Send no postcards, take no pictures

John Redmond

  • One Train by Kenneth Koch
    Carcanet, 74 pp, £7.95, March 1997, ISBN 1 85754 269 X
  • A World where News Travelled slowly by Lavinia Greenlaw
    Faber, 53 pp, £6.99, January 1997, ISBN 0 571 19160 6
  • A Painted Field by Robin Robertson
    Picador, 98 pp, £6.99, February 1997, ISBN 0 330 35059 5

Kenneth Koch ends his fine and amusing collection, One Train, with a sequence called ‘On Aesthetics’, which, amongst many other things, takes in the aesthetics of Paul Valéry, of jazz, of moss, of air and of being the youngest of four sisters. In tone, the sequence is something like a cross between Auden’s ‘Academic Graffiti’ and the Private Eye scribbling of E.J. Thribb. Often, the line-breaks are deliberately clunking, as in ‘Aesthetics of the Outdoor Opera’:

Sing as loud
As you can
At the outdoor opera –
It will never
Be loud

Each section is, essentially, a one-liner which has spilled over its line. Some, like ‘Aesthetics of Comedy Asleep’, are mere squibs: ‘Don’t wake the clown/Or he may knock you down.’ Others like the witty ‘Aesthetics of Surrealism’ – ‘To find the impossible/With breasts’ – are near-Wildean aphorisms which simply flash by. But however substantial they are, all of the pieces, like tasty canapés, can be consumed quickly and easily and this, I think, says something about the aesthetics of the sequence itself. It put me in mind of Kurt Vonnegut’s description of his sister, who was a painter:

Alice, who was six feet tall and platinum blonde, asserted one time that she could roller-skate through a great museum like the Louvre, which she had never seen and which she wasn’t all that eager to see, and which she in fact would never see, and fully appreciate every painting that she passed. She said that she would be hearing these words in her head above the whir and clack of her wheels on the terrazzo: ‘Got it, got it, got it.’

Vonnegut’s sister articulates, in a deliberately colourful manner, a presumption which many who read poetry and many who view paintings probably share – that the reader or viewer with an experienced eye should be able to ‘get’ an art-work quickly. The image of roller-skating past the paintings in the Louvre – rather than, say, slowly genuflecting before each one – is anti-precious in the best American way and reflects an attitude which Vonnegut shares with Koch – the latter, after all is using a High Culture title like ‘On Aesthetics’ to line up a series of throwaway jokes. The image also reflects, in a much gentler way, a cultural bias towards quickness. Koch, in his poem ‘A Time Zone’, talks about his collaborations with John Ashbery on some more or less light-hearted – and certainly light – verse. These collaborations, which again put us in mind of Auden, feature the following (unpunctuated) lines: ‘He is not writing much this year but he likes to collaborate/So do I we do a set of sestinas at a speedy rate.’

Koch writes quickly and his poems read quickly. Speed, or rather speediness, in One Train, is a kind of free-floating value-in-itself – as it is in the world outside the book – like the qualities of being ‘modern’ or ‘sophisticated’, with which it is closely, if ambiguously, associated. When Koch writes about the meeting of two sophisticates, this attitude to the quality of speed is mirrored by the milieu:

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