KOCH ME IF YOU CAN: REB LIVINGSTON TRIES FOR ELITE EIGHT

“A Time Zone” by Kenneth Koch begins with a quote from Apollinaire, which we won’t look at, because first, it’s in French, and secondly, the French have never understood poetry as competition; they understand it as wine or as a pancake.

LivingstonReb Livingston.  Sigh.  Does she have a chance?  Marla?

She does.

It’s the semi-final in the South Bracket. OK, let’s get right to it.  The Koch poem is a little self-indulgent and at times boring and David Lehman’s interested in the New York School so you know why this poem got in there but here it is in Sweet 16 do I really like this poem I don’t know I do love the ending, though:

De Kooning’s landscapy woman is full of double-exposure perfections
Bob Goodnough is making some small flat red corrections
Jane is concentrating she’s frowning she has a look of happy distress
She’s painting her own portrait in a long-sleeved dark pink dress
I’m excited I’m writing at my typewriter it doesn’t make too much sense

What about this, Marla?  Too patchy, name-droppy and cut-out, too satisfied with its snapshot surfaces?

Tom, Kenneth Koch is unfortunate for one thing.   His name is… Kenneth.  Imagine if he had a name like John…or Frank.  He’d be huge.  He’d be unstoppable.  You can’t top that “long-sleeved dark pink dress.”  I know.  I’ve been a Muse for a long time…  Koch’s poem is witty, smart, fun…

Fun?  Did you just call a poem fun?

I’VE BEEN A MUSE TO THE STARS FOR TWO MILLENNIA.

Sorry, Marla.

Here’s another clip of Koch and his “A Time Zone:”

At a John Cage concert there’s hardly a sound
It’s the paradise of music lost and music found
I find it pure and great as if a great big flash of light were going off underground
Satie and Webern are hitting me in the head and so finally with The Cantos is Ezra Pound
Frank and I are writing very long poems

Reb Livingston looks very nervous.  “That’s Not Butter,” according to Reb, is “loosely based on Little Black Sambo, a once-popular children’s story no longer taught due to its offensive racial characterizations. Few people my age are familiar with the story or its history, although my kindergarten teacher read it to our class. As young children oblivious to British imperialism, we loved the tale because to us it was about pancakes and a little boy who outsmarted tigers.”

“Long poems” v. a story in kindergarten.  Marla, does Livingston really have a chance?

The Muse has a tender heart, Tom.  Livingston has a certain look in her eye.  Uhhh…Kenneth’s clothes are slightly unkempt.  Uhhh…anything can happen.

The opening 6 lines of “That’s Not Butter:”

Once upon a time there was a house full of divorced women who did not sew.
No beautiful little red coats or beautiful little blue trousers.
The children’s clothes, purchased at Sears,
mass produced, not very unique, but good enough.

Every month the fathers would visit and take the children to fun places,
like the amusement parks, Chuck E. Cheese, and church bazaars.

Here is world of “divorce” and Chuck E. Cheese.  We all know this world: crass, yet plastic and efficient.  Unpoetic.

“That’s Not Butter” is a twist on Lewis Carroll: Alice (and her young companions) are as nasty as the Red Queen, while animal citizens of this Wonderland are normal, sane, and helpful.  Livingston shows modern children as menacing rather than innocent, but “That’s Not Butter” is more than just an anti-Rousseauian treatise.  The poet is not saying childhood is lost, so much as it is here, with a vengeance.  Capitalism’s efficiency produces a host of superficial choices and turns adults into egotistical children.  By using “Little Black Sambo” as sub-text, Livingston does two interesting things.  First, she contrasts the Victorian tale’s “beautiful little red coats” and “beautiful little blue trousers” with clothes “purchased at Sears, mass produced.”  Secondly, she sidesteps the famous racial controversy of that tale, focusing instead on “gangsta” kids in a Benneton universe of diversity and scheming opportunity.  Livingston’s social commentary is funny, spot on, and brutally honest.  Koch’s “A Time Zone” seems almost quaint by comparison.

Reb Livingston’s poem closes as follows:

“Can we smoke that?” inquired Little Speckled Sarah.
“I don’t think so, but I bet we could cook with it,” said Little Freckled Furman.
So the children scooped up the butter in their sneakers
and found their way home after torturing a turtle for directions.

