Bolinas 1976: I had come out to visit the legendary and reclusive editor of The New American Poetry (1960) and later The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara (Alfred A. Knopf, 1971). Don, so the poet’s sister Maureen O’Hara told me, had hunted down an astonishing number of Frank’s poems and had done a brilliant job annotating them and supplying bibliographical information; he also supplied a detailed chronology and persuaded John Ashbery to write the Introduction — still one of the best things written on O’Hara. At the time, it was common for reviewers to complain that Allen’s volume contained too many trivial and negligible poems. Helen Vendler, for one, wrote that now that we had a Collected Poems, we better get a Selected quickly. The latter was already in the works as part of the original Knopf plan, but the irony is that the Selected Poems (1974) was immediately accused of leaving out this or that important poem, and when, in 1995, the University of California Press reprinted the Collected at an affordable price in paperback, it became the volume of choice. Don’s instinct had been right: O’Hara had to be read whole. And indeed, further unpublished poems and prose pieces began to surface, which Don published under his own imprints: Grey Fox and the Four Seasons Foundation.
Anticipating our first meeting, I was quite intimidated. Maureen had put me in touch with Don, as the authority I needed to contact while I was writing Frank O’Hara: Poet Among Painters. From Philadelphia, where I was then living, I wrote Don what I thought were friendly and well-informed letters but he simply didn’t respond. Nor did he return phone calls. Only after a great deal of effort on Maureen’s part and after he had read a few of my chapters and evidently approved in principle, did he agree to my visit. But then — and this was typical of Don — out of the blue came a letter inviting me to spend the night.
Don lived alone (I never learned anything about his personal life) in a little bungalow in beautiful but isolated Bolinas. Most of the poets who had populated Bolinas in the sixties were gone — Don would soon be gone too — but Bill Berkson was a neighbor as was the widow of Lew Welch, whose poetry Don had recently edited with great trouble, and who came to call while I was there. Don was very soft-spoken and shy — so shy that every half hour or so he would excuse himself and leave the room, presumably to go to the bathroom, but also, I think, just to get away from me! He needed his solitude. But as the dinner-hour approached, he became quite jovial and announced that Bill Berkson would join us and went to attend to dinner. Don was a marvelous cook and it turned out to be a great evening.
After this visit, at any rate, Don and I became great friends. I made all the corrections and changes he wanted and took his advice very seriously so he came to trust me. The ice broken, he had a great sense of humor and told stories about “his” poets, as he called them. I don’t think he ever forgave me for not being more of a Charles Olson fan (Olson was his all-time favorite), but otherwise we were on firm ground. He shared some of Frank’s best letters with me as well as drafts of poems. Don’s favorite O’Hara poem was “Ode to Michael Goldberg”; indeed, he preferred the more romantic Odes to the “I do this, I do that” poems that were my own favorites.
In his commentary, Don played the role of scholar/ editor, not critic. He felt it wasn’t up to him to give interesting interpretations of the poems but to supply the facts — dating, manuscript variants, allusions, and so on. He knew that interpretations come and go but that scholarship, as he engaged in it, had the real staying power. And his editing was absolutely meticulous: there was, for him, no such thing as a permissible spelling mistake or a missing comma. However low-key Don’s conversation, his work was characterized, first and foremost, by a discipline he had derived from Zen, which he studied in his years in Japan. Things had to be done right or not at all.
When I moved to the University of Southern California in Los Angeles from the East Coast in 1977, I invited Don to participate in a poetry series I planned on California poets (largely because it was less expensive than having poets from further away). His visit followed that of Ed Dorn and Robert Duncan, both old friends of his, but as a lecturer, Don proved to be something of a dud. He didn’t want to say more than he had to, and the students were a bit disappointed. But back at our house, he talked non-stop on a great variety of subjects, including his navy days in the Pacific during World War II. My husband, who also served in the Pacific, adored Don; they would go on for hours about assault transports and troop ships. And he had wonderful stories about Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. As for the Establishment poets of the time, Don didn’t say anything negative; he merely ignored them.
