C.Dale Young

The Veil of Accessibility

 

Examining Poems by Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch in Light of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness



The earliest memories I have involve reading.  In fact, when I go back, when I return to the past, so much of what I can recollect in the farthest reaches are books and the experience of reading books.  Sometimes the memories alone conjure up not just the act of reading and the works themselves but even the feel of the paper, the smell of the bindings, the dusty yellowed halo pulsing away as the book’s leaves are slammed shut.  If part of being human is the act of telling and listening to stories, then what does one make of the act of reading, an act that is both story telling and listening?  The brain must construct story even as the eyes capture the words the writer has left us.  The human brain will construct story from almost anything.  Painters have long been aware of this, the fact that if only a few icons or images are presented on a canvas the viewer will construct a narrative.

    And yet, despite the fact that as far back as I can remember I recollect books and the stories in those books, my engagement and desire to make stories, to write, all seem to stem from a very specific moment in time: the Eleventh Grade.  In the dark and at times horrific period of my life also known as my Junior Year of high school, I had a teacher named Kathy Doody.  Yes, this unfortunately named teacher, Miss Doody, was the most laissez fare teacher I had ever had.  She was thin but not anorexic.  She wore her hair up in the way a librarian might but never would for fear of looking stereotypically like a librarian.  She wore round and unfashionable at the time glasses that could almost be called spectacles.  She was, for lack of a better phrase, a rather bookish-looking woman.  And despite the fact she was old in the way our teachers always seem old to us when we are students, she was, quite likely, in her late twenties then.  She was truly the oddest of my high-school teachers, and it could even be suggested, without much argument to the contrary, that she didn’t really want to teach at all.  And yet, despite this, she was in fact teaching 4 periods of English Literature.  But no one could deny the fact she loved books and loved to read.  It was in her class that I was introduced to both the poetry of W.B. Yeats and the fiction of Joseph Conrad.  It was in her class that I did a presentation on Yeats during which I recited Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” a dense and perplexing poem that captivated me and captivated my classmates who heard me recite it.  It was in that class, as well, that I first read the simple, yes gloriously easy to understand novella, Heart of Darkness.  If one were to have requested a vote, I am without a doubt certain that the majority of the class would have said Conrad’s story was easy in comparison to Yeats’ poem.

    Imagine my surprise then when a few years later, in college, I re-read Heart of Darkness only to realize that this novella was anything but simple.  In fact, with each and every reading of Conrad’s odd and quirky novella about the journey up the Congo in search of the brilliant Mr. Kurtz, an all-around genius of a man, I am struck again and again at how much more complicated and difficult this work is.  I have read Heart of Darkness now 21 times since that after-school afternoon in the autumn of 1985 while friends of mine stewed outside waiting for me to finish my homework so they could watch the then still new channel named, stupidly, Music Television.  How is it that such a complicated and complex story is told in such a way that this book is read by high school students, loved by them, and is in many ways deemed accessible despite the fact it is anything but that?  But I am jumping ahead of myself, because this is not a question I posed to myself then.  This is a question that has risen up through me over quite a number of years.  And the question itself is complicated and, at this point in time, I am not even sure there is a palpable answer.  But this question is one that arises for me over and over and seems applicable not just to Heart of Darkness but to a number of other works as well.  And despite the fact my first inkling of a need to ask this question arose from the reading of Conrad’s novella, poems are what bring me back to the question as time passes.

    We live in a strange time, a time when the word accessible is a dirty word, used mostly to denigrate writers.  We hear it used for other media as well.  A movie is accessible but a film is Art.  That folk melody is accessible but the Mahler piece based on it is difficult, is Art.  I dare say that the word accessible is virtually never used in a positive manner.  But buried in the word accessibility is the root word access, and in our Post-modern life, it appears to me that Art is not supposed to be a means of access but an object to be observed, studied, pondered.  What many seem to admire in Art today, especially in the Literary Arts, is excess whether linguistic or emotional.  But is there good reason for Art to be an access and not just an object?  Is there not a moral imperative lurking behind almost every lasting work of Art?

    “The Sea-reach of the Thames stretched before us like the beginning of an interminable waterway.  In the offing the sea and sky were welded together without a joint and in the luminous space the tanned sails of barges drifting up with the tide seemed to stand still in red clusters of canvas, sharply peaked with gleams of varnished flatness.  The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth.”

