29 ago. 2007

"And then I had always liked the old miracle and morality plays in which no word has any ambiguity at all. I don’t like ambiguity. I suppose it’s all right if the ambiguous things a work means are interesting and exciting, but often they’re not"

--Kenneth Koch, interview with David Shapiro

That's a pretty revealing statement. Imagine coming along in the 1950s and not liking ambiguity, that mainstay of New Critical and paleo-modernist poetics, and even deconstruction as it was practiced in the 80s. This explains a lot about why few people have written about Koch academically, even to this day. Even Frank O'Hara, no Robert Lowell himself, uses a lot of ambiguity. Ashbery too. Koch isn't fond of it.

I'm aware too that I read Koch more ironically than he in fact means to be. I think he wants to keep you guessing about his tone, so that the earnestness when it does appear is always framed by whimsy. That's another form of ambiguity.

Also, when a sophisticated, modern poet abjures ambiguity it is a different effect from a medieval play celebrating baby Jesus with no sense of irony. It's funny how I won't accept certain things in poetry when done bluntly, with no sense of style, but would accept the same thing if it were signalled to me somehow that the poet knows better but is doing it anyway. Rhyme, Shelleyan apostrophe, sentimentality, didacticism--they work in Koch but they wouldn't in a poet who hadn't worked out a way to make them work.

9 comentarios:

Andrew Shields dijo...

"would accept the same thing if it were signalled to me somehow that the poet knows better but is doing it anyway"—I find this idea quite compelling and potentially convincing, but if you have time, I'd like to see two brief examples, one from Koch, one from someone else, where in one case you see Koch signalling to you, and in the other you don't see the other poet signalling.

Jonathan dijo...

I'll try to come up with some examples, very soon...

Andrew Shields dijo...

Looking forward to that! (And hey, no rush, when you find 'em, you find 'em.)

Jordan dijo...

Tone is pretty important, yes. Your remarks about earnestness and whimsy gesture toward the issue, but God! those aren't the terms, no offense to broggers with proprietary claims on those concepts. I don't think he even cared much for sincerity and irony; how awful would it be to be a third round draft pick for irony.

As for signaling, how is it not tautology to say that these déclassé tropes and modes only work when the poets know how to make them work.

I believe Kenneth to have had an entirely sincere interest in the sincerity of morality plays, Aucassin & Nicolette, boys' books, flatness (a la Roussel).

He did finally publish a few ambiguous poems toward the end of his life ("Paradiso," for example).

Jonathan dijo...

It's completely a tautology. I plead guilty to that. I meant that those demode, declasse poetic devices are not sitting there, available for use, but rather need to be rethought before being used. For example, rhyme. Rhyme is a modern device if your model is Byron, but not if your model is Tennyson.

Jordan dijo...

If the model is Tennyson does that make it postmodern?

But I see what you're saying -- I wonder now whether it doesn't imply a contract with the reader for the mutual respect of each other's humanity and capacity for free action. "I won't over-determine your reaction if you promise not to discourage my spontaneity."

Jonathan dijo...

I like that. I feel disrespect for my humanity if the poet wants to put something over on me, insult my intelligence like a Nigerian email spammer.

Joseph Duemer dijo...

". . . the earnestness when it does appear is always framed by whimsy."

This has sometimes turned me off Koch, though his great good humor usually carries the day. And though I love ambiguity, I actually have a lot of sympathy for sincerity. I mean that sincerely.

Irony is one kind of doubling, but there are others. Blake's "The Echoing Green" -- to take an example I was just teaching -- doubles back on itself & also doubles the point of view of the speaker, but I take the poem to be utterly sincere. (Hmmm. . . Or do I?)

Andrew Shields dijo...

"Rhyme is a modern device if your model is Byron, but not if your model is Tennyson."

I have to admit that my model is probably Bob Dylan. Where does that leave me?