Friday, June 26, 2009

STL #85: Very Funny Fellows

Triple Play: Kenneth Koch to Frank O'Hara to John Ashbery.

Before widening the scope of this piece, I had planned on calling it "Kenneth Koch Is a Very Funny Fellow...Right!" (in tribute to Bill Cosby's comedy album). But when I sat down to draw by thoughts together, I was struck by the idea that the flip side to my tempered enthusiasm for Koch is my unbounded admiration for O'Hara. He has a wider range than Koch, yet even his funny poems are richer. To round out that generation of New York poets, I then decided to bring in John Ashbery, another wise guy who has made a lot out of a wry, ironic tone.

I like Koch, but have found him limited--his reworking of W.C. Williams or Frost's "Mending Wall" as "Mending Sump" are worth a smile, but don't go anywhere. He's a cut-up, but the apparent lack substance in his work makes you question it (right?). But a poem like "Fresh Air," though not a direct reworking of a source and longer than the two I mentioned, has many small pleasures, mostly in the charming, droll tone, but isn't as fully engaging as any of the O'Hara or Ashbery poems here. The poem mocks the codification of poetry into lineages, techniques, and workshop lessons ("My second lesson: 'Rewrite your first lesson line six hundred times. Try to make it into a magnetic field.'")

I think of a similarly light tone when I think of O'Hara, even though, as this lengthy selection shows, he can turn on a dime into something as moving as the last lines "The Day Lady Died": "and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of/leaning on the john door in the FIVE SPOT/while she whispered a song along the keyboard/to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing"(the lack of the period at the end really makes this). O'Hara was "mainly preoccupied with the world as [he] experience[d] it" and, as much as anyone ever did, writes in what seems to be his natural voice, which happens to be witty and ubane. Some of his poems do seem to be jokes, at least structurally speaking. "Why I Am Not a Painter" is a sort of a shaggy dog story--sometimes you've got oranges and sometimes you have sardines.

All the New York poets have the wit and diction I referred to above as 'urbane.' But the title "How Much Longer Will I Be Able to Inhabit the Divine Sepulcher" might not appear funny at all--perhaps it recalls 17th century devotional verse. I haven't seen much of the voluminous criticism on Ashbery's works, but I'm sure that relationship has been worked out. My theory is that the poem is narrated by Jesus in the tomb, and he's hanging around trying to figure out what happens next. The idea of Christ saying "Huh" is funny enough by itself. The rest of the threads through place and time, perhaps weakening the identification of JC as the speaking voice (who says "I'm/Named Tom"--at once the master and doubting disciple) but engages an uncertain relationship with the divine throughout.

According to Nabokov, "Satire is a lesson, parody is a game." A game is by nature more rewarding--it's open and agile where a lesson is closed and rigid. In the anthology, O'Hara and Ashbery's work is more expansive--you get a greater complexity of tone than in Koch's accomplished wise-guyism. O'Hara and Ashbery swing from serious to humorous, while Ashbery at his best is both at once.

Further reading:

Ashbery: so much to read--I'd like to revist The Mooring of Starting Out, and then stroll through the rest

Koch: On the Great Atlantic Railway

O'Hara: Standing Still and Walking in New York