Sunday, August 29, 2010

Kenneth Koch's "Sleeping With Women" [1969]

Kenneth Koch about as he looked circa 1970 (perhaps a bit darker) 

I remember when Kenneth Koch [1925-2002] came to read at the Iowa Workshop--this would have been in 1970 or '71--invited by, I assume, Anselm Hollo, as neither George Starbuck (the Workshop head at that point), nor Marvin Bell (who had the most influence among the regular faculty of poets) would have been likely to choose someone with Koch's credentials. In a cultural sense, this was still the "Sixties" and the strict partisan divisions which had characterized the poetry community since the late 1950's were alive and well. The competing camps seldom trespassed on each other's turf, and when they did, things could seem tense. 
Anselm introduced Koch that night, and went on at some length about how Koch had injected a breath of fresh air ("Fresh Air" being a poem Koch had published in 1956, not the title of Terry Gross's NPR radio program) into the American poetry mainstream. Whether or not anyone but a handful of us in that audience believed that to be true, is an imponderable, but Anselm clearly did, and wasn't afraid of saying so. The impression Koch made that night was of a wholly sophisticated New Yorker, quick on his feet, with a subtle wit and ready smile. Wearing a dark blazer, and bow-tie (as I recall), horn-rimmed glasses, with dark curly hair just beginning to grey, he cut a neat figure. 
Among the poems he read that night was "Sleeping with Women." The poem had been published in Poetry (Chicago), and issued in a limited edition by Black Sparrow Press [1969], before being included in his second collection of separate poems, The Pleasures of Peace and Other Poems [Grove Press, 1969], shown below. It was hailed at the time as a breakthrough piece for Koch, and continued for several years to be considered as among his best poems. Now, 40 years on, I suspect it's lost some of its luster for subsequent generations, but it still rings true for me. 
As expected, Koch read it as slapstick, though by the end, the repetitions had overcome his intention, and he, and they (the audience) were melancholy and joyous, the way people often are at a particularly moving opera performance. Clearly, this was at least partly what Koch was trying for, and the way people responded to it was a confirmation of his success.             

   The cover design of The Pleasures of Peace by Alex Katz
The poem has no stanza breaks, and should be read straight through, without stopping to ponder or weigh its assertions or inter-relationships and (in-)consistencies. The images, names and concepts are meant to be taken lightly, as if riding easily on a motorcycle through a mental countryside of familiar sights and ruins. It's the classical world--a kind of vaguely literary travel-logue with the usual suspects making quick bows, as we hover in a membrane between sleep and waking, always in the presence of women....      

