Shortly before The Tennis Court Oath was published in 1962, I happened to meet a renowned French astrologer in Paris, where I was living, who offered me free astrological advice. I asked him whether my forthcoming book would have any success. After consulting his charts, he reported, “Eh bien, ce n’est pas encore le moment.” More than a half century later, the moment may well have arrived. The book was indeed a flop when it came out, but now it continues to excite interest, which I’m happy to contribute to by providing these annotations for PEN America, an organization I deeply admire.
A DENSELY ANNOTATED COPY OF THE FIRST EDITION, WITH OVER THREE THOUSAND WORDS IN ASHBERY’S HAND ON TWENTY-ONE PAGES. Ashbery opens with a long note on the cover and jacket design, describing how the title came to him in a habit encouraged by Wallace Stevens: “my titles very often have little to do with the poems they accompany”. He had hoped that Wesleyan would use drawings by Jacques-Louis David for the cover, but because he “had very little input into the production” they used what “seems to be a contemporary print of the event at Versailles.” “I had submitted [the book] 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.” Throughout the annotations to individual poems, Ashbery mentions wide-ranging influences, from Bugs Bunny, to Samuel Johnson, to his circle of contemporaries: Harry Mathews, Kenneth Koch, Frank O’Hara and Niki de Saint Phalle. The Tennis Court Oath has been considered Ashbery’s most radically experimental collections of poems, making his extensive notes in this copy of key importance in the study and understanding of the sources within the work, and the authorial voice(s) at play. A complete typed transcript of the author’s annotations accompanies this lot.
ASHBERY, John (b. 1927). The Tennis Court Oath. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1962. 8°. Original grey cloth; pictorial dust jacket.