The Poem

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Last Updated on May 18, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 471

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“Locks,” a love poem, is an extended list of locks that have brought the narrator “happiness.” The twenty-eight-line poem, written in free verse, is actually one sentence long; the sixteen different locks mentioned in this catalog are separated by semicolons. The lines are lengthy, nearly half of them spilling over to a second or third line of indented text.

The single-stanza poem’s first line is “These locks on doors have brought me happiness,” and the list commences. The variety of locks suggests the narrator’s full, vigorous life—a life replete with experience. The first happily remembered lock, for instance, is “The lock on the door of the sewing machine in the living room/ Of a tiny hut in which I was living with a mad seamstress.” The next is “The lock on the filling station one night when I was drunk/ And had the idea of enjoying a nip of petroleum.”

It quickly becomes clear that these locks are not only literal—although some do seem more literal than others—but also metaphoric or symbolic. “The lock inside the nose of the contemporary composer who was playing the piano and would have ruined his concert by sneezing, while I was turning pages,” for instance, cannot be a hardware-store variety lock any more than “The lock in my hat when I saw her and which kept me from tipping it,/ Which she would not have liked, because she believed that naturalness was the most friendly” can.

The narrator, fully alive and alert to physical sensations, has lived in the world and enjoyed its pleasures. He has lived in a hut, ridden a camel in the desert, witnessed a “lipstick parade,” and felt alert to the physical thrill of “gales of sweetness blow[ing] through me till I shuddered and shook.”

The narrator presents himself as a man of the world, a man not easily shocked, a man fairly unruffled by physical danger or discomfort. This pose, however, is touchingly undermined at the end of the poem. The “locks” with which the poem concludes, presumably the locks that have brought the narrator the greatest happiness of all, are “the lock on the sailboat/ That keeps it from taking me away from you when I am asleep with you,/ And, when I am not, the lock on my sleep, that keeps me from waking and finding you are not there.” The narrator’s bravado comes to seem a pose, or at the least a less significant element than the reader might have supposed, of a much deeper and more rounded character. The narrator is, in fact, utterly dependent on a lover, so much so that he expresses special gratitude for the ability to sleep when they must be apart. To awaken without her by his side would be too great a horror.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 18, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 483

Perhaps the central irony in this poem is that it is written in free verse, an open poetic form that does not rely upon traditional rhyme schemes or regular metrical patterns. It is ironic considering the title and the subject of the poem: “Locks.” A lock is a kind of limiting device, something that bars the access to something else, such as a room. Similarly, strict adherence to form can be a kind of limitation for a poet, and early experimenters with free verse, such as Walt Whitman in America and Charles Baudelaire in France, consciously rebelled against the kinds of fixed forms and a slavish devotion to rhyme and meter that they viewed as limiting to the possibilities of poetic expression. There is, then, a kind of humor in the fact that Koch should write a hymn of praise to locks and use the least “locked” form, free verse, in which to do it.

To say that the poem is written in free verse, however, is not to say that Koch ignores the question of meter altogether. Koch employs the most traditional metrical line in English poetry in the poem’s first line: “These locks on doors have brought me happiness” is written in iambic pentameter. The first line, however, is the only one written in such a formal, regular meter. It is almost as if, having expressed his “happiness,” the narrator feels the kind of freedom from restraint that allows him to experiment more boldly with meter.

The meter of the remainder of the poem is not fixed, yet there remains a kind of music and rhythm. “Locks” benefits a good deal from being read aloud. To read the poem orally or to listen to it being read is to hear how Koch builds its momentum. The first two feet (a foot is a poetic unit of two or three syllables), for twenty-one of the twenty-eight lines, for instance, consist of an iamb followed by an anapest—or at least a close variation of that pattern. (An anapest contains three syllables, the first two unstressed, the final one stressed.) Not every line approximates the iamb/anapest pattern in its first two feet, but enough of them do to help give the poem a loose kind of structure. “Locks” sounds like a poem rather than straight prose.

Readers who believe that free verse is no different from prose or that free verse is inherently disorganized or unmusical will have their ideas challenged elsewhere with “Locks.” Koch uses sound devices such as assonance, or the repetition of vowel sounds, throughout the poem. Koch plays with long o sounds, for example, in the fragment “The nose of the contemporary composer who was playing the piano.” Koch almost always writes in free verse, but it would be a mistake to assume that he has therefore forgotten that poetry has its roots in the musical tradition.