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Poetry Machines: Repetition in the Early Poetry of Kenneth Koch

Introduction: Kenneth Koch and the Avant-Garde

This article was originallypublished in the journal EnterText but I suspect it will get a wider reading here. If you want the PDF version go to: Poetry Machines: Repetition in the Early Poetry of Kenneth Koch

One of the verbal inspirations I have had was from a big wooden box containing life jackets on a transatlantic steamship. There was a lifeboat drill and I ended up standing next to a big box on which was printed the big word BRASSIERES. This was the French word for life jackets—naturally, of course, I thought after a moment, bra (arm), something you put your arms through. But, for that moment, I was amazed. Why in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean was I standing, during a lifeboat drill, next to a huge wooden box of brassieres? Something about it seemed part of my poetry, but in fact didn’t become so until two years later when (apparently out of nowhere) I thought of a line that combined the two meanings of the word: Arm in arm we fled the brassiere factory. The poem which I wrote, then, right away, turned out to be about an urgent, and finally satisfied, wish for sexual freedom: with the woman I love, I flee from the factory which is an emblem of physical restraint. This theme and this story hadn’t been in my thoughts on the steamship...[i]

Perhaps with statements like these, and the fact that the poem he is talking about here is called “The Brassiere Factory,” it is not hard to see why Kenneth Koch has become the least considered member of the New York School of poets, after starting out in the fifties as its most successful and influential member.[ii] While his more famous contemporaries, Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery, are not averse to bouts of well placed kitsch, camp, and silliness, I think it would be fair to say that Koch is the only member of the group willing to go beyond irony and humour, into the field of the ludicrous.

Yet look again at this shaggy-bra story and one finds a canny avant-gardiste who is merely masquerading as Dr. Fun, his nickname during the heyday of the New York School. The daftness of being inspired to write a poem about a box of bras is, in fact, purposefully bathetic and designed to bring back down to earth the more lofty aspirations of the post-war American poetry scene. Apart from references as to his intention in interviews and articles, Koch is also very explicit about this in the poetry of his first collection Thank You, which contains a number of satires on the seriousness of poetry in the fifties and sixties. A much later poem, “Seasons on Earth” describes explicitly the atmosphere of serious high Modernism which dominated the American poetry scene of the nineteen fifties:

It was the time, it was the nineteen fifties...
Dread drafted all with its atomic clink.
The Waste Land gave the time’s most accurate data,
It seemed, and Eliot was the Great Dictator
Of literature. One hardly dared to wink
Or fool around in any way in poems...[iii]

However, beyond a very basic avant-garde rejection of establishment norms,[iv] Koch’s comments on how he came to write “The Brassiere Factory” also set up a poetic aesthetic based on found objects and chance encounters that would allow him to fit in easily with any number of the original European avant-garde groups.

The transformation of found objects into art was a major facet of a number of European avant-garde movements not least that of Surrealism. Cubism’s use of heterogeneous material was also a form of art made from what could be found, newspapers, labels and the like, while the choice of subject matter tended towards the randomly chosen encounter with objects in a room or a bar. Duchamp is clearly the master of this form of art but futurism is also full of art made from encounters, as is Apollinaire’s early proto-avant-garde poetry such as “Zone.” Koch has recently re-written “Zone,” incidentally, under the title “A Time Zone.”

The perfect expression of this kind of art is the found object encountered by chance, a central feature of surrealist art, discussed in detail by Breton and Dalí in their various art writings. The implications for an avant-garde art are numerous. The found object undermines the special, auratic status of the art object. It also brings art and everyday life closer together, the main purpose of the avant-garde. The random encounter undermines poetic agency, and makes the act of creation more mechanistic by reducing the artist to a kind of recording machine. One must also note that the probable origin of machine poetry is the work of Raymond Roussel. Koch’s close associate in the School, John Ashbery, went to France with the intention of studying Roussel’s work.

Roussel pioneered a methodology of homonymical composition,[v] whose mechanistic, playful, rule-based mode of composition has since been picked up by more recent avant-garde groupings such as OuLiPo, the most celebrated exemplar of this style being Georges Perec who was a friend of Harry Mathews, an early member of the New York School. Koch’s interest in French writing is well documented and it is almost inconceivable that the inspiration for his poetry machines did not originate in some form through a thorough reading of the European avant-garde.

