Friday, July 01, 2005

NEH Seminar: Kenneth Koch, part 1

On the second day of our NEH Seminar, "Say Something Wonderful: Teaching the Pleasures of Poetry," we honed in on the late Kenneth Koch's book Making Your Own Days: The Pleasures of Reading and Writing Poetry. We read the chapters on "Inclinations of Poetry Language" and "Reading," along with a handful of poems included in the book's anthology.

As you may know, Koch is one of the masters (and inventors) of the genial, playful, "poets-in-the-schools" approach to teaching poetry. His thumbnail definition of poetry as a "language within the language," in which words are chosen, at every moment, as much for how they sound as much as for what they mean (and sometimes more so) certainly takes the pressure off students who want to find the Hidden Meaning. Poems HAVE to make musical sense, says Koch, to work as poems; they have much more leeway in making or not making or remaking logical sense, as a result. "Two plus two / is rather blue" makes poetic sense, from which meanings arise; "Two plus two / is rather green," while just as colorful, doesn't cut it.

Koch's "language in a language" idea may be roughly the same as Charles Bernstein's notion that we teach, really, PSL: Poetry as a Second Language. It also suggests that we need to immerse our students in that second language--after all, our students come into class with far more background in reading fiction, and watching (if not reading) drama, than in reading or hearing poetry. The whole "poem a day" approach of Poetry 180 or Wormser / Capella's A Surge of Language is meant to remedy this difference.

Koch then moves on to talk about various "inclinations of poetry language": his way of discussing what are usually called by colder, technological or pseudo-scientific names like "poetic devices" and "elements of poetry." I like his term better, and his discussion of those inclinations, not least because Koch gets at the pleasurable payoff of each "inclination" in turn.

Here's his list, and then I must run and take the kids to camp:

Comparisons (simile, metaphor, etc.) make things “vivid, exciting, and emotionally appealing”; they bring “more of the world” into the poem; they “can be illuminating and reassuring,” and “give a sense of control, of being in a position of power from which things can be seen and judged, where experience is expanded, and where knowledge is instantaneous and needs no study. It gives strength and pleasure to find likenesses—to write them and to read them.” (Italics mine) Comparisons can be “set” or artificial; they can be “fresh” and seem “organic”; they can be “wrenched” and surreal. They can be used to “elaborate on and linger over physical sensations,” to “give unseizable abstractions a degree of sensuous life.”

Personification makes abstractions, ideas, concepts, non-living or non-human things “easier to talk about.” It adds drama to the poem; it “connects what isn’t known [about Death or Love, say] directly with what is.” Personification is linked to and implicit in apostrophe, the address or “talking to” things or ideas. “Talking to something means assuming it is there and can both hear and respond.” Apostrophe thus “gives a feeling of power and control, at least of being beyond one’s ordinary range.” Both personification and apostrophe “help us to resolve our disconnectedness” from the natural world, the dead, etc., and also from ideas and abstractions (Joy, Love, etc.), helping us to clarify and explain them; personification and apostrophe are linked to animism, and “talking to God is a special case of apostrophe.” “Talking to brings closeness and also, it may be a feeling of power,” making us equal to what we address.

Lies in poems are, usually, the attempt to “state a feeling as if it were a fact,” and thus give “the truth of feeling.” They are a “shortcut,” letting the poet “give a quick impression of something on the borders of consciousness…that doesn’t fit in with ordinary thinking,” an “experiential and sensuous” understanding. Poetic “lies” include “pretending to know more than one does know, or possibly could know, and / or pretending to have more power than one has or possibly could have,” thus “making grand pronouncements” and “exhilarating statements” and declaring “visions of the future.” Related to this are boasts, through which “readers may be buoyed up along with the writer and share the exhilaration of being so grand, of being more than they usually are.”

Telling Secrets turns out to be something poems like to do. Poems create (or create the illusion of) a sort of open intimacy with the reader, as though doing it in art supplies forgiveness

Poetry language carries an impulse to novelty, and an impulse to MAKE WHATEVER IS SAID A WORK OF ART, which is to say something memorable and something that gives pleasure.

Check out his great demonstration with the Pound poem on p. 69: the music, the order, the shape of the whole, and what's lost if we change anything.)

Koch’s insights, and those that we might generate in his wake, let students see that the tropes and rhetorical schemes they find in poems aren't there to be ticked off on a list. They're there to be experienced by the reader; they have effects on us, let us speak in different ways and therefore feel differently, be differently in the world.

OK: more soon on the lessons in reading Koch gives, and what we did with them in class, with particular reference to Auden's "This Lunar Beauty." Stay tuned.

1 comment:

Alison Clement said...

Thank you for the essay on Kenneth Koch. I was writing about him on my blog today, as an introduction to a poem written by a 4th grader. (I used Koch's lesson plan on teaching a "not poem," and she came up with something wonderful.) I work in an elementary school library. I thrust Koch's books into the hands of every teacher who says anything to me about teaching poetry. Now I'll tell them about your blog entry , too.