Friday, September 23, 2011

Fresh Air, by Kenneth Koch

Our poet pundits:

Joanna Fuhruman is the author of four collections of poetry. Her most recent book is Pageant (Alice James Books). She is a graduate of the University of Washington MFA program, and teaches creative writing at Rutgers University and in public schools and libraries through Poets House and Teachers & Writers Collaborative. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, the playwright Robert Kerr

David Shapiro's most recent book of poetry is the New and Selected Poems (1965-2006) (The Overlook Press). He's received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Zabel Prize for Experimental Poetry from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and a nomination for a National Book Award.

Today's poem:

Fresh Air
by Kenneth Koch

At the Poem Society a black-haired man stands up to say
“You make me sick with all your talk about restraint and mature talent!
Haven’t you ever looked out the window at a painting by Matisse,
Or did you always stay in hotels where there were too many spiders
crawling on your visages?
Did you ever glance inside a bottle of sparkling pop,
Or see a citizen split in two by the lightning?
I am afraid you have never smiled at the hibernation
Of bear cubs except that you saw in it some deep relation
To human suffering and wishes, oh what a bunch of crackpots!”
The black-haired man sits down, and the others shoot arrows at him.
A blond man stands up and says,
“He is right! Why should we be organized to defend the kingdom
Of dullness? There are so many slimy people connected with poetry,
Too, and people who know nothing about it!
I am not recommending that poets like each other and organize to fight them,
But simply that lightning should strike them.”
Then the assembled mediocrities shot arrows at the blond-haired man.
The chairman stood up on the platform, oh he was physically ugly!
He was small-limbed and –boned and thought he was quite seductive,
But he was bald with certain hideous black hairs,
And his voice had the sound of water leaving a vaseline bathtub,
And he said, “The subject for this evening’s discussion is poetry
On the subject of love between swans.” And everyone threw candy hearts
At the disgusting man, and they stuck to his bib and tucker,
And he danced up and down on the platform in terrific glee
And recited the poetry of his little friends—but the blond man stuck his head
Out of a cloud and recited poems about the east and thunder,
And the black-haired man moved through the stratosphere chanting
Poems of the relationships between terrific prehistoric charcoal whales,
And the slimy man with candy hearts sticking all over him
Wilted away like a cigarette paper on which the bumblebees have urinated,
And all the professors left the room to go back to their duty,
And all that were left in the room were five or six poets
And together they sang the new poem of the twentieth century
Which, though influenced by Mallarmé, Shelley, Byron, and Whitman,
Plus a million other poets, is still entirely original
And is so exciting that it cannot be here repeated.
You must go to the Poem Society and wait for it to happen.
Once you have heard this poem you will not love any other,
Once you have dreamed this dream you will be inconsolable,
Once you have loved this dream you will be as one dead,
Once you have visited the passages of this time’s great art!

“Oh to be seventeen years old
Once again,” sang the red-haired man, “and not know that poetry
Is ruled with the sceptre of the dumb, the deaf, and the creepy!”
And the shouting persons battered his immortal body with stones
And threw his primitive comedy into the sea
From which it sang forth poems irrevocably blue.

Who are the great poets of our time, and what are their names?
Yeats of the baleful influence, Auden of the baleful influence, Eliot
of the baleful influence
(Is Eliot a great poet? no one knows), Hardy, Stevens, Williams (is
Hardy of our time?),
Hopkins (is Hopkins of our time?), Rilke (is Rilke of our time?),
Lorca (is Lorca of our time?), who is still of our time?
Mallarmé, Valéry, Apollinaire, Éluard, Reverdy, French poets are still
of our time,
Pasternak and Mayakovsky, is Jouve of our time?

Where are young poets in America, they are trembling in publishing
houses and universities,
Above all they are trembling in universities, they are bathing the
library steps with their spit,
They are gargling out innocuous (to whom?) poems about maple trees and
their children,
Sometimes they brave a subject like the Villa d’Este or a lighthouse
in Rhode Island,
Oh what worms they are! they wish to perfect their form.
Yet could not these young men, put in another profession,
Succeed admirably, say at sailing a ship? I do not doubt it, Sir, and
I wish we could try them.
(A plane flies over the ship holding a bomb but perhaps it will not
drop the bomb,
The young poets from the universities are staring anxiously at the skies,
Oh they are remembering their days on the campus when they looked up
to watch birds excrete,
They are remembering the days they spent making their elegant poems.)

Is there no voice to cry out from the wind and say what it is like to
be the wind,
To be roughed up by the trees and to bring music from the scattered houses
And the stones, and to be in such intimate relationship with the sea
That you cannot understand it? Is there no one who feels like a pair of pants?

