To the Roman Forum
After my daughter Katherine was born
I was terribly excited
I think I would have been measured at the twenty-five-espresso mark
We--Janice, now Katherine, and I--were in Rome
(Janice gave birth at the international hospital on top of Trastevere*)
I went down and sat and looked at the ruins of you
I gazed at them, gleaming in the half-night
And thought, Oh my, My God, My goodness, a child, a wife.
While I was sitting there, a friend, a sculptor, came by
I just had a baby, I said. I mean Janice did. I'm--
I thought I'd look up at some very old great things
To match up with this new one. Oh, Adya said,
I guess you'd like to be alone, then. Congratulations. Goodnight.
Thank you. Goodnight, I said. Adya departed.
Next day I saw Janice and Katherine.
Here they are again and have nothing to do with you
A pure force swept through me another time
I am here, they are here, this has happened.
It is happening now, it happened then.
Kenneth Koch 2000
Koch's poem is not your typical ode, but I call it such because it ponders on/talks to a Classic object, examining that thing's interplay with a larger emotional or spiritual force. To understand the departure, let's look at the definition of an ode. My Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Theory defines it as: "A lyric poem, usually of some length. The main features are an elaborate stanza-structure, a marked formality and stateliness in tone and style (which make it ceremonious), and lofty sentiments and thoughts. In short, an ode is rather a grand poem; a full-dress poem" (608).
Now read the poem again.
This poem does not have a rigorous stanza structure, elevated diction, or pretensions of any sort. Indeed, it trades heavily in humility, in wonder, awe and love. So perhaps they are lofty thoughts, but I consider "lofty" to be something self-conscious. Lofty includes ego, and this poem is all about feeling small. It opens with the giddy, hilarious assessment, "I was terribly excited, / I think I would have been measured at the twenty-five-espresso mark."
His excitement surges through the poem, appearing in the scattered, jittery sentence lengths. The narrator feels such enthusiasm about his daughter that he forgets to punctuate his sentences in the first 7 lines of the poem. However, he is so scattered that he turns around in the next 12 and uses thirty punctuated pauses (that is, thirty commas, dashes, or periods). This is a lot.
Even more than the sheer number, however, the poetically brilliant but technically poor use of punctuation disjoints the rhythm of his sentences. He tells us, "When I was sitting there, a friend, a sculptor, came by / I just had a baby, I said. I mean Janice did I'm--" He doesn't even let himself finish the description of his friend Adya (a friend whose name he was too excited to tell us at first) before jumping into telling her of his daughter.
In the line above, it's also important to notice that he defers responsibility for "having" the daughter. He implies that he did little more than make love with his wife, while she carried the baby for nine months and gave birth to it herself, for he later explains, "Next day I saw Janice and Katherine. / Here they are again and have nothing to do with you." Of course, "you" directly refers to the forum, but one could read the line as a piece of interior monologue. The greatness of their coming has nothing to do with him, and this is exhilarating.
Reading "you" as a reference to the Forum makes Janice and Katherine small in comparison; just as the narrator had little to do with his daughter's birth, so his daughter and wife have little do with the Roman Forum. Koch thus sets up a comparison between the great and the small, the old and the new. The last three lines, "A pure force swept through me another time / I am here, they are here, this has happened. / It is happening now, it happened then," explain what this comparison ultimately achieves. By throwing our own greatness (the ego) against something far greater, and then dwarfing that great something against an even bigger thing, Koch gives us perspective. This is not only the perspective of humility, of which it certainly has some component, but the ability to see and love one's tiny place in the vast stretch of the present and the past.
Each of us is part of everything that was and is, but it is rare that we feel that. School, friends, petty problems: these things obtrude upon our sense of relativity, the idea that a single human or event is far smaller than we usually think. What is striking about this revelation is that it includes a deep sense of love - the "pure force" Koch includes in the end of the poem. Somehow, in singling out the small from the vast, we can love and appreciate the small that much more. Perhaps this has something to do with continuity/connectedness, perhaps with the love of a single, small person opening into the love of every person and thing. Perhaps this poem includes some lofty thoughts after all.