Saturday, May 7, 2011

John Koethe's early "New York School" Work

Throughout the latter half of the 1960's and the first half of the 1970's, there seemed to exist a nexus of style and focus which cohered around the work of the so-called First Generation New York School of poetry, whose dominant figures were, of course, Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler, and occasionally Barbara Guest (as well as a few peripheral figures). These were writers who had gone to college in the 1950's, and were associated with an East Coast urban setting, with the "country" of the surrounding inland Mid-Atlantic region as back-drop. Through their editorial work (Locus Solus, Art and Literature, etc.), their teaching (Koch at Columbia, Ashbery--after a period abroad in the early 1960's--at various posts over the succeeding decades), and their involvement in the New York Art scene (O'Hara's curatorial position at MOMA, and the art criticism which they wrote (Ashbery, Schuyler, O'Hara))--they seemed to constitute something like a coordinated group which sought to redefine the modern lyric and meditative impulse through innovative adaptation of earlier Modernist forms and approaches. The underground literary and social scene which grew up around them in the Sixties spawned a whole generation of imitators and acolytes of their productions, mostly concentrated in New York, though there were active "scenes" in several of the major American cities during the same period--a movement and a period which has been well-documented over the last two decades.

Several of the peripheral figures orbiting around this period seemed to presage a continuation of the trends first acknowledged. Berrigan & Padgett, Berkson, Warsh, Elmslie, Malanga, Ceravolo, Towle, Brownstein, Perreault, Denby, among a host of lesser figures, seemed to share a common purpose of some kind, though their separate work(s) defied the kind of categorical canonization which classic art movements of the past had exhibited.

One figure whom I associated with this movement at the time was John Koethe [1945- ]. Koethe's Blue Vents [Audit/Poetry, 1968] seemed to fit right into the meditative mode which Ashbery had established with his longer efforts in Mountains and Rivers, and The Double Dream of Spring. Koethe seemed to have a clear impression of the complexity of a meditative verse form unfolding as Ashbery's did, and he also appeared to comprehend the ambiguous relationship between the text, the voice, and his own agency as maker, exploiting ironies of tone and identity--something he shared, for instance, with contemporaries such as Brownstein, Crase, Warsh, Laurance Wieder, or Bill Berkson. Koethe's second collection, Domes [Columbia University Press, 1973] won the Frank O'Hara Award. It seemed somewhat less abstract than the poems in Blue Vents, though on closer inspection, proved to be every bit as evasive in its sense of assertion and committed expression, as the earlier book. A philosophy major, Koethe went on to a position at the University of Wisconsin, and to publish several additional volumes of verse, as well as books on thought.

Koethe's poems--rather like Michael Palmer's (another poet whom I have written about here recently)--often seem to be about problems in logic and perception--though their mood and apparent setting usually seem straightforwardly descriptive--

Below the Coast

A clumsy hillock
Unmolded like a cake on the meadow
In the Laguna Mountains. Tough yellow-green grass growing up to a tree
As thick as a tooth. In winter, on the road from San Diego,
Thousands of cars crawl up to the snow
And their passengers get out to investigate it
And then drive, discoursing, back home. And that’s California,
Solemnly discharging its responsibilities.

Meanwhile we breakfast on pancakes the size of a plate
While the console radio goes on the blink.
Miss L’Espagnole looks out from her frame on the wall,
Completely prepared (though for what it is impossible to say).
Her left arm is white and dips into a puddle of fire
Or a pile of cotton on fire. And each thing is severe:
The house hemmed in by pepper trees and Mexico
(This one is white and in Chula Vista), and the paraphernalia
Strewn around home: a few magazines summing up politics,
A matchbox with a lavender automobile on the cover,
And a set of soldiers of several military epochs marching off to war on the raffia rug.
Unless, you’ve grown up amidst palm trees (and buildings that are either unbuilt, or hospitals)
It’s impossible to appreciate a reasonable tree.

I sometimes consider the parrots that live in the zoo
And are sold on the street in Tijuana. Colored like national flags,
Their heads are always cocked to pick up something behind them.

