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Poetry Machines (2)

Bra Machine

“The Brassiere Factory” would seem to many to be a minor, perhaps even politically suspect, poem by a minor poet. It does deal with the theme of sexual freedom, in its way, but it would be hard to convince many people of this with a straight face, yet to dismiss it as just a bit of fun would be a mistake. So why has the critical establishment missed the point so badly, why have they been so busy getting the joke that they missed the message? Partly it is because analysing even the surface implications of Koch’s work requires, on the part of the critic, a wide variety of analytical tools which the poetry itself might not seem to merit, and “The Brassiere Factory” is no exception. One can say that at the time of the poem’s publication, 1962, there was avant-garde kudos to be got from writing a poem about the industrial process of making women’s underwear, and in some ways Koch’s association of the bra with sexual oppression is strangely prophetic, but this might seem all there is that is interesting to say about the poem. In fact, it is a very important moment in a certain strand of contemporary poetic practice due to its use of a mechanistic mode of composition and the manner in which this undermines certain dominant poetic ideologies of our day.

However, to get to this one must utilise a carefully orchestrated synthesis of quite diverse analytical tools—generative grammar, stylistics, traditional prosody, a philosophy of repetition, and avant-garde aesthetic theory—and it should be clear at this point why few critics have bothered to put all these tools together just to get to the essence of a poem about the fabrication of bras.

To understand “The Brassiere Factory” in any kind of detail one must make these diverse, often seemingly incompatible, tools cohere into a single analytical practice. To do this I want to use the trope of the poem as a machine that is used by Koch himself. The reasoning behind this trope is simple. First, a machine is a repetitive engine and much of Koch’s poetry operates along similar lines. Second, language as a machine is central to the poststructural theory that informs this essay. Third, modern linguistics has made the study of poetic language much more mechanistic. Finally, to make poetry into a machine is to undermine two central tenets of the ontology of western poetry since Romanticism: that it is a mode of subjective expression, and that it somehow represents something real. In contrast, if poems are machines then subjectivity is irrelevant and a qualitative reproduction is negated in favour of quantitative production.

The poem begins with a clear avant-garde statement typical of the superficial avant-garde rejectionist pose that Koch takes up in Thank You (1962), his first collection which includes this piece:

Is the governor falling
From a great height?
Arm in arm we fled the brassiere factory
The motion-boat stayed on the shore!
I saw how round its bottom was
As you walked into southern France—[i]

However, while the reference to the falling governor is a charming version of the avant-garde attack on authority in general, it is the third line that is the “machine” which makes the poem. This phrase, “Arm in arm we fled the brassiere factory,” is repeated in a variety of modified forms throughout the poem, each time altering the overall meaning of the phrase and causing the direction of the poem to alter, mutate, approach new departures. In this way the first instance of the phrase becomes the productive centre of all other versions in a pattern typical of Koch’s poetry machine ethos.

The machine is not something that one comes to understand as the poem develops, tying the disparate strands together. Instead, it is a decision taken at the beginning of the compositional process that dictates, to varying degrees of strictness, what direction the actual creation of the poem will take, as the story behind the poem illustrates. The Koch machine almost invariably consists of a phrase, a grammatical fragment, a lexical grouping, or an overall concept of poetry; which is decided on in advance and is repeated throughout the poem producing what stylistics calls cohesion. It is, therefore, a kind of grammar for the poem or a deep structure that exists before and also beneath the poem, and which controls and limits what goes on on the surface of the poem.

