The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 436

“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.”

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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 when it describes objects with unlikely adornments such as teacups “painted with pictures of Herman Melville” that depict scenes from his works. Yet such objects might well be found in tourist shops, and the American trait of making commodities out of all aspects of its culture—that is, finding ways to sell that which Americans hold dear—is likewise an object of Koch’s satire.

The speaker is also a character in the poem, a young male who acts as a wry observer of this commodified world. Since his father wears a “Dick Tracy necktie” and his mother wears a “Strauss Waltzes comb” (the only non-American allusion), readers may surmise that his upbringing has been influenced both by his father’s popular culture leanings and his mother’s preference for European high culture. These influences, combined with the nationalistic fervor that pervades American life through the sale of these objects in the marketplace, convey a sense of the components of American culture: Comic strips and remnants of European influence commingle in a land in which respect of culture is conveyed through the surreal appearance of cultural icons on everyday objects.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 500

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 historical allusion and contemporary utility becomes most farcical when the narrator and his girl sits on an “Abraham Lincoln” swing: “You sat on the eyes, mouth, and beard part, and I sat on the knees.” From this vantage point, they see “a snowman holding a garbage can lid smashed into a likeness of the mad English king, George the Third.” At first, this might strike the reader as departing from the American context until one remembers it was this king against whom the colonists staged their rebellion. That a trash can lid would resemble such a figure becomes an additional step in the transformation of the American locale: This is not a manufactured image painted or printed on an object but one that is imagined by the speaker of the poem as one might describe the shapes that clouds appear to resemble. Yet there is no distinction made in the poem between this imagined historical reference and the overt likenesses on blouses, neckties, and teacups elsewhere in the poem. This suggests that the inhabitants of this place—this American place—have come to perceive the world through eyes that have been structured by their environment. This is not a reflective engagement with the past that allows people to apply history’s lessons to contemporary life but rather a fetishization of icons from the past that allows people to believe they are learned and in tune with their history and literature simply through the act of using an object, drinking tea, or sitting on a swing.

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Themes