Kenneth Koch turned out to be a tricky one. The 5 poems Paul Hoover includes in the Anthology showcase two very different kinds of poetry. On the one hand there is Koch the very comical, surreal, lyrical poet, the poet the Newsweek once called “the funniest serious poet we have”. It is non-narrative poetry with a great love for the sound and texture of words, very artful and yet seemingly lighthearted. On the other side there is Koch as a poet of long, much simpler, almost narrative pieces full of autobiographical references and everyday life.
Hoover claims, this change in Hoover’s style is due to “three influences: falling in love and getting married; the counsel of his friend Frank O’Hara, who praised modesty and directness in art; and seeing a production of Peter Pan, the simplicity and even ‘dumbness’ of which he admired.”
Although I found both the early and the later pieces in the Anthology very powerful, I was struggling with finding an adequate way of responding. Having no talent for comic text I found myself drawn more to Koch’s ‘narrative’ poems. The following piece is a response to With Janice. It was created with a particular constraint to guide my writing. I adopted the first word of every line of his poem, writing a poem of identical line number and with the same line beginnings. I have to admit I am not good with long poems, so this one really was a challenge for me. Read it below.
More about Kenneth Koch:
( A Variation On A Vertical Line By Kenneth Koch )
The threatening silence of the
White page as if it
Hiding blank fear
Or the bloody
Hardnesses of sans serif truths
( Earlier necessary for brilliancy like a diamond-tip saw blade )
At which point I always hesitate leaving watery ink stains
Knowing that little can be said at all about these things and how they
Were or came to be .
It’s hard to remember past the
Magna cum laude which
Rushing in our veins then & how
Things seemed to take on the magical form of possibility
Or at least that’s what we thought while
Pottering about cold & draughty single-glassed flats in the City
Of stock market dreams .
Sat alone with my guardian & paper cup steaming against East End shop fronts
( It’s something reasonably popular with all of us as if we were terriers & each of them a
Tree or a lamp post or something )
While desperation was greasy gathering like the stale bottom of
A pint of cheap cider in our after-
Noons brim-full with frothed content creamily engaging
Drinking handsomely crafted artisan brew .
A bohemian sepia filter frame which you told me
Has to eventually fall when the blutack [tm] dries up
In the hot air .
A romance suffering from the
Closer proximity of keys than locks or the swipe
Of a thumb on
My image . We were
Having difficulties to connect . Everything was open .
And I gathered all of our O’Hara and Koch
And my Whitman and your Bukowski and my
Stein and your fucking R.D. Laing .
“ So right you know so right … ”
To what degree only you could tell and certainly weren’t sharing any
Of it with me .
These things affected both of us but
The uncertainty we told ourselves was part of the thrill part of the triumph
To go for it all
As simple as that
And never to question . It
Was wearing thin . And who
Will wait that long out in the freezing Brick Lane lines
Of midnight misery anyway with little hope for
Soap or paper towels or even a bloody loo seat .
We watched it happen .
It happened and we swallowed it
A straw or one of those ridiculous little parasols pink
And beats too heavy with the aspirin taste
Was all anyone got
Was all anyone could wish for and still we went like it meant anything .
The sun was coming up woozily . Clouds
Were their natural selves like no one else .
Or so it seemed as I envied them
Circling around warehouses barefoot
On sticky tar .
That was before we traded words
For ebony shiny off-white morals
But you said
“ Character matters & to
Know one’s weaknesses is to know
Delight . “
Of course that was purpose-built redbrick a long way from
Harvard or Oxbridge or just Tottenham Court Road .
( Against which there is nothing to say whatsoever
You have to start somewhere even on the N38 )
Things seemed to develop in certain ways irregardlessly
And we held hands & you held me & I licked & sucked
Kneeling or lying in the dry grass in Victoria Park .
It rained a lot the following autumn & you went away
To Berlin . Paris seemed
Like nothing but a silly idea . There
Are gaps between words sometimes & people . My lines weren’t
Going anywhere .
