Um hum un hun an han
Grazing my copy of Mark Ford’s Carcanet New York Poets anthology in an idle moment yesterday, I was struck by two things.
The first is that Ford misses out several of the few NYP poems I already knew before buying the book – e.g. John Ashbery’s ‘What is Poetry’ and Kenneth Koch’s ‘Sleeping with Women’. Whether you think this is a good or bad thing depends on whether you think the anthology should be a best-of or a sampler. I’m mildly annoyed not to have those poems to hand, but that may spur me to buy books they are in, so I don’t mind.
The second thing is how good Koch is and in particular how he can make the de-trop repetition thing of ‘Sleeping with Women’ work again in other poems. Such as ‘One train May Hide Another’:
In a poem, one line may hide another line,
As at a crossing, one train may hide another train.
That is, if you are waiting to cross
The tracks, wait to do it for one moment at
Least after the first train is gone. And so when you read
Wait until you have read the next line--
Then it is safe to go on reading.
In a family one sister may conceal another,
So, when you are courting, it's best to have them all in view
Otherwise in coming to find one you may love another.
One father or one brother may hide the man,
If you are a woman, whom you have been waiting to love.
So always standing in front of something the other
As words stand in front of objects, feelings, and ideas.
One wish may hide another. And one person's reputation may hide
The reputation of another. One dog may conceal another
On a lawn, so if you escape the first one you're not necessarily safe [...]
It was necessary to quote at length to demonstrate the effect, so I hope Koch’s shade, and executors, will forgive me. The same sort of device – where ideas are repeated even if the words differ – underlies ‘Fate’, in which the speaker’s meditation gains force not through profundity but through Koch’s depiction of it as casual, flitting, frustrated and provisional: it feels real. My favourite part involves the contentless representations of others’ speech (‘And John said Um hum and hum and hum I/ Don’t remember the words Frank said Un hun/ Jane said An Han’), which the speaker’s own remembered speech in the end falls into. It’s a confident piece of self-effacement:
and I said
Aix-en-Provence me new sense of
These that London Firenze Florence
Now Greece and un hun um hum an
Han boop Soon I was at Larry’s [...]
Elsewhere in the book I read Frank’s (they all call each other by their first names, so why the hell shouldn’t I?) poem ‘To Gottfried Benn’, disliked it, so tried some others, more to my taste, and reread his famous ‘The Day Lady Died’, in order to feel again the moment when everyone and I stopped breathing