The Collected Poems by Kenneth Koch. Knopf, 761 pages.
On the Edge. Collected Long Poems by Kenneth Koch. Knopf, 411 pages.
Many poems by Kenneth Koch seem written to amuse and instruct a roomful of undergraduates. And they do. So I conclude from my own teaching of Koch. Anyone who ever heard Koch give a reading on a college campus would probably agree; for those who have not, evidence is available in a 1998 recording of Koch reading from “My Olivetti Speaks,” at the Kelly Writers House, University of Pennsylvania (on the Penn Sound website). The audience laughs during the pauses between paragraphs in the prose poem, which seem designed to accommodate laughter, like the pauses in a comedy sketch. Take a few sentences from the opening:
Birds don’t sing, they explain. Only human beings sing.
If half the poets in the world stopped writing, there would still be the same amount of poetry.
If ninety-nine percent of the poets in the world stopped writing poetry, there would still be the same amount of poetry. Going beyond ninety-nine percent might limit production.
The very existence of poetry should make us laugh. What is it all about? What is it for?
Oxford and Cambridge, two great English universities, are based on poetry. If poetry vanished, they would fall down.
Although Koch begins obliquely—the opening statement is not intuitively obvious, but ornithologists tell us that birdsong communicates specific messages such as “My territory!”, “Mate with me!”, “Predators near!”, whereas human song more often exults in the pure, abstract pleasure of sound—he also charms an audience of undergraduates because he meets them on their terms without really challenging them. They like poetry (they have come to the reading, after all), yet, in our larger non-literary culture, they may be somewhat embarrassed by their tastes. College kids want to be presented with big ideas, but also to be reassured that we can approach them with levity and curiosity, that we need not take them too seriously. Like other accomplished advocates for poetry—such as former poets laureate Robert Hass, Robert Pinsky, Billy Collins, Ted Kooser—Koch is good at all of this. He would have been an ideal poet laureate, as the role has become one of popularizing poetry and fighting its reputation for elitism and difficulty.
Koch excels at relating to kids—in Wishes, Lies and Dreams: Teaching Children to Write Poetry (1970) and Rose, Where Did You Get that Red?: Teaching Great Poetry to Children (1973)—and to the inner kid in everyone, because he is fundamentally a poet of adolescence, in the original sense of the word: the process of growing up, which for males is defined as the period from 14 to 25. He taught a generation of parents and teachers to liberate the youthful imagination, and he also brought his message to the elderly in I Never Told Anybody: Teaching Poetry Writing in a Nursing Home (1977). Koch’s democratic hope is that anyone can write poetry, at any age, if only the youthful sense of possibility can be cultivated or recaptured; T.S. Eliot offered a more intimidating program in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” for “anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year,” but Koch does not contradict Eliot, in his emphasis on deep reading in earlier periods and other languages, so much as loosen up our attitude toward the “tradition.” His aim seems to be to help any would-be poet recapture the naïve creative capacity of the 17-year-old, who has never been paralyzed by self-doubt in the face of All That Has Been Written, who does not rule out any subject matter or poetic form. Reflecting on his own poetic development in “Educating the Imagination,” Koch suggests that reading and writing poetry can, ideally, help us escape boredom and limiting conventions of all kinds.
In his own poetry, the theme that seems to appeal to Koch most, and which he evokes so well, is one of adolescent imminence and discovery—the feeling of being on the verge of creation, of having just moved to New York City, of traveling to Europe for the first time, of falling in love, of discovering surrealism. It is poetry of potential, of the first meeting and the first kiss, of hormonal anticipation, of affairs in youth, of adolescent excitement about art and poetry, sex and love, and all forms of experimentation. That his poetry retains a preoccupation with adolescence throughout his career is his strength and his weakness. “Energy in Sweden,” from One Train (1994), is characteristic:
Those were the days
When there was so much energy in and around me
I could take it off and put it back on, like clothes
. . . .
Seeing those six young women in a boat I was on a ski trip.
They said, We are all from Minneapolis. This was in Stockholm.
. . . .
Whether it was being used or not, I had all that energy.
Really, are you all from Minneapolis? I said, almost bursting with force.
And yes, one of them, about the second prettiest, replied. We are here for several days.
I thought about this moment from time to time
For eight or ten years. It seemed to me I should have done something at the time,
To have used all that energy. Lovemaking is one way to use it and writing is another.
I have not quoted the whole poem, but it does not really go anywhere; it is a hymn to and elegy for the thrilling potential energy of youth, many years on.