This is the second paragraph of Heart of Darkness, the unnamed narrator setting the scene before Marlowe, the character and true narrator of the story, begins the tale we all know.  It is description.  It is tinged with a certain sense of imminence: the very sea and sky welded together and the air above the town, conveniently holding a grave in its name, is dark, mournful, brooding, motionless. The paragraph relies on adjectives to literally paint the town as a forboding and terrible place despite the fact we are told at the end of the paragraph that this is the biggest and greatest town on earth.  The fact that all of these adjectives appear in this sinous paragraph colors everything; by the time we reach the fact this is the greatest town on earth, we don’t fully believe it. It is very different than the words of Marlowe, the one who will actually recount for us the journey to the Congo and the discovery of the mystery known as Kurtz.

A few paragraphs later, this same unnamed narrator, in preparation to introduce us to Marlowe, says:

“The sun set; the dusk fell on the stream and lights began to appear on the shore.  The Chapman lighthouse, a three-legged thing erect on a mud-flat, shone strongly.  Lights of ships moved in the fairway——a great stir of lights going up and going down.  And farther west on the upper reaches the place of the monstrous town was still marked ominously on the sky, a brooding gloom in sunshine, a lurid glare under the stars.
“And this also,” said Marlowe suddenly, “has been one of the dark places of the earth.”

Again, scene.  And again, the town at the sea-reach of the Thames cast as a “monstrous” town, ominously lit, brooding even, a lurid glare.  The scene has been set for Marlowe to spin his tale, and the narrator goes one step further to separate himself from Marlowe by telling us: “But Marlowe was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted) and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that, sometimes, are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.

His remark did not seem at all surprising.  It was just like Marlow.  It was accepted in silence.  No one took the trouble to grunt even, and presently he said very slow:

“I was thinking of very old times, when the Romans first came here, nineteen hundred years ago——the other day…”

Why am I making such a point of showing you these two narrators in relation to each other?  Why does any of this seemingly simple setting of scene and character early in this novella matter?  Well, for one, with the start of Marlowe’s speech, we do not hear from this unnamed narrator who sets the scene for us in England again until twenty-odd pages later.  This is, in fact, one of the great complications of this novella.  The vast majority of the story is told to us by a character in the story itself‑‑ a fact many overlook when reading this for the first or even second time.  The unnamed narrator who is hell-bent on setting the scene for us relays a story told by someone else.  The story by proxy adds an element of difficulty and complexity that for many isn’t even noticed.  But how does Conrad do this?

For one, when Marlowe speaks, the sentences are much more straightforward.  They have a different purpose.  Despite the fact Marlowe uses adjectival phrases, he doesn’t use nearly as many adjectives as the unnamed narrator.  Compare Marlowe’s first sentences to that of the narrator.  Marlowe says “And this also has been one of the dark places of the earth.”  This opening has a subject “this,” a verb “has been,” and an object “one”.  There are modifiers such as “also” which modifies “this” and “of the dark places” which modifies “one” and “of the earth” used to modify and clarify “places”.  The unnamed narrator, in comparison, states “In the offing the sea and sky were welded together without a joint and in the luminous space the tanned sails of the barges drifting up with the tide seemed to stand still in red clusters of canvas, sharply peaked with gleams of varnished flatness.”  “[T]he sea and sky” are a complex noun with verb, “were welded,” is the first half of this complex sentence in which the “sails,” the subject of the latter part of the sentence joined by “and” “seemed to stand still” (complex verb).  But notice all the adjectival phrases involved here, all the modifiers.  “In the offing” modifies the “sea and sky” while “together” modifies the verb “were welded” and then the clause “without a joint” modifies the verb as well!  All this before we reach the latter part of the sentence where “in the luminous space” modifies “the sails” as does “of the barges,” and “drifting up” modifies the barges and “with the tide” modifying “up”.  When we finally get the verb of the latter part of the sentence “seemed to stand” it is immediately modified by “still” and “in red clusters of canvas” and even the canvas is modified by “sharply peaked” and that by “with gleams of varnished flatness.”  The unnamed narrator of Heart of Darkness has more in common with the narrators of works by Proust and Henry James than with anything we consider simple or accessible!