Once we have determined the basic machine phrase we can begin to look, in greater detail, at how it operates and what it produces. Within the thirty-five lines of the poem, there are six of what one might call machine events over seven lines, with the title adding a seventh event of slightly different status. The machine event is an instance of the machinery of the poem happening within the poem’s production. Following on from poststructural theories of the event one ought to say that the term event in relation to the machine is highly instructive as to how the poem machine operates and why.[ii]

The content of the event is initially irrelevant, all that matters is that the event happens and can be seen to be happening in such a way that expectation is developed as to its happening again. Each event of a poem machine is, in the first instance, like each tick of a clock or each click of a cog, a discrete and unique moment that is not, however, distinguishable in form from its predecessors. The first machine event, which in Koch coincides with the actual machine phrase,[iii] seems incongruous in relation to the opening “couplet” which precedes it, but is in fact quite coherent in that it refers both to the title and to the trope of “escape” typical both of poetry and of the collapse of authority which the governor’s fall suggests. The second machine event a few lines later, immediately breaks the initial mini-machine repetition “arm in arm” in two, leaving us with just one arm:

Upon the light hair of an arm
Cigar bands lay!
I kissed you then. Oh is my bar,
The insect of your will? The water rose,
But will the buffalo on
The nickel yet be still?[iv]

Such violent separation is contrasted, however, with a degree of sound cohesion in the assonance of the “a,” an/ arm/ cigar/ bands/ lay/ bar, which has always been a very typical cohesive device in Koch’s work. By line 15, the third machine event, “Darling, we fled the brassiere factory,”[v] we can see that Koch seems determined to systematically erase all arms from the machine phrase as the phrase is returned to again and again through the machine of the poem, suggesting that the removal of the arms is one of the purposes of the machine perhaps. However, the arms then come back in the proceeding lines:

Arm in arm,
When human beings hung on us…
but still we fled, away
Into a dinner atmosphere
From all we knew, and fall asleep this day...[vi]

At this stage in the poem we can see that the original phrase has been subdivided into three parts in Koch’s mind, in a manner not dissimilar to the parsing of a sentence in generative grammar into noun phrases (NP), verb phrases (VP), and prepositional phrases (PP). Using generative grammar at this stage we can see that our opening phrase consists of PP (arm in arm) NP (we) VP (fled the brassiere factory), and that this tells us something about Koch’s own “parsing” of the machine phrase with each of the three grammatical elements allowing him to generate different kinds of meanings.[vii]

This central section of the poem is mechanistically important, therefore, as Koch is spreading out, over several lines, clues for the reader as to how the machine is actually working and importantly that it is actually working, as this is what allows for the degree of cohesion that machinery can provide for the poem. Whether Koch knows generative grammar or not, instinctively the differentials within the repetition of the machine phrase depend on his parsing of the phrase into its constituent elements based on deep linguistic structures.

The fifth machine event, “Then arm in arm we fled the listless factory,”[viii] is an example of the kind of phrase augmentation again very typical in Koch’s poetry machines. The “then” places the fact in a logical/temporal context, while “brassiere” has been replaced by a complex interaction of two examples of anaphora, an important cohesive device highlighted by stylistics. Anaphora is the process of using substitutes for the subject of a piece of writing, to avoid repetition of the same words over and over, to augment the meaning, or simply for economy’s sake. A simple example would be, “I went to the cupboard and it was bare.” “It” here is an anaphoric substitute for the noun “cupboard,” making the sentence shorter. Koch uses anaphora in a variety of profound and imaginative ways, but here we have a relatively straightforward example: tired of saying “brassiere factory” he has renamed it the “listless factory”. As I mentioned these are really two anaphoric replacements for the price of one.

In terms of stylistics the subject “brassiere factory” has been replaced by another version “listless factory;” however, grammatically the adjective of the NP part of the VP has been totally transformed: “Brassiere” has become “listless.” The distance between these two adjectives is so great that one might even question if this is truly anaphoric and not a total rewriting of the phrase, and indeed this is one of Koch’s greatest innovations: to walk the line of division between repetition and difference in our language, so as to question these categories and their relationship to language from the deep structure all the way to the discursive level of questioning terms like repetition and difference. Standing back from the parsed phrase for a moment one see that there is still cohesion as the reader does not think this is another factory, but there is also new meaning because the adjective of the NP part of the VP now interacts more with the dynamism of the verb itself.

