‘Permanently’ is a bizarre love poem that subverts clichés and tropes of romantic poetry. Koch relies on the personification of parts of speech like “Nouns” and “Adjectives” to illustrate abstract but impressionable ideas on both love and language.
‘Permanently’ by Kenneth Koch uses clever wordplay to create a humorously told love poem.
In ‘Permanently,’ the speaker personifies parts of speech to tell an unconventional love story. The purpose of this is to convey the profound permanence of the speaker’s love for their beloved, which they describe as never being “undone / Until the destruction of language.” But before arriving at that declaration, the speaker weaves a whimsical tale of love at first sight, with the first stanza dealing mainly with a group of “Nouns” who find themselves obsessed when an “Adjective” walks by.
The second stanza gives anecdotal examples of a “Sentence” and the “one thing” each has to say. In the third stanza, the speaker returns to their personified “Sentences” and “Nouns” and lonely “Conjunction” that spends its time calling out “And! But!” in search of the highly desired “Adjective.” The final stanza of the poem ties everything together, with the speaker comparing the way the “adjective is lost in the sentence” to the way they find themselves lost in their love’s features, professing a love that will endure for as long as humans have a language to express it.
Structure and Form
‘Permanently’ is written in free verse and composed of four stanzas with varying line lengths with no fixed rhyme scheme. The use of enjambment allows the lines to follow the flow of Koch’s sentences, giving him greater control over the poem’s mood via its curious imagery via the presence of caesura.
‘Permanently’ relies on Koch’s use of personification to help dismantle the reader’s preconceptions about love. In providing a different perspective via abstract characters (i.e. “Nouns” and “Adjectives”) he creates surreal scenes that are at once outlandish as they are uncanny. But it also creates the expectation that each successive stanza will continue that personification and narrative to completion, though that’s not exactly what happens. Instead, the personification is a distraction from the actual figurative language at work, which is revealed in the simile of the fourth stanza to be a simile comparing the “Adjective” to the speaker.
The imagery in the poem (which relies on its own adjectives) also underscores the essentialism of those words within our language, as well as their complexity when used correctly. Point of view and ambiguity are also important to the poem, especially in the second stanza when the speaker takes on the voice of the “Noun” and other unnamed characters.
One day the Nouns were clustered in the street.
The next day a Verb drove up, and created the Sentence.
The speaker begins by introducing a group of “Nouns” in the street who find themselves enamored by the “dark beauty” of an “Adjective” that walks by. The speaker explains how they are “struck, moved, changed” by the features of the passing word. Despite the abstract nature of the scene, it’s relatively easy to understand still what’s going on: a group of things has fallen in love with a far more intricate and impressive one.
The speaker uses personification to give parts of speech human qualities, with the first stanza of ‘Permanently’ focusing on the way the “Adjective” walks by and the striking way it affects all the “Nouns.” In personifying each word, Koch conceives a bizarre new perspective on a familiar cliché of a scene: the beautiful woman passes, causing heads to turn. The “Adjective” is also the only word to be given its own adjectives, imagery that emphasizes the high dramatization of this first stanza while also drawing attention to the inherent ambiguity of such descriptions. Using pieces of syntax as characters for their love story also allows the speaker to inject some humor (and puns) into the poem: like when a “Verb drove up” to help complete the sentence.
Each Sentence says one thing—for example, “Although it was a dark
rainy day when the Adjective walked by, I shall remember the pure
the boiler factory which exists nearby.”
In the second stanza, the speaker digresses into the purposes of sentences. Which to them is to say “one thing” — in other words, to convey a distinct meaning or idea — before giving some examples. The first sentence offers up a flowery, overtly romantic, and adjective-sodden rewrite of the scene in the first stanza. The second is a bit more abstract, with someone requesting someone or something named “Andrew” to close the window. The third sentence appears to be even further removed from the events in the poem. In it, a nameless speaker thanks someone before explaining how the “pink pot of flowers” on their windowsill has turned yellow because of the heat from a nearby “boiler factory.”
The first example sentence seems to parody the excessive Romanticism of past poetic styles. Using exaggerated and dated diction (peppered with hyperbole) conveys an intense but unrealistic love between the “Noun” and “Adjective.” The request to close the window seems to allude to the “dark rainy day” on which the two met. In contrast, the final sentence could symbolize some romantic connection. It’s unclear if the speaker is thanking someone for the flowers or responding to something else, but the pot of flowers themselves might signify a relationship in new bloom. Although, that would mean their change in color due to the “heat” of the boiler factory doesn’t bode well for it.
In the springtime the Sentences and the Nouns lay silently on the grass.
But the Adjective did not emerge.
The third stanza returns the reader to the group of “Nouns,” except now they are also accompanied by the various “Sentences” they help make up. As they enjoy a Spring day on the grass, the speaker mentions a “Conjunction” wandering nearby, calling out for the “Adjective” that is nowhere to be found.
What’s ironic about this short stanza is that its central topic is the missing “Adjective,” despite the presence of actual adjectives like “silently” and “lonely.” Koch also adds some more wordplay humor by giving the image of a “Conjunction” calling out “And! But” though it also creates a sense of longing for the missing “Adjective.” In some ways, this stanza subverts some of the expectations created in the first two stanzas: the “Noun” and “Adjective” are not found together in love but are instead estranged.
As the adjective is lost in the sentence,
So I am lost in your eyes, ears, nose, and throat–
Until the destruction of language.
In the fourth stanza, the speaker compares their infatuation with their lover to the way the “adjective is lost in the sentence.” Explaining they are similarly “lost” in many of the physical features of their beloved and that they’ve been “enchanted” since their first kiss. With the speaker earnestly and sincerely describes their love as being as essential and permanent as the very words used to express it.
In the final stanza, the speaker compares themselves in simile with the missing “Adjective.” The comparison highlights not just the way the speaker is infatuated with their beloved but also their reverence for adjectives themselves. Finding themselves lost in those specific features (i.e., the five senses) also emphasizes that the choice of physical attributes isn’t superficial at all. Especially given the speaker’s preference that adjectives be lost in a sentence rather than sticking out like sore thumbs — as in the flowery diction of the second stanza. The speaker’s purpose seems to be twofold: to highlight the wonderous effect adjectives have on language and then to use them as a playful but heartfelt symbol of their love.
One of the main themes of the poem is the permanency of the speaker’s love. They tie to the very endurance of language itself, implying that as long as one exists, the other will as well.
Koch emphasizes the intimate connection between love and language, specifically the adjectives we use to describe our very emotions. Without them (or misusing them) we would be unable to express such crucial feelings.
- ‘You Know All This‘ by Kenneth Koch – a passionate poem about the endurance of love.
- ‘[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]’ by E.E Cummings – a whimsical poem that conveys the intense devotion of the speaker.
- ‘A Valentine’ by Edgar Allan Poe – a clever acrostic poem that gives clues to the name of the speaker’s lover.