This is the big splashy finale, and what could be bigger and splashier than Kenneth Koch and his monster epic poem “When the Sun Tries to Go On”? Nothing, that’s what. But, you may be wondering what this has to do with Poets off Poetry, considering that Koch was, and remains, one of our finest poets, and Poets off Poetry is supposed to be about music. Well, hang tight true believers and naysayers alike, this is only about music, and it’s off the charts “off” poetry.
But first, a little music to set the mood.
Storm & Stress is/was (bands don’t really break up anymore; they just disappear, so the status of Storm & Stress is ambiguous) an experimental/noise rock trio that released two records on Chicago’s Touch and Go label, 1997’s self-titled (though smashed together) Storm&Stress and 2000’s Under Thunder & Florescent Lights. Both of these records are dynamite—though I’m partial to the first one (probably because I heard it first—I was working at a record store and we got a Touch & Go sampler from the label that had “Orange Cone Made No Noise” on it, and I immediately ordered the record on CD. Later I went out and bought it on vinyl too).
What does Storm & Stress sound like? Think: Arto Lindsay’s DNA meets Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz and Kurt Schwitters at a fireworks convention, and you’ll have a pretty good idea. And speaking of Arto Lindsay, it occurs to me suddenly that DNA would also make a great soundtrack to this section. So too Free Jazz. So too Kurt Schwitters’ Ursonate. I’d recommend playing them all simultaneously…
However, if none those names ring a bell, perhaps you’ll recognize Storm & Stress’ guitarist/speaker-singer, Ian Williams, well-known in Indie-Rock circles both as a member of Don Caballero and as the driving force behind the ultra-hip Battles. Still, no bells? Maybe you’ll remember Williams from his cameo as a record store customer in the movie High Fidelity? He appears on screen shortly after John Cusack’s character, record storeowner and ne’er-do-well Rob Gordon, announces, “I will now sell five copies of The Three E.P.’s by The Beta Band.”
The point is—and, in any case—
Storm & Stress was an amazing band, and their 1997 debut was among the most startlingly great records of the end of the last century. What makes it so good? It’s repetitive, explosive, long-winded (and I mean that as a compliment), dissonant, dynamic (as in its very quiet and VERY LOUD) and generally up-at-arms in/at angles with itself. It proceeds via subtle and not-so-subtle disruption, self-sabotage, and ear/th moving. In general, it kind of sounds like something collapsing and being built simultaneously.
Also, it was produced by Steve Albini and the unclassifiably eclectic—jazz, hip-hop, R&B, strangeness entrepreneur—Micah Gaugh (Note: Gaugh himself makes a special guest appearance on the record, singing the song “Micah Gaugh Sings All Is All”—and in case you’re wondering, yes, that’s exactly what it is, Micah Gaugh singing “All is All” accompanied by—accompanying himself with?—what sounds like the ricketiest nearly out-of-tune piano ever. What’s funny is that none of the actual members of Storm & Stress are anywhere to be heard on the track. It’s lilting and odd, amidst the record’s other coughing cacophonies, a vacation in the storm and stress of Storm & Stress—and one of my favorite tracks on the record). Anyway, for a clearer picture of what Storm & Stress is all about, here’s a descriptive (though somewhat melodramatic, and slightly pretentious—well, okay a lot pretentious—but c’mon this is art-rock, and it has a goofy absurdist charm that’s endearing nevertheless) paragraph from the band’s Touch & Go page:
Storm & Stress is of course an historical reference to the German literary movement, Sturm and Drang. Ours is more of a modern day version, where the characters still yearn for revolt, but unfortunately cannot. We would like to feel, but have no feelings left. It’s about an impossible situation: the ridiculousness of another era in our new skin (the wigs hurt), the improperness of pop artifice mixed with legitimate attempts at being serious, and then all of the attendant problems, i.e. teenage aspirations tripped up by music that teenagers probably don’t want to listen to, rock without a beat, etc.
It’s super clear: These guys are aesthetes—or at least they wanna be, and what the hell, I’m all for it. The music’s FUGGIN’ SMART and ALWAYS INTERESTING, ALWAYS SURPRISING, FALLING APART APART APART APART APART APART APART APART… And yet, they don’t really take themselves all that seriously. I mean, “(the wigs hurt)”; they understand the costume-y put on of “pop artifice” and the fact that most people wouldn’t even think what they’re doing is music, “rock without a beat, etc.” Clearly Storm & Stress can take a joke, and that by itself makes them so much more sympathetic than most of the people making noise rock/art. Let’s promise not to be too self-serious during the rest of this essay, okay?