Summer in the trees! “It is time to strangle several bad poets.”
The yellow hobbyhorse rocks to and fro, and from the chimney
Drops the Strangler! The white and pink roses are slightly agitated by
the struggle,
But afterwards beside the dead “poet” they cuddle up comfortingly
against their vase. They are safer now, no one will compare them to
the sea.

Here on the railroad train, one more time, is the Strangler.
He is going to get that one there, who is on his way to a poetry reading.
Agh! Biff! A body falls to the moving floor.

In the football stadium I also see him,
He leaps through the frosty air at the maker of comparisons
Between football and life and silently, silently strangles him!

Here is the Strangler dressed in a cowboy suit
Leaping from his horse to annihilate the students of myth!

The Strangler’s ear is alert for the names of Orpheus,
Cuchulain, Gawain, and Odysseus,
And for poems addressed to Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald,
To Ezra Pound, and to personages no longer living
Even in anyone’s thoughts—O Strangler the Strangler!

He lies on his back in the waves of the Pacific Ocean.

Supposing that one walks out into the air
On a fresh spring day and has the misfortune
To encounter an article on modern poetry
In New World Writing, or has the misfortune
To see some examples of some of the poetry
Written by the men with their eyes on the myth
And the Missus and the midterms, in the Hudson Review,
Or, if one is abroad, in Botteghe Oscure,
Or indeed in Encounter, what is one to do
With the rest of one’s day that lies blasted to ruins
All bluely about one, what is one to do?
O surely one cannot complain to the President,
Nor even to the deans of Columbia College,
Nor to T. S. Eliot, nor to Ezra Pound,
And supposing one writes to the Princess Caetani,
“Your poets are awful!” what good would it do?
And supposing one goes to the Hudson Review
With a package of matches and sets fire to the building?
One ends up in prison with trial subscriptions
To the Partisan, Sewanee, and Kenyon Review!

Sun out! perhaps there is a reason for the lack of poetry
In these ill-contented souls, perhaps they need air!

Blue air, fresh air, come in, I welcome you, you are an art student,
Take off your cap and gown and sit down on the chair.

Together we shall paint the poets—but no, air! perhaps you should go
to them, quickly,
Give them a little inspiration, they need it, perhaps they are out of breath,
Give them a little inhuman company before they freeze the English
language to death!
(And rust their typewriters a little, be sea air! be noxious! kill
them, if you must, but stop their poetry!
I remember I saw you dancing on the surf on the Côte d’Azur,
And I stopped, taking my hat off, but you did not remember me,
Then afterwards you came to my room bearing a handful of orange flowers
And we were together all through the summer night!)

That we might go away together, it is so beautiful on the sea, there
are a few white clouds in the sky!

But no, air! you must go . . . Ah, stay!

But she has departed and . . . Ugh! what poisonous fumes and clouds!
what a suffocating atmosphere!
Cough! whose are these hideous faces I see, what is this rigor
Infecting the mind? where are the green Azores,
Fond memories of childhood, and the pleasant orange trolleys,
A girl’s face, red-white, and her breasts and calves, blue eyes, brown
eyes, green eyes, fahrenheit
Temperatures, dandelions, and trains, O blue?!
Wind, wind, what is happening? Wind! I can’t see any bird but the
gull, and I feel it should symbolize . . .
Oh, pardon me, there’s a swan, one two three swans, a great white
swan, hahaha how pretty they are! Smack!
Oh! stop! help! yes, I see—disrespect for my superiors—forgive me,
dear Zeus, nice Zeus, parabolic bird, O feathered excellence! white!
There is Achilles too, and there’s Ulysses, I’ve always wanted to see them,
And there is Helen of Troy, I suppose she is Zeus too, she’s so
terribly pretty—hello, Zeus, my you are beautiful, Bang!
One more mistake and I get thrown out of the Modern Poetry
Association, help! Why aren’t there any adjectives around?
Oh there are, there’s practically nothing else—look, here’s grey,
utter, agonized, total, phenomenal, gracile, invidious, sundered, and
Elegant, absolute, pyramidal, and . . . Scream! but what can I
describe with these words? States!
States symbolized and divided by two, complex states, magic states,
states of consciousness governed by an aroused sincerity, cockadoodle
Another bird! is it morning? Help! where am I? am I in the barnyard?
oink oink, scratch, moo! Splash!
My first lesson. “Look around you. What do you think and feel?” Uhhh .
. . “Quickly!” This Connecticut landscape would have pleased Vermeer.
Wham! A-Plus. “Congratulations!” I am promoted.
OOOhhhhh I wish I were dead, what a headache! My second lesson:
“Rewrite your first lesson line six hundred times. Try to make it into
a magnetic field.” I can do it too. But my poor line! What a
nightmare! Here comes a tremendous horse,
Trojan, I presume. No, it’s my third lesson. “Look, look! Watch him,
see what he’s doing? That’s what we want you to do. Of course it won’t
be the same as his at first, but . . .” I demur. Is there no other way
to fertilize minds?
Bang! I give in . . . Already I see my name in two or three
anthologies, a serving girl comes into the barn bringing me the
She is very pretty and I smile at her a little sadly, perhaps it is my
last smile! Perhaps she will hit me! But no, she smiles in return, and
she takes my hand.
My hand, my hand! what is this strange thing I feel in my hand, on my
arm, on my chest, my face—can it be . . . ? it is! AIR!
Air, air, you’ve come back! Did you have any success? “What do you
think?” I don’t know, air. You are so strong, air.
And she breaks my chains of straw, and we walk down the road, behind
us the hideous fumes!
Soon we reach the seaside, she is a young art student who places her
head on my shoulder,
I kiss her warm red lips, and here is the Strangler, reading the
Kenyon Review! Good luck to you, Strangler!
Goodbye, Helen! goodbye, fumes! goodbye, abstracted dried-up boys!
goodbye, dead trees! goodbye, skunks!
Goodbye, manure! goodbye, critical manicure! goodbye, you big fat men
standing on the east coast as well as the west giving poems the test!
farewell, Valéry’s stern dictum!
Until tomorrow, then, scum floating on the surface of poetry! goodbye
for a moment, refuse that happens to land in poetry’s boundaries!
adieu, stale eggs teaching imbeciles poetry to bolster up your egos!
adios, boring anomalies of these same stale eggs!
Ah, but the scum is deep! Come, let me help you! and soon we pass into
the clear blue water. Oh GOODBYE, castrati of poetry! farewell, stale
pale skunky pentameters (the only honest English meter, gloop gloop!)
until tomorrow, horrors! oh, farewell!

