Writings

Kenneth Koch’s parody of “This is Just to Say”

Occasionally, we befriend a person we should not have—the kind that borrows a shirt and never returns it, never seems to remember to bring a wallet to dinner, or never offers to drive or give gas money. This type of friend resembles the speaker of Kenneth Koch’s “Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams.” The speaker of Koch’s poem lightheartedly apologizes to an unnamed person for off-the-scale wrongdoings, such as chopping down his house and breaking his leg. He has no genuine reason for these potentially life-ruining actions, only that he saw an opportunity and ran with it. “Variations on a Theme” parodies the similar unsympathetic apology given in “This is Just to Say” by William Carlos Williams through its use of amusing, parallel word choice.

In “This is Just to Say,” the speaker apologizes for eating the plums “you were probably / saving / for breakfast,” (Williams). A similar apology is parodied by Koch when he also uses the word “saving” in the first and third stanza of “Variations on a Theme.” The first line of Koch’s poem begins with the speaker stating he “chopped down the house you had been saving to live in next / summer” (Koch). The speaker admits he knew his friend was saving the house, but nonetheless he still chops it down since he had nothing better to do, similar to how the speaker of “This is Just to Say” knew the plums were being saved for breakfast but eats them anyways because “they were delicious” (Williams). In addition, the speaker of “Variations on a Theme” takes it a step further in the third stanza by giving “away the money that you had been saving to live on for the next ten / years” (Koch). Just as the speaker of “This is Just to Say” had weak excuses for taking something being saved, Koch’s speaker had his laughable reasons for giving away the money: “the man who asked for it was shabby” and “the firm March wind… was so juicy / and cold” (Koch). Thus, Koch’s specific word choice of saving in the first and third stanza shows his poem is mocking “This is Just to Say,” for both speakers of each poem display knowledge of the belongings being saved and give an insincere excuse.

Furthermore, not only does Koch’s exaggerated comparison in these two stanzas imitate Williams’ use of the word saving, but also Koch uses the same excuse given in “This is Just to Say” when the plum thief justifies his actions by saying the plums were “so sweet / and so cold” (Williams). Koch mimics Williams’ use of adjectives in “Variations on a Theme” when he describes the wind in the third stanza as “so juicy and cold” (Koch). Wind can be described in several ways; it can be breezy, blustery, or strong, but wind will never be “juicy.” However, a familiar pair of plums could be described as juicy, meaning Koch’s choice of using the adjective juicy was deliberate, parodying “This is Just to Say.”

In addition, when the speaker of “This is Just to Say” apologizes for taking the plums, he says, “Forgive me / they were delicious” (Williams). His way of asking for forgiveness seems more like a command than a request, and Koch mocks this weak apology when he mimics the same command in the second and fourth stanza of his poem. After the speaker of “Variations on a Theme” sprays hollyhocks with lye, he says, “Forgive me. I simply do not know what I am doing” (Koch). Koch’s speaker uses the same tone and format for asking forgiveness as the speaker in “This is Just to Say.” Additionally, Koch repeats this similar format in the fourth stanza: “Forgive me. I was clumsy, and / I wanted you here in the wards, where I am the doctor!” (Koch). Both methods of asking, or commanding, forgiveness in “Variations on a Theme” end with an outrageous, comedic reason for why the act was done, mocking the speaker’s trivial reason for taking the plums in “This is Just to Say.”

Although “Variations on a Theme” is a farce poem, there is a moral to the story, for the speaker of “Variations on a Theme” seems to share qualities of the speaker of “This is Just to Say,” although a bit more intense. If a person shows no remorse for taking plums, who is to stop him from mass destruction when an axe is lying in front of a wooden house? Koch shows us through similar, repetitive word choice, humor, and dramatization we should not be friends with a person like the speaker of “This is Just to Say.”

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