I would argue that the reason Heart of Darkness seems accessible, simple enough to be read by a high school student is the fact that the majority of the novella is not written in the voice of this unnamed narrator but in the voice of Marlowe.  The story unfolds easily and simply because of Marlowe.  “I was thinking of very old times, when the Romans first came here, nineteen hundred years ago——the other day.”

If we skip forward 20+ pages, after Marlowe has recounted for us how he ended up in the Congo, how he first heard of Mr. Kurtz, the calamities that he had overcome, etc. etc. we reach the moment when Marlowe, like any good story-teller, lifts his story into the realm of urgency, and this before he has even reached the pivotal moment of the telling.  Speaking of Kurtz, he says to the unnamed narrator and the other men sitting with him on the ship at the mouth of the Thames:

“Do you see him?  Do you see the story?  Do you see anything?  It seems to me I am trying to tell you a dream——making a vain attempt, because no relation of dream can convey the dream-sensation, that commingling of absurdity, surprise, and bewilderment in a tremor of struggling revolt, the notion of being captured by the incredible which is the very essence of dreams…”  Even here, in this almost flowery passage filled with repetition to create that sense of urgency, of build, Marlowe’s sentences do not even reach for, or rival, those of the unnamed narrator who says:

“I listened, I listened on the watch for the sentence, for the word that would give me the clue to the faint uneasiness inspired by this narrative that seemed to shape itself without human lips in the heavy night-air of the river.”  The unnamed narrator, interjected here by Conrad to remind us this is a story by proxy, is wholly different from Marlowe.  And as it was at the beginning of the novella, the unnamed narrator continues to use the long sentence that relies heavily on dependent phrases that modify:  “on the watch” “for the sentence” “that would give me the clue” “to the faint uneasiness” “inspired by this narrative” “that seemed to shape itself” “Without human lips” “in the heavy night-air” “of the river”.  This monstrous sentence, after about an hour of simmering on the stove-top, congeals to the simple statement “I listened for the sentence,” which sounds a lot more like Marlowe’s “Do you see him?” or “Do you see the story?” or “Do you see anything?”

I do not mean to imply that all of Marlowe’s statements in Heart of Darkness are simple declarative sentences.  There are times when Conrad seems to conflate Marlowe and the unnamed narrator, something that is no accident considering the complexities of maintaining a story within a story over long stretches of time, but I have noticed over and over that Marlowe relies less on adjectival dependent phrases than the unnamed narrator, who seems more a device for setting scene and ensuring that things are set for Marlowe’s yarn.  But it is this realization, over time, that has helped me to understand and appreciate the complexities of two poets, both lumped into the so-called New York School of Poetry.  Both Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch have been praised and lauded, but they have both been equally savaged by critics over time.  Both are considered “accessible,” the term used almost exclusively as a way to say their work is slight.  But is their work slight?  Is it any less profound than other works produced by other poets of the Postmodern era?

My introduction to Frank O’Hara’s poetry is almost embarrassing to recount.  Picture me in high school, the boy who loved to read but would rather die than admit that for fear he be labeled a geek.  Picture not a fey, hip dude in black clothes approaching me to tell me about O’Hara but a varsity football player who, while drunk and high, proceeds to fish from his glove compartment a folded up piece of paper, a page ripped from a book.  The small square page, both front and back, held a poem torn from Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems.  Two seventeen-year old boys, one a class officer and the other a football jock: and it is the jock who reads aloud the O’Hara poem in the cannabis-laden air.  And what he reads is O’Hara’s “Ave Maria,” placing special emphasis on the lines “they may even be grateful to you / for their first sexual experience,” the word sexual given even extra emphasis.  Like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, it has taken me years to understand just what was happening in that car, the text practically sung to me in the smoky air after going to see a movie I cannot even remember now.  It never occurred to me that the invite to a movie was anything more than that.  And it never occurred to me, until many years later, that the poem wasn’t just there in the glove box by accident.  Alas, after the jock finished reading the poem, all I remember thinking was “Man, he is really high.”  I think I asked him if he had ever read the poem to his girlfriend.  Text and subtext, I am a slow man.  It never occurred to me what was really happening in that car.  So slow I was at the time that I completely missed what was the first time someone propositioned me!



