Poetry Ideas—Poetry Language—Poetry Machines
The theory of “poetry machines” comes from Koch’s own theory of “poetry ideas” which he developed to teach children to write poetry. Koch explains:
I taught reading poetry and writing poetry as one subject. I brought them together by means of “poetry ideas,” which were suggestions I would give to children for writing poems of their own in some way like the poems they were studying...for the Wish Poem, starting every line with “I wish.”[i]
Already one can see in this passage the mechanistic poetic technique that dominates Koch’s own work, and although poetry ideas are not fully worked out, I think, in Koch’s mind, with little more in his prose work to really develop the concept, however one definite feature of the concept is repetition as a mode of cohesion:
As for trying difficult forms, this was all pulverized into one form or variations of one form: repetition. I would say, “Start every line with ‘I wish,’” “Put your favorite color in every line,” “Start the first line with ‘I used to’ and the second line with ‘But now,’” and so on. It was a children’s version of what I had done with adults...When you write a poem, it’s as if you are saying how you feel on a grid, and you are hanging flowers everywhere on it.[ii]
The closing trope is especially illustrative of the basics of the movement of poetry ideas, Koch’s concept, to poetry machines, my own. The machine consists of a fixed set of rules, which I am calling the grammar of the machine, rules that always revolve around instances of repetition. Beyond this grid of rules, pretty much anything goes in the Koch poem. What is interesting about this grid is not, however, that it makes his poems cohesive and so also in some ways coherent, although for a first time reader of Koch I think this is reassuring, but how the grid works critically to undermine certain ideas related to poetry, and also introduces certain other new ideas.
In his most recent book on poetry, Making Your Own Days, Koch veers away from poetry ideas in favour of trying to establish what he calls “poetry language.” The dream of the poetry language, which finds its apotheosis in Mallarmé, comes about due to certain ontological questions as to the nature of poetry. As the poem sloughs off the generically protective skins of versification, its justification as an artistic thing in its own right becomes highly questionable, and so it is natural that poets and critics alike might then try to come up with making poetry into a language all its own and so reserve for it a kind of protected species status.[iii]
Koch’s first thoughts on the project are that poetry is a language within a language, a special use of an existing language; he then goes on to explain how his first idea was that language was like a synthesiser: “you sat down at this instrument and played; you didn’t tap out a clear message in teletypical prose. Whatever you said would be accompanied by music,”[iv] which he rejected because “it was too far from language.”[v]
Instead he decides what it is about poetry that makes it a separate language, coming up with the following definitions: that it is a language in which the sound of words is equal in status to their meaning, that this means it is “musically weighted,” that the lexicon it uses differs from that in a dictionary, that it is processual and “can’t hold still,” and that the language finally consists simply in the ability to connect the emotion the poet feels with the music of poetry language’s manifestation of that feeling.
Such a Romantic theory of poetry is disappointing from such an avowed avant-garde poet, but Koch is not a systematic thinker on poetics and besides there is a whole history of poets designing manifestos which do not match their own poems, so it may seem pointless to bemoan Koch’s failings in terms of his theorising a “poetry language.” However, with Koch the situation is somewhat different in that he has not actually betrayed his radical commitments in the way that this passage might suggest. Rather, he is so steeped in avant-garde aesthetic assumptions that he does not realise that what he means by emotions and what he conceives of as poetry’s ability to represent them is very far from the Romantic ideological ideal which still is, I would suggest, the folk ideology of poetry.[vi]
For example, returning to “poetry ideas” in his recent book he notes: “What I called ‘poetry ideas’ I realized later were something more like the elements of a sort of grammar of poetry,” which provided “two ways of ‘disrupting’ the flow of ordinary prose: division into lines, and repetition of words. This disruption made music, gave a little lilt to what was said, and replaced the pleasure of continuity with the pleasure of repetition and variation.”[vii] Put poetry ideas together with the abandoned dream of the poetry synthesiser, and you have my version of what Koch actually does in his work, namely design and operate poetry machines.
From the mixed messages and the failed dream of a poetry language gleaned from Koch’s prose, therefore, one can determine that his idea of poetry involves not a mode of expressing clear meaning but of executing language games, with poetry writing being an act of playing on language. The preposition is important here as most poets play with language; however, Koch proposes playing on it as if it was a pre-established keyboard.
Later he concludes that the keyboard is not an apt analogy as language has too many keys, but one could argue that the small ideas or machines around which he builds his poems act to reduce the huge number of “keys “available in English to something resembling an octave. However, the practice of describing poetic process in terms of other arts is aporetic and unhelpful in almost every case. Instead, the concept of poetry ideas as being a kind of grammar for poetry is much more fruitful and, as I believe I have shown already, to some degree is actually the case.
Yet it is the final remarks on poetry ideas that are of greatest importance, for here Koch identifies that the role of the poetry idea is not to express or represent, but to disrupt through linear division and repetition. This is, if you like, the deep structure of all the poetry machines I am now going on to detail. These machines are nothing other than pre-established rules, simple grammars, whose role is not to establish continuity between subject and poem or between actual thing and poetic representation of the thing, but to disrupt these very ideological continuations.
[i] Kenneth Koch, The Art of Poetry: Poems, Parodies, Interviews, Essays, and Other Work (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1996) 104-105.
[ii] Ibid., 155-56.
[iii] This is the subject of Giorgio Agamben’s intriguing The Man Without Content where he argues that modern art has become “without content” and so has increasingly taken this lack of content as its content: “The extreme object-centeredness of contemporary art, through its holes, stains, slits, and nonpictorial materials, tends increasingly to identify the work of art with the non-artistic product” Giorgio Agamben, The Man without Content (trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999) 50. Koch is guilty of this, I believe, and it is significant that Agamben identifies Mallarmé as the source of this modern malaise. As art has lost its intrinsic sense of itself, it takes this loss of self as its new subject matter, allying art with all things that are not art because art itself is no longer art as well. Hence Koch’s attempts to make poetry a language. It also suggests that there is melancholia or an aspect of mourning to all such art, which adds a provocative slant to Koch’s avant-garde reduction of poetry to a machine. The machine trope would almost be a classical act of denial, a way of distracting the world from the sadness the avant-gardiste feels in relation to art’s loss of itself within their own work. Could Koch’s obsessive humour also be a kind of sad-clown syndrome?
[iv] Kenneth Koch, Making Your Own Days, 20.
[vi] For more on the argument that the Romantic ideology has come to dominate the modern idea of poetry see Paul de Man, The Rhetoric of Romanticism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984), Geoffrey Hartman, Wordsworth’s Poetry: 1787-1814 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1964), David Simpson, Irony and Authority in Romantic Poetry (London: Macmillan, 1979), and Jerome McGann, The Romantic Ideology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983). Much of this work stems from Harold Bloom’s conception that we are all Romantics. For an analysis of how the New York School undermines Bloom’s imposition of Romantic aesthetics on modern poetry see the final two chapters of my own In the Process of Poetry: The New York School and the Avant-Garde (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2000).
[vii] Koch, Making Your Own Days, 75-76.