Vol 13 No 1
Letter from New York
Kenneth Koch, Joshua Beckman and Steven Zultanski
Three New York Poets Not Writing About New York
Kenneth Koch, "On the Edge: Collected Long Poems" (Alfred A. Knopf, January 2009, (pbk), 432 pp., $22.00)
Joshua Beckman, "Take It" (Wave Books, April 2009, 64 pp., $14.00)
Steven Zultanski, "Pad" (Make Now Press, September 2009, 160 pp., $16.50)
The appearance of Kenneth Koch’s "Collected Long Poems" in paperback this January (Knopf, $22.00) means that, almost seven years after his death, his publishing career is finally finished. This is significant. In his life, Koch was an unstoppable engine of poetry in New York City, at various times energizing the ‘New York School’ poetry scene, educating generations of students at Columbia University, introducing poetry to young readers through books and seminars, and in readings, lectures, and performances bridging the seemingly unbridgeable gulf between traditional verse writers like Frost and Byron and experimentalists like Apollinaire and Williams. Koch began his poetic career in downtown New York, in Greenwich Village, and eventually settled on the Upper West Side (making important stops in Paris and Italy along the way). His reputation as a leading postwar New York poet is secure.
And yet, Koch was always of the New York poetry scene, not synonymous with it. (By ‘New York poetry’, I mean nothing more than ‘poetry from and/or about New York’.) He was sui generis. He did not write the ‘I-did-this-I-did-that’ New York poems made famous by his mercurial contemporary, Frank O’Hara. And that’s fine. With the paperback publication of this, Koch’s final volume, it will be good to remember that fact, and to consider, later in this review, two other experimental New York poets who aren’t writing about New York either.
Unlike O’Hara, who lived, it seemed, in multiple New Yorks at once (‘It is 12:20 in New York a Friday’, ‘Behind New York there’s a face’, ‘As they’re putting up the Christmas trees on Park / Avenue’, etc., etc.), Koch, for all his readers can tell, might not have lived in New York at all. He might have lived in a circus, or a stock exchange, or a casino in Macau, or anywhere else the pageant of humanity was playing. O’Hara, for his part, called him ‘the excitement-prone Kenneth Koch’.
Nowhere is Koch’s charmingly peripatetic urbanity more evident than in his long poems (some of them very long indeed), collected in this volume. In fact, Koch’s books of shorter poems don’t name-check New York very frequently either, with the notable exception of his late, ruminative work "New Addresses" (2000). But from the beginning of "Ko, or A Season on Earth" (1959), the brilliant, mad book-length epic parody that effectively announced Koch’s existence to the world, we are aware that we are in the presence of a poet who, because he wants to and because he can, is going to take us wherever he pleases. In jaunty ottava rima, we’re introduced to aspiring scholar-cum-baseball-player Ko, surely one of the more unusual poetic heroes in literature,
Meanwhile at the University of Japan
Ko had already begun his studies, which
While making him an educated man
Would also give him as he learned to pitch
And catch—for Ko was more than a mere fan,
But wished as a playing member to do a hitch
With some great team—something to think about
More interesting than merely Safe and Out.
And it’s chaos from here. We proceed in short order to London, to Kansas City, to Cincinnati, to Florence, to places like ‘East Epping Chickens’ and ‘North Grickens’, and to a fictional ‘newly contiguous Asia’, which arrives at the American Pacific coast when the continents collide. Turns in the action pivot on baseball games played throughout the United States, a hog show in Tucson, a statewide young-pretty-girls-should-be-naked campaign, people being turned into stone all over the Mediterranean, etc. Paraphrase of the one-hundred-page poem’s topsy-turvy ‘plot’ is virtually impossible.