When the mothers saw the melted butter, they were pleased!
“Now we’ll all have pancakes for supper!” and the whole family
sat around a huge big plate of most lovely
pancakes, yellow and brown as little tigers.  The mothers each ate
twenty-seven pancakes, the fathers came over and each ate fifty-five,
and the children each ate a hundred and sixty-nine
because they were so hungry.

So Reb Livingston steps into a lot of themes.  Koch passes to Jane who throws it inside to Rivers back outside to Ashbery who broods with it near mid-court, then chuckles and passes to O’Hara who drives hard, puts it up, off the rim, rebound Koch…Koch to Ballanchine to Freilicher, too many players on the court, whistle.  Reb has the ball, to a tiger, another tiger, back to Reb, a pass to Little Taupe Tabitha, who smirks, then laughs, and puts it up…GOOD!  What’s this?  It’s over?  I don’t belive it!  Livingston wins!  Livingston wins!   It’s official!  Reb Livingston is in the Elite Eight!

Marla?…when you get a chance…Marla, are you there…?…show the people at  home the whole poem…the fans are going crazy!….we’re getting mobbed here…!  Help…! 

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8 Comments

  1. Bob Tonucci said,

    March 21, 2010 at 3:15 am

    Tom, Marla Muse here, I had an all day appointment at a day spa, so shoot me!

    THAT’S NOT BUTTER by Reb Livingston

    Once upon a time there was a house full of divorced women who did not sew.
    No beautiful little red coats or beautiful little blue trousers.
    The children’s clothes, purchased at Sears,
    mass produced, not very unique, but good enough.

    Every month the fathers would visit and take the children to fun places,
    like the amusement parks, Chuck E. Cheese and church bazaars.
    No beautiful green umbrellas or lovely little purple shoes
    with crimson soles and crimson linings.
    Only flammable stuffed monkeys and glow sticks.

    Most of the time, the children were on their own and passed
    time shoplifting glue and smoking skinny cigars in the woods.
    One day Little Pink Brittany found a jungle and suggested they explore.
    “That jungle smells funny,” warned Little Peach Paulie.
    “Not as funny as your mom,” laughed Little Taupe Tabitha,
    “Let’s investigate, maybe ganja grows wild there.”
    Little Mauve Melvin’s eyes twisted left, “We could cultivate
    the ganja, become gangsta farmers, start our own syndicate!”

    The children proceeded, they proceeded to get lost in the jungle.
    The jungle owls were warming up, one by one the children cried.
    By and by they met a tiger, “Aren’t you all adorable in your
    matching little yellow sweats and little yellow hoodies.
    I could eat every single one of you right up!”
    “Who are you?” asked Little Amber Ambrosia.
    “Why I’m the grandest tiger in the jungle!”
    Up above in the treetops the leopards laughed, “Not in those stripes!”
    The tiger shook his paw in the air, “Haters!”

    “It’s almost night, you kids shouldn’t be here. It’s not safe.
    Climb on my back and I’ll take you home to your mothers.”
    “We’re not leaving without the ganja!” protested Little Beige Timmy.
    The tiger sighed, “There’s no ganja in this jungle, only coconuts.”

    But the children knew this was a lie for they could smell the ganja,
    the tiger smelled as if he had been soaking in it from birth.
    Little Auburn Emily pulled out her sharpened toothbrush and demanded
    “The ganja or your hide! You’re not the boss of me!”
    That tiger somehow seemed to know how to think like a tiger,
    like a paranoid tiger stoned out of his whiskers. Instead of gobbling up
    the little children, he ran, round and round a tree,
    faster and faster until he was whirling round so fast his legs
    could not be seen, it was more than just a blur, he was melting,
    melting away until there was nothing left
    except a great pool of melted butter.

    “Can we smoke that?” inquired Little Speckled Sarah.
    “I don’t think so, but I bet we could cook with it.” said Little Freckled Furman.
    So the children scooped up the butter in their sneakers
    and found their way home after torturing a turtle for directions.

    When the mothers saw the melted butter, they were pleased!
    “Now we’ll all have pancakes for supper!” and the whole family
    sat around a huge big plate of most lovely
    pancakes, yellow and brown as little tigers. The mothers each ate
    twenty-seven pancakes, the fathers came over and each ate fifty-five
    and the children each ate a hundred and sixty-nine
    because they were so hungry.