I thought about looking at the lyrics to one of the songs here, but there are barely any lyrics on the record—there’s barely any singing, even when there is singing. The voice is just another instrument, sometimes dynamic sometimes half-hearted, mostly absent altogether, as if they’ve LOST their legitimate pop/rock voices. Thank goodness—as this opens up the possibility for something entirely different. Anyway, instead of lyrics, here’s the track listing from the first record. It’s all you need to know:
2. Today is Totally Crashing & Stunned in Bright Lights
3. Dance ’til Record Skips Like Passengers Shift on Take Off
4. Micah Gaugh Sings All Is All
5. Guitar Cabinet Stack Way High Is Freedom or Gravity Gives Us Rhythm
6. Piles of Blinkers Slip for New Years
7. Orange Cone Made No Noise
Interestingly, before I went back (and looked for the purposes of this essay) I remembered the title of the first song as “We Write Threnodies. We SING with Explosions,” but of course I was wrong. There’s no “singing.” These guys are writers. They write with explosions. The music accumulates in terms of repetition and repetitious self-sabotages of the previous repetition, etc. It hangs together like a roadside bomb or an amusement park running full blast with all its lights out. Sometimes listening to Storm & Stress is almost like looking at wallpaper. Explosions give way to patterns, which morph before our ears into other patterns, and these in turn become sculptures that sound like songs—or, at least, they sound enough like songs that it makes more sense to call them songs than it does to call them sculptures or poems or Indian rhinoceroses. Still, calling them one of those things wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. It would depend entirely on the context. Storm & Stress’ Storm&Stress is hands down/hands up (reach for the sky!) one of my favorite records EVER.
Dear Kenneth Koch after the Fact:
You were, and are, one of my favorite poets EVER. I met you on February 10, 2000 in Chicago at a reading, where you read from New Addresses. It was terrific. Afterward, you signed my copy of On the Great Atlantic Rainway. I was so nervous to meet you, and I said, like a bumbling idiot, “Professor Koch, that was a great reading. I took a bus here from your hometown, Cincinnati, to see you read…” That was the moment you put down your pen and looked at me bewildered and said, “What are you—fucking crazy?” Then you picked the pen back up and said “What’s your name?” You signed my book, “TO MATT IN CHICAGO WITH BEST WISHES” followed by a scribble which I assume is/was your signature, but it’s hard to say. You also wrote the date.
Thank you for being. And, to answer your question, since I didn’t get to do it in Chicago: Yes, I am totally fucking crazy, but also the most normal person ever.
Over the years, I’ve spent lots of time poring over (but more importantly enjoying!) Kenneth Koch’s poems, especially his long poem When the Sun Tries to Go On, which was written in 1953 and consists of one hundred, 24 line stanzas. The first letter of every line is capitalized in that lovely, nearly antique way that poets used to always do. All the lines are between 3 and 6 beats, but they defy us to keep (or count) them. The poem’s rhythm is constantly slipping out from under itself into clatter—like dishes and light bulbs breaking in a fight (or a celebration, it’s hard to say “It’s hard to say!”). The poem is a monster and a marvel, a thing of bombastic muscularity and yet also of incredible sweetness/nuance. Syntax is deliberately obliterated over and over again. There is no speaker. There are a million speakers. There are constant surprises. Every line, every sentence is an ottoman to trip over in the dark (and IT IS DARK), a landmine to step on, or a puddle (of chocolate pudding or bacon grease, apple juice or pig’s blood) to jump in (I mean, STOMP THROUGH!). It’s all one volume, THIS VOLUME! Full of exclamatory gestures and questions, declarations, and interruptions, answers and half-answers none of which (together and often even on their own) make any ordinary sense. The poem is one non sequitur after another, a barrage of noise and bad linguistic behavior. In fact, it’s a train wreck of language, or of words pretending to be language—an expressive, explosive thing of beauty for sure. And yet, remember it’s so formal: 100, 24 line stanzas, etc. Like a Storm & Stress record it proceeds in terms constant self-sabotage, explosive vitality and a desire to avoid falling into the trap of ARTICULATING MEANING, at the expense of experiencing, demonstrating, and expressing something MEANINGFUL. Do I sound hyperbolic? Well, here’s the first stanza:
And, with a shout, collecting coat-hangers
Dour rebus, conch, hip,
Ham, the autumn day, oh how genuine!
