Parodies, Part 2--"Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams"--Kenneth Koch (1962?)
In case there is anyone who reads this blog--I cannot tell, the Sitemeter report keeps reading 0 visitors every week since June, but I am quite sure some people have been here--my posting rate is henceforth probably going to be no more than once every 7-10 days. I cannot quite give it up yet; I still enjoy the idea of having an ongoing archive of work accessible to be stumbled upon by anyone in the entire world who might find something I say appealing. I just cannot, however, write quickly, or briefly, and I definitely cannot do these things while maintaining a tone at once edgy and upbeat, all of which the true blog, as a form in the current age, seems particularly to require.
So I am going to try a different, more completely diarylike, less formal tack with the blog starting today. The repeated failures in the writing and the consequent pointless overexertion I expended on a few recent posts contributed to drive me into an especially dark spell of mood earlier this week. Wild thoughts hurtled around the frontal regions of my brain such as to bring on actual headaches. In rapid succession I determined to get rid of all my books and give up reading and writing for ever, take up some kind of mechanical or outdoor occupation, join the army, mail my undeserved college diploma back to my alma mater and request that they strike me utterly from their records (I actually think about doing this a lot; I was a stupid and lazy student, and am so maladroit and dull-witted in adult life that possessing the thing increasingly makes me feel like a man who has committed a series of ethical crimes that he could easily make reparations for. Living up to my supposed education has, in other words, become such a burden upon me that it seems to be it would be a great relief to be able to tell people I never had one.), acquire an entirely new and cognitively appropriate set of interests, submit to unconditional belief in God, and banish the word and all but happy forebodings of death from my mind altogether I think this was in part due to the circumstance that it was 90 degrees for several days after three weeks of very beautiful cooler weather, the leaves having begun to turn, and so on. Having grown up in the kind of suburban house where one has no sense of what the weather ever is like outside, now that I live in one where one can never avoid its effects I find I am quite sensitive to it.
But to the poem. I will reproduce it, with comments in parentheses and emphases in italics as they come up. The poem most directly being satirized here is of course "This is Just to Say". It is quite famous, the one about the plums in the refrigerator and all that. My wife, who has a knack for beautiful minimalism in her own speech and writing, thinks it is a worthy piece.
I chopped down the house that you had been saving to live in next summer. (absurd)
I am sorry, but it was morning, and I had nothing to do
and its wooden beams were so inviting.
We laughed at the hollyhocks together
and then I sprayed them with lye. (minor chuckle)
Forgive me. I simply do not know what I am doing. (genuinely amused snicker)
I gave away the money that you had been saving to live on for the next ten years.
The man who asked for it was shabby
and the firm March wind on the porch was so juicy and cold. (deep sigh. eyes rolling)
Last evening we went dancing and I broke your leg.
Forgive me. I was clumsy and
I wanted you here in the wards, where I am the doctor! (WCW of course was an M.D.)
Williams is a good object for parody because his writing, whether it is ultimately ridiculous or not, and certainly the consensus is that it is not, is never more than a few shades of meaning away from being ridiculous. I have never really gotten him. I read something recently where some teacher of writing was championing his spareness and the precision with which he chose his words and images as an example for the aspiring author to study. This was a book however directed at people who buy books at Barnes & Noble purporting to tell them how to become writers. Is Williams an especially precise and powerfully economical poet compared any of the major poets who have worked in this general vein, or even precursors such as Blake and Tennyson? I haven't gotten that.
Except for the second stanza, the parody is not really that funny. A parody that fails to be consistently funny, or written such as to leave no doubt as to what is absurd or deficient in the original, is to me a failed parody.
In contrast to Brode, our other parodist, Kenneth Koch seems to have more cachet as a real poet. He was on the faculty at Columbia University for decades, where he was apparently very popular. He was identified with the "New York School" of poets and other artists in the 50s, with which the Abstract Expressionist painters and the Beats are also considered to be loosely affiliated. The best of it looks to be in the tradition of solid, snappy, matter-of-fact, not overly cerebral or suffocatingly introspective American stuff that I tend to admire when I see it because a) I can't do it, and b) it is how the real cool kids who matter culturally in America have always talked and thought, and you know I want to be like them. Koch was born in Cincinnati in 1925, and died in 2002.
With regard to Williams, I seem to have lost my record of his birthplace and gravesite, though I actually visited both of them in 1998. He was born in Rutherford, New Jersey, a well-preserved and still quite bustling pre-World War II, leafy Mid-Atlantic town with a walkable main street, attractive public buildings, etc. It is only about ten miles from New York City, and is probably quite wealthy, but since the houses are old and close together and close to the street it does not give off an aura of exclusivity. There was an old house at the address where Williams was born that I think is probably old enough to be his (he was born in 1885 or 1886) but I am not 100% certain. By the way, if you happen to go, there are no alcohol sales in Rutherford (as of 1998), but if you bring your own wine to a restaurant and have a professional open it for you you are allowed to drink it.
Williams was buried in the neighboring town of Lyndhurst. The cemetery is in a fine spot, up on a hill with an almost unobstructed view of the Manhattan skyline (except for a gigantic Medieval Times restaurant complex just beyond the cemetery wall at the foot of the hill). I have some good pictures of it that I ought to try to put up. For one thing, of course, the twin towers are still standing at that time, but also the visit took place just before Christmas and it was one of those years, of which we have been having many recently, where the temperature was around 70 degrees, so there is that weak December light but the grass in green, people are dressed for early fall, and so on.
Although I cannot claim to be a great fan of Williams's, this pilgrimage to his turf I nonetheless consider to have been a success and a vindication of my methods of touring. For I would never have gone to these places otherwise, and there is a great deal of interesting and atractive Americana to be found and observed in walking around and eating in them for a few hours.