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To Stammering

Where did you come from, lamentable quality?
Before I had a life you were about to ruin my life.
The mystery of this stays with me.
“Don’t brood about things,” my elders said.
I hadn’t any other experience of enemies from inside.
They were all from outside—big boys
Who cursed me and hit me; motorists; falling trees.
All these you were as bad as, yet inside. When I spoke, you were there.
I could avoid you by singing or acting.
I acted in school plays but was no good at singing.
Immediately after the play you were there again.
You ruined the cast party.
You were not a sign of confidence.
You were not a sign of manliness.
You were stronger than good luck and bad; you survived them both.
You were slowly edged out of my throat by psychoanalysis
You who had been brought in, it seems, like a hired thug
To beat up both sides and distract them
From the main issue: oedipal love. You were horrible!
Tell them, now that you’re back in your thug country,
That you don’t have to be so rough next time you’re called in
But can be milder and have the same effect—unhappiness and pain.

—Kenneth Koch

From New Addresses, 2000

Copyright 2000 Kenneth Koch Literary Estate.
All rights reserved.

Reprinted by permission of Kenneth Koch Literary Estate. Copyright 2000 by Kenneth Koch. For further permissions information, contact Karen Koch, 25 Claremont Ave., New York, NY 10027,

Poetry 180

About the Poet

Kenneth Koch (1925-2002), long associated with the New York School of poetry, was the author of 22 poetry collections, including Collected Poems (Knopf, 2007).

Learn more about Kenneth Koch at The Poetry Foundation.