Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 452

“Unscrew the locks from the doors!/ Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!” wrote Walt Whitman, the American poet whose impact on the American poetic tradition has been greatest, in “Song of Myself.” Whitman’s sensibilities were essentially Romantic, and in these lines he is calling for a radical “unlocking” of old hierarchical political structures and old strictures governing interpersonal relations. Whitman is the great poet of democracy, hearkening back, in his thinking and writing, to the ideas of the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who wrote, “Man is born free, but is everywhere in chains.” For Rousseau, as for Whitman, humankind is essentially free but has been corrupted by institutions of society, such as governments and churches, that create limitations to that freedom. If people are to return to their free and natural state, they must revolt against the tyranny of kings, the dogma of churches, and the conventions of social intercourse that prevent them from being free and natural with one another.

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Koch is clearly the beneficiary of this Romantic tradition. Were it not for Whitman, writing approximately one hundred years earlier, free verse would probably not have developed to the point where a poem such as “Locks” would have been possible. Much of the humor in this poem lies in the fact that Koch builds upon Whitman’s techniques—in his use of free verse, in his cataloging, in his lengthy lines—to sing the glories of something as “un-Whitmanic” as locks. Koch is perhaps parodying a deeply admired predecessor, much as he does in “Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams,” a poem that appears in the same volume as “Locks.”

Yet the poem is by no means pure parody with no underlying seriousness. Koch summed up some of his thoughts about his own poetics in an interview with Elizabeth Farnsworth: “I don’t intend for my poetry to be mainly funny or satirical, but it seems to me that high spirits and a sort of comic view are part of being serious.” In “Locks,” Koch uses humor to ask his readers to consider a serious question: What kind of freedom would be possible without some kinds of limitations? Locks have given the narrator possibilities for privacy that allowed sexuality to thrive (the lock on the door of the tiny hut), have prevented him from possible bodily harm (“The lock on the family of seals, which, released, would have bitten”), and, most important, have kept him from “waking and finding you are not there” when separated from his loved one. Without the lock of blissful sleep, the narrator would be forced to confront a deep loneliness potentially more harmful than anything else an unpredictable, treacherous world might offer.

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