To conclude we have the last machine event two lines from the end:

Oh arm in arm we fled the industry
Into an earth of banks
And foolish tanks, for what bare breasts might be...[ix]

The ejaculation “Oh” is typical of the kind of archaism we still associate with “real” pre-modern poetry and is an example of Koch’s use of poetry already lying around, if you will, acting as materials from which to make his new poetry machines. He calls the poetry of others, of the tradition, the “poetry base” and a large number of his more well-known pieces are clever collages of famous poems in an act similar to Duchamp’s vandalising of the Mona Lisa.[x] We also have another interesting use of anaphora in this phrase, replacing “brassiere factory” with “industry,” which actually takes the genus, industry, to stand in for the species, a type of factory, in one of the rare synecdochic occasions when the whole stands in for the part rather than the other way around. And there we have the whole machinery of the poem, generated by that first phrase and repeated and varied throughout the poem six times using seven of its thirty-five lines.

Thus far we have not seen much that does anything other than tell us that Koch writes in English and that his work is, therefore, subject to the same rules of deep structure and anaphoric cohesion as countless other texts. What we really need to establish is whether Koch’s method here generates meaning and contributes to the development of the techniques of postmodern poetry. The first thing that can be established is that, probably unconsciously, Koch has designed for himself a poetic grammar based on what I am calling poetry machines.

These machines are made up of key phrases which he comes upon, usually before he writes the poem, and which he repeats in a wide variety of ways from exactly to merely suggestively, and they regularly appear in Koch’s work throughout his career from the very first poem he ever wrote to his most recent work.[xi] A number of the effects of these machines are based on the rules of universal grammar and, if one parses the phrases, one can see better how the original phrase comes to reproduce and alter.

However, they are themselves often used in non-grammatical ways, and certainly they work in what stylistics calls deviant ways in terms of the expected significance of ordinary and poetic language. In other words, even when they make sense to a linguist they still make little sense to the reader. Yet, while these phrases alone seem often meaningless in the first instance, and usually disrupt the “rational” meaning of the poem as a whole, they are always the main cohesive devices in the poem, keeping the integrity of the poem body intact.

At this point one could describe the basic Koch poetry machine as a cohesive, mechanistic device that is repetitious, yet which repeats partly to question the idea of its being a repetition and whose distribution both undermines meaningfulness in a poem while being the main thing that keeps it together formally. This alone is of interest as it allows us access to one of the major compositional innovations of one of contemporary poetry’s most important innovators. Yet beyond a localised interest, poetry machines have much wider ramifications for modern poetry and our overall understanding of how the language of poetry actually works.

Before going on to describe in more detail the idea of “poetry machines” and their implications, however, let us briefly reconsider what the machinery of “The Brassiere Factory” has shown us about even Koch’s most playful and simple work, following along the lines of our five analytical tools. In terms of generative grammar, Koch makes his own simple “deep structure” in these poems, or set of basic rules which determine the “syntax” of the poem as a whole.

Staying with a linguistic analysis, through the use of repetition, Koch’s poetry, which is otherwise quite insignificant in the terms of stylistics, attains a sophisticated level of cohesion which can be missed quite easily. He does this through a complex modification of anaphora, which is all the machine really is. In terms of prosody, and Koch is a very enthusiastic poetic technician, in fact, what he seems to be doing is finding new forms of patterning to replace traditional metre and rhyme schemes. If he uses a machine event in seven out of thirty-five lines, one could say that the poem has a regular measure that occurs not at the level of syllables but at the level of phrases. I propose to call this phrase measure, and here the frequency of the phrase measure is five.

Whether or not this is a viable new form of prosody is yet to be determined, but clearly, Koch is trying to retain patterned verse in a post-pattern age. The real philosophical implications of what Koch is doing are too involved to summarise here, but one should keep in mind how Koch plays around with difference within repetition to the point where the idea of repetition is questionable, as this is the fundamental consideration of any philosophy of repetition.[xii] Finally, while the poem tries revolution at the level of the signified with the quest for sexual liberation, Koch’s real talent, as with all the New York School, is revolution at the level of the signifier. Every facet of the composition of “The Brassiere Factory” is revolutionary in terms of the avant-garde, and the machine especially is perfect for attacking the poetry’s “claim” to express subjectivity and represent the world. A machine simply defeats all subjective agency in its quest not to represent objects in the world but to make objects to add into the world.