                Sleeping With Women
Caruso: a voice.
Naples: sleeping with women.
Women: sleeping in the dark.
Voices: a music.
Pompeii: a ruin.
Pompeii: sleeping with women.
Men sleeping with women, women sleeping with women, sheep sleeping
    with women, everything sleeping with women.
The guard: asking you for a light.
Women: asleep.
Yourself: asleep.
Everything south of Naples: asleep and sleeping with them.
Sleeping with women: as in the poems of Pascoli.
Sleeping with women: as in the rain, as in the snow.
Sleeping with women: by starlight, as if we were angels, sleeping on the train,
On the starry foam, asleep and sleeping with them — sleeping with women.
Mediterranean: a voice.
Mediterranean: a sea. Asleep and sleeping.
Streetcar in Oslo, sleeping with women, Toonerville Trolley
In Stockholm asleep and sleeping with them, in Skansen
Alone, alone with women,
The rain sleeping with women, the brain of the dog-eyed genius
Alone, sleeping with women, all he has wanted,
The dog-eyed fearless man.
Sleeping with them: as in 
The Perils of Pauline
Asleep with them: as in Tosca
Sleeping with women and causing all that trouble
As in Roumania, as in Yugoslavia
Asleep and sleeping with them
Anti-Semitic, and sleeping with women,
Pro-canary, Rashomon, Shakespeare, tonight, sleeping with women
A big guy sleeping with women
A black seacoast's sleeve, asleep with them
And sleeping with women, and sleeping with them
The Greek islands sleeping with women
The muddy sky, asleep and sleeping with them.
Sleeping with women, as in a scholarly design
Sleeping with women, as if green polarity were a line
Into the sea, sleeping with women
As if wolverines, in a street line, as if sheep harbors
Could come alive from sleeping with women, wolverines
Greek islands sleeping with women, Nassos, Naxos, Kos,
Asleep with women, Mykonos, miotis,
And myositis, sleeping with women, blue-eyed
Red-eyed, green-eyed, yellow reputed, white-eyed women
Asleep and sleeping with them, blue, sleeping with women
As in love, as at sea, the rabbi, asleep and sleeping with them
As if that could be, the stones, the restaurant, asleep and sleeping with them,
Sleeping with women, as if they were knee
Arm and thigh asleep and sleeping with them, sleeping with women.
And the iris peg of the sea
Sleeping with women
And the diet pill of the tree
Sleeping with women
And the apology the goon the candlelight
The groan: asking you for the night, sleeping with women
Asleep and sleeping with them, the green tree
The iris, the swan: the building with its mouth open
Asleep with women, awake with man,
The sunlight, asleep and sleeping with them, the moving gong
The abacus, the crab, asleep and sleeping with them
And moving, and the moving van, in London, asleep with women
And intentions, inventions for sleeping with them
Lands sleeping with women, ants sleeping with women, Italo-Greek or 
   Anglo-French orchestras
Asleep with women, asleep and sleeping with them,
The foam and the sleet, asleep and sleeping with them,
The schoolboy's poem, the crippled leg
Asleep and sleeping with them, sleeping with women
Sleeping with women, as if you were a purist
Asleep and sleeping with them.
Sleeping with women: there is no known form for the future
Of this undreamed-of view: sleeping with a chorus
Of highly tuned women, asleep and sleeping with them.
Bees, sleeping with women
And tourists, sleeping with them
Soap, sleeping with women; beds, sleeping with women
The universe: a choice
The headline: a voice, sleeping with women
At dawn, sleeping with women, asleep and sleeping with them.
Sleeping with women: a choice, as of a mule
As of an island, asleep or sleeping with them, as of a Russia,
As of an island, as of a drum: a choice of views: asleep and sleeping with
    them, as of high noon, as of a choice, as of variety, as of the sunlight, red
    student, asleep and sleeping with them,
As with an orchid, as with an oriole, at school, sleeping with women, and you
    are the one
The one sleeping with women, in Mexico, sleeping with women
The ghost land, the vectors, sleeping with women
The motel man, the viaduct, the sun
The universe: a question
The moat: a cathexis
What have we done? On Rhodes, man
On Samos, dog
Sleeping with women
In the rain and in the sun
The dog has a red eye, it is November
Asleep and sleeping with them, sleeping with women
This June: a boy
October: sleeping with women
The motto: a sign; the bridge: a definition.
To the goat: destroy; to the rain: be a settee.
O rain of joy: sleeping with women, asleep and sleeping with them.
Volcano, Naples, Caruso, asleep and sleeping, asleep and sleeping with them
The window, the windrow, the hedgerow, irretrievable blue,
Sleeping with women, the haymow, asleep and sleeping with them, the canal
Asleep and sleeping with them, the eagle's feather, the dock's weather, and the
Sleeping with you; asleep and sleeping with you: sleeping with women.
Sleeping with women, charming aspirin, as in the rain, as in the snow,
Asleep and sleeping with you: as if the crossbow, as of the moonlight
Sleeping with women: as if the tractate, as if d'Annunzio
Asleep and sleeping with you, asleep with women
Asleep and sleeping with you, asleep with women, asleep and sleeping with
    you, sleeping with women
As if the sun, as of Venice and the Middle Ages' "true
Renaissance had just barely walked by the yucca
Forest" asleep and sleeping with you
In China, on parade, sleeping with women
And in the sun, asleep and sleeping with you, sleeping with women,
Asleep with women, the docks, the alley, and the prude
Sleeping with women, asleep with them.
The dune god: sleeping with women
The dove: asleep and sleeping with them
Dials sleeping with women; cybernetic tiles asleep and sleeping with them
Naples: sleeping with women; the short of breath
Asleep and sleeping with you, sleeping with women
As if I were you — moon idealism
Sleeping with women, pieces of stageboard, sleeping with women
The silent bus ride, sleeping with you.
The chore: sleeping with women
The force of a disaster: sleeping with you
The organ grinder's daughter: asleep with bitumen, sunshine, sleeping with
Sleeping with women: in Greece, in China, in Italy, sleeping with blue
Red green orange and white women, sleeping with two
Three four and five women, sleeping on the outside
And on the inside of women, a violin, like a vista, women, sleeping with
In the month of May, in June, in July
Sleeping with women, "I watched my life go by" sleeping with women
A door of pine, a stormfilled valentine asleep and sleeping with them
"This Sunday heart of mine" profoundly dormoozed with them
They running and laughing, asleep and sleeping with them
"This idle heart of mine" insanely "shlamoozed" asleep and sleeping with them,
They running in laughter
To the nearest time, oh doors of eternity
Oh young women's doors of my own time! sleeping with women
Asleep and sleeping with them, all Naples asleep and sleeping with them,
Venice sleeping with women, Burgos sleeping with women, Lausanne sleeping
    with women, hail depth-divers
Sleeping with women, and there is the bonfire of Crete
Catching divorce in its fingers, purple sleeping with women
