The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“You Were Wearing” is a free-verse lyric poem consisting of thirteen long lines divided into two stanzas. Most of Kenneth Koch’s lines appear to be two or three lines long on the page, but each one is considered a single poetic line. The title is taken from the first line of the poem: “You were wearing your Edgar Allan Poe printed cotton blouse.” What follows is a series of scenes of family life and innocent adolescent flirtations between the speaker and a “cute” girl addressed in the poem as “you,” with incongruous references to figures from American history and literature. These imply that the place of the poem is a resort, possibly in New England, the region of the United States that fostered both American revolutionary fervor and served as the cradle of American literature. However, the allusions are meant to be out of place and comic in their effect. To emphasize this, Koch’s historical and literary references are often intentionally artificial and grammatically awkward, as in the last line of the first stanza: “And ran around in an attic, so that a little of the blue enamel was scraped off my George Washington, Father of His Country, shoes.”

Though the poem does not pinpoint a specific setting, one cannot doubt that the characters appearing in the poem are all Americans, and the reader may well recognize the nationalism that celebrates all things American. This overly patriotic impulse is satirized by the poem, especially...

(The entire section is 436 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Koch is most frequently associated with the New York School poets, which include Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, and James Schuyler. They, like Koch, frequently write poems that mix high and low culture, employ surrealistic techniques (unusual or even impossible juxtapositions designed to mimic dream states rather than directly lived reality), and, especially in the case of O’Hara, utilize a kind of chatty poetic line that may not seem like poetry at all to readers more accustomed to metrically ordered lines. The New York School poets do not completely eliminate rhyme and meter, but they do want to free poets from the necessity of using these devices in every poem as a sine qua non without which a poem cannot exist.

The reason for this abandonment of the more formal qualities of poetry or even of traditional free verse (there is also very little in the way of metaphor or lyric imagery in this poem) is that the New York School poets want to write a more immediate kind of poetry, one that reflects modern American life and escapes the academic formalism of backward-looking poetic devices. (Koch’s poem “Fresh Air” lampoons these contemporary conservative academic poets.) Koch is more interested in mimicking the odd juxtapositions the past creates for contemporary lives than he is in commenting upon the past itself.

Comedy is a technique used by all the New York School poets, and, in the final lines of the poem, the clash between...

(The entire section is 500 words.)