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Poetry Machines (4)

Grammar Machines

It must be made clear at this point that the idea of a deep structure which may be said to be the grammar machine of Koch’s poetry is, like the idea of the machine itself, really just a figurative concept. The trope of the machine is something I am using, following on from a number of other poststructural thinkers, in particular Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Derrida, to better describe the mechanistic nature of much of Koch’s work. Similarly, the use of the idea of a poetic deep structure is really only to allow us to better document the peculiarly mechanistic manner in which Koch composes his highly repetitious poems.

To do this I will consider three very different poems from Koch’s early career, When the Sun Tries to Go On¸ “Sleeping with women,” and “Collected Poems,” all generated in the same machine-like way in relation to the ideas of deep structure in generative grammar, cohesion in stylistics, and patterning in traditional prosody. The aim is first to break poetry machinery down into its basic components, before considering the different surface effects and combinatory strategies Koch uses, all produced by a basic “grammatical machinery.”

The first component of a grammar of poetry machines is what one should call repetition of the same, which is the simplest form of all repetition. Repetition of the same, repeating the same word or same phrase over and over, is by far the most common example of poetry machinery in Koch’s work. Interestingly, the most important example of this occurs, however, in When the Sun Tries to Go On which, over its 117 pages, is probably the least repetitious, least machine-like poem Koch has ever written. The example I am talking of is, in fact, just one line from the following “sentence:”

Oat sad, it was a day of cursing blue
Fish, they reunited so the umpire to finish
The exhaustion of the Packard and tarantula
Parallel excursion. O black black black black black,
Under the tea, how a lid’s munificent rotation
Is that, he cries “The daffodil, tire, say-so,”
O manufacture-clams building![i]

This is one of numerous sections in this poem that hint at the mechanisms at the heart of poetry—note the exhaustion of the Packard and the manufacture-clams—but what is most remarkable about this sentence is the line “Parallel excursion. O black black black black black.” The importance of the line for poetry machinery rests in the fact that it illustrates the basic law of repetition: that of superfluity or of being in excess. Repetition of the same is the least well regarded form of repetition by all theorists of repetition from linguists to philosophers,[ii] but it is the form Koch seems to favour.

In this example one could say that the first two “blacks” are accommodated by the view of their being parallel, and that the third also fits because we are taking an excursion from the parallel or because the third undermines the idea of the parallel. However, the fourth and fifth repetitions are entirely superfluous and deviant, and could even be said to be threatening as, because they have been generated without rules, there is nothing to stop the rest of the poem continuing in this vein. At this stage a line break intervenes, but what if there were no line breaks in poetry, what then? The extreme nature of this repetition of the same raises some uncomfortable questions for poetry, especially in relation to the closure of subsequent structurings of form, to which the vast length and seeming lack of cohesion one finds in When the Sun Tries to Go On also contributes.

Repetition of the same, therefore, is one basic component of the grammar of poetry machines and is well in evidence in Koch’s “Sleeping with Women:”

Caruso: a voice.
Naples: sleeping with women.
Women: sleeping in the dark.
Voices: a music.
Pompeii: a ruin.
Pompeii: sleeping with women.
Men sleeping with women, women sleeping with women, sheep sleeping with women, everything sleeping with women.
The guard: asking you for a light.
Women: asleep.
Yourself: asleep.
Everything south of Naples: asleep and sleeping with them.
Sleeping with women: as in the poems of Pascoli.
Sleeping with women: as in the rain, as in the snow.
Sleeping with women: by starlight, as if we were angles, sleeping on the train,
On the starry foam, asleep and sleeping with them—sleeping with women.[iii]

Throughout this long poem, the basic machine phrase “sleeping with women” is repeated many times, but this is not a simple example of repetition of the same. The use of the colon instead suggests that there is some form of significant relationship between the machine phrase and the phrase which accompanies it, but also that the second phrase follows on from and is somehow produced by the first. The equation is made clear for us in the first line with the subject, Caruso, being the producer of the thought which follows, a voice.

