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Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams -- Kenneth Koch

Imagism is all very well, but...
(Poem #278) Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams
 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 its wooden beams were so inviting.

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

 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 on the porch was so juicy and cold.

 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!
-- Kenneth Koch
A brilliant takeoff on William Carlos Williams' 'This is Just to Say'[1] - I
still can't read it without laughing. Koch has the tone down perfectly - it
is tempting to say that he dislikes Imagism, and is trying to skewer it for
its [perceived] pretentiousness, but I feel he is laughing more with than at
the genre (see his comments about seriousness in the notes). Perhaps the
proper comparison is with Porter's 'Japanese Jokes'[2] - at first glance a
rather cutting parody, but nonetheless genuinely sympathetic to the form.

And finally I feel more than usually compelled to point out that all the
above is strictly my opinion - feel free to ignore it and simply enjoy the
poem for its very considerable merits.

- m.

[1] run just a few days ago - see poem #274

[2] poem #198


  Kenneth Koch lives in New York City and teaches at Columbia University. He
  has published many volumes of poetry, most recently One Train and On the
  Great Atlantic Rainway, Selected poems 1950-1988 (both in 1994). Together
  they earned him the Bollingen Prize in Poetry in 1995; in 1996 he received
  the Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry awarded by the
  Library of Congress. His short plays, many of them produced off- and
  off-off-Broadway, are represented in a recent volume, The Gold Standard: A
  Book of Plays, also available in paperback. Also recently published is
  Making Your Own Days: The Pleasures of Reading and Writing Poetry.

  -- from the Poetry Center website,

For a more complete biography and bibliography, see
[broken link]

The Brtiannica has the following note:

  Both daily life and an exposure to French Surrealism helped inspire a
  group of New York poets, among them Frank O'Hara, Kenneth Koch, James
  Schuyler, and John Ashbery. Whether O'Hara was jotting down a sequence of
  ordinary moments or paying tribute to film stars, his poems had a
  breathless immediacy that was distinctive and unique. Koch's comic voice
  swung effortlessly from the trivial to the fantastic. Strongly influenced
  by Wallace Stevens, Ashbery's ruminative poems can seem random,
  discursive, and enigmatic. Avoiding poetic colour, they do their work by
  suggestion and association, exploring the interface between experience and
        -- EB

To which the biography cited above adds

  The poetry of the New York School represented a shift away from the
  Confessional poets[3], a popular form of soul-baring poetry that the New
  York School found distasteful (see the Life Studies exhibit on this site
  for examples). Instead, their poems were cosmopolitan in spirit and
  displayed not only the influence of action painting, but of French
  Surrealism and European avant-gardism in general.
        -- [broken link]

[3] who are these Confessional poets anyway? See for a nice essay on
the topic, and poem #53 for
the one Confessional poem run on Minstrels

Links abound on the web; just feed "Kenneth Koch" into any decent search
engine. Here're a few nice ones: has
an interview with the poet; sample question:

  ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I?ve been reading your poetry. Much of it is very
  funny, very playful and witty. It's not what many people expect poetry to
  be. There's this view that poetry should be kind of somber, isn't there?

  KENNETH KOCH: Oh, I suppose some people have that view. It's a confusion
  between seriousness and solemnity. The intention of my poetry is--I mean,
  I don't intend for my poetry to be mainly funny or satirical, but it seems
  to me that high spirits and sort of a comic view are part of being

[broken link] has a reading
of both Williams' poem and Koch's followup

65 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

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I have heard a little bit about Kenneth Koch, but I have read a lot of William Carlos Williams's poetry and his style is unique, I would not be able to compare his work with this guy's

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