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Jacket 15 — December 2001   |   # 15  Contents   |   Homepage   |   Catalog   |

When the Sun Tries to Go On

David Lehman reviews

When the Sun Tries To Go On, by Kenneth Koch

Black Sparrow.  $3.00 paperbound; $20.00 clothbound. (reprinted from: Poetrymagazine, September 1969)

This review was published when David Lehman was twenty.
It is 600 words or about two printed pages long.

I think it was T.S.Eliot who remarked, “It is a characteristic of great modern poetry that you can enjoy it before you understand it.” I think of this observation when reading Kenneth Koch’s long poem, “When the Sun Tries To Go On”, written in 1953 but published in book form only this year. I don’t pretend to “understand” the poem; it defies conventional criticism and analysis, it is “Against Interpretation”. The important thing is that the poem works. It’s a completely self-enclosed world of language, where syntax and content are subordinated to the independent existence of the words themselves — where Mallarmé and Rimbaud resisted the fact of logocentrism, Koch and John Ashbery seem to accept it head on — words leading unpredictably yet ineluctably to other words, like an express train of exuberant sounds.

Sometimes it is the lining that creates a neat surprise, changing the apparent direction of the words:

Walked carfare by the sea. A boat “pelvised”/
Germany, it was so green. ‘Oh, then,/
Can’t we marry velvet?’ screamed Jimmy./”

More often, this disjunctive effect occurs within a line:

                        “O cross/
Head of the pennies’ infant rubber sweet/
Unglazed pyramidal announcing shaggy deserted melodies/
Of ‘Kismet!’ /”

In a kind of Flaubertian encyclopedia of the folly he loves in the world, Koch animates not only objects and places (“quiet orange Egypt”) but words (“Wear out Sue, and who is she, wear ‘Am I?’”). We are made to feel the exclamation-point exhilaration and celebration of the quotidian in, for example, “Americana”:

Garden momentarily films George Montgomery and/
Ina Claire, monosyllabic, clue of the red ragweeds./
O now I know you! ape, red panic-car, Kismet/
Of diseased, ant, hill, roadhouses, school-pigeon/
Of the tippy as rainwater mortorcar! Clark Gable and Ginger/
Rogers fall beneath the wheels of this motorcar/
Of cheeping staff officers./

For Koch, words are the equalizers of all things. Like a de Kooning painting, there is a pure aesthetic to the poem: the poet takes a great deal of delight in the sounds of words and his consciousness of them; he splashes them like paint on a page with enthusiastic puns, internal rhymes, titles of books, names of friends (“So / Mary Janice silvery palace Edgar Poe / Fin giant, boat, chase, America”) and seems surprised as we are at the often witty outcome, “like a boat / Filled with silliness”:

            I am dedicating this stanza to you/
Marching prince of hacienda quoits.  In each bank/
An October of pitiful sand is going to be hidden/
Like the mid-afternoon quietude of the elephant/
Who wishes to be indentured....”

I know that the dissociation of language in “When the Sun Tries To Go On” may put off many readers.  It’s a poem that is perhaps most profitably read by a poet, and then read aloud. It may perhaps be a bit too long. But it’s a poem that grows on you and continually astonishes you once you’ve entered its boundaries. I find myself flipping it open and reading parts of it at random. The remarkable illustrations by Larry Rivers are in this respect most helpful. In them a line is isolated from the text, say “Sweethearts. There is a seventeenth moon deciding”, and expressed visually, with orange moons like pumpkins and yellow and red moons like ice cream cones behind blue houses filled with moonlight and innocent-looking girls. There are six drawings in black and white, four in color plus the cover: it’s a very attractive book....

(Jacket thanks Danielle Pafunda for her help in making this piece available)

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