This is all to say . . . what? That, for no better reason than that he had a mind as fertile as the soil of his beloved Tuscany (prominently featured in "Ko"), Koch invented entire world geographies? That, thanks to some ineffable American exuberance and world-entitlement and can-do-ism of the 1950s, Koch wrote the language of nonsense in the rhythms of Byron, and actually thought he could discover ‘the sole true story of man’s secret mind’? That no one world was (good) enough for him? It seems nearly impossible now to imagine what anyone really made of "Ko" in 1959 (various judgments of Koch include ‘the funniest serious poet we have’, according to David Lehman, and ‘[a poet] committed to not making very much sense’, according to Peter Stitt), and it seems even harder to imagine anyone ever trying to imitate it. So, naturally, Koch did, in "The Duplications" (1977) and "Seasons on Earth" (1987). These globe-trotting Byronic tours are fully half of the volume, and they are, bluntly, extraordinary.
The book’s other three poems, 'When the Sun Tries to Go On' (written in 1953), and 'Impressions of Africa' and 'On the Edge' (both from 1986), while broadly less stunning, continue to remind us that the long poetic form was Koch’s best tool for expressing a vision that refused to be limited by place or peers. One of Koch’s characters, the British ‘ACTION POET’ Joseph Dah, serves as a convenient stand-in for Koch himself, the creator. Dah’s ‘integrity / Makes him, unlike most poets, actualize / In everyday life the poem’s unreality’, by for instance physically turning into a dog when thinking of a poem about a dog. In other words, for Dah, imagining a poem ensures its existence, not (just) in words, but in being in the world. Dah’s world, like Koch’s, is limitless, far larger than a city like London or New York, or even humanity.
Possibly, Koch’s greatest achievement as a ‘New York poet’ was to have been both one of New York’s finest poets of the last fifty years, and one of the city’s least vocal representatives.
* * *
Joshua Beckman, a decade into his career, is not quite a ‘typical’ New York poet either. This is partly because he lives in Seattle as well as Brooklyn, partly because, unlike most poets, from New York or elsewhere, he once drove a ‘poetry bus’ (called the Poetry Bus) across the Heartland, giving readings to the great unwashed, and partly because (most importantly) he is doing his own work in his own right, because he wants to, not because he lives near a ‘scene’. As co-editors of Seattle’s Wave Books, he and Matthew Zapruder have published a coterie of writers they personally believe in (and often know), and they generally have been part of, as Olivia Cronk puts it, ‘an exciting pseudo-DIY thing [that] has been happening in small presses’. Beckman’s new book, "Take It" (Wave, $14.00), takes several steps beyond his cautious, terse early poems and his tightly-constrained collaborative volume written with Matthew Rohrer ("Nice Hat. Thanks.", 2002). It is a condensation of the themes of his longer work, like "Shake" (2006). The ambitious aim is to contend with ‘a degraded, yet wondrous world’, a world that sounds like it could be New York, but isn’t.
The new poems in "Take It", all untitled, broadly fall into three categories: chuckly slice-of-life vignettes, vague reveries, and pocket philosophies. Perhaps it is a sign of the times, or perhaps only personal preference, but to this reviewer the instant gratification offered up by the ‘situation comedy’ poems makes them the volume’s most attractive. How much there is to hold on to! How exact Beckman can be when he chooses to be! In one poem beginning ‘The neighbors were going at it / with gas plungers again’, the speaker worries and worries and worries that his ingrate of a son, ‘watching an Agatha Christie / (instead of shining my trains)’, has poisoned him with a drugged pie. Another poem describes a drunk or stoned interview with a television production team. The speaker does not make a perfect impression: ‘Asshole, they thought, as they waved goodbye’. The poem ‘I am a lazy caterpillar on a snow crumb’ introduces us to an anxiety-crippled lepidopteran who, even when enjoying a lovely, juicy apple, can’t clear his mind of that damned thought: for each of his legs there is a ‘job job job job job job / job job job’.