And the red lights of dawn, have you ever seen them, green ports sleeping with
    women, acrobats and pawns,
You had not known it ere I told it you asleep with women
The Via Appia Antica asleep with women, asleep and sleeping with them
All beautiful objects, each ugly object, the intelligent world,
The arena of the spirits, the dietetic whisky, the storms
Sleeping with women, asleep and sleeping with them,
Sleeping with women. And the churches in Antigua, sleeping with women
The stone: a vow
The Nereid: a promise — to sleep with women
The cold — a convention: sleeping with women
The carriage: sleeping with women
The time: sometimes
The certainty: now
The soapbox: sleeping with women
The time and again nubile and time, sleeping with women, and the time now
Asleep and sleeping with them, asleep and asleep, sleeping with women, sleep
    and sleeping with them, sleeping with women.
There's always a problem in talking seriously about Koch's verse, because it resists serious discussion, in my view. Koch was an educated scholar, and spent his life in college teaching. He was surrounded by intellects, in an environment of study and research and careful attention. How someone of his effusive and comedic nature should have chosen this life is a mystery. The poetry, and the world to which this poetry connected him, functioned, one senses, not as an academic duty, but as a kind of serious recreation. If Koch is at bottom a comic poet, his most direct models were the classical poets and playwrights of ancient Greece, and Rome, whose example and artifacts were both an inspiration, and a subject for blissful burlesque and parody. 
If contemporary audiences have trouble hearing Sophocles or Euripides as "straight" narrative or utterance, Koch's special combination of pop goofiness and wide-eyed credulity insists upon a purification of regard which persuades one that life is really simpler and easier than it seems. Koch's percolating poems, and nonsense plays, often exist in a kind of limbo of silliness and faux naivité, in which anything is possible, and care and anxiety and tragedy are kept at bay, in favor of clean fun and absurdity and cheerful color. This elevated sense of amusement is something he shared with O'Hara and others of the New York School, whose work and life-style--the hilarity and 'deep gossip'--prefigured the uncorked liberation and free spirit of the Sixties, Pop Art, Happenings, etc. Koch's poems often seem like cartoons, big two-dimensional canvases (perhaps like Alex Katz's paintings) peopled by the famous and the historical archetypes and monuments which preoccupied his professorial imagination. 
Koch suffered from a severe stutter, which improved over time; and also underwent years of psycho-analysis, partly to master the stutter. He was monogamous, and had family obligations, though his aesthetic persona suggested a camp life-style which was anything but traditional. His teaching style, augmented by several ground-breaking works detailing his theories and experience teaching poetry to children and the geriatric set, was unorthodox and demonstrative. 
The turmoils in Koch's life, which are only hinted at in his bio, suggest that the poetic persona he adopted was designed to compensate for problems in other spheres. Poetry may seem almost a kind of "art" therapy. (Denny Zeitlan--the great jazz pianist and composer--is also a full psychiatric professional, though he doesn't permit any cross-fertilization between the two roles.) Koch's "experimental" writing takes a unique form, and is most in evidence in his long, pop nonsense epic When The Sun Tries To Go On [Black Sparrow Press, 1969--though the poem is dated from the 1950's]. It's probably the most irrepressibly "wacky" piece of writing anyone has ever published.
Koch's comic long poems, e.g., Ko, or A Season on Earch [Grove, 1959], or The Duplications [Knopf, 1977] and so forth, are parodic mock epics using uniform stanzaic forms. Koch's natural inclination towards farce and childish affectation are expressed as spontaneity and deadpan, but irony is never far below the pastel surface. Which is how I see "Sleeping With Women"--a comic-romantic farcical performance which is always on the verge of becoming serious.     
"Sleeping With Women" is a free-verse variation, constructed out of a repeated phrase (sleeping with women), around which are cobbled a series of declamations and evocations which derive a certain sustenance and moment from the annunciatory character of the repeated phrases, sleeping with women, asleep and sleeping with them, etc. The phrase carries a dream-like dimension, as well as a sexual one, suggesting a semi-dream-like state not unlike that of Italian opera; and the initial associations--
Caruso: a voice.
Naples: sleeping with women.
Women: sleeping in the dark.
Voices: a music.
Pompeii: a ruin.
Pompeii: sleeping with women.
--set the tone and context for the rest of the poem. The poem's free-wheeling, rhapsodic caricature of a Mediterranean world is both a light-hearted imaginative tour through Koch's casual mental geography, and a metaphorization of a certain state of mind. For me, it's reminiscent of Crane, Vachel Lindsey, Whitman, continuing in a long line backwards in time to the ancient poets, for whom mere enumeration, or catalogues, or simple lists of things, or places, or names, constitutes the whole "subject" of a discursive poem. In our time, Ginsberg and Ashbery, for instance, have written poems in this same style. 
Koch's romantic inclination--an indulgence in hyperbole and giddiness--is balanced by his comfort inside classical structures. The inspiration for this, which appears again and again in his work, is a youthful "grand tour" nostalgia, perhaps for the period when he and his wife lived in Europe (France and Italy) during the mid-1950's. The tension between the mixed diction--often combining slang with elegant turns--and the ostensible air of formality, usually keeps his work from tipping over into stodginess. Enthusiasm and mystery, slapstick and dirge. 
Koch always keeps things sparking and twinkling with unexpectedly weird or pompous images or references. Toonerville Trolley, the dog-eyed genius, pro-canary, the black seacoast's sleeve, green polarity, 'true Renaissance had just barely walked by the yucca forest' [??], and so forth, balance the elevated references to Venice, Naples, Caruso, Crete, orchids. The poem satirizes the cosmopolitan mood it sets up while floating along on it own rollicking buoyant rhythm. 
It's a truism that being funny is ten times more difficult than being serious. Any fourth-rate preacher can conduct hand-wringing sermons, but every stand-up comic knows how demanding the podium can be. It often feels as if the ideal frame of mind for a Koch poem is mild inebriation, where the suspension of disbelief is helped along by a little dose of predisposition. I don't read Koch often, and when I do, I sometimes feel he's counting a little too heavily on my indulgence. But occasionally, as with this poem, where he seems to combine Walt Disney with Walt Whitman, all the frolic and froth seems worth it. 
There are probably some women out there who regard this poem as a sexist travesty. Pity them.      