Literary frog, catch-all boxer, O
Real! The magistrate, say “group,” bower, undies
Disk, poop, “Timon of Athens.” When
The bugle shimmies, how glove towns!
It’s Merrimac, bends, and pure gymnasium
Impy keels! The earth desks, madmen
Impose a shy (oops) broken tube’s child—
Land! why are your bandleaders troops
Of is? Honk, can the mailed rose
Gesticulate? Arm the paper arm!
Bind up the chow in its lintel of sniff.
Rush the pilgrims, destroy tobacco, pool
The dirty beautiful jingling pyjamas, at
Last beside the stove-drum-preventing oyster,
The “Caesar” of tower dins, the cold’s “I’m
A dear.” O bed, at which I used to sneer at.
Bringing cloth. O song, “Dusted Hoops!” He gave
A dish of. The bear, that sound of pins. O French
Ice-cream! balconies of deserted snuff! The hills are
Very underwear, and near “to be”
An angel is shouting, “Wilder baskets!”
This stanza contains 17 or 19 “sentences” depending whether you count “The earth desks, madmen/Impose a shy (oops) broken tube’s child—/Land! why are your bandleaders troops of is?” and “O French/Ice-cream! balconies of deserted snuff!” as one or two sentences each (obviously, I’m just counting any end stop as the end of a sentence). Clearly, that’s a ton of starting and stopping in only 24 lines, which gives the poem a herky-jerky feel. The stanza is always slamming on! the breaks! And, then, with another—shout! zooming off to collect more coat hangers. It is constantly and continually—consistently—a matter of whiplash.
Additionally (and as long as we’re counting things) in this stanza, there are the following:
—4 Romantic “O”s
—7 sets of quotation marks
—10 exclamation points
—2 question marks
—1 em dash
—at least 1 allusion to Shakespeare, e.g., “Timon of Athens.” “Caesar,” of course, also makes an appearance. It’s unclear where he comes from, but all literature alludes to other literature, so it only makes sense that Koch would do it here, too (as well as throughout the rest of the poem).
Finally, the stanza also contains
—1 parenthetical “(oops)” right at the heart of the matter (because all great literature is almost completely by accident)
—1 pair of “pyjamas,” wonderfully misspelled!
In fact, this stanza, like all of the other stanzas in “When the Sun Tries to Go On,” is perfectly loaded with mistakes. The poem is a deliberately amazing failure to compute—although it does communicate hysterically, via wildness, wilderness and bewilderment.
“And, with a shout, collecting coat-hangers,” the poem blasts-off! Its overblown punctuation, high and low diction (“O” and “lintel” vs. “poop” and “chow” for example), constant sabotage of grammar and syntax (“When/ The bugle shimmies, how glove towns!” “O, bed at which I used to sneer at.” or “It’s Merrimac, bends, and pure gynasium/Impy keels!”), odd line breaks (who would seriously break a line at, “[…]the cold’s “I’m/A dear.”?), and absurd declaratives and imperatives (“The hills are very underwear,” “Arm the paper arm!”), all add up to an epic of textural, colorful, clashy indecorousness. It’s one violation of decorum after another after another after another, like a carnival that actually had a mind and then lost it.
In the introduction to Sun Out, the book in which “When the Sun Tries to Go On” appears, Koch himself mentions a quotation from Wittgenstein, “There are no subjects in the world. A subject is a limitation of the world” as a kind of background for the entire book. Koch then goes on to note that while “everything, once it’s written about, even if it’s a wild chaos is bound eventually to become itself a sort of subject,” Sun Out and, by implication, “When the Sun Tries to Go On,” was an attempt to “keep my subject up in the air as long as possible.” As a result the poem becomes a demonstration of something more than it ever becomes ABOUT anything—storm and stress and buckets of childlike (sometimes childish) exuberance. Put another way, “When the Sun Tries to Go On” hilariously, uproariously and mercilessly undermines “about” again and again. The Sun can never quite take the stage, so the play never quite starts—except it’s ALL play, so there’s always plenty to enjoy. The poem is a record of a particular way of paying attention. It’s the best deliberately bad writing, and this is what makes it genius.
