Category Archives: poetry

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.”

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.

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?

Reflected Glory: Agha Shahid Ali

So, I’m a few days late with this post, as I had intended for it to coincide with Agha Shahid Ali’s birthday, but there you have it. Had he not passed away in 2001, he would have turned 61 on February 4.

Although I never had the opportunity to meet him, I feel personally indebted to him, and sad that I did not know him. My poetry book was published last year after it won the 2009 Agha Shahid Ali Poetry Prize. Since then, I have had a number of conversations with people who did know him, and they invariably go on and on about what a fantastic human being he was. And it’s not at all in the way that people tend to speak well of the dead. In every one of these conversations, people speak in an almost trance-like state. Their voices and eyes soften, as if his immense kindness were channeled through them.

He was born and raised in Kashmir, attended the Universities of Kashmir and Delhi, and then came to the United States, where he earned a PhD from Penn State and an MFA from the University of Arizona. He taught at creative writing programs across the country, leaving behind a trail of devoted students and colleagues.

He wrote several books of poetry, but is perhaps best known for his championing of the ghazal, an ancient Arabic poetic form that dates back to like the 6th century. It long ago spread across southern Asia, and has become a common form in Persian and Urdu poetry. He translated a collection of ghazals by Faiz Ahmed Faiz into English, and his best-known work is probably his posthumously published collection Call Me Ishmael Tonight: A Book of Ghazals.

The ghazal form consists of a series of couplets, where the second line of each couplet ends with a sort of extended rhyme. What I mean by that is that there are one or a few words at the end of the line that are repeated exactly in each couplet, preceded by a conventional rhyme. It also conventionally contains the poet’s name in the last couplet. Agha Shahid Ali’s most famous ghazal is the title(ish) poem “Tonight” from his posthumous collection. You can find it easily on the internet, and you should.

Here is his poem “Land,” where you can see the ghazal form as well as the soul of the man who was so well loved.


     For Christopher Merrill

Swear by the olive in the God-kissed land –
There is no sugar in the promised land.

Why must the bars turn neon now when, Love,
I’m already drunk in your capitalist land?

If home is found on both sides of the globe,
home is of course here – and always a missed land.

Clearly, these men were here only to destroy,
a mosque now the dust of a prejudiced land.

Will the Doomsayers die, bitten with envy,
when springtime returns to our dismissed land?

The prisons fill with the cries of children.
Then how do you subsist, how do you persist, Land?

“Is my love nothing for I’ve borne no children?”
I’m with you, Sappho, in that anarchist land.

A hurricane is born when the wings flutter …
Where will the butterfly, on by wrist, land?

You made me wait for one who wasn’t even there
though summer had finished in that tourist land.

Do the blind hold temples close to their eyes
when we steal their gods for our atheist land?

Abandoned bride, Night throws down her jewels
so Rome – on our descent – is an amethyst land.

At the moment the heart turns terrorist,
are Shahid’s arms broken, O Promised Land?

Egypt Week – I, Too, Sing Egypt

So, this will be a non-science Egypt Week post. Opposition organizers in Egypt have called for a massive protest on Tuesday, anticipating that millions will march on Tahrir Square in the morning. Here is hoping that this leads to better things.

Below is the text of the Langston Hughes poem I, Too, Sing America. While it was obviously written in the context of racial dynamics and inequality in the United States, its sense of hope, defiance, and the inevitability of justice speaks for oppressed and dismissed people everywhere.

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”

They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed–

I, too, am America.

Peace be upon you.

Well Thank God for THAT: Mr. Peabody and Sherman headed to the big screen

So, what do you do with the two guys who wrote the screenplay for Yogi Bear, which was filmed in approximately three too many dimensions and made as much money as sense? Well, if you’re Dreamworks, you pay them to make another fifty-year-old cartoon into a movie. Or rather, a cartoon that was part of another cartoon. And then you cast Robert Downey Jr. as a dog. Presumably because his complete lack of talent complements the complete lack of creativity at the studio.

Following similar logic, I assume that the soundtrack will be composed by feeding beans to a room full of monkeys.

The movie will be based on Peabody’s Improbable History, which was a regular feature on The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. In it, Mr. Peabody, a bespectacled dog-genius, and his sidekick, Sherman, a bespectacled boy-not-genius, use the WABAC machine to travel back in time and visit famous historical events.

The historical events in question unfold in humorous ways.

To be fair, this was the second best segment on the show, after Bullwinkle reading poetry. But still, why would Dreamworks do this? With real money that could have been better spent feeding the poor, or, if we’re honest, teaching the poor Esperanto?

Here’s the good news. Director Rob Minkoff says,

Mr. Peabody is this genetic anomaly. He does have brothers and sisters, all of them non-speaking, no[n] super-smart dogs. He’s an outcast, but has overcome it by being so great at so many things.

So yay, genetics, presumably in the form of a mutation at FOXP2, or that X-Men locus. And overcoming the adversity of being a genius – through the “being so great at so many things.”

The other good news? At the time of this writing, at least, Ed isn’t in it.