A Reflection from John Ashbery '49

The Advocate was a major part of my experience at Harvard, and a generally enjoyable one. I was a mostly unpublished poet then (that's a somewhat complicated story which I won't go into here) and suddenly I was provided with a venue and could expect to see my poems in print not long after I wrote them. It all came about through Kenneth Koch, whom I met in the fall of 1947, my junior year. He and I exchanged our poems and found we liked each other's work very much. Kenneth proposed nominating me for the Advocate editorial staff. But there was a catch: sometime during WWII there had apparently been a homosexual scandal at the Advocate, and the university had closed it down at the behest of a trustee in Boston who provided a lot of their funding. When it reopened after the war there was an unwritten stipulation that no homosexuals need apply.

My sexuality was known on campus, and the editors told Kenneth it would be impossible to appoint me. Kenneth, who didn't know about my orientation and who was a bit naïve about such matters, got angry and said that if I was elected and turned out to be gay, he himself would resign. This strong-arm approach ultimately worked: I was elected to the board and soon discovered that several other of its members were gay too.

Having scaled that hurdle, I settled into the board's activities and enjoyed myself very much. One aspect that was particularly agreeable was soliciting Frank O'Hara for material. I had known about him and knew him by sight on the campus, but had never spoken with him, since he had a somewhat intimidating look. I found that this image was misleading, and that Frank was one of the most open and welcoming people I had ever met. Although it was only about six weeks before I graduated, I started seeing a great deal of him and he ultimately became a wonderful friend and colleague. He, Kenneth and I would, along with James Schuyler and Barbara Guest would someday emerge as the so-called New York School of poets. Also on the board were future soon-to-be famous poets like Donald Hall and Robert Bly. Adrienne Rich was at Radcliffe at the time. I think we published her poetry but I'm not entirely certain. Other poets who were sort of “passing through” were Robert Creeley, Richard Wilbur and Ruth Stone. For all of us, I think, the Advocate, then located on Bow Street on the second floor over a dry-cleaning establishment facing the Lampoon building, was an island in a storm.