John Latta on the Kenneth Koch-Frank O’Hara poems in Semi-Colon

John Latta does us a valuable service on his always interesting blog, Isola di Rifiutiby posting and commenting on several fugitive, little-known New York School poems that appeared in the mid-1950s in the little four-page broadside called Semi-Colon, edited by John Bernard Myers and published by the Tibor de Nagy Gallery.  The poems are from an issue (apparently quite rare, available here for $250) that was entirely devoted to poems and collaborations by Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara.  Two of them are poems that Koch and O’Hara wrote together, “The Mirror Naturally Stripped” and “Poem (Sky / woof woof! / harp).”  The latter collaboration, written by Koch and O’Hara on a Manhattan street corner and which consists of those four words repeated over and over, is well-known in New York School lore.  (As Latta points out, Koch memorialized the scene of this collaboration much later in his delightful poem “A Time Zone”).

As David Lehman recounts it in The Last Avant-Garde:

In 1954, Myers began publishing a four-page broadside entitled Semi-Colon, his ‘newspaper’ as he called it, and crammed it full of his favorite poets’ latest experiments, garnered from them at the Cedar Tavern.  One issue consisted exclusively of poems and collaborations by Koch and O’Hara.  Included were the former’s ‘Collected Poems’ (one-line poems, each with its own title), the latter’s ‘Collected Proses, An Answer’ (one-line poems using Koch’s titles), a Koch sestina in which every line ends with the word point, and a collaborative poem that Koch and O’Hara created one afternoon on a midtown street corner … Roughly three hundred copies of each issue of Semi-Colon were printed and sold for twenty cents each at the painters’ Eighth Street Club and at the Cedar Tavern as well as at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery.

The third poem Latta reproduces is “In the Gas Station,” the Koch sestina Lehman mentions, a playful Oulipo-like experiment that sets itself a pretty strict constraint: only a single end-word can be repeated throughout the poem instead of the sestina’s customary six.  Koch enjoyed writing poems with zany requirements, including sestinas with insane end-words and constraints –as in “Crone Rhapsody,” a collaboration he composed with John Ashbery in which every line had “to contain the name of a flower, a tree, a fruit, a game, a famous old lady, as well as the word ‘bathtub'”; in addition, “all the end-words are pieces of office furniture” — but this funny experiment is quite a distinctive feat.  Here’s the first of the poem’s seven stanzas, which go on to depict Fairfield and Anne Porter engaged in amusing dialogue:

“Ha ha! Let’s come to the point!”
Said Pa. “We’re coming to the point!”
Said Ma. Baby and Fred saw the Point
Up ahead. When they neared the Point
They stopped at a gas station called “The Mud Point”
Signalized by a balsam dog in point.

This poem, which Latta refers to as “virtuousic” and “defiantly bravura material,” is a real find — as he notes, it is “seemingly uncollected,” and I don’t think it’s been reprinted anywhere else.   You can see the whole poem on Latta’s blog, here, along with his interesting commentary.


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