Conrad DiDiodato said...


as you say, the effect is that of riding in a mental landscape. And I think poetic rhythm clearly makes that connection of movement to surrealistic thought. If I roughly scan the opening seven lines (x for unstressed, / for primary stressed syllables, \ for secondary stressed syllables), it's easy to see how a predominantly swift dactylic meter, occasionaly interrupted by the line's syntactic break (punctuation), can produce that troubling 'broken' reverie of poet whose imagination is running away with him:

x / x x /
Caruso: a voice.
/ x / x x / x
Naples: sleeping with women.
/ x / x x x /
Women: sleeping in the dark.
/ x x / x
Voices: a music.
x / / x / x
Pompeii: a ruin.
x / / / x x / x
Pompeii: sleeping with women.
/ / x x / x / x
Men sleeping with women, women
/ x x / x
sleeping with women, etc.

Koch's lines are not meant (I believe)to be read as an insistent rhythm since it's to the speech (& poet's own quirky half-obsessed personality) that we're drawn. I love the way (a fact typically reinforced by meter)the current of obsessive thought always tends to get stuck at crucial (interestingly moral-psychological)impasses. The lines here have been so artfully arranged as to allow both rhythms & the curious inner tensions to arise.

Here's poetry as antidote to the typical language slaughter of a lot of contemporary verse. Thanks for posting Koch's wonderful "Sleeping with Women" poem.

J said...

useless, fugly kitschy dreck, F-ville. Like their guru Whitman. They shoulda stuck with like flower arrangement, instead of further destroying the language. Or paraphrasing Bierce re Wilde, he-hens who think they fly with Shelley, Coleridge, Poe et al


Kirby Olson said...

This should be Bill Clinton's poem!

I like how he plays with the innocence of sleeping (actually sleeping) as compared to the euphemism for screwing, which the term belies.

Its innocence makes it acceptable, but the other meaning is always there, too. He's dancing on the line between a kind of childish innocence, and a certain kind of 60s naughtiness. It makes an interesting tension...

It made me think of Bill Clinton who I think would really enjoy this poem. But I think Hillary Clinton wouldn't like it at all.

The surrealist line of recursive litany as well as Whitman's line, his long sleepy lines, are here, but the coyness is all Koch's.

Anonymous said...

what else does a poem do
but to call forth for a
continuous want to "sleep with woman" and thus
provoke The Muse?

just make sure that your "muse" has taken her birth-control pill
and that you have a pen and paper next to the ...