[i] Kenneth Koch, Thank You, and other Poems (New York: Grove Press, 1962) 11.
[ii] Lyotard is the most important modern philosopher of the event, which can be clumsily described as the irreducibility of the occurrence coupled with a realisation that this irreducibility cannot be described as it cannot be reduced in any form of representation and remain an event. Taking his lead from Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), Lyotard talks of the event as the “that it happens”: “That it happens ‘precedes,’ precedes itself, because ‘that it happens’ is the question relevant as the event, and it then pertains to the event that has just happened. The event happens as a question mark ‘before’ happening as a question. It happens is rather ‘in the first place’ is it happening, is this it, is it possible? Only ‘then’ is any mark determined by the questioning: is this or that happening, is it this or something else, it is possible that this or that?” Jean-Fran├žois Lyotard, The Inhuman: Reflections on Time (trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991) 90.
[iii] The machine event needs to be carefully differentiated from the machine phrase. The machine event is each individual occurrence of repetition in the text based on the machine phrase. The machine phrase is, instead, the specific features held within the phrase whose repetition will allow one to notice that a machine event has happened.
[iv] Koch, Thank You, 11.
[v] Ibid.
[vi] Ibid.
[vii] The PP allows him to play with the arms, producing associative meanings related to arms, meanings that relate to the act of being linked, and semiotic “meanings” from the repetitious assonance of the phrase. The NP is greatly reduced, just a “we,” but is actually the heart of the poem which is, as we saw, about love and freedom, so that one can see that in this context “we” means both the two of us together and, by implication, us against them. Finally, the VP, which can be further parsed into V (fled) NP (the brassiere factory), allows Koch to play around with the dynamism of the act of fleeing, while the NP part of the VP is further parsed into determiner (det) adjective (A) noun (N), (the brassiere factory), so that he can change the kind of factory for example.
[viii] Koch, Thank You, 11.
[ix] Ibid.
[x] The “poetry base” also allies Koch with the classic division between the bricoleur, or odd-job man, and the engineer that was a formative statement of Levi-Strauss's development of structuralism. It is a small, but important, point to note, therefore, that while Koch makes poetry machines he is no engineer, because all of his machines are patched together out of bits of language left “lying” around his consciousness.
[xi] Of his recent collections, One Train (New York: Knopf, 1994) and Straits (New York: Knopf, 1998) are impressive in terms of contributions to the development of poetry as a mechanistic process. They contain examples of repetition of the same and repetition with difference found in earlier work, but, more importantly, they have many examples of repetition as a concept. In poems such as “One Train May Hide Another,” “The First Step,” “On Aesthetics,” “My Olivetti Speaks,” and “Artificial Intelligence,” Koch manages to combine mechanistic composition with a sophisticated conceptual understanding of the mechanistic base of poetry. The poems, then, not only demonstrate poetry machines as a critique of traditional, non-deviant poetics, they also describe the critique.
[xii] This complex interaction is the subject of Deleuze’s early, opaque work Difference and Repetition where he argues that every repetition contains difference as a mode of questioning philosophical, metaphysical mainstays such as identity, essence, and being. At one stage he states his position in the form of a question: “Does not the paradox of repetition lie in the fact that one can speak of repetition only by virtue of the change or difference that it introduces into the mind which contemplates it? By virtue of a difference that the mind draws from repetition?” Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition (trans. Paul Patton, London: Athlone Press, 1997) 25. Earlier he expresses this through a useful analysis of rhyme as a form of repetition: “Take the example of rhyme: it is indeed verbal repetition, but repetition which includes the difference between two words and inscribes that difference at the heart of a poetic Idea, in a space which it determines. Nor does its meaning lie in marking equal intervals, but rather, as we see in a notion of strong rhyme, in putting tonal values in the service of tonic rhythm, and contributing to the independence of tonic rhythms from arithmetic rhythms” (Deleuze, Difference, 22).


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