The colon is used, therefore, in the same way that anaphora is often used for the sake of economic continuity and because of this each machine event, while containing within it an example of repetition of the same, also has a Deleuzian repetition with difference. This is further exemplified by the phrasal modifications which we also saw in “The Brassiere Factory,” with the machine phrase parsed into its component parts and then the poet improvising with these elements.

Repetition with difference can produce marvellous opportunities for diverse meanings while always retaining for the reader a clear cohesion, and one can find at least eight levels, or possible meaning producers, within this apparently simple machine:

1. “Caruso: a voice,” the pre-anaphoric moment with no real hint of the content of the machine but the form is repeated.
2. “Naples: sleeping with women,” the basic machine—poetry phrase (PP): repeated phrase (RP)—whose order can be switched at will.
3. “Men sleeping with women, women sleeping with women,” variations on the RP brought about by removing the colon.
4. “Asleep and sleeping with them,” variations on the RP, which becomes a second or alternative RP as the poem goes on. Reaches its peak with “Asleep and sleeping with you, asleep with women / Asleep and sleeping with you, asleep with women, asleep and sleeping with you, sleeping with women.”
5. “Greek islands sleeping with women, Nassos, Naxos, Kos, / Asleep with women, Mykonos, miotis / And myositis,” variation on the PP, so that it is no longer random but motivated away from the cohesion determined by the RP, occurring in many complex ways as the poem goes on.
6. “And the iris peg of the sea / Sleeping with women,” variation in the graphology and syntax of the phrase, here laid out like a lyric poem over several lines so that the graphologically imposed enjambment takes over from the colon.
7. “As with an orchid, as with an oriole,” internal mini-machines like repetition of “as,” references to place names, repetition of “The” at the beginning of the line.
8. The poem concludes with a combination of three internal machines: repetition of “the,” use of colon, and variations on the RP.[iv]

“Sleeping with Women” is perhaps Koch’s most sophisticated example of the basic machine grammar that consists of repetition of the same, RS, and repetition with difference, RD. However, this basic deep structure, RS RD, with a number of possible parsings within each, although the potential for complexity in the RD far outstrips that of the RS, is not the sum total of grammatical rules. I would argue there is a third part that exists beyond the basic syntax of the machine which might be called the repetition concept or RC.

A perfect example of this is the poem “Collected Poems” which is actually a sequence of thirty-eight “poems” consisting of little more than a title and one-line poem to follow. In poems of this kind the repetition is not of the same, nor of the tension between repetition and difference, but of a third order which places differentiation at the heart of the repetitious cycle. In taking a trope of totality, like the collected poem sequence, and reducing it down to its repetitive grammatical structure, title-poem / theme / first line, Koch indicates a critical self-awareness of the repetitious nature of the act of writing poetry which is the background against which poetry can be written. Within this meta-critical act, which is an act of conceptual poetics, there are still local interactions of the second level of repetition.
Some titles refer actually to the poem, as does the opening poem:


I was asleep when you waked up the buffalo.[v]

Some relate only by imaginative association, such as


The starlit voices drop.[vi]

And some do not relate at all, as in



Clearly, Koch is using a repetitious machine structure to undermine one of the meta-structural assumptions behind poetics, that of a particular relationship between title and poem. His poems are so brief that the difference between title and poem is seriously questioned. For example in “The Green Meddler,”


Aged in the fire.[viii]

the difference between title and poem comes down to basic graphological issues of location, spacing and font, while the final poem,



eradicates the difference between title and poem altogether.

“Collected Poems” puts the basic grammatical pattern RS RD against the fake backdrop of a meaningful overall pattern of meta-repetition and meta-differentiation. Such a backdrop is a vital component of our experience of reading, both in terms of the differentials and repetitions of each line’s status within each individual poem, and also involving the same questions at the larger level of the differentiation involved in the act of collecting poems. This third facet of the poem, the RC, has a paradoxical function in that it exists to show that one poem is not another, while stressing that although each poem is different they are still all similar in that they are all poems. The RC is, therefore, the facilitator of the complex mix of similarity and difference, not just in poetry but especially so because of the penchant for the selected and collected format, which I have called the basic RS RD pattern.

