Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Poem of the Week 8/14/2006: To My Twenties

To My Twenties

How lucky that I ran into you
When everything was possible
For my legs and arms, and with hope in my heart
And so happy to see any woman--
O woman! O my twentieth year!
Basking in you, you
Oasis from both growing and decay
Fantastic unheard of nine- or ten- year oasis
A palm tree, hey! And then another
And another--and water!
I'm still very impressed by you. Whither,
Midst falling decades, have you gone? Oh in what lucky fellow,
Unsure of himself, upset, and unemployable
For a moment in any case, do you live now?
From my window I drop a nickel
By mistake. With
You I race down to get it
But I find there on
The street instead, a good friend,
X------N--------, who says to me
Kenneth do you have a minute?
And I say yes! I am in my twenties!
I have plenty of time! In you I marry,
In you I first go to France; I make my best friends
In you, and a few enemies. I
Write a lot and am living all the time
And thinking about living. I loved to frequent you
After my teens and before my thirties.
You three together in a bar
I always preferred you because you were midmost
Although now that I look back on you
What part have you played?
You never, ever, were stingy.
What you gave me you gave whole
But as for telling
Me how best to use it
You weren't a genius at that.
Twenties, my soul
Is yours for the asking
You know that, if you ever come back.

Kenneth Koch 2000

This is exactly the right poem to post today. Why? Because I am, officially twenty (subtle, Sarah). So there's a lot to think about for this poem. It is perhaps not the most difficult poem in the world, nor the most provocative, but it is clever and funny and energetic. It's not necessary to ask for much more than that in a poem, I think. My grandmother said two things that stick with me about poetry, particularly popular poetry.

One: all she'd want somebody to say of her poems is, "it's like that." No exploration of immense themes is needed. Just life.
Two: that popular poetry is necessary for people.

I have thought a lot about this, especially regarding my own thoughts and needs about poetry. I find that having read a good number of poems in my now-twenty years adds new ways of thinking, or gives me words to express feelings I'd otherwise struggle to explain. Lines rise to the top of my consciousness, and I often find myself saying "there's this line of a poem that describes what you're talking about." It's not meant to be pretentious, nor a way of showing off (though there is some pleasure in knowing these poems. And it's only the beginning. I am in my twenties! Anything's possible! See, there's this poem that... Oh, wait. You all just read it.)

What I mean to say is this; poetry provides shapes and beauty to the thoughts we have every day, helping us to sort daily floods of experience.

And today, my experience is being twenty. So it gives me a few things to think about. I love Koch's poem because it is so candid, and because, yes, it's like that. Eager, sprawling syntax and energetic diction underline what it means to be in one's twenties. Koch is even gentle with the mistakes that decade makes, understanding that one trades youth for wisdom.

The first, oh, thirty lines gallop from pleasure to pleasure, excited to even think of a woman! It is a time when the awful, necessary labor of becoming in the teens, and the first signs of bodily decay appear at thirty. Furthermore, everything on that oasis (wonderful island) is exciting; the narrator imagines being exicted over "A palm tree, hey! And then another / And another--and water!"

Stepping out of the imagined twenties for a minute, the narrator wonders where this decade has gone. He thinks of the unemployed, overqualified twenty-something, acknowledging one of the less-scintillating bits of being twenty. But true to the energy and optimism of that time, his thoughts gallop to better things, racing to find a nickel he dropped out of a window. Even there, a friend! I know this feeling - sometimes it is frustrating, but more often than not what a wonderful thing it is to have friends. Sounds silly to write, but so few adults have a lot of friends now. I hope to always have friends, but who knows. Maybe I am saying that because I am twenty.

The final section begins when the narrator talks of meeting twenty in a bar (along with her friends teens and thirties). He would definitely hit on twenty: the most supple, the most interesting, the most generous of those decades. Twenty will throw herself whole-heartedly into your arms, but she may not be able to tell you what to do from there.

I think this is right - the kind of bumbling, unknowing energy that races around being this age. I feel it now, milling on my bicycle, meeting friend after friend, being mauled by hugs constantly.

A final note: the last line. The speaker shows a kind of grudging acceptance that twenty is not going to come back, but that he would welcome lovingly that kind of energy once again, that kind of freedom and unknowingness. The world is just enough with us at this age.


Jomama said...

"With hope in my heart" is just the way to approach your twenties--and maybe your entire life!

Happy Birthday to Sarah!

Anonymous said...

Stephen Sondheim wrote a musical that centers around a group of older people reminiscing over their younger years, their twenties. The line that always sticks with me is "everything was possible and nothing made sense." I believe this line captures a bit of the sentiment Koch is describing when he says "What you gave me you gave whole [etc.]" We all seem ready to be passionate and courageous, but we are never quite sure exactly how to do it best or what we are doing it all for. Or at least I am not.

The twenties are certainly an exciting and tumultuous time, but I am sure that my memories of these years will be fond ones. Welcome to twenty-something club!

this is candy.

Anonymous said...

Yeah happy birthday. Do you have any more style insights? I'll bake you another karn cake.