Koch’s avant-garde credentials are, therefore, hard to dispute, but not only does the passage ally Koch’s compositional techniques very closely to those of his European avant-garde forebears, Koch’s inability to see the difference between a random encounter, a box of bras, and his poetry—Dalí calls this “paranoid criticism”[vi]—and how in fact he sees no difference between what happens to him and what happens in his poetry, makes the conception and composition of the poem a classical avant-garde act. Although he does not write “The Brassiere Factory” until two years later, he already sees the bra box as a part of his poetry, and even if the inability to understand that there is a division between one’s art and one’s life is an example of poetic schizophrenia,[vii] the refusal to accept that there is a division between art and life is Peter Burger’s classic definition of the avant-garde:

In summary, we note that the historical avant-garde movements negate those determinations that are essential in autonomous art: the disjunction of art and the praxis of life, individual production, and individual reception as distinct from the former. The avant-garde intends the abolition of autonomous art by which it means that art is to be integrated into the praxis of life.[viii]

A careful reading of this casual reminiscence reveals, therefore, three clear features of the avant-garde in Koch’s poetry: rejectionism; the technical side of found objects, chance encounters and semi-automatic writing (he finally writes the poem immediately based on a strange phrase from his unconscious); and the removal of the gap between art and life. There is also a fourth, critical aspect which is crucial to Koch’s work, evidenced by his mockery of deep-themes—one cannot help but see the comic consonance between the physical restraint of totalitarian ideologies and that of bra straps—and of the Wordsworthian ideal of recollection in tranquillity.[ix] It is fantastically silly but under the carefully paced surface, reminiscent of stand-up comedy, there is a real commitment, on Koch’s part, to the radical tenets of the avant-garde.

[i] Kenneth Koch, Making Your Own Days (New York: Touchstone, 1998) 91.
[ii] The original “members” of the New York School numbered six: John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler, Harry Mathews and Barbara Guest, although by the time of John Bernard Myers' collection of 1969 there were nine. Of these, the first four are the really significant figures. Mathew’s interest in poetry was diminished by his commitment to OuLiPo and his experimental prose works, and Guest was really only ever a satellite member whose aesthetic has increasingly been towards the objective/modernist tradition of American poetry not the playful postmodernism typical of the New York School. Of the central four, Koch has not only been written on the least, he has hardly ever been written on, and yet his importance within the school and in his own right cannot be overestimated.
[iii] Kenneth Koch, Seasons on Earth (New York: Penguin, 1987) 7.
[iv] Rejection is one of a number of basic characteristics given to the avant-garde artist in Poggioli’s seminal, but deeply flawed, The Theory of the Avant-Garde (Cambridge, MA: The Bellknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1968).
[v] Roussel’s own description of this method (procédé) is fascinating: “I chose two almost identical words (reminiscent of metagrams). For example, billard [billiard table] and pillard [plunderer]. To these I added similar words capable of two different meanings, thus obtaining two identical phrases... 1. Les lettres du blanc sur les bandes du vieux billard...[The white letters on the cushions of the old billiard table...], 2. Les lettres du blanc sur les bandes du vieux pillard...[The white man’s letters on the hordes of the old plunderer...]” Raymond Roussel, How I Wrote Certain of My Books (trans. Trevor Winkfield, New York: Sun, 1977). The two homonymical phrases were then made into the first and last sentence of a narrative, creating a machine generating the passage from the meaning of one to the alternative meaning of the other. This, of course, works better in French which is much more homonymical than English is for example.
[vi] For a full explanation and analysis see Maurice Nadeau, The History of Surrealism (trans. Richard Howard, London: Plantin Publishers, 1987) 183-87.
[vii] The definition of schizophrenia has never been straightforward and uncontroversial but here I refer to two versions of schizophrenia as it is used in literary theory. The first is the endpoint of glossolalia or nonsense speech, something which the New York School have been accused of indulging in. Julia Kristeva, in her study of avant-garde and deviant poetics, Revolution in Poetic Language (trans. Margaret Waller, New York: Columbia University Press, 1984), notes that while the undermining of rationality in art is a good thing, if it is allowed to pursue this “semiotic” plan it will become the speech of schizophrenics. Hers is a linguistic view of language and means simply utterances that cannot be made to concatenate in any way. Deleuze and Guattari, however, would encourage schizophrenia. They talk of it being the body without organs: “In order to resist organ-machines, the body without organs presents its smooth, slippery, opaque, taut surface as a barrier. In order to resist linked, connected, and interrupted flows, it sets up a counterflow of amorphous, undifferentiated fluid. In order to resist using words composed of articulated phonetic units, it utters only gasps and cries that are sheer unarticulated blocks of sound.” Phillipe Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem and Helen R. Lane, London: Athlone Press, 1990) 9. Taking schizophrenia to be a resistance to division and differentiation, they see in the illness a metaphor for revolution against the obsessive processes of division that typify capitalism.
[viii] Peter Burger, Theory of the Avant-Garde (trans. Michael Shaw, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984) 54.
[ix] As Wordsworth and Coleridge might put it: two years before, Koch saw the box of bras with merely the “aggregating” power of his fancy, but now as he writes the poem he is able to see the bras through the “transformative” power of his imagination.


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