AVE MARIA

Mothers of America
   let your kids go to the movies!
get them out of the house so they won’t know what
  you’re up to
it’s true that fresh air is good for the body
but what about the soul   
that grows in darkness, embossed by silvery images
and when you grow old as grow old you must                                                                  
    they won’t hate you
they won’t criticize you they won’t know                                                              
they’ll be in some glamorous country
they first saw on a Saturday afternoon or playing
    hookey

they may even be grateful to you
                       for their first sexual experience
which only cost you a quarter
    and didn’t upset the peaceful home
they will know where candy bars come from                                                                    
  and gratuitous bags of popcorn
as gratuitous as leaving the movie before it’s over
with a pleasant stranger whose apartment is in the
    Heaven on Earth Bldg
near the Williamsburg Bridge
         oh mothers you will have made the little tykes
so happy because if nobody does pick them up
in the movies
they won’t know the difference
              and if somebody does it’ll be sheer gravy
and they’ll have been truly entertained either way
instead of hanging around the yard
or up in their room                                                                            
                    hating you

prematurely since you won’t have done anything
       horribly
                mean yet
except keeping them from the darker joys                                                                
  it’s unforgivable the latter
so don’t blame me if you won’t take this advice                                                                            
                                and the family breaks up
and your children grow old and blind in front of a
 TV set seeing
movies you wouldn’t let them see when
   they were young


    Let “Ave Maria” sit for a while.  Let it languish in the background for just a little bit, because I believe that it is not a simple poem, despite many labeling it that way.  But let us look briefly at another of O’Hara’s poems that I feel actually is simple, straightforward, in his easily identifiable conversational and alluring style.  Many would argue the poem, like most of his poems, is accessible.  But again, what exactly does that mean?  Is “Ave Maria” just a voice that lulls us?  Is the poem simply a thing we enjoy because we like the, dare I say it, the simplicity of it?  Is there not an argument buried in it?  I would argue that “Ave Maria” is no Lana Turner poem.  And so while we leave “Ave Maria” to sit and cool on the counter, let us look at the Lana Turner poem:

Lana Turner has collapsed!
I was trotting along and suddenly
it started raining and snowing
and you said it was hailing
but hailing hits you on the head
hard so it was really snowing and
raining and I was in such a hurry
to meet you but the traffic
was acting exactly like the sky
and suddenly I see a headline
LANA TURNER HAS COLLAPSED!
there is no snow in Hollywood
there is no rain in California
I have been to lots of parties
and acted perfectly disgraceful
but I never actually collapsed
oh Lana Turner we love you get up

This poem, which rushes at us in a kind of excited speech made all the more excitable by its dearth of punctuation (notice the only punctuation used is the exclamation mark, twice no less!) and made all the more quick because the line breaks do not enforce the syntax of the clauses and phrases allowing us to slow down but actually elides them into a quick stream of language.  In the opening lines, we get the first clause “I was trotting along” but instead of a line break after “along” we get a conjunction “and” followed by a modifier “suddenly” followed by a line break.  “Suddenly” actually modifies the action in the second line of the poem, so as readers we rush to the next line to satisfy the expectation set up by that modifier.  When we reach the end of the second line, we half expect a period to be there but the third line starts with that same conjunction of extension “and” which again heightens our expectation of what will follow because “and” most definitely implies the sentence is not over and will continue on.  Suddenly, in the fourth line, we meet another person in the poem, a “you” who says “it was hailing” and again, there at the end of the line, we expect a moment of respite but the following line begins again with a conjunction, this time “but,” which cues us now to change.  The sentence is going to change, reverse, do something we didn’t expect after all of these conjoining “ands”.  What we receive is the speaker’s rebuttal of this other person when he states “hailing hits you on the head.”  Here, once again, at the end of line 5, we expect the denouement and closure of a period, but line six opens with an adverb “hard” used to modify how the hail hits one followed by the speaker’s correction of the second person “so it was really snowing.”  We expect a period now, or at least a line break after “snowing” but O’Hara isn’t done with this sentence and isn’t done with us.  We get that now wretched conjunction of addition and elision once again.  We get “and” at the end of the line.  And here, more so than in previous lines, the brain hurries to find what in God’s name this is linked to in the next line.  But O’Hara surprises us because instead of a new clause or phrase we discover as we jump from the line break at the end of line 6 to line 7 that the and is there to complete the verbal phrase, so we get “raining”; we get that it wasn’t hailing but “snowing” AND “raining”.  What a relief for us as readers to find that what we assumed would jolt us forward some more was just a simple means of making a complex verb. 

