It was only the other morning that my wife, happening to leaf again through “Here,” the most recent gathering of Wislawa Szymborska’s poems, remarked, looking at the cover photograph of the eighty-something-year-old Polish poet, the writer’s eyes shut in private bliss, cigarette in hand, “You know, I’m worried about Szymborska. I wish she would stop smoking.” This remark—made, of course, by someone who had never come anywhere near the poet’s fleshly, personal presence—was a sign of the effect that Szymborska had on her readers. They thought of her as a friend and neighbor and counsellor—as someone to worry about, and worry with, more than someone to merely pay the blank tribute of “admiration.” She had no mere “admirers,” really, though her friends and fans, in this American neighborhood alone, ran from Jane Hirshfeld and Billy Collins to Woody Allen.
Of course, obituaries are not—or shouldn’t be—a competitive sport, so we shouldn’t spend too long complaining that the New York Times, this morning, announcing her death—from lung cancer, just as my wife had feared and the photo presaged—badly underplayed it, pushing her off to the margins with a much shorter notice than they gave the death of the artist Mike Kelley. Bitching about obituaries (to invent a rather Szymborksian title for a poem) is a mug’s game, so: not too long—but a moment. A poem of hers should have appeared on the front page, but, allowing that that’s too much to ask, the notice might have given those unfamiliar with her work some sense of why she mattered so much. Nothing in the Times obit—which oddly made much of her early unimportant political writing and was inadvertently chauvinist in its implication that the Nobel Prize overburdened her in a way that it might not have some other, more burly, pundit-minded male writer—would give a non-Szymborska-reader a clear sense of why she won it, or why hers was perhaps the one recent “obscure” Nobel in Literature to which everyone who knew the author’s work already assented. (Everyone who didn’t know her work, and was puzzled, read it, and then they assented, too.) She is that kind of good.
Though hardly a happy poet in the usual sense—born in Krakow in 1923, possibly the worst moment and place ever to arrive on this planet, with Hitler waiting to greet her on her sixteenth birthday and Stalin evilly coming along behind, how could she be?—Szymborska’s poetry had the gift of creating both the happiness of wisdom felt and the ecstatic happiness of the particulars of life fully imagined. From the experience of armies and dogmas and death that shaped her early life, she found a new commitment to the belief that the poetic impulse, however small its objects, is always saner than the polemical imperative, however passionate its certitudes.
Szymborska took as subjects “chairs and sorrows, scissors, tenderness, transistors, violins, teacups, dams and quips,” to use a list from the title poem in that last collection. Though determinedly microcosmic, she was never minor. Szymborska takes on an onion, and that onion is peeled, down to its essence. A Szymborska poem is always charming, wonderfully charming, charming as a small child singing, charming as a great pop-song lyric. But her poems are also, to use an old word, “deep,” mysteriously so, about the very nature of existence. The sum effect of a Szymborska poem, at least as rendered in American English, is often of an odd but happy collaboration between Ogden Nash and Emily Dickinson. (Though she is less easily defeated than Ogden, and more worldly than Emily.)
In her poetry, a child about to pull a tablecloth from a table becomes every scientist beginning an experiment; a visit to the doctor, with its stripping down and piling on of clothes, a metaphor for the company and odd mechanisms of our naked bodies; she ponders the grammar of divorce (“are they still linked with the conjunction ‘and’ or does a period divide them?”) and the inner life of Hitler’s dog. In my favorite of all her poems, “A Tale Began” (which I was overjoyed to be able to use for the epigraph for my own book “Through The Children’s Gate”), she writes about the range of human difficulties that, over time, make the decision to have a child impossible. “The world is never ready for the birth of a child,” she writes, and goes on:
Our ships are not yet back from Winland
We still have to get over the S. Gothard pass
We’ve got to outwit the watchmen on the desert of Thor
Fight our way through the sewers to Warsaw’s center…
But the child, arrives anyway, and she wishes that:
May delivery be easy,
may our child grow and be well.
Let him be happy from time to time
and leap over abysses.
Let his heart have strength to endure
and his mind be awake and reach far.
But not so far
that it sees into the future.
that one gift,
O heavenly powers
In a way, Szymborska supplied her own best epitaph, and obituary, in the text of her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, in which she took on the “astonishment” of normal life:
“Astonishing” is an epithet concealing a logical trap. We’re astonished, after all, by things that deviate from some well known and universally acknowledged norm, from an obviousness we’ve grown accustomed to. Granted, in daily speech, where we don’t stop to consider every word, we all use phrases like “the ordinary world,” “ordinary life,” “the ordinary course of events.” …But in the language of poetry, where every word is weighed, nothing is usual or normal. Not a single stone and not a single cloud above it. Not a single day and not a single night after it. And above all, not a single existence, not anyone’s existence in this world.
Not a single existence unastonishing. So perhaps a notice merging her existence into so many others, not making too much of it, would have been the one she wanted, and found truly astonishing. In any case, the poems are there this morning as much as they were there last night, with the poet still smoking and smiling on the cover of her final book. Though doubtless to those who loved her as Wislawa the loss is immense, is it too terrible to admit that I can’t recall a literary loss I’ve felt with more emotion but less grief? We can now press Szymborska on to the next receptive reader. “You now have a curated body of work that you can love and contemplate,” that same wife said this morning. While the poet lived, it was cheering to think, as her readers did almost every day, that another poem might be coming. Now that’s she gone, we’re happy—truly happy, astonishingly happy—to know the poems came.
Photograph by Alberto Cristofari/A3/Contrasto/Redux.
At his best, Kenneth Koch was a good comic poet and a fine parodist. A poet of limited tonal range yet of a wide and resourceful imagination, Koch used random structures, open forms, and loose meters to give his poetry freedom and surprise that occasionally astonish and often delight. Just as often, however, the formlessness of Koch’s poems results in slackness and self-indulgence. The tension that one expects in good poetry, deriving largely from exigencies of form, is missing in Koch’s poems.