During a later visit to LA (he spent one Thanksgiving with us), I showed Don a letter I had received from Donald Davie, whom I knew fairly well as a colleague on the academic conference circuit, about my O’Hara book. To my dismay, Davie, whose work on Pound I really admired, wrote angrily that I was wrong to write a book on O’Hara. He hated Frank’s openly gay, campy, overtly sexual love poems like “You are gorgeous and I’m coming” and indeed insisted in the letter that gay men couldn’t write good poetry anyway, given that the Muse is female — a rather amazing statement even back in 1978. Davie made an exception for “the tragic case of Thom Gunn” — tragic evidently because unlike O’Hara and his chums, Gunn had struggled against his sexual proclivities. Don found this reference to “tragic” highly amusing and evidently told Robert Duncan about it. The word got back to Davie who never forgave me for showing his letter to someone, the incident becoming a kind of cause celèbre in San Francisco.
Don was now living on Grandview Street in San Francisco in a really lovely apartment with view of the Bay; here he seemed happier, more sociable than in isolated Bolinas. He hung out a bit with younger writers like Kevin Killian and Bob Gluck; he loved to visit with Barbara Guest. When I was teaching at Stanford, we had many lunches and a few dinners and he would bring me books from his various small presses. The eighties were good to Don; he had enough money to live quite well; his health was reasonably good, and he was getting recognition for his many projects, including the updated version of New American Poetry called The Postmoderns and his work on the Black Mountain and San Francisco poets.
But during the last decade or so, he became, not surprisingly, more withdrawn. Health problems forced him to give up the Grandview apartment and move into an assisted care facility. He no longer tried to “keep up” with the developments in poetry: Language Poetry, now dominant in San Francisco, baffled him. “How lucky I am,” he wrote me in 1999, “to be uninvolved with poets these days!” On some days, he would cancel a lunch date at the last minute, with a comment like “I think we should wait till it’s less windy.” But when he could, we dined at the Grand Café on Geary St. and as late as 2002, he would write me, “If you like dim sum I can take you to a superb restaurant out on Geary Ave. when next you come this way.” But when “next” I did come, he would abruptly cancel.
Don had become very deaf and he had various bouts with surgery. In December 2002, when I wanted to come see him during the Xmas holidays (he lived five minutes from my daughter Carey in Noe Valley), he wrote characteristically, “It would be great to see you again, but Xmas I’m going to a large old-fashioned family party.” Don’s friends understood that this was just a polite way for saying he wanted to be left alone.
The last letter I received from Don is dated 20 March 2004, just five months before his death. I had sent him the review I did for TLS of Denise Levertov and Robert Duncan’s correspondence, edited by Albert Gelpi and Robert Bertholf — a very fascinating book, I thought would interest him since both were “his” poets, featured in New American Poetry. I twitted Don gently because both Denise and Robert had some harsh words for him in their letters. This is what Don wrote:
It’s a real treat to have your letter. I’ve not seen the Duncan-Levertov correspondence. Denise I scarcely knew. We talked maybe twice in New York. And I did not take her very seriously — at one time she was strongly advising against using the zip code!
Duncan I knew for nearly 50 years, not always amicably. He was the most difficult, temperamental and perverse poet I’ve ever known. Even when I was seeing him quite often in the later years I was always rather apprehensive about what he might do next.
He was enraged when I turned down several sections of a long poem he’d sent to EVERGREEN REVIEW in (1959 (?) I’d conceived of ER as an American version of a cross between HORIZON and NRF and not as a “little magazine” and I didn’t want small parts of a long poem. But in time we got on together with many ups & downs. I remember one of our last meetings. I was taking him to a concert and as we passed Davies Hall he started bitterly accusing me of not having taken him to some other concert I’d never heard of.
I’ve not seen Mark Ford’s book [The New York Poets, Carcanet 2004] — who published it and what’s the title?
Vintage Don Allen: the telling anecdotes followed by a query as to the particulars of a book I had mentioned. Although he was 92 and the typing a bit uncertain (Don never did master the computer and certainly not email or the cell phone), he was still collecting information about “his’ — which he felt were now the poets. Donald Allen’s work was, in the most fundamental sense, his life. Shy, modest, unassuming, reclusive, he was, I believe, one of the seminal figures in the drawing of the poetry map of our time.