Worry is a big concern for Beckman, and when this worry is given definite poetic expression the results are delicious. But Beckman is just as likely to run away from worry by plotting fuzzy, feel-good escapes from ‘what we believe / the outside world to be’. These escape-pod worlds never become convincing on the page, and, as a result we are treated to unclear fantasias about ‘glorious visions’, ‘partnership[s] of mind’, ‘dreamers . . . and their dances’, and other things that belong neither in the recognizable, tricky real world nor a fully-conceived poetic one. Sun, skies, clouds, and especially pills (mentioned half-a-dozen times) all serve as totems of a happier place. Some poets have drink; some have sex; some have God; Beckman has (usually ‘white’) pills. The cure of philosophy holds an understandable appeal for him, as well. After all, why worry when you can explain? One of the book’s poems actually concludes with the lines, ‘My life is a dream. When they ask, say, / His life is a dream’.
And yet there are the moments, the wonderful, welcome moments, when Beckman’s worries and depressions and ennui and longings all coalesce, when he fights his battles in the degraded, yet wondrous world (wherever it is), when even his vices become virtues. Then he’ll be damned if he can stop himself from saying something bald and demanding and funny. And self-aware:
So you wish you had been
treated better, so I wish I had been treated better,
so we all wish we had been treated better,
but you are not the lovely feather
you make yourself out to be, stuffed
with white pills and the attention of others,
you’re a lazy incompetent soul with a
beautiful way about you—which may, in fact
be just like a feather—so I’m sorry for saying
what I said, it’s okay to want to be loved
and it’s okay to want to be okay, but the next time
you call you better have something to say.
Being miserable does not excuse one from life, nor from acting morally and considerately, an observation Beckman would be wise to heed. In the same poem, he tells us, ‘Judge, for I judge’.
* * *
The question to the answer ‘It’s too soon to know’ is ‘Who in New York will be writing the next interesting poems?’ One writer with his fingers in a few different pies this summer and fall is Buffalo-via-New-York-via-Amherst-via-New-Jersey poet Steven Zultanski (who insists that he is ‘not really’ a New York poet). Zultanski is a member of the Lil’ Norton collective and was a student of, among others, Peter Gizzi and Steve McCaffery. He numbers among the crowd of young poets in and around New York writing semi-automatic, half-serious, pseudo-encyclopaedic pop-culture poetry of the sort championed by, say, Robert Fitterman, and given voice at places like St Mark’s Poetry Project.
One example of the work produced by these writers is "Pad" (Make Now, $16.50), an exhaustive, 80,000-word catalogue of everything in Zultanski’s apartment that he can, or cannot, lift with his penis. "Pad" is Zultanski’s first book, and it greatly refines the repetitive practices he honed in chapbooks like "Homoem" (2005) and "This and That Lenin" (2008). I see no reason not to quote straight from the beginning of the poem, which may well become vaguely notorious:
My dick cannot lift the door. My dick can lift the white plastic
end-table. My dick can lift the white plastic end-table stacked on
the other white plastic end-table. My dick cannot lift the stacked
white plastic end-tables together. My dick can lift the empty
hsn.com cardboard box stacked on top of the stacked white plastic
end-tables. My dick can lift the empty Dutch East India Trading
Company box stacked in the hsn.com box. My dick can lift the
empty Bed, Bath & Beyond box stacked in the Dutch East India
Trading Company box. My dick can lift the T.G.I. Friday’s box
stacked in the Dutch East India Trading Company box stacked
on top of the stacked plastic end-tables. My dick cannot lift the
Giant bike with deflated tires. My dick cannot lift the beige re-
clining office chair. My dick cannot lift the coffee table.
And on and on and on. And on and on, until the poem ends with a pitch-perfect, almost infinitely-delayed rhyme: ‘My dick cannot lift the floor’. Items of interest lying around the apartment include: eight Runzelstirn & Gurgelstock records; multiple driver’s licenses; a ‘Neck Spasms exercise worksheet’; a ‘large painting by Jess Goddard’; Beavis and Butt-Head DVDs; every bill, card, and piece in Monopoly, listed individually (his dick can lift them all); sundry items belonging to his girlfriend and his ex-girlfriend; his girlfriend (‘My dick cannot lift the girlfriend sitting on the couch’); a Paper Rad poster; hundreds of nails, tacks, brads, and screws; obsolete technologies, like audio cassettes and diskettes; ‘various bits of dust and hair’; books in several places in several rooms (Rimbaud’s "Selected Letters" is unliftable); more receipts than money; half-a-dozen parking tickets; ravioli; a separate manuscript of poems; a shocking amount of unopened mail (fear? sloth?); and scads of folders (Zultanski has a penchant for organization, unsurprisingly). My favorite thing is the object of a Zen-like pronouncement: ‘My dick cannot lift the water in the toilet bowl.’
