Kenneth Koch: The Pleasures of Peace
and Other Poems
(New York: Grove Press, 1969)
Close Readings and annotations of poems September 1997 in preparation for In the Process of Poetry: The New York School and the Avant-Garde (Bucknell UP, 2001)
Kenneth Koch “Sleeping with Women,” 11-17
· these poems really need to be seen up against the restricted stanzaic forms that Ashbery is using at the time like the sestina and the canzone for in a sense they are the base level of the duality of the avant-garde poetic process that is they are seemingly random and without form with Koch really throwing into his lines anything that occurs to him at this time which is presumably spent in Italy on the Fullbright, but at each stage the possibility of total freedom is restricted by the obsessive repetition of the refrain “sleeping with women.” This refrain does not work like rhyme as I feel one of the key aspects of rhyme is to final phonetic similarities in diverse signs so as to set up new consonances but the direct repetition of the same phrase as in the sestina and here is then something different. It does not suggest association but the base anaphora of language which is so extreme that the semantic aim of anaphora is undermined; the more the phrase is repeated the less it makes any semantic impact
· the poem is further restricted by other aspects
· use of punctuation especially the colon which suggests there is always something following on to qualify, the colon is the opposite to the semi-colon in many ways in that is metonymic suggesting something following on directly
· the use of the semantic possibilities of the phrase “sleeping with women” to infect the following phraseology
· the use of as which suggests this is a metaphoric process trying determinedly to understand what sleeping with women is like
· a reduction of motifs to Greek and Italian culture and landscape, the se, other places, the boy/man, animals and the like
Kenneth Koch “Irresistible,” 18-21
· again in many ways his taxonomic parataxis has a lot in common with Ashbery in TCO and Schulyer especially in his use of manufactured Americana but in poems like this if one begins a basic list of all the motivation signs one is left really wondering if there is any semantics at all behind them, thus here we have:
· shirts, clothes
· great names or proper names
· the machine becoming trains
· the poem retains a narrative force of a character at college so that the opening line seems to be a letter addressed to his parents, “Dear miles of love,” the miles being both the distance between them and also smiles encrypted just as the machine is “(s) quinting! dial (f) aster, dial (f) aster.” This abuse of a basic lettrism is something the other poets do not really utilise and he hardly explores it any considered fashion but in a sense the erasure of letters coupled with the use of initials and capitalisations are al aspects of the basic marking of the letter within the word. For a more extreme example of the marking of language and this kind of abuse through lettrism see “Coast,” 47-48.
· the machine and the feet then would tie into this whilst the other motifs attempt to render the narrative but the whole process is continually disrupted by the excess of base signification such as, “Tree mussed gossamer Atlantic ouch toupées hearing book P.S. castiron pasteboard hearing aid in glove society fingers’” These can be read internally with the rules of taxonomy:
· the opening three words follow rational syntax,
· the Atlantic is doubly motivated by use of water and of proper names in the poem proper,
· ouch is an ejaculation which is a common form of language in his work due to its minimised semantic power,
· toupées is a complex example of a foreign word which however has become a part of English,
· hearing book is then re-cast as hearing aid whilst containing a hermeneutic gesture towards the marked phonetic aspects of his work,
· P.S. is not only the initials which again is a reduction of the sign to its minimal levels, but also a suggestion that there is always something to add
· castiron pasteboard are both compound nouns but one is not a compound substance but is elemental, whilst the other is a mish-mash
· hearing aid in glove society fingers’ is again a rational syntax but it is undermined semantically, obviously, but also by the apostrophe which suggests the genitive which the syntax however does not allow, this forces one to run on to the next line, “Alaska with a bounce.” which is part of the same sentence and even coheres with Alaska echoing Atlantic but the issue of the apostrophe is not resolved.
· the poem does not work as well as in other poets as it lacks a basic musicality which suggests a valorisation of this but remember none of the poets are automatic writers. Here the internally motivated signs do not mount any sustained semantic charge as in TCO but they doe deal directly with many of the bases of language itself and also the motivation of language into poetic units so that we have a double music such as it is in the tabular units of the poem and each line, and the linearity of the poem and each sentence, thus the poem acts as one unit within which individual line-measured units work for and against.
· other poems of this ilk are “We Sailed the Indian Ocean for a Dime,” 23, where he uses a combination of money lexicons and topographies; “Dostoevski’s The Gambler,” where he uses the page/artist set; “Hearing,” where the aural is combined with a rather precious story of a young man and his trumpet; “A Poem of Forty-Eight States,” where each state relates to the life of the poet ending in his death; “The Scales,” interesting as the musical phrase here is musical as in “Hearing,” but is not a word but mere noise, DO RE MI etc., note also the mark of the capitalisation; and “Faces,” where he covers a vast array of cultural signifiers.
Kenneth Koch “Coast,” 47-8
· an extreme example of lettrism and the emphasis on the marking of poetry:
· lettrism: not really as the abuse of spelling are phonetic rather than visual
· ejaculations: Enkh!
· sonic involution: dairy, alive, airy (but not so much as in Ashbery and Hejinian
· assonance/alliteration: Fazzum garra maggle twad (at the expense of all semantics)
· phoneticised spellings of accents or other languages: “We cuzznt shay up too lade”
· lisping: internal abuse of word sound retaining meaning: Entwime this shower
· yiddishims: Himazzer beach
· excessive lettrism: Rlzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.
· visual marks: italics, citations, punctuations, design features, ellipses
· other languages: dove andiamo
Kenneth Koch “The Pleasures of Peace,” 96-111
· in many ways just a re-writing of “The Artist” these kinds of poems, including “Faces,” have a real early postmodernity about them because they try to deal with totality and summation through a process of total completion thus Giorgio decides his poem will consist of everyone opinion the end not being important it being the beginning that matters. Thus these poems, including the narrative poems in the collection are all pure surface with the musical motifs themselves not being sous-texte either but obviously there for anyone to see
· some aspects of the poem resemble O’Hara’s Personism, “it’s a poetic present for you all, / All of whom I love...” and in others Ashbery’s sense of to get it all in in his later work: “I wanted people to see what these pleasures are / That they may come back to them...” which relates to the inclusiveness by the association of being and writing: “And then too there’s the pleasure of writing these... “You must write More, and More—””
· the poem argues by total inclusiveness, “Here are listed all the Pleasures of Peace that there could possibly be.” as well as a n absolute negation of the poem’s actual subject, “”So now I must devote my days to The Pleasures of Peace— / To my contemporaries I’ll leave the Horrors of War,” which resembles faces in structure as the poem seem to totally determine faces and possible usages and actual possible faces, without actually dealing with the role of the face say to being through the structures of desire. The poem then even concedes this inherent failure to be inclusive, “Oh the Pleasures of Peace are infinite and they cannot be counted—” but must by implication include their own negation, “Of the horrors of peace, / I mean of peace-fighting!”
· like all totally inclusive poem units which attempt to emulate the totality of being through the process of writing of which elegy is the archetype, their possible success, which in a sense is impossible, means their own negation, “For a while we can bid goodbye / To the frensies of this poem, The Pleasures of Peace / When there is peace we will not need anything but bread / Stars and plaster with which to begin.”
· the poem ends then in cataloguing fashion in a manner similar to Schuyler but nowhere near as considered due to Koch’s self-confessed “hysteria” and it is preceded also by a series of parataxis lines.
· the poems then attempt a very simple mixture of infinity and code and thus express the desire for the paragrammatic but the code is not in effect codified at all is it? It has no trace and no sous-texte because like O’Hara is tries to keep running away from this to retain the myth of action and of surface.