But O’Hara isn’t done with us or with this sentence, so we get, once again, the AND and this time it is most definitely a conjunction because it throws us head long into another clause, an independent clause “I was in such a hurry”.  But he has done it again, here at the line break, a hurry for what?  We jump forward again, desperate now to know what on earth the speaker is in a hurry to do.  We find that he is in a hurry to meet this second person, and again we expect there to be a pause, a moment left there for us to appreciate the almost touching way in which the speaker needed to meet this other person.  We hope there will be a tryst, perhaps sordid, because everything cannot be appreciated because the speaker is in a hurry to meet this other person.  You know you want the speaker to get what he deserves.  But no, O’Hara throws in another conjunction, “but” which again tells us we must change and revise.  We get “but the traffic,” an excuse and, because it falls at the end of the line, again we are left wondering what the traffic does, why does it matter, how does it fit in.  We must again leap to the next line to find out that the traffic “was acting exactly as the sky”.  Oh my God, what kind of perverse metaphor is this?  The sky?  Is the traffic hailing?  Is the hail or snow or rain or whatever inclement weather halting traffic?  We need to know.  We NEED to know what the hell this speaker means and where he is going with this.  So, we again jump headlong to the next line, and by now, you must know, this being the second or third time you are looking at this poem in this tiny moment, that he is not going to answer; he is not going to explain.  And sure enough, the next line gives us not a resolution but a further complication.  O’Hara gives us the same line we saw at the opening of the poem.  We have come full circle except now the line is in all caps and still with an exclamation mark.  The pitch is rising.  LANA TURNER HAS COLLAPSED!  We are ready now, conditioned as we have been from reading so many poems, for a kind of judgment, a kind of epiphany.  And though some will argue the following lines are in fact a judgment, they are truly at odds with the language and Tone of judgment. “there is no snow in Hollywood / there is no rain in California”  Notice we still don’t have punctuation, but suddenly the clauses and the line breaks complement each other.  We suddenly slow down a little, the only thing pulling us forward now being the lulling anaphora of “there is no.” 

And again, the next two lines are in synch with the line breaks: “I have been to lots of parties / and acted perfectly disgraceful” with only the now mild pull of the AND.  But the pull is mild.  The AND is not at the end of line following “parties” but at the beginning of the following line.”  But we are ready now, ready for the final clincher because visually we know we are at the end.  Will the second person be acknowledged, praised, chastised, adored, embraced?  Will the second person make a pronouncement?  No.  Nothing like that.  The speaker says “oh Lana Turner we love you get up”  How do we read this final line?  Is it an address to Lana Turner in absentia?  Is it a dismissal of her collapse?  Is it a request that she continue on, that she get up and be a role model?  Or is it just a final sigh of annoyance?  In many ways it is all of those and more.  O’Hara uses no punctuation, no comma after “Oh” to tell us he is addressing Lana.  No punctuation to separate the phrases “oh lana turner” from “we love you” and “get up[.]”  This poem refuses to guide us in the ways we expect.  It becomes then a rush of language that seems playful and at times dismissive.  It is, by dint of its construction, a head-long rush similar to the way one might talk to another friend when excited.  This, I would argue is accessible.  Despite all of its machinations to pit line against syntax, it is conversational on a subject that is hardly earth-shattering.  

    But this brings us back to “Ave Maria.”  O’Hara’s poems in Lunch Poems are often lumped together as similar, as simple, straightforward, written, you know, while he was wandering around at lunch time.  But if you truly believe that promotional garbage, I have a lot of land in Florida on the Gulf Coast to sell you.  Some of the poems in Lunch Poems are in fact quite difficult and take on subjects that are indeed dark and difficult.  And yet, and yet, on first reading many feel the poems are easy, accessible.  Again, this troublesome word “accessible.”  But “Ave Maria” is not nearly the same as “Poem” (known mostly by its first line, “Lana Turner has collapsed!”).

Mothers of America
   let your kids go to the movies!