And yet, it’s important to remember that for Koch nonsense is always serious business. The poem goes on exactly like the first stanza above (with different—though entirely similar words and sabotages) for another 99 stanzas. Enjoy! It’s almost unreadable in that typical page turning way one reads novels or the newspaper, but it’s also difficult to read in that analytical way one reads most poems. Instead, it is by design a poem one dips in and out of over time, a stanza here, two stanzas there. I know I’ve read the entire poem several times, but I’ve never read it beginning to end, left to right, top to bottom down the page. The truth is—and this may seem paradoxical—for all its flashy indecorousness and volume, the poem gets sort of boring after a while. It’s all too loud, and as a result one begins to become numb to its incursions, i.e. the poem is so totally indecorous that it becomes decorative. It’s wallpaper. It’s a Jackson Pollock painting. It’s an alarm clock you can’t turn off and have to learn to live with. Eventually one becomes just as capable of tuning it out as tuning it in.
In the end, what I’ve learned from thinking about music and poetry and the music of poetry/the poetry of some music, is that I don’t want so much to make distinctions. I want to be hit in the head with the song in whatever form it takes, from the Sex Pistols to Kenneth Koch and everything in between. In both poetry and music, I value surprise, imagination, and mystery. I value shock and awe. I value sabotage and failure, astonishment and the marvel of being. As a writer, these are the things I’m always chasing after. I’ll take them as they come, but I’ll also follow them into hell—by any means necessary, come what may. The possibilities are endless. The song is always strange. This is the end of the recording.
from Sermons and Lectures Both Blank and Relentless
Ever the ocean blunders, my creatures Ever and over
Over and ever You’re covered in sleep You smash
a double-old fashioned glass of air against the throat of
your shadow’s shadow’s shadow Two men come to break you up
They pull your taffy body in a nervous direction You hear
yourself yelling as you race for the Exit “Idiot idiot
My little girl is all the world, and I’m her lucky inkling” That’s when
you retrieve yourself, remember how it felt on the precipice of emptiness
The red birds burning out, whittled and complacent, compacted
like a lecture to a single point of light, long before the family
arrived at your mailbox, and the shell of you exploded in a gust
of buggy locusts Your face now the face of a distinguished
younger-older Your hair of gray ice rink Your jaw
named machete Silly dreaming donkey on an island you imagined
Inflated and floating, but degraded just the same From day to day
a little more or less of one and then the other, or something else
entirely The ocean the ocean You put her on your knee
No reason not to Read the books, the bouquets of daisies,
the spirit gum and miracles Don’t be mad or don’t be at all
So much thought to move through walls You take the stairs
and use the doors You flood the streets with lightning
Out among the bodies, the leaves and distortion, the air
feels resolute, both fearless and ridiculous Seaweed and tangles,
the most incredible failures You and every other So many
weird creatures, some hating some loving, fighting
and fading and braving each second The past so long
and far away, the future at a distance Together but separate
in the very same breath Happily ever after, then never more
to say it Fate like thunder or pressed against your wrist You climb
the massive forest You board your unicycle your kayak your skateboard
inner tube dining car hurricane to go You think about what makes you
you The things you hold close in an abstract sense
and the others more concretely as they smack against
your lips Pursued by sirens Of ambulance drivers
Of doubters and dreamers, the swirling ever after
punk rocking in your quarry The water always rising
in a new kind of motion You get to adjust and you get to
be dust You get to make it whatever you can make it
What more could you want Some familiar voice
or a hand in your claw The music in your heart
so descending into chaos, feeling at home, salty water
like a chorus Over and over, forever and ever, your thoughts
and your feelings like a feathery colossus, lifting off
for a planet only forming as you speak it Please
take a few minutes to gather what matters
Say your goodbyes It’s been lovely
Matt Hart is the author of the poetry collections Who’s Who Vivid (Slope Editions, 2006), Wolf Face (H_NGM_N BKS 2010), and Light-Headed (BlazeVOX, 2011). A fourth collection Sermons and Lectures Both Blank and Relentless will be published by Typecast in 2012. He lives in Cincinnati, where he is a co-founder and the editor-in-chief of Forklift, Ohio: A Journal of Poetry, Cooking, & Light Industrial Safety and the Poet-in-Resistance at the Art Academy of Cincinnati. He makes noise and recites poems in the band TRAVEL.
Questions, compliments, (hopefully not) complaints? Contact Jackie Clark: jackie [at] coldfrontmag [dot] com.