Happy Birthday, Kenneth Koch

So, yesterday (February 27) would have been Kenneth Koch‘s 81st birthday, had he not passed away in 2002. He is among the poets that I find I can always go back to when I grow tired of poetry. He is associated with the “New York School” of the 50s and 60s, which included Frank O’Hara, John Ashberry, and James Schuyler. He is reasonably well known, although not super famous, in part, I think, because he sort of falls in the gap between the two main categories that define contemporary American poetry.

For simplicity, we could call these two categories “high art” and “popular,” although I am sure that more accurate and more descriptive terms exist. On the one hand, much contemporary poetry seems to be written primarily for consumption by other poets. It grapples with language and imagery in a way that is often self-consciously designed to challenge the reader. Typically, unless you read a lot of poetry, this work tends not to be a lot of fun, and it can be hard to distinguish between good and bad versions of it.

On the other hand, we have poetry that is self-consciously aimed at a popular audience, maybe people who haven’t read a poem since high school. This work tends to be playful with language, reveling in rhyming or puns, and is accessible on a first read (Maya Angelou or Billy Collins would be examples). These poets tend not to be valued highly by academics and poets (typically the same people), in part because these poems tend to give you everything they have on that first reading, yielding little additional satisfaction on rereading.

Koch’s poetry is part of a movement that was deliberately reacting against the dense, highly referential poetry of, say, Eliot, and trying to recapture the playfulness of language. In this sense, he is a progenitor of the contemporary popular strain of American poetry. On the other hand, he was often motivated by very artsy, high-culture things, like abstract expressionist painting (which was still high art in the 1950s) and music.

To my mind, this position, straddling popular and high art, is an admirable place to aim for. The ideal poem would be one that welcomes the reader with something that is broadly accessible, whether sound or humor or imagery. At the same time, there should be layers that nag at the reader, encouraging them to return to the poem, and giving them a glimpse of something new on each read.

What I love most about Koch, however, is his emotional stance. Probably ninety percent of the poetry in the world is either about poetry, or about being sad or mistreated. At least half of it is about being a sad or mistreated poet. Throughout his career, Koch kept returning to the project of writing poems about happiness. This is a dangerous thing to do, because you set the bar higher for yourself when you write about being happy. You especially open yourself up to being criticized for sentimentality when you dare to write about simple, universal sources of happiness, like having your wife sit on your lap. But again and again, in my opinion, at least, he set himself a high happy-poem bar and then cleared it.

In honor of Koch’s birthday, and the example he set both for how to live a happy life and how to write poetry about it, I wanted to share this poem of mine from Transistor Rodeo. It is a pseudo-sestina prompted by a passage in Koch’s poem “Days and Nights.” The sestina form consists of six six-line stanzas that use the same six end words. The end words occur in a prescribed order in each stanza. The poem ends with a three-line stanza that also contains these six words. In this pseudo-sestina, I have followed the canonical pattern in terms of the order in which the six words are used, but have used a different transformation rule on each word to introduce variation each time it comes up. Only the word “dream” is repeated in the standard way.

Kenneth Koch’s Unfinished Sestina

            William Carlos Williams I wrote

            As the end word of a sestina.  And grass

            Sleepy, hog snout, breath, and dream.

            I never finished it.

                                    – Days and Nights

After the prom William Carlos Williams
and I lay out in the grass
behind the stadium, drunk and sleepy,
bare-naked and laughing about the hog snout
in the punch bowl, catching our breath,
and curling up to dream
a dream
worthy of Samuel Taylor Coleridge
(who was also not wearing pants
at the time).  The opium
and strapless dresses, god knows,
had finally transformed at least one grumpy
teen into a free-spirit, happy
enough to dream
deep, diving hundreds of fathoms
through unconscious visions, past Edgar Allen Poe
and even past Jung.  It was there, at the hub of my mind, that I saw her, the heroine
of the story.  My jaw went slack,
my knees and arms buckled and fell limp.
as a schoolboy, I offered her a Coke
(now this part of the dream
I was familiar with, although she had always previously been Mean Joe Green).
Before this point I would have said she was out of my league,
but our union
was written in the stars that night!  She opened the gate
and I drove the flock in, like a pastoral Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Pretty soon I was twitching like a sneezy
old man in a pepper factory dream-
ing of dander.  But then, just as she and I were approaching the cornice of ecstasy,
I was awakened to a ring of narcotics
officers saying if we were cooperative
no one would get hurt.  But my dream
was already destroyed.  I walked through the doors
of the police station humiliated, feeling dopey,
not sure I would ever see Elizabeth Barrett Browning
again.  In the cell I told William Carlos Williams, “Doc, we gotta dream
us up a plan to bust out of this joint before her husband catches up with her.
I love her madly, and you know he’s dangerous when he’s jealous.”