  2. Desmond Swords said,

    March 21, 2010 at 4:33 am

    If Basil Bunting were casting his eye over Koch’s poem and asked for an opinion, he could point out the extraneous words contributing to clumsy clauses that could be considerably shortened with an editorial pencil without removing any of the poetry. The opposite in fact. The poetic torque would be tighter and the object a leaner speci-poem.

    For example, ‘landscapy’ is here – I suspect – because of an all-pervading poetic influence of Seamus Heaney, who popularized the adjectivizing of nouns by his peers – as Koch does here. If Bunting were his editor and I were Basil, I would point out that the mouth-mechanics involved in going from a final e-sound in landscape-y, to the sound of ‘w’ in ‘woman’ – is an acoustically inelegant act, and one that is solved by changing landscapy to landscape-like. The transition from voiceless velar plosive of ‘k’ in ‘like’, to voiced labiovelar approximant of ‘w’ in ‘woman’ – is a far less clumsy manoeuvre orally and a more graceful transition per se.

    The second suggestion one would make to Koch, if things were different and he were alive, I was Bunting and it was 1995 – would be to break the first line after ‘double exposure’, and create the perfect caesura by carrying over ‘perfections’ to the start of the second line and thus staying one-step ahead of his Reader’s cognzance of the scene. This extends the line, but he can afford to drop one of the three adjectives in the second half of line two – ‘small flat red corrections.’

    De Kooning’s landscape-like woman is full of double-exposure
    perfections Bob Goodnough is making with flat red corrections
    as Jane frowns, with a concentrated look of happy distress
    painting a self-portrait in the long-sleeved dark pink dress.

    Excited, I’m writing at a typewriter that it doesn’t make sense.

    You will see I have made about ten very minor (but important) alterations, a full report, of which will be getting sent to David Lehman and Mark Strand, who is responsible for its inclusion in BAP ’96. Strand is a big fan of Koch and I am a big fan of Am Po, but there are some things which need to be said, as Eric Landon found out — which he cannot say at Harriet because Trav cut him off when in mid-flow with Sina Queyras as we were discussing the finer points of what a career in poetry boils down to.

    She wasn’t happy, writing to me that she thought Travis was an imbecile without the ability to speak, only silently fume and – as we all do – play his game, but with no discernable class or talent and the sole quaification for being a ‘poet’, his job in the PFoA.

    Des

  3. thomasbrady said,

    March 21, 2010 at 12:38 pm

    Des,

    Great analysis of the Koch!

    With all due respect to the dead, you did improve him. Well-done. Thank you.

    Always nice to hear the gossip of hapless Harriet, too.

    I wonder when Trav gets fired–for firing us, and for just being an imbecile?

    Thomas

  4. Reb said,

    March 21, 2010 at 11:36 pm

    Thank you for this wonderful close reading of my poem.

  5. thomasbrady said,

    March 22, 2010 at 11:14 am

    Congratulations, Reb!

  6. Bob Tonucci said,

    March 23, 2010 at 12:13 am

    Marla Muse (MM): I’m here down on the parquet floor with Reb Livingston, whose poem “That’s Not Butter” achieved a stunning victory, triumphing over Kenneth Koch’s “A Time Zone”, that placed her in the Elite Eight. Reb, congratulations!

    Reb Livingston (RL): Thanks, Marla.

    MM: Now you pulled off this stunning victory by recycling a classic offense created back around 1899 by Helen Bannerman, who was born in Scotland and lived from 1862-1946.

    RL: That’s correct, Marla.

    MM: But though you use the framework of Bannerman’s offense, you manage at the same time to turn it on its head as well. Bannerman’s team was made up of the mother, father, son, and four tigers. On your team are a bevy of single parents, nine children, one tiger, plus owls and leopards.

    RL: And a turtle.

    MM: Ach, yes— that poor turtle… Alright Reb, in Bannerman’s offense, the child was kind and gentle and the tigers were predatory and dangerous. But in your offense, it’s the children who are predatory and dangerous, and the tiger who is kind and gentle. When these kids came out on the floor at the beginning of the game, I asked Bill the security guard to stand in front of the broadcast booth so there’d be a thin blue line between me and your squad of Dead End kids out there.

    RL: Did he do it?

    MM: He said he would, then he wandered off for a smoke break that managed to last the entire game. He’s close to retirement, doesn’t want to risk getting injured.

    RL: That’s understandable.

