In keeping with my semi-regular tradition of posting New Years-related poems here, I thought I’d share this rare piece — a collaborative poem by John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch called “New Year’s Eve.” The poem was part of a cluster of six wild and zany Ashbery-Koch joint productions which appeared in the now-legendary second issue of Locus Solus, a special issue that Koch edited in 1961, devoted to collaboration across the ages.
Playful, absurd, and effervescent, “New Year’s Eve” begins in surreal fashion:
Water flowed slowly over the bridge in Danbury
On New Year’s Eve, while a Chicago of chocolate milk
Formed in Zurich. The root beer went floating by.
You could see the coke on the dazzling mountaintops of Trieste.
and doesn’t really let up for three pages. Like the other collaborations in this series (including the better-known “Crone Rhapsody”), the poets seem to have set up what Koch called “amusing intricate rules” and arbitrary constraints to generate the poem (and the fun). In “Crone Rhapsody,” Koch explained, “every line contains the name of a flower, a tree, a fruit, a game, and a famous old lady, as well as the word bathtub; furthermore, the poem is a sestina and all the end-words are pieces of furniture”).
In the case of “New Year’s Eve,” the requirements seem somewhat less strict and elaborate, and it’s not entirely clear what they are, except it seems as if each line must contain a reference to a drink and a place. (Also, in his book My Silver Planet, Daniel Tiffany notes that Ashbery wrote the odd lines of this poem and Koch the even ones).
The poem whips us through a rollicking narrative that (sort of) follows a woman named Anna across the globe on New Year’s Eve, as she encounters an assortment of odd characters: “‘Happy New Years!’ thundered the Ethiopian pineapple juice. / ‘Happy New Year!’ screamed the Mexican hat. ‘Good luck!’ whispered the chocolate pear-juice.”
It closes on an image of the two collaborators themselves, tipsily toasting the new year on January 1st:
We drank the cognac in Florence. It was New Year’s Day!
Here is the whole poem, which, as far as I know, can still only be found in Locus Solus 2, published in 1961 — “New Year’s Eve,” by John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch:
Happy New Year!