Making it Up

 (Preface by Ron Padgett)

By Allen  Ginsberg & Kenneth Koch

(New York, NY: Catchword Papers, 1994).
33 pages.  Paperback: $10.


Reviewed by Brent Fisk & Tom C. Hunley




Poetry combat, the dance of of the verbal.  The most astonishing thing about this astonishing little book is the fact that it exists at all (and it barely does exist at this point, so word to the wise: buy up the handful of used copies available through Amazon’s partners ASAP).  Ginsberg and Koch composed this book on their tongues, made it up in front of a live audience of approximately 225 stunned (and probably stoned) witnesses at the St. Mark’s Poetry Project on May 9, 1979.  Ron Padgett sat on stage next to an easel which held up a 24 x 36 sketch pad containing fourteen prompts that Padgett had written for the daredevil collaborators.  And Padgett sets his limits, so do not adjust your set.  Maureen Owen, the Poetry Project’s coordinator at the time, was nearby with a tape recorder.  Ginsberg had disrobed at a public reading before, but this was a different kind of nakedness (never mind Ginsberg’s suit and tie), and Koch was naked too (never mind his hat).  As Ron Padgett notes in his preface, “The spontaneity of immediate collaboration cannot be faked: both Allen and Kenneth were on the verge of laying bare not only their compositional patterns, but also, to some degree, their very minds.”  Missing is the leaning audience, their ears knocked out of tilt.

Some of Padgett’s prompts were the standard fare of comedy improv:  alternating one and two word lines, a poem with each line contradicting the line before it.  Others were more challenging: alternating lines of iambic pentameter, a blank verse drama featuring Woody Woodpecker and The City of Paris as characters, a ballad about Popeye and William Blake having an argument, and a sestina containing the following end words:  Denmark, throw, perpendicular, never, William Carlos Williams, and oink.  We learn that Woody Woodpecker is funny in any language. We learn that the City of Paris has a tongue.  Think of shoe horning your brain into a sestina on stage?  Think of the runs in your stockings, the gum stringing from the heel of your boot.
The book would be worth the cover price if it contained nothing but the twenty-nine haiku they wrote on the spot, mostly about frogs, because, as Koch said, “All haikus are about frogs, right?”  And so, “AG: Romeo in underwear / KK: Throws a frog / AG: Into Juliet’s hair” and “AG: Wearing a beard the young man leans forward / KK: Froglike / AG: Listening to the poets croak.”  It’s not that this sort of thing is too loose to appreciate.  Ginsberg is in rare form in his straggly beard.  And Koch is ensconced in his stylish hat. It’s just that we aren’t always in on the joke.  We’re the only child who didn’t get invited to the pool party.  We have a towel and goggles and we’re waiting by the phone to pick up and say, Why sure I’ll come!
I’m also partial to “Ron’s Blues,” which someone should really set to music, if they haven’t already: “KK: Sometimes I feel I ain’t nobody at all / KK: Yes, sometimes I feel I ain’t nobody at all” and late, “KK: The earth is alone – all alone in the universe / Little ol’ earth alone, all alone in the big old universe / KK: And to be alone on it, is just a double curse.”  Some of the musicality is there on the page, but it lacks the considerable charisma of the readers.  It’s like a trombone in the window of a pawn shop. It’s like great music trailing from a passing car.  A whole sestina of cars.  It’s the eighth retelling of a funny joke.  But the nun who walked into the bar has stopped drinking and she’s gone back to the nunnery and begun taking vitamins.  I think the canary has also flown away.

A lot of these poems are just flat unsuccessful, just flat flat.  I don’t think anyone would argue otherwise.  After all, the book was printed fifteen years after the event, and in the meantime, no literary journals appear to have published any of the poems, despite the fact that both poets were at a point in their careers where they could publish just about anything they wrote.  Collaborators make such strange bedfellows.  What do you do when they’re limp-dicked?  What do you do when you’re stuck in a ballad with William Blake and Popeye?  Do you steal the spinach?  Do you flag down Bluto or feel up Mary Blake?  I think you have to take what you can get.  Pour water on the tape recorders and poke the photographers in the eye.  Some things should be shown not told.  Silly as they may be, some things get to feeling old.  Still, if you’re at all interested in collaborative poetry, in Beat poetry, or in the New York School, this book is a must-have.


Tom C. Hunley is Poemeleon's Book Review Editor. Read his full bio here.

Brent Fisk is a graduate student in English at Western Kentucky University, where he works as a librarian. He has published over 200 poems in literary journals such as Prairie Schooner, New York Quarterly, and The Southeast Review.