Skip to main content

Death in New York (3)

Kenneth Koch's Seasons on Earth and Elegy

Koch’s “Seasons on Earth” also opens self-consciously to exploit the paradoxes of the beginning of poetry:

There is a way of thinking about happiness
As being there at one’s side, so that one has but
To bend or turn to get to it; and this
For years I thought was true. Or that a basket
Of sensual sensations brings a bliss
That makes one as a winner is at Ascot.
With Ko I had the first idea; the second
(Some first one, too) went with the story of Papend. (Koch, Seasons 3)

The textual source here, the much earlier poem Ko, refers to his original season on earth. Ko’s opening words are “Meanwhile at the university of Japan” (Koch, Seasons 23) which should open up for the reader of the much later “Seasons on Earth” Koch’s metonymic theory of poetry: the “first idea.”

Again it is an issue of edges, the edge of the absent previous line and of the long narrative of Ko whose “meanwhile” places us in the middle between absence and presence, and, by implication, the edges between the original season on earth and the more expansive conception of seasons. The opening trope is easily comparable to the coda of “A Wave” in that both deal with linear contiguity. In this instance the “way of thinking about happiness” is poetry itself, and the metonymic aspect his early dream of a poetic practice that comes so close to eradicating the gap between art and life that one merely has to turn to one’s side to find life, “happiness,” in the poem, “a way of thinking.”[i]

His early way of thinking effectively eradicates the articulating gap of enunciation in favour of an all embracing entente between the surface of the poem and the surface of life. While this is strictly de-hierarchised, it is still a meta-narrative claim that seeks to make the poem process/surface the equivalent site of plenitude that previous poets tried to establish for the associative power in poetry, through metaphor.[ii] What he is notifying here is that the nonrational alternative to rational poetics has the potential to become equally logocentric, at least functionally, although it is more accurate to call it anti-logocentric.[iii]

The third stanza states explicitly the issues: “Each midday found me / Ecstatically in the present tense, / Writing” (Koch, Seasons 3). The choice of midday, the median position one finds in the middle part of the wavic motion, the sublime ecstasy of being in the present tense, and the truncation which drops “writing” down to the next line giving the minimal articulating gap required for the poetic process, all indicate an anti-logocentric poetic practice of surface and going on that aims at denying edges in favour of a mytho-poetic continuum texture.

However, the lack in the final line, “I love it, loved it—is it irretrievable?” (Koch, Seasons 3) indicates the slippage inherent in all acts of enunciation, between the statement of self-presence, and the absence this interns within the speaking subject. This is especially the case here with Koch’s use of desire, “love,” and the anaphoric “it,” both tried and tested means of edging away from logocentric claims of completion.

In “Seasons on Earth” the opening edge is predicated on an equally complex consideration of the elegiac edge as we found in “A Wave.” Koch suggests a theory of metonymic poetry to place against the dominant metaphoric paradigm of rational poetics; a relation between the poem and its meaning, here life is its meaning, that refrains from overleaping the radical gap between the two. Yet as soon as it is stated, the vast empty space that opens up between “Seasons on Earth” (1982) and Ko (1959) means when one turns to happiness, surely a trope for total plenitude, one is greeted with the edge of time and absence which is much more akin to Ashbery’s sense of pain.

Both poems raise serious philosophical questions as to what terms like pleasure and pain could mean for poetry which, in turn, require a radical reassessment of the psychoanalytical tropes of desire that perhaps are somewhat uncritically applied to writing without a proper understanding of what this transposition of context could mean. What is immediately clear is that pain is not necessarily a bad thing for the nonrational poem, anymore than happiness is a good thing. Pain is loss or absence, a cruel serrated edge that interposes on the jouissance of writing, not merely at the end, but, as we have seen, here at the beginning of the poem also. A poem is surrounded by absence, edged out of a position of semantic plenitude by a mere fact of graphics. But a nonrational poem does not then try internally to make up for this, to get over its first loss of rationality in order to find a new attachment, instead it refuses to get over its lack. It loves its lack.