    MM: So you bring these kids out, and they’re raising pandemonium out there, Koch and Cage and O’Hara didn’t seem to know what to do. They’re New York intellectuals, but these kids are Rikers Island intellectuals! And the fouls! I’ve never seen so many! Especially when Little Auburn Emily cornered John Cage, who looked like he was 90 years old, “pulled out her sharpened toothbrush, and demanded ‘The [basketball] or your hide!’”

    RL: And the refs didn’t call it either.

    MM: The refs didn’t call anything! I think they were scared. Heck, any rational human being would be. No, I take that back, any living creature would be. I mean even the leopards, you tried to put the leopards in, but they stayed “[u]p above in the treetops”, and my guess is it’s because they were terrified of their own teammates.

    RL: Perhaps so.

    MM: Now Reb, you wrapped up your offense on an optimistic note, but I felt this was more a bow to Bannerman’s playbook than any optimism inherent in the poem itself. For me, the real end of your poem is “So the children scooped up the butter in their sneakers/and found their way home after torturing a turtle for directions.” Because what follows that is an ending almost exactly a restatement of Bannerman’s ending. Your ending seems optimistic, but I suspect it’s a faux optimism. And my suspicions seem to be confirmed by the title of the poem, which appears to undercut the happy ending. But if it’s not butter, Reb, what is it? Could it be ganja? Was Little Freckled Furman wrong? Were those hash pancakes everyone was eating at the end?

    RL: Hash pancakes?

    MM: Now Reb, “That’s not butter” was a phrase used in a famous margarine ad, which was similar to another famous margarine ad that concluded, “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.”

    RL: I’ve heard of that one.

    MM: And it seems like in this poem, Mother Nature is completely foiled, if not fooled: the wild animals act like small children, and the small children act like wild animals… Reb, you’ve made it into the Elite Eight with a poem that chills my blood, and a team that I was afraid would spill it as well. You’ll be back for a shot at the Final Four against a poet yet undetermined. Uhh— where’d your team go? I hope they’re not trashing the locker room.

    RL: You might want to check up on that, Marla.

    MM: I’ll ask Bill the security guard to— oh, forget it, I’ll do it myself. You wouldn’t have a sharpened toothbrush I could borrow for protection, would you Reb?

    RL: I don’t Marla, I’m sorry.

    MM: OK Tom, this is Marla Muse, heading down to the locker room, and asking all you viewers out there to say a short prayer for my safety….

  7. Bob Tonucci said,

    March 27, 2010 at 7:17 pm

    You Were Wearing

    Kenneth Koch

    You were wearing your Edgar Allan Poe printed cotton blouse.
    In each divided up square of the blouse was a picture of Edgar Allan
    Poe,
    Your hair was blonde and you were cute. You asked me, “Do most
    boys think that most girls are bad?”
    I smelled the mould of your seaside resort hotel bedroom on your hair
    held in place by a John Greenleaf Whittier clip.
    “No,” I said, “it’s girls who think that boys are bad.” Then we read
    ‘Snowbound’ together
    And ran around in an attic, so that a little of the blue enamel was scraped off
    my George Washington, Father of His Country, shoes.

    Mother was walking in the living room, her Strauss Waltzes comb in
    her hair.
    We waited for a time and then joined her, only to be served tea in cups
    painted with pictures of Herman Melville
    As well as with illustrations from his book Moby Dick and from his
    novella, Benito Cereno.
    Father came in wearing his Dick Tracy necktie: “How about a drink,
    everyone?”
    I said, “Let’s go outside a while.” Then we went onto the porch and
    sat on the Abraham Lincoln swing.
    You sat on the eyes, mouth, and beard part, and I sat on the knees.
    In the yard across the street we saw a snowman holding a garbage can
    lid smashed into a likeness of the mad English king, George the
    Third.

  8. Bob Tonucci said,

    March 28, 2010 at 10:15 am

    Seven Spell

    by Reb Livingston

    conjured in a closet;
    seven minutes in a delusive boon

    deep breaths shallow,
    ankles stretched, entwined

    ribs padded with throbs,
    bells and trance

    it never ended and then
    it ended

    the spell distant,
    retrospect, precious

    the doorways, hall-
    ways, the fleeting pitter

    patters gaze
    up a long flight of stairs

    something’s still
    there to behold

    is it sorcery or charm?
    invoke a comely name for it

    recall your palms
    flattening my thrum,

    my thrum, my good judgment groped,
    ravaged, delirious


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