Ars Poetica 2022: 2nd Place

saturday with kenneth koch

the train to london, to see a friend
not seen for years—
cold day, grey day, nothing kind of day—
we meet at the station and go for lunch
some place on the river, overpriced and slow
but we share a lot of talk, and an old joy creeps back
as i remember how good it is
to hold onto friends, how much it pays off

then i have to leave
to prepare for monday when i’m teaching macbeth
and i don’t have a copy of macbeth
so i wander the used book tables by the thames and find
either shakespeare is a poor seller or else
no one ever gives him away
because there are no macbeths

so i buy a new copy at a theatre
and go to the national poetry library to read it
where i pick up the collected poems of kenneth koch
and forget macbeth

i remember what it’s like to be swept away by poetry
every poem making things new
i read a long one about a day when koch was walking in greece
and he thought, hey, maybe if i write down everything that happens today, everything i see, hear, think
then i will understand this blue day, this plain day, this nothing kind of day

so he starts writing everything down, and i think
yes—this is such a great way of enacting
the relationship of life to poetry—
that poetry is not the arnoldian best of the best or whatever
but just some words, put down—that’s all—

let’s strip out ideas, let’s just write what happens
and see if that tells me something or nothing

maybe all it tells me is that one day kenneth koch was walking to the harbor of a sunny greek island
saying goodbye to friends
and on his way he saw yellow houses and seagulls and women stitching nets
and maybe that doesn’t mean too much, but i have never
walked to the harbor of a sunny greek island to wave off a friend
and on my way seen yellow houses and seagulls and women stitching nets
so frankly it’s a gift to me that koch has done this—

though i want to call him ken because i feel
that i know him
that if i saw him in my town i would say
hey ken buddy how’re you doing
how nice to catch up with you—say, isn’t this kind of like that day when you walked to the harbor of a greek island
and on your way you saw yellow houses and seagulls and women stitching nets
except that today is grey and cold and the houses are grimy and wet
and instead of women stitching nets there are women hunting bargains in the sales
and instead of friends leaving to visit other islands you know no-one here
and you are a little confused
why suddenly you are in england when just a second ago you were in greece
on a warm and sunny island walking to the harbor
and now this intense guy with red hair whom you’ve never met before comes up and starts talking
endlessly about houses seagulls women and nets, as if he knew you
and calls you ken

and anyway you hardly remember that day in greece because you were forty then and now you’re nearly ninety
and once you wrote it down you figured there was no point remembering it
because you had written it down

so pretty much you just want to go home
and i understand that because you are after all nearly ninety—
i’ll let you go, though there’s so much i want to ask you
like how do you come up with all these new ways of thinking about everything,
not just houses and women and nets, but trains, wolves, champagne—

i’m sorry, i forgot what i was doing

which was also what happened to me reading koch,
imagining i could live his time because he wrote it down
so i thought—i’ll try that
i’ll write about taking the train, having lunch, buying macbeth, reading koch
and the poem where he walked to the harbor and saw seagulls houses women and nets
and i’ll see whether doing that makes any sort of sense to me
whether it might make the kind of poem that one day sees this old guy with white hair
whom i don’t know
come up to me, call me bri
and start talking

–> Brian Evans-Jones


Judge’s Comments

2nd Place: saturday with kenneth koch

“I love the connections made across time and space, and how reading does this, how we feel like we’ve become the best of friends with the speakers/characters and somehow thereby the writer/poet, and the poem itself enacted that same desire for connection through its stream-of-consciousness style, its rambling speech in the way of old friends who can prattle on with each other and pass the time together that way. In other words, I felt less alone while reading it. And that feels like such a perfect analogy for what a poem can be and why we read/write in the first place. I also loved the repetition with variation and felt a kind of summoning/conjuring of friendship, calling poet friends to the speaker of this poem, through invoking the repeated dailiness—like, if we call it to ourselves enough, it’ll come to us. A kind of manifesting. I was charmed by this poem.” 

–> Jennifer Givhan


Riddled with Arrows 5.4:


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