And unless you have lived in a place where the fog
Closes in like a face, it is impossible to be (even temporarily) relieved
When it lifts to expose the freshly painted trim of the city, and it seems
Like a fine day for knowledge: sunlight sleeping on top of the rocks
And lots of white clouds scudding by like clean sheets
Which, when the air in the bedroom is cold, you pull over your head
And let the temperature slowly increase while you breathe.
But California has only a coast in common with this.

The social and intellectual "setting" of many of Koethe's early poems seemed to lack conviction, inasmuch as the observational tone and credulous perspicacity provided the illusion of a firm footing, while constantly shifting from one evasive foot to the other. Superficially like Ashbery's short lyrical meditations, they had a sort of Pop Art surface which seemed intended to disorient and belie rather than to place and confirm. This was their chief innovation. I particularly liked his descriptions of ordinary things--

Copley Square

Up-and-down shafts of light brick
Lift occupants up into prisms or roofs
Of green copper, and then embark on the sky.
12:44 by the Suffolk Franklin Savings Banks's
Clock, 93o outside, inside a cool bed of dimes.
A jet overhead that gets picked up by a pigeon
Gliding by lower down, some more modern banks
And a bank of lanterns set like a row of spears,
A Try Rooti Root Beer truck almost collides
With a spiffy yellow Checker Cab, and flags
Flop in front of the Sheraton Plaza Hotel.
Plenty of seersucker walks by below, or sits
On a deep-heated long granite bench,
Listening to the library,
Half-eating a half-eaten peach,
And bakes in the breeze.

--which seemed obvious enough, except that its lazily receptive passivity seemed more camp-y than joyous.

A Sunday Drive

Two gallons of apple cider.
A jar of pungent, pasty Yankee mustard.
"Two dollars please." Boys on bikes
Are scattered around the entrance to the store.

Cold leaf smoke floats over
A toadstool-proportioned water tank
Perched slightly off to the left of Route 2.

"Are these houses mostly old or new?
I usually can't tell the difference myself."

So we are continuing down the road
Which was like a hallway whose walls were trees
And whose ceiling was open to the sky.

Large birds were browsing in the sky.

"Her character is slightly slummy
But it conceals a kindness of such concentration
Nothing shivers--not even a single leaf--
When she casts her lot where she may."

Hardly any leaves are left on the trees.
The pines, with their eternal, sickly green,
Are stuck like bottle brushes in the rack
Of the other, occasional bloomers.

"Saws Sharpened."
"The First Lutheran Church Welcomes You."

We can't find the way back, but we do.

Poems like this can pass for straightforward pastoral travelogues, but in Koethe's poems they're much less obvious in their implication. Warhol showed how the presentation of two dimensional clich├ęs as infinitely reproducible commodities could become icons of banality--all surface and confidence and presumption. As we recede further and further into the future, the images and impressions of the indestructible past assemble and sort themselves into the congealing mass of cultural memory, as illusionistic as dreams. The sentimental subtext of our own mortality skids along the pavement, as nostalgic as a rollerskate.

Collected Poems

small war on the heels of small / war
Robert Lowell

I think they may be adequate for now,
With summer finally in full swing
As imperceptibly the days begin to shrink.
Each spring I wonder what I'll find
When I return to them again--this year it was a war
That wasn't actually a war, a lie made visible--
And how blind intuitions might be built up into facts
That someone else might think to feel and read.
The signs are everywhere, implicit in the sky,
The trees, the houses on the street I walk along to work
(The walking is the work), when something that I see
Or half-remember gets repeated from inside,
Finds its measure, and in settling inward settles into place.
They're how I wander through a day, wondering at its
Spaciousness, finding in its anonymity
These traces of my name, in its impersonality
These ways to see myself--hearing in the syllables of the
Leaves the lyrics of a song; seeing in the clouds
A human face, another lie made visible.

