Kenneth Koch: Thank You and Other Poems
(New York: Grove Press, 1962)
Close Readings and annotations of poema in the collection September 1997 in preparation for In the Process of Poetry: The New York School and the Avant-Garde (Bucknell UP, 2001)
Kenneth Koch “On the Great Atlantic Rainway,” “Summery Weather,” “The Brassiere Factory,” & “The Bricks,” 9-12
· these opening four works all use the trop of machinery or construction in a self-conscious explanation I guess of their own composition which is strangely related to LANGUAGE poetry in that the language here is seen and used pretty much as a machine or pre-established pattern, into which the signs are poured if you like or churned out. This seems to be his thesis in the collection as a whole which lacks the subjective agency of his later work.
· “On the Great...” here the machine seems to be that of aphorism which of course comes mainly from Lautréamont, and is one that he uses generally. Aphorism or epigrammatic verse is, like the sentiment, a self-enclosed unit within a unit and a key aspect of his poetics relating to the paratactic manner of his combinations which then build up individual semantic units which bring their coherence along with them, into the formal structure of each verse.
· here a number of the aphorisms seem to be directly commenting on this: “Did you ride in Kenneth’s machine?” ““And yet he drives between the two...” “And that is the modern idea of fittedness / To, always in motion, lose nothing...” ““Formulalessness...” ““Yet always beneath the rainway unsyntactical / Beauty might leap up!”
· he uses generally rhyme plus the internal repetition either of the word itself or in a taxonomic fashion, plus narrative to produce internal cohesion but his work lacks music in the way in which the others have it
· “Summery Weather,” here we have a little machine inside the poem then. We have the sonic involution of blouse/youse, which is to a degree to do with the marking of the poem as they look similar but sound very different. The reference to the factory and the need to fill the factories is a useful clue as to the type of poems these are which are basically filling in the gaps of language’s machines, and again the trope of between-ness. Then as if to produce the goods we have a number of machines if you like: “banana” / “bandanna”, “The light on a bright night.”
· “The Brassiere Factory,” we must not forget these poems are produced in the late fifties to be published in the early sixties is even the idea of setting a poem in a bra factory has some avant-garde resonance. This is indicated by the falling of authority in the opening lines, “Is the governor falling / From a great height?” The machine element here is the phrase “Arm in arm we fled the brassiere factory,” repeated in numerous forms 4 times? And perhaps the line “For thanks to the metronome we got out alive...” being a fifth as the repetitious nature both of the arm in arm, and in repeating the phrase might then match the measure of the metronome.
· I need to come to terms with the difference between straight repetition, modified repetition, phrasal structured repetition and music.
· “The Bricks,” here the structure of combination is built up in reference to the bricks which we might call his narrative mimesis, the use of rhyme, the repetition of abandon which is another form of rhyme. It is simple but also semantically the way in which the bricks seem to lie around suggests a sense of the internal inevitability of the langue which informs every speech act.
Kenneth Koch “January Nineteenth,” 13-14; “Aus Einer Kindheit,” 17-18; “Farm’s Thoughts,” 25-28; & “Geography,” 29-31
· in each of these the cohesion comes a lot more from the taxonomic so that in “Jan 19th” we have the kind of excess of consumerist detail we get also in Schuyler so that effectively the nouns and adjectives can come from almost anywhere within a limited number of lexical pools, but they are held together with the syntactic conventions of verbs, pronouns, conjunctions and the like.
· “Aus Einer,” of interest here is the use of the name “O’Ryan,” which both returns continually unmodified as a kind of motif to bind the increasingly surreal sounding narrative, but also contains within it it would seem a double pun being really almost an apostrophe to rhyme, “Oh rhyme,” which is how the name is used.
· “Farm’s Thoughts,” has a great deal to do with the earlier poems in that a farm is a kind of industrial production process and here the limit on the vocab as well as it excess comes from the idea of the farm and what can be found there.
· p.27: here the first stanza is approaching a sestina type recombination of details already found in the poem followed by a collapse of these semantic units into phonetic marks on a page.
· “Geography,” again a kind of sestina or canzone, here the different narratives cohere by a smallest motifs of colour, setting and action, yet the final section brings the individual narratives, previously cohesive due to a metonymic proximity or juxtaposition, into a synthetic or metaphoric realm.
Kenneth Koch “The Artist,” 46-53
· part of a pair with “The Poetry Society,” these are not truly postmodern but are rather very much of the quality of modernist takes on the postmodern avant-garde world, nor are they avant-garde in any traditional sense nor in the sense of process or of putting subjectivity on trial, they are instead rational apologies for the irrational. Further, they are as Koch’s poetry mostly is, narrative poetry and also refer especially to the early experiments of Ashbery in say “The Instruction Manual,” and “The Mythological Poet,”
· the poem conveys a sense of what he later calls the “exigent poet,” that is one who puts their whole being into each work as if it were the last. Thus we have a compulsion to put his subjectivity on trial, but really it seems more of a Romantic Quest narrative aiming at further establishing the artists special subjectivity. Thus the structure of the poem moves from the simple syntax of the early projects, through the more intense composition of the middle years to a series of headlines.
