Spontaneous Poetics – 32 (Reading List 3) (Mayakovsky and Kenneth Koch)

AG: Mayakovsky. We’ll have a recording of Mayakovsky reciting a poem in the library soon. Mayakovsky and Esenin, two great Russian poets. Only eight people (from our recent survey) (have) read Mayakovsky, so..   His most famous poem is called “At The Top of My Voice”. In fact, you could get Mayakovsky from the library.

Student: Right now?

AG: Yeah

Student: I don’t know if they’re open still.

AG: Friday, it’s closed. Never mind. Never mind. I’ll get to it. Well, I put in the library a very good edition of Mayakovsky that I bought in India, a book that Frank O’Hara also used to study Mayakovsky, and I don’t think it’s available here. It was translations by Herbert Marshall, who has translated other Mayakovsky books, and the famous bravura piece of Mayakovsky is “At The Top of My Voice”, a poem which he wrote very near suicide (he committed suicide in (19)32, coming into conflict with the Communist Party bureaucracy in Russia, “At The Top of My Voice” was his self-justification, how he would hold his Communist Party poems high over his head in future centuries).

Student: Is he real hard to find? Or is he just hard to find in Boulder (Colorado)?

AG: The particular book I’m talking about can only be found in this library.

Student: Well, there are other…

AG: There are other translations. I would recommend Herbert Marshall’s translations. They’re the most rough, harshest, translations, and get a little bit of…  and I think there are one or two volumes of Marshall’s wok, but this is an early volume that we do have here available. So, “At The Top of My Voice” (and) a conversation with the sun, “Conversation with the Sun” [the actual title, in translation, is “An Extraordinary Adventure Which Befell Vladimir Mayakovsky in A Summer Cottage”] (the sun came in his window and they had a long conversation, which is a poem that Frank O’Hara also took off on), and also his suicide-note poem (the poem he left in his room when he committed suicide), saying “at such a moment, one could talk to history, centuries, stars, galaxies” – [“At such a time you rise and find you speak/To all the years, the future, and the world”, in Erik Korn’s more prosaic translation] – Psshew!  [Allen indicates the sound of gun-shot]

Student: There is a thing in the back of the book. It’s someone describing one of Mayakovsky’s near.. towards his death.. and shows how quick he was, and how funny he was, and just the nature of the person, and it really helps the poetry, to understand the poetry, when you read this little passage. It’s in the back of the book about one of his performances.

AG: It’s the one in the library.

Student: It’s in the library. It’s in your…

AG: That book in the library is very delicate. The cover has fallen off, so handle it with care. [continuing with the reading-listSir Thomas Wyatt, we went over the other day – “They Flee From Me Who Sometime Did Me Seek”, “Whoso List To Hunt”, and a few other poems like that]

Kenneth Koch, only eleven (students in our survey) have read. Well, the poem that I think is the funniest is “Thank You” (a whole book called Thank You) and the one (line) that Peter Orlovsky always loved, which was, “Thank you for letting me clean up your battleship. Thank you for letting me sweep your…” How does that go, Anne? [turning to Anne Waldman, who is attending the class] Do you remember? – “Thank you for letting me sweep all the streets of your city. Thank you for allowing me to scrub the planet and next time I’ll come back and take care of your moons” – “Thank you for letting me teach all the courses at Naropa University, and, I’ll give you a graduate course at 3 a.m, if you’ll assemble your mobs. Thank you for allowing me to be the curator at the zoo. I enjoyed my conversation with the lion. Thank you..” – Well, that’s it, it’s just an imaginative shot – “Thank You”. [Allen turns to Anne Waldman again] What else of Kenneth’s would you…?

Anne Waldman: Well, there’s so much.

AG: Specific poems. For beginners.

Anne Waldman:  “The Art of Love”

AG: “The Art of Love”? The whole poem? That’s a long thing.

Anne Waldman: It’s enormous, yeah.

AG: I’m looking for short poems to introduce the class to different poets.

Student: “Mending Sump”

AG: Pardon?

Student: “Mending Sump”

AG: “Mending Sump”, which is a parody of (Robert) Frost’s “Mending Wall”, yeah, but I’m thinking of, see, that to assign a giant poem wouldn’t make sense.

Anne Waldman; His poems are long. I think it’s great to read a whole long poem

AG: I do too, but I don’t think it’s great to assign the first poem of Frank O’Hara, (say), for everybody to read, to be a big whole long poem. I don’t think…

Student: “Sleeping with Women”

Anne Waldman: We did it this morning.

AG: I mean no, I’ve got a list of fifty poets here..

Anne Waldman: Oh, okay.

AG: I mean, go read Melville’s “Clarel” – it’s only 300 pages, and it’s a great…

Anne Waldman: That’s a great poem

AG: I know. I think it’s great.  What else? But what are his (Kenneth Koch’s) short pieces of? Oh yes.. (and) what’s that long poem about poetry? (It’s) in the Don Allen anthology..

Student: “Fresh Air”

AG: “Fresh Air” – right. Yeah, read “Fresh Air”, that’s a big survey of 20th Century poetry, to get into him, (and) then go read “Sleeping with Women” (“Sleeping with Women” is not so long, though).

Student: He has a book called Ko

AG: Pardon me?

Student: Ko

AG: Yeah, he has a long poem, “Ko”..

Student: ..which is probably based on “Kora: A Season in Hell” (sic) [Student is, perhaps confusing this title with William Carlos Williams’ Kora in Hell” here]

AG: “A Season on Earth“.  No, that would be based on Rimbaud’s (Season in Hell).. Ko is written in Byronic style, rollicking rhymed verse, long stanzas…


  1. Can someone tell me the source of this dialogue? The reference to O’Hara and the “Indian book” of Mayakovsky’s poems is something I’d like to follow up on.

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