Although the poem I quoted at the outset, “My Olivetti Speaks,” is from a late book, Straights (1998), it falls into a Mock Didactic genre foreshadowed by “Fresh Air” from one of his earliest collections, Thank You and Other Poems (1962); this genre includes “Some General Instructions,” “The Art of Poetry,” “On Beauty,” and “The Art of Love,” all from The Art of Love (1975), as well as “The Problem of Anxiety” from The Burning Mystery of Anna in 1951 (1979), and “One Train May Hide Another” from One Train. These poems promise advice to a youthful or willfully naive reader, who will profit from reassuring truisms, or appreciate the parody of such advice, which suggests that growing up is impossible if the goals are wise maturity and epistemological certainty; as John Ashbery puts it in “Soonest Mended”: “from this standpoint / None of us ever graduates from college[.]”
“Fresh Air” inaugurates Koch’s distaste for solemn maturity, his fondness for hyperbole (exclamation points and excited repetition are common), his romantic and sexual fantasies, his delight in surrealism and dada (which help him resurrect neglected tropes and striking perspectives), his mixture of the most prosaic conversational language with the poetic, his self-conscious metapoetic commentary on the act of writing poetry, and—above all—a cartoonish aesthetic. By cartoonish I mean it in the sense of caricature; Koch very often creates “a grotesque or ludicrous representation of persons or things by exaggeration of their most characteristic or striking features” (OED). In the case of “Fresh Air,” he caricatures academic poetry in the postwar era to diagnose its morbidities and propose refreshing remedies. One of the funniest lines in the poem is a dead-on parody of such poetry: “This Connecticut landscape would have pleased Vermeer.”
The poem begins: “At the Poem Society a black-haired man stands up to say / ‘You make me sick with all your talk about restraint and mature talent!’” He elaborates, to the reader’s amusement, but that is the gist; he and a blonde man and a red-haired man, and the speaker, and a figure called the Strangler, all of whom concur with such criticism of the poetry establishment, recommend and enact various violent, fantastic punishments of self-important, mature poets and their brand of poetry, and evoke an alternative poetic vision:
Is there no voice to cry out from the wind and say what it is like to be the wind,
To be roughed up by the trees and to bring music from the scattered houses
And the stones, and to be in such intimate relationship with the sea
That you cannot understand it? Is there no one who feels like a pair of pants?
The muse “Fresh Air,” who comes to the speaker’s rescue, is personified as “a young art student who places her head on my shoulder, / I kiss her warm red lips,” and so on. Poetry is in constant danger of a narrowing of choices, of arbitrary limitations on subject matter, form, and tone; thus Koch’s poem can still have an inspiring, liberating effect on young poets. It resists restraint of all kinds, formal and thematic, especially the expectation that poetry must express maturity. In teaching or studying American poetry of the ‘50s and ‘60s, in the era of such competing (and sometimes overlapping) camps as The New Criticism, the Beats, Confessionalism, and the New York School, “Fresh Air” is, in its way, as central to appreciating the forceful cross-currents as Ginsberg’s Howl and Lowell’s “For the Union Dead.” It is what is known among academics as teachable.
“Fresh Air” is cartoonish not only in its exaggerations. Much of its simplified imagery could be easily drawn. There is no obvious reason why one man is black-haired, another blonde, another a redhead, except that they could be quickly identified; a cartoonist could readily sketch them, along with the “The chairman [of the Poetry Society] . . . oh he was physically ugly! / He was small-limbed and –boned and thought he was quite seductive, / But he was bald with certain hideous black hairs[.]” After the chairman has been defeated (he “Wilted away like a cigarette paper on which the bumblebees have urinated”), Koch’s perpetual assault on maturity and conformity is renewed: “ ‘Oh to be seventeen years old / Once again,’ sang the red-haired man, ‘and not know that poetry / Is ruled with the sceptre of the dumb, the deaf and the creepy!’” The speaker goes on to deride poetry written by “the men with their eyes on the myth / And the Missus and the midterms, in the Hudson Review[.]” Such mistrust of adults and their authority was part of the zeitgeist, pronounced most famously by Jack Weinberg of the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in 1965: “We don’t trust anyone over thirty.”
But what happens when Koch joins the academy, teaching at Columbia University for most of his career, and is eventually embraced by “the Poem Society,” publishing nearly twenty books of poetry and, in 1995, receiving the Bollingen Prize? For one thing, his poetry is deeply influenced by the experience of teaching—in ways that probably would not displease the heroes of “Fresh Air”—and some of the most affecting moments in his poetry are about married life and the “Missus.” While Koch was part of the academy, however, his poetry has not gained the critical attention that his fellow New York School poets have. An open search on Koch in the MLA International Bibliography yields just 28 items. Of these, four are interviews (with Jordan Davis, David Herd, John Tranter, and one, on the subject of Frank O’Hara, with Richard Kostelanetz), and most pieces are fairly brief, leaving very few serious critical treatments of his work, the most enthusiastic written by Koch’s former student and tireless advocate, David Lehman. Searches on his fellow New York School poets yield these numbers: Ashbery, 220; Frank O’Hara, 142; James Schuyler (who did not give his first public reading until 1988), 39. