Jay Kenneth Koch’s poetic multi-dimensionality as it appears in “Permanently” and “One Train May Hide Another”
Jay Kenneth Koch (1925-2002) is a postmodern poet who focuses on the ordinary and funny aspects of language. His work emerging from the American experimental poetic scene of the Sixties manages to connect unrelated notions through the playful use of language. Koch captures in a subtle way different notions which are united in order to shed light upon new aspects and provide new ways of interpretation and meanings. One can claim that the language in his poems transforms itself into a multi-task instrument that assists the poet to reach new potentials in poetic experimental expression. As a result, the reader unlocks the conventional, moves beyond formality, experiences simplicity and discovers the new and fun side of language. The poems “Permanently” (1962) and “One Train May Hide Another” (1994) constitute characteristic examples of direct improvisatory and humorous poetic writing.
The postmodern impulse of the Sixties marks the way people think, act and react to one another and certain situations, and it is projected in the work of contemporary American writers. Due to the socio-political transformations of the time, one can notice the rather discreet attempt of the writers to challenge conventions and subvert ideological constrains. As Daniel Snowman and Malcolm Bradbury argue, “people were more inclined to stress their doubts and inability to see clearly how best to deal with the problems that faced them” (298) and this became apparent in poetic production. According to Theodore Pelton, “Kenneth Koch has identified himself as a poet of pleasure, […] [and] of linguistic play” (327) and his poems suggest new ways of viewing the world.
Jay Kenneth Koch (1925-2002) is a postmodern poet who focuses on the ordinary and funny aspects of language. His work emerging from the American experimental poetic scene of the Sixties manages to connect unrelated notions through the playful use of language. Koch captures in a subtle way different notions which are united in order to shed light upon new aspects and provide new ways of interpretation and meanings. One can claim that the language in his poems transforms itself into a multi-task instrument that assists the poet to reach new potentials in poetic experimental expression. As a result, the reader unlocks the conventional, moves beyond formality, experiences simplicity and discovers the new and fun side of language. The poems “Permanently” (1962) and “One Train May Hide Another” (1994) constitute characteristic examples of direct improvisatory and humorous poetic writing. The postmodern impulse of the Sixties marks the way people think, act and react to one another and certain situations, and it is projected in the work of contemporary American writers. Due to the socio-political transformations of the time, one can notice the rather discreet attempt of the writers to challenge conventions and subvert ideological constrains. As Daniel Snowman and Malcolm Bradbury argue, “people were more inclined to stress their doubts and inability to see clearly how best to deal with the problems that faced them” (298) and this became apparent in poetic production. According to Theodore Pelton, “Kenneth Koch has identified himself as a poet of pleasure, […] [and] of linguistic play” (327) and his poems suggest new ways of viewing the world.
As part of the New York School of Poetry, Kenneth Koch employs a type of language that addresses these issues in a humorous manner without lessening the value of questioning them at the same time. The New York School of Poetry highly influenced by Surrealism and the contemporary Avant-Garde expressionistic movements attempted to pave new paths in terms of literary expression. As David Lehman points out, “[t]he aim was the liberation of the imagination […] [and] the New York poets were the first to extend that new frontier” (6). In the work of Koch, the idea of broadening up the thinking process and creating new perspectives towards the use of language manifests itself in the ways Koch tackles certain issues and channels the particular energy that the imagery of the poems generates. As Koch himself stated in a journal, “[w]riting poetry can do things for one that other kinds of communicating can't do” (116), suggesting that poetic experience can alter conventional beliefs and instill in the readers’ minds the need to explore further the potentials of understanding a poem and language in general.
In the poem “Permanently,” one can trace Koch’s immediate attempt to challenge the contemporary aesthetics and establish an open dialogue with language along with the issue of affection that underlies the poem. The poem promotes humorous conversation and transforms the issue of love, which conventionally speaking is depicted in exaggerated and extreme emotional terms, to a casual everyday experience that is fed by spontaneity and improvisation. The lines “You have enchanted me with a single kiss/ Which can never be undone/Until the destruction of language” (18-20) undertake the quality of a direct statement nonetheless, they manage to captivate the powerful relation between sentiments and language. Without lessening the quality of the love issue, Koch communicates to the reader its playful side by constantly challenging, playing with and reinventing language that inculcates in the reader’s mind a sense of refreshment.
The title of the poem suggests multiple interpretations and promotes several connotations being an adverb that may refer to many activities that are addressed by the speaker of the poem. “Permanently” may refer to a love that remains unfulfilled all the time, to the constant change of the role of language, to the incessant irony that underlies love, to a joyful attitude towards love that never deducts, and to other notions that relate to prolonged experiences. However, the title can also work as an ironic statement that contains the rhetorical question of whether and to what extend can language performance remain unaltered as it is drawn towards love. Koch wishes to invite the reader to question the permanence of language and the value of generating new meanings, thus expanding the possibilities and implications that language offers in poetic writing.
The poem is about a moment, the creation of affection between unidentified existences since language is personified and the speaker addresses the characters of the poem as “Nouns” (1), “Adjective[s]” (2), “Verb[s]” (4) and “Sentence[s]” (5). The reader is provoked to replace those words and fill in the missing names, people, and objects that would make the story of the poem complete. The poem is open to multiple interpretations without tempting the reader to be negatively predisposed to it thanks to its humorous tone. According to David Chinitz, “[t]he comic element in Koch’s poetry […] reflects a distinctively postmodern response to the world from which it issues” since “[c]omedy enables the poem to deliver what descriptive language could only reduce” (317). Additionally, along with its playful beginning, the poem offers a plain occasion of conversation as the speaker narrates the story of the event in four non-rhyming stanzas.
In the first stanza, the introductory lines, “One day the Nouns were clustered in the street./An Adjective walked by, with her dark beauty” (1-2), invite the reader to hear the beginning of a casual love story bridging in an immediate way the distance that there is between the speaker and the receiver. Therefore, the poetic experience becomes less unapproachable and complicated since it develops into a performative, direct and spontaneous almost confessional speech. In addition, several punctuation marks appearing throughout the poem emphasize its performative effect. Full stops, commas, question marks and exclamation marks aid in the creation of an open dialogue and equip the speaker with the particular tone needed to achieve this purpose.
Moreover, the tenses of the poem vary since they project to both the past and the present. However, they do not confuse the reader because they narrate a story in a simple way that promotes pleasure: “the mad pursuit of fun” (Lehman 233). For instance, in the second stanza, the speaker says: “‘Although it was a dark/rainy day when the Adjective walked by, I shall remember the pure/and sweet expression on her face until the day I perish from the/green, effective earth.’ / Or, ‘Will you please close the window, Andrew?’” (5-9). The blending of the tenses though does not affect in a negative manner the way the story flows. Nonetheless, it contributes to the establishment of a spherical perspective as regards the event described and to the creation of a multi-vocal sensation that affects the spatial and temporal understanding of the poem.
Regarding the language of the poem, the speaker elaborates on a kind of imagery that unites the literary aspects of the event with the metaphorical dimensions which emerge from the notion of love. More specifically, language is treated not as a means of abstraction but as a means of capturing the “thing-ness” of the thing through the depiction of the multiple facets of the anthropomorphic quality of language. For instance, in the last stanza, “So I am lost in your eyes, ears, nose, and throat-/You have enchanted me with a single kiss/Which can never be undone/Until the destruction of language” (17-20), the speaker evokes the sentiments of affection personified in the parts of a human face and of complete devotion that is so powerful in parallel distribution with language that will never be weakened.
The message that the speaker communicates to the reader is rather plain and concrete. According to David Spurr, “for Koch, the way to this authentic simplicity lies through transformation and comic distortion of experience” (345). In a pleasant way, the speaker declares a sentiment of solid love towards an addressee and the tone of the poem that is joyous and lighthearted adds to the effect of happiness and simplicity it creates. The use of many punctuation marks throughout the poem enhances the experimental character of the language further as it focuses on the performative and playful role of the narrative. This tendency to move the use and usage of language beyond conventionalities is also eminent in the rhythm of the poem. There is no rhyme and clear organization in the lines, each stanza extends in a different manner, making the breathing pattern of the poem to adjust accordingly, and as Jeffrey Wainwright argues, “[t]he stanza provides its own aesthetic experience for both the poet and the reader” (112). Thus, the poem seems to develop a playful attitude towards poetry writing and challenges stereotypical notions about poetic experience.
Similarly, in the poem “One Train May Hide Another,” language reveals its true potential as the speaker denounces the one-dimensional voice of the poetic persona, resorts to the use of the second personal pronoun singular and embellishes the narrative with several nouns and adjectives. For instance, the lines “One father or one brother may hide the man,/If you are a woman, whom you have been waiting to love” (11-12) highlight the direct voice of the speaker. The poem is structured around a situation of what things metaphorically speaking can be hidden inside other things. The tone of the poem is quite direct and the effect that imposes on the reader works as an open invitation encouraging him/her to think beyond the metaphorical use of language and speculate on his/her own personal experience regarding the matter of assigning value or priority to certain things.
More specifically, the title of the poem relates to a road sign situated in Kenya, Africa, which denotes that in this particular railroad crossing there is the possibility of one train to be hiding another train while crossing. The title, although it has a reality-based value, it also projects on the abstract value of the train that may be hiding another train commenting on the situation of having a thing inside another one, as in having for example a thing in front of another one or a thing behind another thing. The poem works on many levels of interpretation and the reader is invited to explore the potential of words to trigger multiple understandings and interpretations. Koch manages to shed light upon several issues that regard the relation between inanimate things as well as between human beings, mostly ordinary personas. In his poem, Koch exercises a subtle critique on social, inter-personal, natural and religious issues that are viewed by the speaker of the poem from various perspectives.
The poem is quite contemporary written in the early Nineties without failing though to connect with the social world of its period and to comment on the conditions that led to the creation of the American society at the time the poem was written. It functions as a projection of a summative process where certain characters, events, situations and conditions are gradually and perpetually added to the narrative process. As Lehman states, the poem “replicates itself like a benign virus, as if its linguistic structure itself defined the ‘hidden’ relation linking widely disparate phenomena” (226). It is a poem that elaborates on the use of examples drawn from the real world and that brings them close to the essence of life and appreciation of the outside world. For instance, the lines, “In a family one sister may conceal another,/So when you are courting, it’s best to have them all in view” (8-9), although they are rather humorous responding to the people’s tendency to overprotect their inner world and project other parts of themselves according to the situation they are engaged into.
Furthermore, the language of the poem is simple, plain and there are many references to other places and people that give to the tone of the poem a sense of embracing everything in the world and of validating each thing as equally important in the poetic experience. For example, the references in “One dog” (16), in “One lilac” (18), in “Adam and Eve” (54) and in “Rome” (65) are placed in the poem as carriers of equal value. Although there are not many verbs in the poem, the action is depicted through the way these references are connected to one another and the effect that they have on the readers’ comprehension. The randomness is intended, however, this is a process of creating a collage of ideas, places, feelings and situations that make the message of the poem more easily transparent. “One idea may hide another: Life is simple” (27), the speaker of the poem states and the invitation to explore all the ideas behind a poem, to decode them and develop a research mentality is probed in order to come to a realization that life is quite simple as well as explorative.
Koch wishes to promote a rebellious attitude towards constrains that regard life and language and his way of achieving this is through simplicity and comedy that bridge every distance between the speaker and the reader. Koch suggests to the reader to open his/her eyes to all possible interpretations and this is stated in the lines, “When you come to something, stop to let it pass/So you can see what else is there” (56-57). The use of the second personal person singular throughout the poem creates a strong bond between the speaker and the reader and therefore the reader can identify with and take an active role in the poetic process. As Joanna Nizynska argues, one can trace in the work of New York School poets “a rebellious gesture toward the language” (470). In a funny way, the poem promotes a type of converse and the reader can think further from the ideas and the experiences that the speaker openly shares with him/her. As Lehman states, Koch wishes “to enlarge the sphere of the poetic” (206) and “[h]is work is like an amusement park of the imagination” (208) in his effort to support this broadening up of vision.
Moreover, as Vasilis Papageorgiou argues, Koch “invites us to see things under a new light, to get familiar with dimensions that we ignored, to admire the multiplication in which they assist” (12). This “multiplication” refers to the creation of multiple points of view, to the broadening up of vision and thus to a better understanding of the surrounding environment and the things and people that it encloses. The poem creates a linguistic pattern with the form “one thing that may be hiding another thing” that is repeated, without affecting negatively the flow of the reading process, and captures the layers of understanding that each reference in the poem can trigger. The effect of this pattern is to embrace this possibility in a convenient way since the language that is used does not cause any comprehension problems; on the contrary, it is very direct, implicit and humorous at some points.
All in all, Koch’s work is a celebration of poetic directness, funny language and, as he himself stated in his interview to Daniel Kane, it is very important “to have fun with poetry, to use the unconscious, to use the spoken language, to pay attention to the surface of the language” (95). The poems manage to validate this statement as they tackle ordinary issues and situations in a rather unconventional manner motivating the reader to move beyond the offered input towards a multi-dimensional standpoint and a deeper appreciation of these issues. The experience of literary performance becomes an open circle which every reader may enter, have fun and realize different things each time. Koch’s contemporary viewpoint incorporates the principles of the postmodern trend without though failing to present its own distinct identity. As Linda Hutcheon comments, “Postmodernism aims to be accessible through its overt and self-conscious parodic, […] and reflexive forms and thus to be an effective force in our culture” (13). The poems of Koch through the particular use of language that they embody communicate directly their messages to the reader and affect productively the way he/she perceives certain ideas by challenging him/her to speculate and think further.
BA student – School of English
Aristotle University of Thessaloniki
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---. “One Train May Hide Another.” John Ashbery-Kenneth Koch: In the shadow of the train. Thessaloniki: Yperion, 1997.
---. “Permanently.” Postmodern American Poetry. Ed. Paul Hoover. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1994. 112.
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