Sunday, July 22, 2007

Kenneth Koch's "The Pleasures of Peace"/The New York School and War Resistance

In Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront since 1941, I discuss Kent Johnson's poem "The New York School," and how it confronts the limits of New York School poetics for war resistance:

The poem ["The New York School"] thus links the poetry wars—where experimental poets and mainstream poets are seen as bitter enemies in a feud over the soul of poetry—with the nation’s conflicts. This poem suggests that, for Johnson, the almost universally-beloved New York School poetry most embodies our own Americanness—its nerve, its vivacity, its bawdy humor, its celebratory evocations of commercial and popular culture—offers little in the way of direct resistance to or confrontation of the exploitative relationships with the Global South that undergirds the American way of life. No doubt, there is something to say for Ashbery’s defense of escapism as a mode of resistance, or O’Hara’s poetics of ecstasy, or Koch’s poetics of parody. What Johnson suggests and what the poem implies is that it is not enough. This poem, despite its obvious self-lacerating (or maybe because of it), succeeds, ironically, by employing the very strategies of the New York School poets that it seems to critique—the vicious humor, the playful surrealism, the verve of naming names and shout-outs to friends—all pillars of New York School poetry.

Part of what lay behind this assertion was my own vexed enjoyment of New York School poetry. On the one hand, so much of the poetry O'Hara, Koch, and Ashbery (to name at least three principals of NYS) is just pure pleasure to read. On the other hand, the poets seemed oddly silent on the war that consumed the 1960s--not to mention the host of other social movements from the period. I paraphrase John Ashbery's rather simplistic retort to criticisms of silence: "every poem is a poem against war." Andrew Ross' Jamesonian critique of O'Hara's "The Day Lady Died" dresses down the poem for its blithe consumerism. More recent takes on O'Hara and others--I'm thinking of Mike Magee's Emancipating Pragmatism's chapter on O'Hara and his relationship to Baraka and progressivism--have situated these poets as more complexly progressive in their politics. To wit: in an email, Andrew Epstein also wrote: "I think the NYS poets all have a quite complicated relationship to the whole idea of a poetics of dissent and protest, but one that's much more interesting than simply dismissal or a blithe embrace of art-for-art's sake." In a sense, the more recent generations of New York School-related poets--and here I'd invite the Flarf Collective as at least in part post-NYS--have answered the question I'd posed in the book: "what would a New York School poetics of resistance look like?"

But I'd neglected Koch. When I was reading his Collected Poems, I came across "The Pleasures of Peace," a poem explicitly engaged in thinking about his own relationship to the peace movement and the anti-war struggle.

From an interview by John Stoer, published in City Beat, Koch contextualizes that poem:

CB: You had been working quite a bit in the '50s and '60s, and by 1970 you had gotten a job teaching at Columbia University. Did the student uprisings affect your work or make you reconsider anything?

KK: It affected my work, but then it wasn't the main thing that did it. Do you know a poem of mine called "The Pleasures of Peace"? It was a protest against the Vietnam War, but I found I couldn't write very well about the horrors of war. It ended up being a celebration of the peace movement, which was very exhilarating.

It's too bad you have to have a horrible war to find that you have a lot in common with other people. You know, it was really exciting for us to suddenly feel that what one had to say might mean something and be helpful to people.

But (writing political poetry) is difficult. The best remark I ever heard about writing political poetry was made by Bertolt Brecht. He said, "You can't write poems about the trees when the woods are full of policemen."

Here are a few lines from "The Pleasures of Peace," in which he refuses to enter into the protest poem that needs to represent the war:

So now I must devote myself now to The Pleasures of Peace--
To my contemporaries I'll leave the Horrors of War,
They can do them better than I--each poet shares only a portion
Of the vast Territory of Rhyme. Here in Peace I shall stake out
My temporal and permanent claim. But such silver as I find
I shall give to the Universe--the gold I'll put in other poems.

The poem, on the whole, has a lot of fun not only with peace, but with those who take war resistance so seriously that they threaten the peace in their own way. Koch reminds us that if peace is the goal--A.J. Muste once famously wrote, "there is no way to peace. Peace is the way"--then we should enjoy our getting there. The Vietnam War brought out a great desperation in war resisters--for some very legitimate reasons--but it also damaged many people along the way. Koch, a veteran of World War II, also wrote a moving and subtle poem on that war, "To World War II."

See also William Watkin's reading of the poem

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