John Ashbery’s Annotated First Edition of The Tennis Court Oath in the NY Times

This weekend, the New York Times ran a fun and interesting feature called “First Editions, Second Thoughts.” As the piece explains, “On December 2, Christie’s will auction 75 first-edition books, each of which is a unique object that has been annotated with words and/or illustrations by its author. Proceeds from the auction will benefit PEN American Center.”

The feature presents an array of first editions of famous books, each annotated by its author — with entries from Philip Roth, Paul Auster, Woody Allen, Don DeLillo, Lydia Davis, Richard Ford, Malcolm Gladwell, Toni Morrison, Marilynne Robinson, Patti Smith, George Saunders, and many others — and allows you to click on each book cover to see the author’s actual annotation inside.

Many of them are quite interesting, but one that caught my eye was the copy of John Ashbery’s famously experimental and controversial second book, The Tennis Court Oath, published by Wesleyan University Press in 1962.

For the purposes of this benefit auction, Ashbery has added some copious handwritten notes to the title page, in which he explains a bit about the cover image, discusses why the press did not use a Jacques-Louis David drawing for his famous painting “The Tennis Court Oath” as the poet had hoped, and mentions how the late John Hollander was instrumental in the radically disjunctive book ever finding a home at Wesleyan in the first place.  Here’s an image of Ashbery’s annotations:

Ashbery Annotated Tennis Court Oath

Here is a transcription of Ashbery’s remarks:

“The picture on the jacket was supplied by Wesleyan. It seems to be a contemporary print of the event at Versailles.  I had hoped they would use drawings from Jacques-Louis David for his vast painting ‘The Tennis Court Oath.’  It was apparently his practice to draw figures without clothes first and add them later.  These drawings show naked men leaping joyfully in the air, waving their hats, which creates a bizarre effect.

I had very little input into the production and I suspect the press wasn’t at all happy with it (though it has remained continuously in print since 1962).  I had submitted it at the urgent request of John Hollander, who was a longtime supporter of my work and (just guessing here) managed to get it accepted over the objections of the other jurors.  I only met John some time later when he was passing through Paris, and would like to take this occasion to mention what a lovely human being he was, totally devoted to poetry.”

In addition to the Ashbery, there are lots of other fascinating books to check out here (although there seem to be only two volumes of poems included, a book by Rita Dove and Ashbery’s).

And, if any of you are in the market for a very special first edition of the Tennis Court Oath or many other wonderful books, be sure to head to Christie’s on December 2, wallet in hand!

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