The bright blue light kept me awake at night
Just long enough to form
A thought & see my scrambling for paper .
You laughed sometimes at my absurdities . The smudging and
Spilling of precious ink . But
Those were really just minor
Because major is reserved for the times when exhaustion is
Surpassing the cynic glee of shopping centres & plastic
Blossoms take on a dusty charm .
In any case we were drifting in somewhat different directions .
I still went for walks down the canal with my headphones on
( As privacy is a matter of determination & insulation in this city ) &
Then I went into the marshes
With a pencil in my pocket like you told me
And blank sheets of paper tucked into my jeans .
Out there the sky was bigger than ever before &
For a while blue was a good thing & so
Were foxes & crows & I cared little about their meaning .
The magpie sat on my window sill for a fortnight & we had some fun . But
As the sting of the burned rubber smell was getting heavy
We sought shelter from the gathering clouds . It was
On a hot summer day when all the shops closed early shutters down
It was a storm of anger coming a tide of rage
And fury breaking through high street window panes .
The city was shivering & it felt for the first time like
Maybe things were going to change maybe things were going to develop
In some way & move from now into the future like you &
I I hoped but the telly said they were just stealing trainers your hand on my
Breast that night was chafing your grip was too tight I kept my
Eyes closed & left
While the shower was still running .
Beyond that point things just got complicated
Or I just couldn’t find the right words to put in the right order for you
I kept up my routine like everyone said I should
Hot baths & such which I never cared for ( never really liked ) but you got to not
Let yourself down etc. like it’s anyone’s
Business what height I am
And if deep sea diving would be the only truly appropriate response
To all of this .
In retrospect the
Air then seems always heavy with the smog & anxiety
( To remember it seems is really just another silly magic trick the one
With the rabbit only slightly adapted like you could cramp fricking
Dinosaurs into an old battered hat )
All the vague messages
Of little content of few character sent past 11
Pm a distant
Life seeped through cold LED glow . . .
Of course you didn’t mean it like the way I read it . Rush hour was taking a
Bite out of my sanity . Squashed against
The transparent divider in the entrance area between Kings Cross & Green Park
It was getting more & more difficult to focus
On the things which were really important . Name two .
You called on the weekend & we talked again it was easy
For you to talk like that
From a distance words were
Simply easier you said . & I laughed uncertainly .
“always is a tragedy not a love story “ you said
( Leonardo DiCaprio made a much better Romeo for me ) my
Absent -minded self slipped once or twice mostly
In the bedroom the
Calm can always be found
Where the wild parties reel
In the morning dew . In the
Corridor down to the dancefloor the
Girls were bathing their faces in blue
And white . My mascara seemed insignificant dirty tiles transformed
Into red carpet dreams lashes flashes hashtags & tan
“ How many
Messages did he sent you
In the last 2 hours
And how many did you send him
It’s all about who’s got the upper hand
Why would you show him that you like him ? you are
Wrecking your chances do you want him to think of you
As a slag ? “
The rules of the silly game everyone seemed to playing The cool colour of my lipstick
Something to hold on to as the night drew to a start . “ How
Much to get me home from here ? “
I groped for my dancing shoes in the pitch black of the satin carpet hesitating a
Matted surface of
The brink . I came home that morning
In my little dress & someone else’s trousers Nothing is
Easily done in the city everything takes twice as much as we can give .
Almost nothing can be said about any of this apart from you were my
Inspiration as much as
I seemed to be yours . We
Scurried through each other’s lives in a way vermin behaviour
The gnawing & scratching the teeth marks in every bloody thing . I stayed
Because you were staying . Every word had
A meaning & we knew
Exactly what any of it meant .
Eventually is eventually and
A story is a story
By the end of it you
Look at the words & you
Will find not a single one you recognise . They all shift they all disappear into
The heartbeats racing
Against the steady walker from
School to college to job to marriage to mortgage to morgue it
Flows & with it it pulls them . My words &
I miles apart . I
Meet them occasionally on the
Final days of spring time . We don’t talk much now
When I speak of you .