· the art also changes from the early PLAY which one assumes is akin to Koch’s own views on composition, especially encouraging a communal participation and sense of art in process, through to the final project which is actually akin to Baudrillard’s map that is to produce a hyper-real pacific. Perhaps the turning point is with THE MAGICIAN OF CINCINNATI where the art is first of all hidden from view, also it is absolutely permanent, and finally in ant-community in that its aim is to destroy rather than create.
· the final sections of the poem then transform the inter-subjective visions of play into a public arena and the artist becomes reduced to a series of headlines and awards.
· the poem then comes after 1958 as perhaps a reaction to Pollock’s success and the consumerisation of AbEX.
Kenneth Koch “Fresh Air,” 54-60
· similar problems to “The Artist,” in terms of its avant-garde and postmodern status but this seems the key poem as to the sense of the New York School rejecting so call academic art in favour of the avant-garde sense of fresh air. In this way the poem is a touchstone to begin with an open statement of the New York School avant-garde credentials, in tandem with “The Artist” and their neo-avant-garde credentials. Begin the whole piece here and then describe simply how these works are not however avant-garde nor neo-avant-garde in and of themselves, then move through the other poems to begin to reconstruct a sense of what this actually could be.
· the society itself and the reference to academia etc. is all fairly self-explanatory. The end of section 1 however is a good manifesto to quote.
· section 5: this gets as close as anything in the piece to an actual attempt to overcome the “mature restraint,” of academic poetry in its almost sentimental prose and self-conscious composition of the process of composition. The interjections, ejaculations, performatives, excess of punctuation, apostrophes, allusiveness, onomatopoeia, repetition, naming, italicisation and so on push the verse towards its undoing but never truly gets there.
· the ending with the sea again in all the poetry from the poets of this period seems common. Here the sea if undermined by being scum, then green, but the nihilism and the symbolism are clear enough.
Kenneth Koch “Locks,” 66-7; “Thank You,” 69-71; “Lunch,” 72-6; “Taking a Walk with You,” 77-80
· each of these use a different taxonomic method that returns to greater effect in “Sleeping with Women” and is of course a point of similarity in all four poets. Here the taxonomic is the occasion for the paratactic as well as pushing the poem’s away from semantic towards being marked by sonic repetition and appearance.
· “Locks,” takes the extreme taxonomic position akin to “Into the Dusk Charged Air,” with locks being repeated on most lines and forming the subject of every line based utterance
· “Thank You,” rather uses the phrase as a determining refrain into which the narrative particulars can be poured and organised
· “Lunch” uses the word much more imaginatively with the same level of distribution almost as “Locks,” yet allowing play on words, connotative and associative indicators and narrative all fused together. A key phrase comes at the end “Let us give lunch to the lunch—” emphasising the circularity of the word.
· “Taking a Walk...” this is clever as the title is not the taxonomic controller but rather the occasion of the event or narrative combinatory scheme. Again like lunch it uses the taxonomic key term, “misunderstandings,” so as to also abuse it. There is also a refrain aspect relating to the “bodice.” Again towards the end we have two key phrases, “It is causation that is my greatest problem,” and “I love you but it is difficult to stop writing.” These combine the idea of causation or the metonymic, with desire and textuality.
Kenneth Koch “The Departure from Hydra,” 90-5
· very interesting and one of a number of travel poems which of course are a genre in O'Hara and have an relevance to the moving climates of Ashbery and put up a sense of contrast to the stasis of the Schuyler world. Here the poem as a basic three part structure.
1. the event: actual events which the poet interacts with there and then and comes to conclusions about in this case his walk back from the port of Hydra. In this section which is the opening section he also broaches a theme that doesn’t return until “Seasons on Earth,” that of writing down happiness
2. the surmise: here an excessively extended surmise over the past event, that is not the event of the event itself but precedes this, here the fact of Peter missing the ferry and why.
3. the speculation: this goes beyond the surmise over actualities into a realm of unusual and peculiar considerations of nationality
· p.93-95: these considerations are then revisited in a semi-synthetic manner with the speculation always leading back to Peter because it cam from Peter, and the event not referred to directly but the use of the speaking I brings us back to it.
· the end however is, unusually, what makes the poem: The actual surmise which is an aphorism or sentiment, comes in the last four lines with the poet then dismissing the previous pages of surmise and speculation as actually true. Then the poem ends when he leaves the street and goes into the internal space which however is ironic as he is actually leaving the internal space of subjective speculation.
· the tropes of voyaging, walking, journeys and return journeys, of actual and internal speculative journeys all inter-twine to make this a surprisingly redolent poem.