Curtis Faville said...


That's interesting. Do you really think HIllary's the prude? I doubt it. She's hard as nails. She was happy to be Bill's girl, until he started messing around.

Now that they're probably both celibate, she doesn't even pay attention to stuff like that. She's more interested in her "legacy" now. Maybe she'll have to build her own Secretary's Library and stock it with...who knows what?

Kirby Olson said...

It will be photos of her running from live bullets in a Sarajevo of her imagination, probably.

Curtis Faville said...

Who is "she"?

jh said...

the poem seems to hold onto a spirit of light romanticism and wonder

he is conscious of the surreal
and i think
utilizes the surreal affect

would any woman poet state so elegantly the same musings toward
"sleeping with men"

there is a definite music in this poem
i think it holds up 40 yrs later
holds up like the inkling of things to come about things that might indeed happen

where it dies today is that no one exists anymore who can give expression to this sort of tension of love desire near despair and quiet hope

i'm reminded that kenneth koch also possessed a tender concern for children and the elderly

didn't somebody try to shoot him once

surely the second coming
what rough beast


so much anonymity over here
you're getting downright popular

Kirby Olson said...

"She" was Hillary.

JH gets the pulse of the poem, and is dead on, as usual.

J said...

what did Yeats once yawp?

"all out of shape from toe to top"

that's 95% of vers libre

(actually DH Lawrence penned some interesting v-l...suave rico...decades ago. or Jeffers )

George Mattingly said...

I was going to say I remember this reading well, but, compared to your account, I should say "NOT so well!" Though this post has re-connected some synapses in the memory sphere. Thanks, Curtis.

Was George Starbuck still head of the Workshop? Or was John Leggett? While Marvin Bell had locked horns with the New York (and like-minded) writers, my memory is that Starbuck was much more open-minded & enjoyed creating ferment. After all he invited Ted Berrigan, and couldn't have been unaware of Ted's (well-deserved!) reputation.

BTW I took a workshop course from Bell and for me he was an excellent teacher. Despite the fact that he referred to me as "Ted's clone." (and not just behind my back)

Anyway thanks for posting this: a great memory (and history) piece.

Curtis Faville said...


It's true, Starbuck was more open-minded than others who held that position, but let's face it, George was a formalist, tried and true. I remember Dave Morice telling me about his first meeting with George, who told Dave "you have some very nice little 'genre poems in this sheaf'" [David fuming with indignation!]. Bell hated Berrigan, and later "confronted" Watten about the unwelcome "felicity" from the back benchers at the Richard Howard reading:

Bell: "You need to tell these people to knock this stuff off."
Watten: "What do you want me to do about it?"
Bell: "You know these people. This is unacceptable behavior!"
Bell: "Tell them yourself, Marvin!"

Anselm later told me Bell had nixed Berrigan's extension for 1969-70, in favor of Marshall/Fraser/Ray & co. Anselm was bitter about it, because he and Berrigan really liked each other.

Olden times....

J said...

didn't somebody try to shoot him once

interesting countercultural factoid--an anarchist group known as the ..."motherf*ckers" did take a shot at Koch....but it was just a blank jh--tho Kochski supposed swooned and fainted:

What happened with the "assassination" of the poet Ken Koch in 1967?
Ben: Koch was a symbol to us of this totally bourgeois, dandy world. Myself, Dan Georgakas, Alan Van Newkirk and some of the other Black Mask people went to one of his readings. I think I came up with idea to shoot him with a blank pistol. Alan looked like the classic image of the bomb throwing anarchist. He was about six foot three, long and thin with a gaunt face and always dressed in black - the anarchist incarnate. So we decided "You're the one, you're going to shoot him." (laughter) We printed a leaflet and all it had on it was a picture of Leroi Jones with the words `Poetry is revolution.' On the night when Alan shot the blank Koch fainted and everyone in the audience assumed he was dead and started screaming . Some people threw the leaflet from the balcony into the crowd and then we all left.

Reactions after the event were split between people who thought it was the greatest thing they'd ever heard and those that thought we were a bunch of sophomoric assholes. Which was great because so much of what Black Mask and The Family was about was pushing people to decide "Do I belong with this group of people or this one?" We were determined to be outrageous in order to force people to decide where they stood on things. We wanted to push people, force them to think. "Why shoot Koch? He's just a nice poet."

Heh heh. Koch the "bourgeois dandy"--hey, that's like the Hallmark biz as a whole. Abbie Hoffman--not exactly a role model, but not a complete dunce-- thought along those lines too. Abbie had no love for Kirby O's Naropa palsies either.