kenneth koch, you jokester, you.

Kenneth Koch's poetry is immensely enjoyable. He seems to have perfected the art of balancing seriousness and humor in poetry. One of my favorite poems by Koch is "Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams" (Kenneth Koch, ed. Ron Padgett, p.10).

1.
I chopped down the house that you had been saving to live in next summer.
I am sorry, but it was morning, and I had nothing to do
and it's wooden beams were so inviting.

2.
We laughed at the hollyhocks together
and then I sprayed them with lye.
Forgive me. I simply do not know what I am doing.

3.
I gave away the money that you had been saving to live on for the next ten years.
The man who asked for it was shabby
and the firm March wind was so juicy and cold.

4.
Last evening we went dancing and I broke your leg.
Forgive me. I was clumsy, and
I wanted you here in the wards, where I am the doctor!


This poem is interesting for a few reasons. It very obviously references Williams' poem "This Is Just to Say," in which he eats his wife's plums that she was saving for breakfast. He asks for forgiveness, saying they were delicious, sweet, and cold. It seems that Williams knew what he was doing, and knew that he should leave the plums for his wife. Perhaps a note would make everything alright, save him from a tongue-lashing when he got back home.

Koch mocks Williams in his poem. It is obviously not all right to eat those plums, just as it would not be alright to give away someone's savings. Though Koch makes his own situations extreme, he seems to be saying (with humor, of course) that Williams cannot just say "Forgive me." All the excuses in Koch's poem are not good excuses. He chops down a house because it was morning and he had nothing to do? In the second poem, it is clear that the speaker does know what he is doing. The "Forgive me. I simply do not know what I am doing" rings extremely false. It is not okay to utterly destroy something, knowledgeably, and then just say, "Forgive me." Something more should be done for atonement.

Perhaps Williams' offense was not as serious, and that is what makes Koch's poem funny. I also enjoy the subtle references to Williams, with the "cold" wind, like the "cold" plums, and the last line of part 4, with the reference to a doctor. Being a doctor was an integral part of Williams' poetry. That aspect of Williams' life, I think, was essential to both the quality and content of his poetry.

Popular Posts