Endnotes:
[i] I use metonymy here not just as a process of having a part of something stand in for the whole, in fact synecdoche, but also in a more philosophical manner. Thus it relates to thinking and writing through contiguity as opposed to association, and also the process of troping through causality. Metaphor, its rational opposite, works less through causality, what happens when one phrase occurs next to another, but through an imposed unity, how can one make one phrase match the one next to it. Metaphor’s relation to absence is to leap over it, metonymy to argue through it.
[ii] This is indicated in the will to power of the following stanza, “With strong opinions and with ignorance…/ Ignoring most contrary elements…/ I used to live for it” (Koch, Seasons 3), and the wilful ignoring of reality in the third stanza, “In spite of real suffering around me” (Koch, Seasons 3). In “The Art of Poetry” he parodies this early mode of writing as “exigent.”
[iii] If logocentrism elevates the value of presence above all others, and thus favours structures of presence such as rationality, anti-logocentrism elevates the value of absence. This alternative aufhebung has radical effects when seen in context and is a necessary rebuff to the metaphysics of presence that have been predominant for so long, but it is also subject to aporias. It would not be advisable, therefore, to accept the structures of absence, of which nonrational poetics is perhaps the most fully developed, uncritically as being simply better than those of the rational. Rather it would make more sense to see the anti-logos as a strategic stage in the ongoing deconstruction of truth claims, a stage that roughly coincides with the history of avant-garde poetics from Mallarmé to postmodern poetry for the purposes of this article.
Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

The Grenfell Tower Murders

The 72 victims of Grenfell Tower Fire were murdered, victims of the violence of neglect.  Here is the proof.
A year ago, a fire started on the fourth floor of Grenfell Tower, due to a faulty appliance.  The fire spread quickly up the side of the building because the tower had been refurbished in 2016.  Flammable cladding had been added to the exterior building as part of an £8 million refit which appears to have primarily made the tower more cosmetically pleasing.  The money was not spent on improving fire safety within the building, it would appear, a cause for concern for residents’ groups for years. The initial cladding that was to be used is not illegal in the UK but its use is restricted in other countries.  To save costs a cheaper version was eventually attached to the building, a more flammable version. 
Once the fire caught, residents were advised to stay in their flats.  In 99% of all cases this is the best advice, because flats are designed to be “fire resistant boxes” surr…

John Ashbery, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror

John Ashbery, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror
(Manchester: Carcanet, 1977)
First Published (New York: Viking, 1975)

Close Readings and annotations of every poem in the collection March-April 1997 in preparation for In the Process of Poetry: The New York School and the Avant-Garde (Bucknell UP, 2001)


Introduction:

· Shoptaw notes that this return to poetry is dominated by images of waiting, that narrative (especially fairy-tale) returns, as do the musically based titles, there are no prose poems and no fixed forms such as sonnets of pantoums, most are free verse paragraphs, also bring forward a new American speech, more direct and inclusive.



“As One Put Drunk into a Packet-Boat”, 1-2

· Shoptaw notes this was the original title for the collection, marking a self-consciously Romantic return to poetry, recording the thoughts of “I” from afternoon to night, just outside a childhood country home. Has a pastoral crisis narrative in that a summer storm gathers but passes leaving the poet relieved i…

John Ashbery, Some Trees

John Ashbery, Some Trees
(New York: Corinth Books, 1970)
Originally published (New York: 1956)


Close Readings and annotations of every poem in the collection March-April 1997 in preparation for In the Process of Poetry: The New York School and the Avant-Garde (Bucknell UP, 2001) currently in the process of complete update (2013)


"Two Scenes," 9

This is a poem about duality so in this sense the title actually refers to what the poem is ‘about’. John Shoptaw notes, for example, the phonic mirroring of the poem which he sees as an element later phased out as is the “linear introversion” to be found here. Thus we have the following phonic recurrences: “we see us as we”; “Destiny...destiny”; “News...noise”; “...hair/Air”; “-y” and rhymes of section 2; and “...old man/...paint cans”.


This simple but subtle semiotic device is then developed structurally as well, as the title hints. So ‘scene’ 2 reflects back internally onto ‘scene’ 1. “Machinery” recalls the train as does the canal; g…