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.
[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.