Word by word and war by war--
What makes one possible sustains the other too:
The urge to change, the power to deceive,
To fabricate a version of the world
Not as it is, but as someone imagines it to be.
The aim is not to say what happened
But to forge a monument by force, deploying
All the subtlety and weapons of the will,
And leaving something broken in its wake: the simple truth
As it appeared in school each day; the simple self
That wrote it down, before it all became a wildnerness
Where what's still left of them still wander,
Looking for each other, through a mutual memory
Of something irrecoverable beneath these
Shifting sands of spoken and unspoken words.
I used to think there was a different way,
A less insistent one, accepting what it finds
Without revising it, without the specious clarity
And authority of art, and its pervasive
Atmosphere of will. But that turned out to be a style too,
A sweeter one perhaps, yet just as artificial in the end.
The point is general, not confined to art: to make
Is to destroy; to act is to replace what would have been
With something signed, that bears a name. What I was a boy
I thought a life just happened, or was there to find.
Wars were aberrations. Poems were another generation's.
I didn't realize you made it up, you made them up,
And that the self was not an object but an act,
A sequence of decisions bound together by a noun
But with the feel of a fact. I wonder where that leaves me--
Hanging on a whim, on what I write? I hope not.
What the urge to dominate the world, the place, the page
Eventually becomes is just a human figures
On a summer afternoon, smiling at what happens,
Anxious for the future and the slope of age.
I think I'm done for now. It remains to save the file,
Close the notebook, and let evening come.

This is a fairly straightforward meditation on the distortion of propaganda, the subtle (or not) impositions of will, and the poet's restless urge to see in everything a sign of the times, a reverberating vision of apocalyptic disintegration, even in the reassuring quietude of an academic suburbia. But Koethe wasn't always so passive in his adjustments. In an earlier poem, from the late 1960's, such as--

Satie's Suits

Orange is the hue of modernity.
Greater than gold, shakey and poetic,
Our century's art has been a gentle surrender
To this color's nonchalant "stance"

Towards hunger and the unknown, and its boldness:
For it has replaced us as the subject of the unknown.
We still like the same things, but today we handle them differently.
Among the signs of occupation in this contemporary war

The twelve identical corduroy suits of Erik Satie
Locate importance in repetition, where it really belongs,
There in the dark, among the lessons that sleep excludes.
I want to emphasize the contribution of each one of us

To a society which has held us back but which has
Allowed love to flourish in this age like a song.
Unable to understand very much,
But prepared to isolate things in a personal way,

The acres of orange paint are a sign
Of the machine that powers our amateur hearts.
The technical has been driven back
By river stages, exposing a vacant lot

Strewn with these tools, food and clothing
Awaiting the inventions of limited strength.
We could begin selling ourselves, but the overture
Brings no response and the connection remains unsketched.

I can see there has been no change.
The body's a form of remote control
And its success is too exact to assist us.
Responding to the ulterior commandment

So much has failed in the abstract.
The phallus hid in the school bell
While the difficult fluid rose in the night.
In the apartment wild horses took you away.

--the camp deconstruction of official language is very similar here to Ashbery's distancing from subject matter. The alienation from a "stance" belongs to a specific strain of surrealism--that feeds off of a disorientation from the quotidian--turning assertion on its head to make language say things it hadn't intended. I.e., "wild horses took you away." Or "I want to emphasize the contribution of each one of us to a society which has held us back but which has
allowed love to flourish in this age like a song." The "hue of modernity" has "replaced us as the subject of the unknown." The inquiry of mind into the unknown "has failed in the abstract." The individual lines don't so much follow each other, as interact, though much more subtly, for instance, than Berrigan's loopy, explosive lines in his Sonnets. The mediation between mind and tool, perception and object, called for by Wittgenstein, stalls in an antechamber of apathy. Things lie strewn about, so we mark them, examining each in turn, putting off until some later time the task of connecting the dots to some cosmology of the provisional. The night sky arches overhead. A consolidation of means already presaged here would overtake the zeitgeist within the next decade, tamping down objections while capital raged in the streets. Koethe's avant gestures never questioned the formalities of the time, and so faded into obscurity. His accessibility assured a smooth transition from the abstract distortions of late Pop, to the moderate ratiocination of middle age, the Middle West, and the unchallenged towers of power in the literary landscape. Mick Jagger is 67.

1 comment:

J said...

Satie's Suits.


Quite a few people write on Satie's bio or his musick, and there is....Satie's musick-- they go for the surrealist charm and generally overlook that he lived in poverty and obscurity for years.
You tube now has a nice offering of Satie--including some of his later, post WWI music, which I find a bit superior--not quite as ...drippy as the earlier, Gymnopedies stuff (still nice, if...Vin Rose). He was in a rather mysterious place after WWI, IMHE.