Genomic Imprinting VI: Hemimethylation

So, last time, we discussed the fact that the expression differences associated with genomic imprinting rely on the existence of epigenetic differences, such as DNA methylation. We also mentioned that those differences are established separately in the male and female germ lines. That is, one methylation pattern is established in the female germ line during oogenesis (egg formation), while a different pattern is established in the male germ line during spermatogenesis (sperm formation).

It is straightforward to understand how such differences could be established, since oogenesis and spermatogenesis occur in physically distinct locations, where different patterns of gene expression can produce the epigenetic differences. But, after fertilization, these parent-of-origin-specific epigenetic marks are maintained across many rounds of cell division. So, a cell in, say, your liver, will exhibit different epigenetic states on maternally and paternally alleles, despite the fact that they have occupied the same cellular environment throughout development.

Alleles at an imprinted locus maintain substantial epigenetic differences, despite occupying the same environment across many cell divisions.

The allele-specific maintenance of the methylation state depends on the fact that methylation occurs at “palindromic” sequences. When we’re talking about language, a palindrome is a word or phrase that contains the same sequence of letters when read forwards or backwards, like “a man, a plan, a canal, Panama,” or “eat tea.” In genetics, a palindrome is where the nucleotide sequence on one strand of the DNA is the same as the sequence on the complementary strand (which is read in the opposite direction).

The palindrome we will be concerned with here is a really short one: CpG (where the “p” indicates the phosphate linker between the cytosine (C) and guanine (G) nucelotides).  CpG is a palindrome because C pairs with G (and G pairs with C), so that the complementary DNA strand has a CpG at the same site. Methylation occurs on the cytosines, so that if we have two alleles with different methylation states at a CpG site, they will look like this:

Here we have a schematic representation of two alleles with palindromic CpG sites that differ in their epigenetic state. In the top figure, the cytosines on both strands of the double-stranded DNA are methylated. In the bottom figure, both cytosines are unmodified.

So, how is this methylation difference maintained when the cell undergoes DNA replication and mitosis? The key lies in the fact that DNA replication is semi-conservative. That is, in order to make a copy of a double-stranded piece of DNA, what you do is pull the two strands apart and synthesize a new strand complementary to each of them.

When Watson and Crick published their paper on the structure of the DNA double helix, they noted that this structure suggested a mechanism by which the specific DNA sequence could be replicated. Crick later went on to establish a reputation for himself as a neuroscientist. Watson went on to establish a reputation for for himself as an asshole.

The newly-synthesized strands will contain normal, unmethylated cytosine, whether or not the template strand was methylated.  So, starting from unmethylated DNA, each daughter cell inherits an unmethylated copy of the allele. But, if we start from methylated DNA, each daughter cell inherits hemimethylated DNA, where one strand of the DNA double helix has a methylated cytosine, but the cytosine on the complementary strand is unmethylated.

There an enzyme, Dnmt1, that specifically targets the unmethylated cytosine at a hemimethylated CpG and methylates it. So, after the action of this enzyme, the methylated state has been restored in each of the daughter cells. The combination of the hemimethylase (or maintenance methyltransferase) activity of Dnmt1 and the semiconservative replication of DNA set up a system in which the epigenetic state of an allele can be set once, and it will be propagated across multiple cell divisions.

DNA replication of a fully methylated CpG site results in two hemimethylated copies. The hemimethylase Dnmt1 then restores these hemimethylated sites to their fully methylated form.

In the next installment, we’ll talk about another epigenetic mechanism, histone modification, and the possibility of an analogous propagation mechanism for propagating those epigenetic marks.

