The past couple of years, I’ve had a mini-tradition of posting something about the New York School poets and Ulysses on each Bloomsday — as you can see in these posts about Frank O’Hara and James Schuyler. So in that spirit, here’s a little tidbit I came across in Karin Roffman’s The Songs We Know Best, her new biography of Ashbery’s early years, about the poet’s first encounter with the great book.
In the summer of 1945, after graduating from high school and just before leaving for college at Harvard, Ashbery “lounged in bed and read” for two straight weeks. His reading list included Joyce’s Ulysses, and it prompted him to write to one of his high school friends, urging him to start the novel: “You ought to: It’s dirty!”
In later years, Ashbery seemed less enthusiastic (or more playful) about the novel, as Schuyler related in the passage from “The Morning of the Poem” I discuss here. Schuyler recalls Ashbery slipping him one of “his trick test questions”: “I don’t think / James Joyce is any good, do you?”
But for the young Ashbery — as for so many other brainy teens — Joyce’s masterpiece, that “most dangerous book,” was a forbidden and illicit pleasure, to be passed around like contraband, and there’s no question it left a lasting imprint on his work.