Kenneth Koch: When the Sun Tries to go On
(Los Angeles: Black Sparrow Press, 1969)
Close Readings and annotations the collection September 1997 in preparation for In the Process of Poetry: The New York School and the Avant-Garde (Bucknell UP, 2001)
As far as I am aware I am the only critic who has done any significant work on this remarkable poem, if you know otherwise....
· essentially the whole poem is an exercise in attempting to render the totality of existence or at least of existence of an American in Europe and American in the fifties. The ideology of inclusiveness, of doing reality rather than summarising it is essentially the essence of the avant-garde position but is also riven with aporias because it lack the duality that one gets say in Schuyler and Ashbery, that while is apt in a post-war culture to cease trying to summarise and instead to merely taxonomise or even to compete, one cannot forget that the actuality of the event of the poem is always re-marked by the iterable structures of language and especially because the real is always mediated through language. Thus whilst there is some residual music in the poem the majority is merely words put on the page in a stream of consumerist postmodern discourse consciousness. The effect is simultaneously exhilarating and rather banal, but not in the intended way of Ashbery’s studied world-weariness but merely in the way that after awhile another person’s excitement over something simply does become uninteresting.
· like the aporia at the heart of O’Hara’s action writing and Personism, the trope of trying to go on must be undermined by the hermeneutic logic of decollation and its re-iterative forces of cataphoric re-inscription of anaphora. The sheer length and irrelevancy of the poem does its best however to undermine this but in doing so robs itself of the paragrammatic thus remaining a surface avant-garde trope rather than a part of the larger process. Process or praxis is not ongoing as in this sense here, it doe not just keep going as in fact this is the trope of capital, rather it does return through the trope of revolution. Effectively the avant-garde is an ineffective topography without the returning trop of revolution, of things going back over themselves, for this is the truly critical position. Thus such poetry is avant-garde without being revolutionary and thus is symptomatic of what Burger dislikes about the neo-avant-garde
· p.5-6: written at the time of O'Hara and Ashbery’s long poems (“Easter,” and “Europe”) Koch’s technique was to simply keep going, the opening sections (5-6) then suggest a degree of cohesion that a much shorter poem could sustain, introducing a number of cohesive devices (apostrophes, sonic involution, repetition, citation, taxonomy) which are loosely sustained throughout, thus here in the opening lines the “shout” is a reflection of numerous ejaculations in the piece, the collecting refers to the literal collection of words that much of the poem consists of, the coat-hangers is a central motif of clothing, laundry and lint etc., the rebus or puzzle returns later but may also refer to previous poetic techniques that he is lampooning at the time, the conch is a shell which leads to ocean/beach motifs, we also have the repetition of “oo” an occasional simple language-poet aspects such as sniff/snuff.
· this is fairly standard in the poem and even an overestimation of its cohesive elements
· p.8: “Parallel excursion. O black black black black black” this suggests the rejection of the duality of language journeys, the parallel excursions of the double levels of infinite code, in favour of this surface serialism or repetition without duality or development. This multiple repetition of the same word again occurs throughout and is a counterpoint to the more subtle and interesting forms of taxonomy he sues such as works of literature, especially the Romantics and especially “Endymion”, and place names.
· p.11: the taxonomic flurries such as here are again typical with taxonomy as a trope becoming a surface non-development feature of the poem akin to “black black black black.” This section is interesting in is mix of nouns separated by commas, compounds, citations, non-developmental repetitions , lettrisms. It thus is interesting it its piebald nature but in an of itself lacks critique I would argue.
· p.17: here we have an even ore extreme form where each word has become so articulated with very little syntactic motivation that this, along with the use of citations, reduces language very much down to its basic marks on page status coupled with the merest residual signification, i.e. we know what the words are supposed to mean. These words however are not randomly chosen as the are rather gesturally motivated to use Silliman’s terms, that is they look and sound similar.
· p.21: here an extended postmodern taxonomic flurry is cohered by the repetition of two words, cuckoo clock and yoyo. Apart from their sonic qualities these two motifs are also significant as they are tropes of the very repetition without development that he is using here and throughout the poem.
· p.28: here in his use of compounds we have taxonomy within the body of the word, “”send- / Us-up-to-the-woodchuck-for-coat-she-enterprise- / Pin-clue-bock-hurt-Sven white elephant.”” Thus the dynamic of taxonomy is arrested by the somatic limits of the word, by the fact that this is in fact a sentence thus syntax goes against taxonomy, that it is cited and by the capitalisations at the start of each line.
· p.44: perhaps the most intense taxonomy here the use of the letter “b” is explored in a self-consciously structuralist fashion which also however develops internally with the phonetic aspects is the word ends and word middles (s and a), this is then followed by an intense and sustained non-motivated taxonomic section.
· p.75: here an alternative to p.44 is developed by using “f” as the beginning of a 7 line sequence which is interested in two ways in that it reduces rhyme down from syllable to letter then places it not at the end of the word but at the beginning.
· p.76: the excess of apostrophe fits in with the dynamic mimetic aim of the poem the render on the page everything. There is a certain irony to this in that in saying that one must invoke one suggests that language is something other than material and a basic surface signification yet really the deep structures of invocation are well beyond the brief of the piece. In an alternative fashion it suggests that the abstract of language is its massiveness tending towards totality and yet also is removes signification or representation from the work as invocation is a speech act not a process of description or development.
· p.113: curiously the last line of the poem is, like the opening, semantically rich. After a flurry of taxonomy which moves into citation as if relinquishing the responsibility of voice altogether, the “Gentle hiatus of sarabande cuckoo seam!” is rich with meaning. The gentle hiatus is of course the denial of the violence of decollation common to New York School endings, the sarabande and dance consisting of three beats which is really the origin of taxonomy for 2 words form a basic copula and lead us into the non-dynamic tropes of either metaphor or metonymy, the cuckoo of course is intertextual but is also the gestural aural marking of the poem whilst the seam is the alternative tropic ending to the poem that it isn’t a pause in the process but an outer seam of the inevitable inner chiasmus of reading.