A Poet Reflecting on His Career: A Look at Kenneth Koch’s “The Circus”
by Brian Fanelli
At first glance, Kenneth Koch’s “The Circus” has several traits that are characteristic of his body of work and the New York School in general. The poem meanders into side conversations and is not without its humor. It also mixes high-brow culture, including name-dropping French painters, with personal memory and narrative. That said, at its core, the poem serves as a means for the poet to reflect upon his long career, while also exploring the way memory operates.
Commenting on “The Circus” for the Poetry Foundation’s podcast, “Poetry Off the Shelf,” Dean Young said the poem is “an examination of the act of memory” and noted that while the poem may fishtail frequently, as many of Koch’s poems do, it still maintains a “meditative slowness.” There are several lines in which Koch explores how memory works and how faulty our memory can be. Immediately, the speaker questions how much detail he actually remembers regarding living in Paris with his first wife, Janice. “I remember when I wrote The Circus/I was living in Paris, or rather we were living in Paris/Janice, Frank was alive, the Whitney Museum/Was still on 8th Street, or was it still something else?” That question of “was it still something else?” illustrates how impossible it is to remember all the details of a specific time and place.
Lines later, this questioning of memory continues, when the speaker returns to the task of trying to remember when and how he wrote “The Circus.” “It was a summer night no it was an autumn one summer when/I remember it but actually no autumn that black dusk toward the post office/And I wrote many other poems then but The Circus was the best.” Structurally, these lines reinforce the content and the idea that it is impossible to remember every detail. Koch uses no punctuation in those lines, so the images run together, and, at times, feel disjointed, especially with the added enjambment.
No matter how many side turns the poem takes, it returns to the act of memory. That repetition slows the poem down, as Dean Young noted. What Young didn’t mention, however, is the reflective and even sad undercurrent in the poem, especially in the closing stanzas. Many of Koch’s friends are mentioned early in the poem, including fellow New York School poet Frank O’Hara and another American poet, Stanley Kunitz. By the end of the poem, the speaker loops back to his poetry pals, stating, “So I’m mentioning them maybe this will bring them back to me,” before adding, “Their names alone bring tears to my eyes.”
Furthermore, the fact that the poem mentions Koch’s first wife, Janice Elwood, who died in 1981, is important. She is another one of the poet’s companions long gone, and she is repeated more than any other name. Essentially, the poem begins with her, through the lines, “I remember when I wrote The Circus/I was living in Paris, or rather we were living in Paris/Janice,” and it ends with her, when the speaker admits that instead of speaking to her and putting his arm around her, he wrote “The Circus.” The poem concludes, “and now I’m alone/And this is not as good a poem as The Circus/And I wonder if any good will come of either of them all the same.”
The final lines offer one more turn, when the speaker questions what to make of a long career and if anything will come of his body of work. Kenneth Koch’s place in contemporary American poetry is assured, but in a poem that looks back on his career, his first marriage, and his friendships, he not only explores how memory works, including its failures, but also questions the act of writing poetry and what remains of our art once we’re gone.
Brian Fanelli’s most recent book is Waiting for the Dead to Speak (NYQ Books). His work has been published by The Los Angeles Times, World Literature Today, The Paterson Literary Review, Verse Daily, Main Street Rag, and elsewhere. Brian has an M.F.A. from Wilkes University and a Ph.D. from Binghamton University. Currently, he teaches at Lackawanna College.