Yoder, J., Soman, N., Verdine, G., & Bestor, T. (1997). DNA (cytosine-5)-methyltransferases in mouse cells and tissues. Studies with a mechanism-based probe. Journal of Molecular Biology, 270 (3), 385-395 DOI: 10.1006/jmbi.1997.1125

Tomorrow, Utah – The Day After Tomorrow, well, also Utah

So, tomorrow I am headed to Salt Lake City for a poetry reading. I’ll be reading from my book, Transistor Rodeo, as well as some newer poems, primarily from a series called Thus in the Limit, which tackles the topic of immigration. If you’re in the Salt Lake area please come by!

The reading will be on Thursday (Feb 24) at 7 pm. The location is: Finch Lane Gallery/Art Barn, 1340 East 100 South, SLC, UT. There will also be a “noontime conversation” at the same location on Friday at – let me check – noon. Both events are free and open to the public.

I’ll be reading with Ander Monson, who has published books of poetry and essays, which are worth reading, and I am certain will be worth hearing as well. I’m not sure how to describe Ander’s work, so I’ll describe him instead.

When you first see his name, you’re like “Ander Monson! That’s awesome. It’s just like ‘Another Monsoon.'”

Then, you meet him, and you’re like “He so totally should have been named ‘Another Monsoon.'”

Then, you find out that his twitter is @angermonsoon, and you’re like “Anger Monsoon!  What did I tell you? See, it’s perfect!  What!  No, why, what did you think I said? No, ‘Anger Monsoon’ is so much better than ‘Another Monsoon.’ Why would I say ‘Another Monsoon’? That’s just dumb.”

Also, he is a connoisseur of beer, which already makes him one of America’s Heroes, but more importantly, he recognizes that many microbrews lazily try to make their beer fancy by just adding more hops, which is sort of like trying to make your poetry better by just making it less comprehensible.

Anyway, his writing is sort of like the kind of thing that that guy would write. Come to the reading, and you’ll see what I mean.



URL for embedding: http://www.darwineatscake.com/img/comic/4.jpg

For sketches of the 80 different snowflake types, see the referenced paper, which presents them taxonomically, or check out the key figures here and here.

For more Darwin Eats Cake, go here.

Magono, C., & Lee, C. W. (1966). Meteorological Classification of Natural Snow Crystals Journal of the Faculty of Science, Hokkaido University, Japan, Ser. VII, 2 (4), 321-335

Grass und Gaga – Im Ei

So, here’s something you probably already know, but wish you didn’t. Lady Gaga showed up at the Grammy Awards last night in an outfit that, in evolutionary terms, represents a sort of neoteny relative to the meat dress she was sporting at the MTV Video Music Awards. Here she is arriving. She’s the one you can’t see, because she is inside the egg.

Lady Gaga is carried inside an egg by four of her muscular servants, who are so poorly paid that two of them can not even afford shirts. Later, the slave-mistress would mount the egg and let out guttural screams until the singer emerged, soaked in amniotic fluid. At least, I am assuming that is what happened. Image via CBS News.

But really, I just wanted to use this as an excuse to share a poem that I love. It is by Günter Grass, and is probably a reasonable approximation of what Lady Gaga was muttering to herself in a Gollum-like rasp while contemplating which of her servants she would consume first. The difference is that she would no doubt be muttering in the original German, whereas I am presenting you with an English translation, taken here from the 1977 bilingual edition of In the Egg and Other Poems. The English translation of this poem was done by Michael Hamburger.


In The Egg

We live in the egg.
We have covered the inside wall
of the shell with dirty drawings
and the Christian names of our enemies.
We are being hatched.

Whoever is hatching us
is hatching our pencils as well.
Set free from the egg one day
at once we shall make an image
of whoever is hatching us.

We assume that we’re being hatched.
We imagine some good-natured fowl
and write school essays
about the colour and breed
of the hen that is hatching us.

When shall we break the shell?
Our prophets inside the egg
for a middling salary argue
about the period of incubation.
They posit a day called X.

Out of boredom and genuine need
we have invented incubators.
We are much concerned with our offspring inside the egg.
We should be glad to recommend our patent
to her who looks after us.

But we have a roof over our heads.
Senile chicks,
polyglot embryos
chatter all day
and even discuss their dreams.

And what if we’re not being hatched?
If this shell will never break?
If our horizon is only that
of our scribbles, and always will be?
We hope that we’re being hatched.

Even if we only talk of hatching
there remains the fear that someone
outside our shell will feel hungry
and crack us into the frying pan with a pinch of salt.
What shall we do then, my brethren inside the egg?