This is written, once again, in a fairly straightforward sentence structure.  We have subject verb and object in standard order.  So, in this, this poem appears to be similar to the Lana Turner poem.  But is it?  Within a couple of lines, we get

it’s true that fresh air is good for the body
but what about the soul   
that grows in darkness, embossed by silvery images

“Soul” growing in darkness is not nearly as relaxed and conversational as one might expect from an O’Hara poem.  And then we reach those lines that have haunted me for decades:

they may even be grateful to you
                       for their first sexual experience
which only cost you a quarter

Not only is the first sexual experience a possibility of parents, mothers!, sending their children to movies but it turns the experience into that of sending your child to a prostitute!  It only cost you a quarter (today, only $6.50 for that shady matinee.  O’Hara follows this with:

they will know where candy bars come from                                                                    
  and gratuitous bags of popcorn

as if it is necessary at this point to lighten the poem with a bit of humor.  But this is almost immediately followed by:

as gratuitous as leaving the movie before it’s over
with a pleasant stranger whose apartment is in the
    Heaven on Earth Bldg
near the Williamsburg Bridge

The gratuitous popcorn and candy is compared to leaving the movie for a tryst in the oddly named Heaven on Earth building, a fantastic name grounded by the very exacting and of this world “near the Williamsburg Bridge.”

As in the Lana Turner poem, O’Hara relies heavily on the declarative sentence.  He does not rely on numerous dependent modifying phrases to describe or clarify the objects of his sentences.  Imagine O’Hara’s poem in the hands of another poet.  It may well have turned out like this:

Oh Holy Mothers of America, why won’t you
   let your kids go to the movies?
you should get them out of the cramped house so they won’t know, as they will one day, what
    you’re up to in your remodeled bathroom
it’s true that the fresh air in the backyard is good for the growing body
but what about the eternal soul   
that grows in the darkness, dark as a well, one finds in a theater, embossed by silvery images flickering on screens larger than life

and when you grow old (because we all grow old)                                                                  
    they won’t hate you
they won’t criticize you in anything but hushed voices after dinner or after drinking too many pink cocktails
they won’t know                                                              
they’ll be in some glamorous country, the French
Riviera, perhaps, a seaside town
they first saw on a dull Saturday afternoon or playing
    hookey


No, O’Hara avoids all of those adjectives and adjectival phrases and interjections.  Adjectives are pared down in his poem, utilized sparingly.  “Ave Maria” seems accessible, but is it?  Is a poem that appears to be advocating sending your children off to movies so that they can have their first sexual experience simple?  There is the Alexander Pope-esque nod toward mock-epic, but the characters, if you can call them that, in this poem, are anything but epic.  They are commonplace people like us!  And that only makes the proposition in this poem even more frightening.  Don’t get me wrong.  All kids eventually have sex, but the humor of this poem is also the scary part of this poem: acknowledging that, for some, anonymous sex may be their first encounter and that this could happen thanks to a movie and that parents could have subsidized the entire thing.  Far too many people have told me the poem is fun, is light and appeals to adolescents because of this.  But is this poem really light?  The poem even ends by pronouncing that should you deprive your children of this experience they will hate you when they grow up.  What if Conrad, via Marlowe, is right?  What if “the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze”?

    Like Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, despite being a very different poet, is lumped into the New York School of Poetry.  And like O’Hara, Koch is often trumpeted as a poet of accessibility.  And again, that term is often used in a derogatory way, as if without the verbal flourishes and allusiveness of T.S. Eliot what we get is something slight and disposable.  There are, in fact, poems by Koch that are slight.  But the notion that the body of work is slight is, again, an error passed on by critics who observe bodies of work instead of individual poems.  That said, I am surprised at how many times some of Koch’s more complicated poems are labeled simple, accessible.  Here is a poem written late in his life that contributed the title to his final single collection of poems published while he was alive:

One Train May Hide Another
(sign at a railroad crossing in Kenya)