Hello, sea! good morning, sea! hello, clarity and excitement, you
great expanse of green—

O green, beneath which all of them shall drown!

Ready, set, crossfire!

Joanna Fuhrman: Sometimes I am at a reading and the overwhelming desire to leap from my seat and scream the words of “Fresh Air” at the reader and organizer comes over me, so I have come up with a solution for these situations.

Let’s say you go the academy/university/uptown reading to hear the mercurial words of poet X (visiting from the banks of outer space), and while there you are made to listen to poet Q (visiting from his or her 10th artist colony of the year) reading about the jade-like flowers at his or her summer house in Northern Italy or Southern France and how the glittering bloom reminds him or her of a book he or she read about Count Lyfstina.

Instead of jumping up, I suggest you clasp your hands together in quasi-prayer, and then look around and smile at the other poets in the audience who also have their hands clasped together.

This will be our secret!

David Shapiro: Kenneth Koch's freshness has been fresh a long time. He used to joke in class that what you wanted was a new baby, a new poem, not a l00 yr old baby and a very ancient poem. Fresh Air seems to be his “Howl”, in the sense that it is a long but lyrical diatribe against rigid, gray, academic posturing.

He extols humor throughout, but enraged humor here. Matisse is eight out the window, and so is lightning. It is a poem of boasting and bile, a fight he told me he was waging against Richard Wilbur, but Kenneth is gracious enough to live without contemporary names. The targets are there, and the sense of adolescent fervor, Rimbaldien: Oh to be seventeen years old/Once again--and this is indeed a poetry of an urbanist and visionary at once. Koch cries out the name of the masters, but again, he told me he felt lucky not to be crucified by any masters. He names his favorite surrealists, but there is a constant skeptical rage throughout, Along with his anti-Vietnamese War poem, “Pleasures of Peace”, this is one of earliest of programmatic poems.

It's a poem with a plot. Frank O’Hara once scared me at 15 by telling me that he and Kenneth were going to kill me in a "Staying on Top: game.” It was playful but ominous, The Strangler is a Beowolfian stranger who strangles the mediocre as he sees it. As a parodist, Koch was simply the best, and his little touches of Wilbur-like touches are dismayingly punctual. He goes to prison, but is given the reviews he hates the most and which he got in trouble for burning, Air itself, fresh air is his nom de guerre, his myth and his muse. He rejects the tourism of dominant aesthetics and he is quite capable of limning a dictionary of bad words: "gray utter agonized total phenomenal, gracile, invidious, sundered and fused, elegant absolute, pyramidal. Kenneth Koch ends with a bright blue banner,? a Quixote like cry to drown bad poetry with virtues of clarity and excitement. He never stopped supplying his own fresh air that will be, I think, fresh for a long time.

1 comment:

  1. I liked it in the old days when Tom Braden was on Crossfire. I think that television show Eight Is Enough was based on him. I like what you're doing here and I've always been a fan of Kenneth Koch. One time I sent him a copy of one of my books and told him I liked his work and he wrote me a letter saying it was a good book. It wasn't that good but it was a nice thing of him to do.