In The King of the Cats (1965), F. W. Dupee compared Koch to Marianne Moore. Dupee notes that while both Koch and Moore make poetry out of “poetry-resistant stuff,” Koch lacks Moore’s patient scrutiny and careful, sustained observation. Preferring to participate imaginatively rather than to observe carefully, Koch often seems more interested in where he can go with an observation, with what his imagination can make of it, than in what it is in itself. At his best, Koch’s imaginative facility translates into poetic felicity; at his worst, Koch’s freedom of imagination obscures the clarity and lucidity of the poems, frequently testing the reader’s patience.
Perhaps the most trenchant and perceptive criticism of Koch’s work has been that of Richard Howard in his book on contemporary poetry, Alone with America: Essays on the Art of Poetry in the United States Since 1950 (1969). Howard suggests that the central poetic problem for Koch is to sustain the interest of the instant, to hold onto the momentary imaginative phrase or the surprising conjunction of dichotomous ideas, experiences, and details. Koch frequently hurries beyond moments of imaginative vitality and verbal splendor; rather than sustaining or developing them, he abandons them. At his best, however, such abandonments lead to other moments that are equally splendid, culminating in convincingly coherent poems.
Some of Koch’s most distinctive and successful poems are parodies. His parody of Robert Frost, “Mending Sump,” in which he alludes to and satirizes the style and situation of both “Mending Wall” and “The Death of the Hired Man,” is one of his most famous. A modestly successful parody, “Mending Sump” does not compare with Koch’s brilliant and witty parody of William Carlos Williams’s brief conversational poem “This Is Just to Say.” Koch entitles his parody “Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams.” In four brief stanzas, Koch parodies the occasion, structure, rhythm, and tone of a poet whose work has powerfully influenced his own.
Although in his nonparodistic poetry Koch did not often attempt to imitate Williams, he did try to accomplish what Williams achieved in his best work: the astonishment of the moment; the astonishment of something seen, heard, felt, or understood; the magic and the beauty of the commonplace. Koch, too, could astonish—but not by acts of attention like those of Williams nor by his power of feeling. Koch astonished by his outrageous dislocations of sense and logic, his exuberant and risk-taking amalgamation of utterly disparate experiences. His achievement, finally, consists of small surprises, delights of image and allusion, phrase and idea; his poems rarely possess the power to move or instruct, but they do entertain.
Among Kenneth Koch’s long poems are Ko: Or, A Season on Earth, a mock-heroic epic in ottava rima about a Japanese baseball player, a poem with a variety of story lines; The Duplications, a comic epic about sex that employs trappings of Greek mythology and that in its second part becomes a self-reflexive poem concerned with the poetic vocation; and When the Sun Tries to Go On, a poem that goes on for one hundred twenty-four-line stanzas, in large part because Koch wanted to see how long he could go on with what was originally a seventy-two-line poem. All three poems are characterized by Koch’s infectious humor, his far-fetched analogies, and his digressive impulse.
More interesting and more consistently successful are Koch’s shorter poems, ranging in length from a dozen lines to a dozen pages. In the poems included in Koch’s best collections, The Art of Love and The Pleasures of Peace, and Other Poems, one encounters Koch at his most graceful and disarming. In the best poems from these volumes (and there are many engaging ones), Koch exhibits his characteristic playfulness, deliberate formlessness, and almost surrealistic allusiveness. The poems are humorous yet serious in both their invitations and their admonitions.
The Pleasures of Peace, and Other Poems
Koch’s major poetic preoccupations find abundant exemplifications in his volume The Pleasures of Peace, and Other Poems. The title poem is divided loosely into fourteen sections, each section describing different kinds of pleasures: of writing, of peace, of pain, of pleasure itself, of fantasy, of reality, of memory, of autonomy, of poetry, and of living. The poem is both a catalog and a celebration of the rich pleasures of simply being alive. Its self-reflexiveness coexists with its Whitmanesque embrace of the range, diversity, and variability of life’s pleasures. Another stylistic hallmark evident in this poem is a playful use of literary allusion. In addition to evoking Walt Whitman, Koch alludes directly to William Butler Yeats (“The Lake Isle of Innisfree”), Andrew Marvell (“To His Coy Mistress”), Robert Herrick, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and William Wordsworth. The allusions are surprising: Koch’s lines modify and alter the words of the earlier poets as they situate them in the context of a radically different poem.
These observations about “The Pleasures of Peace” fail to account for what is perhaps its most distinctive identifying quality: a wild, surrealistic concatenation of details (pink mint chewing gum with “the whole rude gallery of war”; Dutch-speaking cowboys; the pleasures of agoraphobia with the pleasures of blasphemy; the pleasures of breasts, bread, and poodles; the pleasures of stars and of plaster). Moreover, amid the litany of the poem’s pleasures occur several notes of desperation—for the horrors of war and suffering. Koch seems to find it necessary to remind his readers of the peaceful pleasures of life largely because the horrors of war and the futility of modern life allow them to be forgotten.
Although Sigmund Freud is an obvious influence on Koch’s “The Interpretation of Dreams,” a zany poem that imitates the syntax of dream in its associative structure, in its dislocations and disruptions of continuity, and in its oddly mismatched characters, Whitman is the dominant voice and force behind most of the other poems in the volume. Whitman’s influence is discernible in “Hearing,” a rambling play on sounds in which Koch makes music out of the disparate noises of waterfalls and trumpets, throbbing hearts and falling leaves, rain and thunder, bluebirds singing and dresses ripping. The poem, concluding with the words “the song is finished,” owes...
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