In a poem, one line may hide another line,
As at a crossing, one train may hide another train.
That is, if you are waiting to cross
The tracks, wait to do it for one moment at
Least after the first train is gone. And so when you read
Wait until you have read the next line—
Then it is safe to go on reading.
In a family one sister may conceal another,
So, when you are courting, it’s best to have them all in view
Otherwise in coming to find one you may love another.
One father or one brother may hide the man,
If you are a woman, whom you have been waiting to love.
So always standing in front of something the other
As words stand in front of objects, feelings, and ideas.
One wish may hide another. And one person’s reputation may hide
The reputation of another. One dog may conceal another
On a lawn, so if you escape the first one you’re not necessarily safe;
One lilac may hide another and then a lot of lilacs and on the Appia
     Antica one tomb
May hide a number of other tombs. In love, one reproach may hide another,
One small complaint may hide a great one.
One injustice may hide another—one colonial may hide another,
One blaring red uniform another, and another, a whole column. One bath
     may hide another bath
As when, after bathing, one walks out into the rain.
One idea may hide another: Life is simple
Hide Life is incredibly complex, as in the prose of Gertrude Stein
One sentence hides another and is another as well. And in the laboratory
One invention may hide another invention,
One evening may hide another, one shadow, a nest of shadows.
One dark red, or one blue, or one purple—this is a painting
By someone after Matisse. One waits at the tracks until they pass,
These hidden doubles or, sometimes, likenesses. One identical twin
May hide the other. And there may be even more in there! The obstetrician
Gazes at the Valley of the Var. We used to live there, my wife and I, but
One life hid another life. And now she is gone and I am here.
A vivacious mother hides a gawky daughter. The daughter hides
Her own vivacious daughter in turn. They are in
A railway station and the daughter is holding a bag
Bigger than her mother’s bag and successfully hides it.
In offering to pick up the daughter’s bag one finds oneself confronted by
     the mother’s
And has to carry that one, too. So one hitchhiker
May deliberately hide another and one cup of coffee
Another, too, until one is over-excited. One love may hide another love
     or the same love
As when “I love you” suddenly rings false and one discovers
The better love lingering behind, as when “I’m full of doubts”
Hides “I’m certain about something and it is that”
And one dream may hide another as is well known, always, too. In the
     Garden of Eden
Adam and Eve may hide the real Adam and Eve.
Jerusalem may hide another Jerusalem.
When you come to something, stop to let it pass
So you can see what else is there. At home, no matter where,
Internal tracks pose dangers, too: one memory
Certainly hides another, that being what memory is all about,
The eternal reverse succession of contemplated entities. Reading
    A Sentimental Journey look around
When you have finished, for Tristram Shandy, to see
If it is standing there, it should be, stronger
And more profound and theretofore hidden as Santa Maria Maggiore
May be hidden by similar churches inside Rome. One sidewalk
May hide another, as when you’re asleep there, and
One song hide another song; a pounding upstairs
Hide the beating of drums. One friend may hide another, you sit at the
     foot of a tree
With one and when you get up to leave there is another
Whom you’d have preferred to talk to all along. One teacher,
One doctor, one ecstasy, one illness, one woman, one man
May hide another. Pause to let the first one pass.
You think, Now it is safe to cross and you are hit by the next one. It
     can be important
To have waited at least a moment to see what was already there.

    Although this may appear to be a simple riff on the sign Koch saw in Kenya at a railroad crossing “One Train May Hide Another,” it is far more than that.  The metaphor extended throughout the poem, at times approaching a kind of maniacal mantra, becomes predictable despite the fact we never know what will be hiding another what nor do we know how the hiding will affect the speaker or the community to which this is addressed.  Notice, the opening lines:

In a poem, one line may hide another line,
As at a crossing, one train may hide another train.

Again, as with the voice of Marlowe and the O’Hara poems, we get a simple declarative style.  We get subject “line” and verb “may hide” and object “line”.  The sentence is only complicated by the fact there is a second half with subject “train” and verb “may hide” and object “train.”  But the two clauses in this sentence are balanced and function purely to compare the lines of a poem to trains.  It also sets up the machinery for how the poem will progress.  The point of Koch’s argument here shows up a few lines later:

And so when you read
Wait until you have read the next line—
Then it is safe to go on reading.

The lines of a poem now equated with the trains and the danger of not realizing another train is coming down a subsequent track one cannot see.

    Koch continues this logic of comparison as means of warning as the poem moves from lines in a poem to people, and the dangers of not seeing other people that could be hidden.
    
In a family one sister may conceal another,
So, when you are courting, it’s best to have them all in view
Otherwise in coming to find one you may love another.
One father or one brother may hide the man,
If you are a woman, whom you have been waiting to love.

