Anne got me Kenneth Koch's On the Edge: Collected Long Poems for National Jesus Day. This means I finally have a copy of the 69-page When the Sun Tries to Go On, written in 1953. Along with Frank O'Hara's "Easter" (1952) and John Ashbery's collage poems in The Tennis Court Oath (published 1962, but written earlier), it is one of the groundbreaking instances of that facet of the New York School which relies heavily on anti-sense and sonic anarchy, a facet that anticipated and influenced writers like Ted Berrigan, Ron Padgett, Joseph Ceravolo, Clark Coolidge, Bernadette Mayer, as well as Language Poets like Bruce Andrews. I say "anti-sense" rather than "nonsense," for two related reasons: first, I don't believe successful poetry can ever be totally lacking in sense; second, the disruptions of normative sense that occur in poetry like WTSTTGO result not in meaninglessness, but in a formally energetic appropriation of multiple meanings that synthesizes new modes of expressiveness for language even as it scrambles the standard lexical significations of individual words and phrases. Here's an excerpt:
China, there are benches on the chairdogs'
Color-wimple, "May I bent
These tedious ranches? howl, Lulu! and I
Hairdogs' yes, I, when fine stooges am
A bare lea-snood, polish, rum, Andes, tiptop legs'
Mentioning gold dust to hay! Kinsey! Marxist College! "Ann"
Word! How! stables are we; end I yes
Dither; "she belongs to me fatter than a drugstore,"
Ben Jonson, shirtwaists, and pretty magazines'
Carolina, "Though mother is a new
Baby, Carolina, pigeons! Sherman for president! Molo-
Tov is diving tomb eye my tippy chaircar; lungs'
Dog airminds Atalanta's" Hill which first
I Monday Eskimo my inkbook; wheel hollow
Labor Alpine, this, dirty Angevine, sea, bear
Toy-Poetry; "Make it a mistake
A your pajamas, ace the. Lanterns on North
Can." "Youth Major servitude landslide
Cokes." Ha-ha the berry. Colors men. Inchings
Frogs and magazines. See at the cherry colors
Men, sun witty ham's cop rays, engine as
Sea, dogs. There they are, has, gold, in, hen.
Pardon me. Little matadors. Carcass's neat gold
College, he: yo-yo-terebinth, what little lungs!
The poem is comprised of one hundred sections like this, each twenty-four lines long. This regularity suggests a Spenser-esque numerological scheme, most obviously evoking the number of hours in a day. The word sun or some variant appears frequently (trying to go on, no doubt), and other frequent repetitions are conspicuous by virtue of their arbitrariness: yo-yo, terebinth, Carolina, etc. None of this faux intricacy adds up to a determinate pattern, of course: what's pleasing is the elaborate simulation of nuanced specificity, the illusion of motivated precision. This is accomplished largely by strategically placed repetition (as noted above), heavy use of punctuation such as quotation marks and semi-colons, and sheer force of length and bulk. Within the scope of these parameters, Koch's inventiveness has the space it needs to achieve its sense of boundlessness and tireless vitality. Just when the steady flow of renegade signifiers becomes so familiar (in context) that it threatens to feel as unremarkable as ordinary discourse, he hits you with something like "Yessirree-streptococcus" or "Zimplossitude" or "O donation Frank O'Hara to / Lightness."
Parts of the text (though by no means all) possess the quality of appearing to have been written via homophonic translation, as in these representative lines:
And, dame! Kong swimming with my bets!
Aladdin, business, out Chanukah of May bust
Sit rumors of ethereal business coo-hill-green
Diamonds, moderns modesty.
This is a quality I also find in Ceravolo; it may simply be an inevitable effect created by strings of random words. One wonders, however, how a construction like "coo-hill-green" could emerge in any other way. Does anyone know whether Koch used homophonic translation in the composition of this poem, or others during the same period? Jordan?