The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 607

“To Marina” is a long autobiographical free-verse poem of approximately four hundred lines devoted to the woman of the title, with whom the poet had an affair twenty-five years before. She also served as the inspiration for many of Koch’s best-known early poems, several mentioned by name or alluded to in this poem. The second-person addressee of the poem, the “you,” is Marina, and much of the poem recounts events in the long-ago lovers’ affair: who said what, when, and how the poet felt, though he cannot know exactly how Marina felt. Since the affair produced many poems by Koch, he has retained evidence of their love and of the creativity to which great love and negotiation of differences may give rise.

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The fact that Marina was Russian is introduced early, via comments on her accent (in her speech, “The quiet, dry Z/ Leaped up to the front of the alphabet”), and many of the lovers’ differences arise over the question of nationality. Marina is from a nation with more direct experience of the hardships of war, and she is more serious and realistic than the younger, naïve American Koch. For the poet, these differences are exotic and exciting, suggestive of experience and providing a muse, as is indicated in an early section of the poem where Marina points out Kenneth’s naïveté, and the poet reponds with desire rendered in lyric imagery: “Oh Kenneth/ You like everything/ To be pleasant. I was burning/ Like an arch/ Made out of trees.”

The reader should be aware while reading the poem of a split between two different Kenneths: the younger poet whose experiences with Marina are recounted and the older poet of today who remembers and makes sense of these experiences. While the poet is remembering his lover and speaking to her, he is also remembering himself, remembering youth and inexperience after a life of experiences. Certain moments of the poem act almost as snapshots of earlier moments in life, as when Koch describes a day with Marina in New York a quarter-century earlier in the present tense: “We have walked three blocks. Or four blocks. It is New York/ In nineteen fifty-three. Nothing has as yet happened/ That will ever happen and will mean as much to me. You smile, and turn your head.” The event described in this memory is less important than the state of mind the poet remembers being in when it occurred, just as a photograph from one’s past may not have meaning for someone else but is deeply meaningful to the one who knows when it was taken and can remember long-since-outgrown feelings it recalls. The remembered smile cannot be called significant, except that it has been recalled for more than two decades and corresponds in the mind of the poet to a time emblematic of his youth and corresponding feelings of potential, possibility, and joy.

Marina represents experience for the young Kenneth; their love is “illicit,” Marina already married and having to deal with consequences Kenneth does not after the two have begun their affair. At other junctures of the poem she represents erotic danger (telling him, “Kenneth you are playing with fire”) and a love whose pain in ending paradoxically makes the poet feel truly alive. In the end, while he laments, “You were the perfection of my life/ And I couldn’t have you,” he also realizes that little else remains but poems from this time—“I am over fifty years old and there’s no you—/ And no me, either”—a time when experience was fresh and became permanent in the beauty of poetry.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 366

The reader is advised to take a look at some of Koch’s early lyric love poems, especially those mentioned in the poem, such as “To You,” “Spring,” and “In Love With You.” While the author does not expect every reader to be familiar with every poem he alludes to, some familiarity with his earlier work is assumed and will help the reader comprehend that Marina in this poem is as important as a muse as she is as the poet’s former lover—and perhaps more so.

Like other poets of the so-called New York School (such as Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery), Koch frequently writes about what might not seem to be serious poetic subject matter—daily events from his own life. O’Hara called such poems “I do this, I do that” poems, because events frequently follow upon events without the poet explicitly telling the reader what they are supposed to mean. This is meant to mimic formally daily experience, in which the things that happen to one on any given day do not conform to a particular subject heading, but simply happen. In “To Marina,” Koch pushes some of this formal experimentation further by varying line lengths, distorting syntax, and employing odd, even surreal, juxtapositions in order to approximate the feelings that the lines are meant to convey. The second stanza begins, “It is wise to be witty. The shirt collar’s far away./ Men tramp up and down the city on this windy day.” The sing-song rhyme conveys a mood of ebullient, even flippant, joy. Norms of grammar and syntax are deliberately altered: “A clock rang a bird’s song rattled into my typewriter.” Koch is a firm believer in nonformulaic verse, to the point of adopting all manner of devices even in free-verse lines. He takes great pains to rid himself of anything that would smack of routine. Some stanzas are punctuated according to rules of standard usage; others have little or no punctuation. The attempt is to write a poem that is never lazy, retains fidelity to different aspects of human experience, and conveys that fidelity through forms designed to express different states of mind, settings, and events.

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Themes