The system by which the liftable objects can be lifted is never explained, best left to the imagination, probably. Surely this must be puerile stuff? thinks the reader, but "Pad" is an oddly browsable fusion of Joe Wenderoth’s salacious, non sequitur–strewn "Letters to Wendy’s" and a telephone directory. The use of the word ‘dick’ threatens to make the poem stomach-turningly red-blooded, but this is a very un-masculine poem at bottom, full of failure and pointless triumphs and implied self-deprecation. The sheer scale of the poem is impressive and, in fact, so overwhelming that we lose perspective of the place being described, as if we were staring at a painting from an inch away. The edited description above gives a far clearer picture of the ‘pad’ than the detail-drunk poem itself does. Zultanski’s apartment becomes unrecognizable through the very act of writing, because we are seeing it as a penis would see it if it could (‘Can I lift it? Can I not lift it?’). Zultanski’s ‘dick,’ the only actor, is the subject of every sentence; Zultanski himself never appears. The creation of a special world of obsessive-compulsive sex-organ consciousness, if off-putting, is surely original. It is hilarious, or uncanny, or mortifying, or all three. It is Pad’s greatest accomplishment.
Does Zultanski’s impulse to record everything, an impulse that recalls the work of serial-chronicler Kenneth Goldsmith, become tedious? Obviously. Would it, then, have been enough for him to have conceived of but not actually written the poem? No. Unwritten, "Pad" would have remained in the ordinary world, the world of Man, Penis, and Objects, all discrete and undisturbed. Written, "Pad" breaks the ordinary world down to its smallest units and reduces imagination to a binary (‘Can I lift it? Can I not lift it?’). It disorients. ‘Man’ is erased, and even though the penis is the only actor, sex is irrelevant. The ‘dick’ is literally a tool, like a crane or a digger.
Like Koch and Beckman, Zultanski, too, is committed to writing his way out of a world that is somehow inadequate. Koch imagined parallel, surreal, impossibly exciting universes; Beckman longs for places of relief and safety; and Zultanski—too nervous to open his mail, or pay his parking tickets, or tidy up, or perhaps even leave the apartment—wishes human consciousness away, to be replaced by animal or mechanical action. At the very least, on their own terms, and in different measures, all three succeed in their escape acts.
* * *
Three books by three poets—a dead ‘master’, a poet forging a career, and a poet just beginning his career—three New Yorkers—consummate, occasional, and former—and none of them take New York as their poetic subject. And that, I claimed earlier, is fine. It may even be Koch’s legacy. (Note that Beckman’s 2002 collaboration with Matthew Rohrer took its cues from Koch’s public rhyming contest with Allen Ginsberg at St Mark’s in 1979, and Zultanski’s dick ‘can lift the book "Sun Out" by Kenneth Koch’.) For Koch, ‘doing this’ and ‘doing that’, whether in New York or elsewhere, was not a poetic practice. As he told John Ashbery in ‘A Conversation with Kenneth Koch’: ‘I was wondering if there was a way to make one’s actions as varied and interesting as poetry; I then thought probably not.’
Every year, a million would-be poets enroll at NYU, and, at the same time, a million other poets move to the suburbs or to wherever the universities take them. It is a cycle that shows no signs of ceasing. Not everyone is single-minded or brave or lucky enough to write a book called "Area Code 212" (Manhattan’s telephone area code), as Frederick Seidel did in 2002. Not everyone wants to. The natural, confusing question is: Is the future of New York poetry in New York? And does it matter?
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