. Ansen also published numerous books, including Auden's Table Talk, Disorderly Houses and Contact Highs.
He is probably best known, though, as the model for some of the most flamboyant characters in Beat fiction - Rollo Greb in Kerouac's On the Road, AJ in Burroughs' Naked Lunch and Dad Deform in Corso's American Express.
Ansen was an accomplished poet in his own right. Having affinities with both the Beats and the New York school of poets, he fused Beat sensibility with formalist rigor. James Merrill in reviewing Contact Highs wrote: "He is a puritan in a g-string, an anarchic formalist, a golden-hearted ghoul. A temperament of dangerous complexity is sustained by a cosmopolitan literary intelligence unlike any other I know."
Alan Ginsburg wrote: "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 and alcaics coherent palindromes and such like master eccentricities - a hang-up on Forms which interestingly pushes academic models beyond polite limits into the area of lunatic personal genius."
William Burroughs, reviewing Ansen's poetry, wrote that "he occupies a specialised 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. No one who knows Ansen can call him to mind without seeing his irrepressible grin and, perhaps, thinking of the Chinamen of Yeats' "Lapis Lazuli" - Their eyes, mid many wrinkles, their eyes / Their ancient, glittering eyes are gay. This gaiety and love of life finds ample expression in these extraordinary poems."
Ansen lived in a small apartment on Lykavitos Hill in Athens, surrounded by his library of 6,000 books and a collection of art works ranging from Cocteau to a triptych by Gregory Corso. He rarely ventured outside after a difficult hip operation 25 years ago in New York.
He rose early in the morning and listened to the BBC and classical music. He especially liked opera, Wagner being his favourite composer. He read voraciously in many languages and spent most of his money from a family trust on books.
Ansen's friends testify that he treated everyone as a literary equal but had no problem in explaining his references or obscure literary jokes. As a lecturer he was superb in his preparation and delivery. On being asked once why he was reading Homer to his students, he answered, "Well, if they do not read it themselves, you have to read it to them."
Prior to coming to Greece Ansen spent time in Tangiers with Burroughs, Corso and others. There was a constant flow of American expatriates on hand involved in a literary scene created by Paul Bowles. He also lived in Venice for a year, involved in a literary and social scene revolving around Peggy Guggenheim.
The last two years of his life were spent in an old people's home in the Mets area of Athens. He read and reread his favourite Agatha Christie novels and called the characters "my friends". A copy of Chesterton was always on hand, though, as was the obligatory glass of red wine. A few days before he died, he napped during the mid-morning. He called this "practising".
* The author is co-director of the Athens Centre, where Alan Ansen taught for a number of years