Dangerous, indeed! By the time we reach the end of the poem, we discover:

One teacher,
One doctor, one ecstasy, one illness, one woman, one man
May hide another. Pause to let the first one pass.
You think, Now it is safe to cross and you are hit by the next one. It
     can be important
To have waited at least a moment to see what was already there.

So many things can hide another, that the poem really ends up being about perception and the reality created by each person’s perception and not about the clever sign about trains and the dangers posed by such trains.  Again, what we get is not a simple straightforward poem.  What we get is metaphysical, a poem that questions the very reality we believe we have access to each and every day.  The fact this poem is lumped into the category accessible because it is playful is exactly what interests me.  In the hands of another poet, this poem could have spiraled off into the ether.  And though some would argue that is exactly what Koch does by beating the metaphor like a dead horse, I don’t agree.  It is the extended way in which he plays with the notion of one thing hiding another that gives it the heft and strangeness it has.  Accessible?  I don’t think so.

    In his Rhetoric, Aristotle discusses the fact that speech can produce persuasion either through the character of the speaker, the emotional state of the listener, or the argument itself.  He goes on to argue that the most potent arguments, the most convincing, are ones in which the speaker presents material in a way that prompts the listener to come to the issue “as if on their own.”  That is, an argument proved indirectly is more effective than an argument proved directly.  If a speaker simply states the view he wants the listener to believe, that view can be too easily ignored by a listener (who does not share the speaker’s view).  This is exactly why Aristotle believed that Poetry (and I would argue to include all of Literature) can be among the most powerful means of making an argument.  

    To return to the 17-year old version of me, the Class Officer who was also a Young Republican, who argued for Capital Punishment in his debate final and won, what changed my mind about Capital Punishment was not any of the things that a slew of liberal teachers of mine threw at me once they discovered my argument was not just a display of rhetorical style but one I then believed.  What convinced me, what changed my mind, was an essay.  The essay “A Hanging” by George Orwell never comes out and says Capital Punishment is wrong.  Not once does the essay seem to argue for or against hanging this criminal.  But in the essay, there is a dog barking, running around, running through puddles and making a true ruckus.  At roughly the mid-mark of the essay, Orwell writes:

“It was about forty yards to the gallows. I watched the bare brown back of the prisoner marching in front of me. He walked clumsily with his bound arms, but quite steadily, with that bobbing gait of the Indian who never straightens his knees. At each step his muscles slid neatly into place,
the lock of hair on his scalp danced up and down, his feet printed themselves on the wet gravel. And once, in spite of the men who gripped him by each shoulder, he stepped slightly aside to avoid a puddle on the path.”  

The Young Republican could not get that image of the criminal stepping aside to avoid the puddle out of his head.  After the dog running wild in the yard, splashing through puddles and mud, the fact Orwell reports this man avoiding the puddle stuck in my head and eventually in my heart.  The man, the criminal, was a thinking human being that even on the way to the gallows avoids the puddle.

I began this discussing the fact that accessibility has become a bad word, but what if accessibility is simply a rhetorical style?  What if it is simply a means to coax the reader, to make him or her comfortable, to lodge the discomforting and disconcerting elements of a life directly into their heads by seeming to be light, to be humorous, to be easy to digest?  What if this accessibility is not truly accessibility at all?  I am struck now, as I have been for many years, by the fact that the works we have been looking at, albeit briefly, are not accessible but APPEAR accessible.  They are not accessible BUT APPEAR ACCESSIBLE.  I have called this, for lack of a better term, the veil of accessibility.  And I believe this appearance of accessibility has more to do with sentence structure, with the minimization of adjectives and dependent phrases functioning as adjectives.  The simple declarative sentence, pared down with minimal flourish, is a deceptive thing in these works because they build to something almost more complicated and complex than had one used more baroque sentences.  Am I arguing that one should pick up a simpler sentence structure?  No.  Am I arguing that this technique is better than a Proust or a Henry James?  No. But I am student of writing as much as anyone who decides to write.  And I am still trying to understand how we make things that affect people, which is different from works that MOVE people.  The Veil of Accessibility.  Maybe Marlowe got it right.  Maybe “the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that, sometimes, are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.”

C.Dale Young

C. Dale Young practices medicine full-time, edits poetry for New England Review, and teaches in the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers.  The author of three collections of poetry, his most recent book is Torn (Four Way Books 2011). 


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