The Burning Mystery of Anna in 1951
The Morning of the Poem
In The Art of Love (1975) Kenneth Koch said that some poets like to save up for their poems, others like to spend incessantly what they have. Spendthrift is better than thrift, according to Koch, because the pocket is bottomless, “your feelings are changing every instant,” and the available combinations of language are endless. In practice, as in the practice of The Art of Love, the big spenders write on the assumption that if you shoot a lot of lines, some of them are bound to hit the mark. If you feel inclined to out-Byron the Byron of Don Juan, you can write a long poem like Koch’s The Duplications (1977), keeping the stanzas going with a little plot and a lot of virtuosity, rhyming Hellas with fellas, and so forth.
Virtuosity takes verve. Koch’s poems are attractive not because they draw us into the charming circle of their rhetoric but because they “so serenely disdain” to edify us: they maintain power by rarely choosing to exert it. When they fail to be attractive, it is not because they take themselves too seriously but because they presume upon their grace and leave it compromised.
The Burning Mystery of Anna in 1951 is a new collection of ten fairly long poems, written in a loping, phrasal style, casual in its connectives if careful enough in its general direction. The poems have sturdy themes (anxiety; light and shadow; love; loss), but the themes are not taken as if they stood waiting to be glossed, explored, and understood. They are not even means to an end: rather, means of discovery, pursued not in the hope that they will lead to an end but that they will postpone every proffered end, endlessly. In “The Language of Shadows” Koch writes that
…Everything’s extinguished in desire
In fact and action
and he wants to fend off extinction by postponing fact and action, lest desire, too, die. The method is revery rather than argument or summary. It is what Wallace Stevens meant by “the hum of thoughts evaded in the mind”; evaded, presumably, so that thinking may persist.
Not themes, then, but talk, an aesthetic of talk, as in The Art of Love and one of the new poems, “The Problem of Anxiety,” where desultoriness gives the poet’s mind room to move and whatever time it needs to say something helpful to somebody. Nearly any theme will do. “One sidewalk leads everywhere, you don’t have to be in Estapan.” Koch likes to come upon things when they are just about to happen; like water about to boil, the telephone about to ring. Sarajevo an hour before the event. More interested in Sarajevo than in its cause, he likes to pick up a theme the first moment it becomes available and give it an unofficial future according to his revery.
The risk is that revery becomes whim or some other form of self-indulgence. Koch is not immune to this vanity. Like nearly every …