A poem like “Collected Poems” differs from “The Brassiere Factory” because it comes at poetry as a machine not at the surface level of the syntax of repetition, nor the deep level of the grammar of repetition, but at the meta-level of how poetry is, in effect, always a repetitious mechanistic process. One chooses in advance a theme, one indicates it in the title, and one repeats it in further detail in the poem body, often through other machines such as rhythm, rhyme, devices of cohesion like logic or association, and so on.

We now have what I am calling the deep structure of poetry machines. Each machine consists of the following: RS RD RC. Every poetry machine in Koch’s poetry has this basic grammar, I would argue: first, examples of repetition of the same words, the same phrase, the same idea; then a series of modifications bringing a certain degree of difference into the repetition; and finally an overall conceptual appreciation of what this means for poetry. It is the final point which is the most important in this instance, however, as it shows Koch is not developing poetry machines as just another mode of poetic expression, but that they are designed to question and criticise the very idea of poetry in a way that is truly avant-garde.

[i] Kenneth Koch, When the Sun Tries to Go On (Los Angeles: Black Sparrow Press, 1969) 8. There are similar examples scattered through the huge poem such as “Gorilla / Youth. Fable. Detective. Fur fur fur, fur / Midnight. (Ibid., 14). A more sophisticated development of repetition of the same can be seen in the following passage: “‘Roistering hint glove task phone / ‘ache’ factory hoop device?’ / Spot, ‘kee,’ sun. My hand of devoted hands / Babel sick, yowl earnest ‘bee’-boat, seven, connote / ‘Yoohoo’ of a gray, bad ‘bat’ disk ‘bat’ boat key / Helen, Sue, loss, sea ‘hoe’ ‘doe look’ / Of cancer. Yard! unbalanced…” (Ibid., 17). The machinery of the poem is referred to here, as it very often is throughout Koch’s work, in the form of the factory hoop device which the rest of the passage reveals to be a device of endless repetition and variation. There are clear repetitions of the same here, Hand/hand, bat/bat, but there are also very clever repetitions of the same with sonic difference built in: ‘kee,’/ ‘bee,’/ –boat/ connote/ bad/ ‘bat’/ ‘bat’/ boat/ key/ Sue/ sea/ ‘hoe’/ ‘doe’ and so on. This is a real advancement on the repetition of the same and yet it still is repetition of the same, revealing that even basic repetition can be presented in the form of fascinating variance.
[ii] Deleuze undermines the importance of repetition of the same by analysing the figure of a decorative pattern: “Consider…the repetition of a decorative motif: a figure is reproduced, while the concept remains absolutely identical….However, this is not how artists proceed in reality. They do not juxtapose instances of the figure, but rather each time combine an element of one instance with another element of a following instance. They introduce a disequilibrium into the dynamic process of construction, an instability, a disymmetry or gap of some kind which disappears only in the overall effect…it is not the elements of symmetry present which matter for artistic or natural causality, but those which are missing and are not in the cause; what matters is the possibility of the cause having less symmetry than the effect....For us, as the example of the decorative motif suggests, it is essential to break down the notion of causality in order to distinguish two types of repetition: one which concerns only the overall, abstract effect, and the other which concerns the acting cause. One is static repetition, the other is dynamic….One refers back to a single concept, which leaves only an external difference between the ordinary instances of a figure; the other is the repetition of an internal difference which it incorporates in each of its moments, and carries from one distinctive point to another” (Deleuze, Difference, 20).
[iii] Kenneth Koch, The Pleasures of Peace, and other Poems (New York: Grove Press, 1969) 11.
[iv] Ibid., 11-15.
[v] Koch, Thank You, 39.
[vi] Ibid.
[vii] Ibid., 40.
[viii] Ibid., 41.
[ix] Ibid., 42.


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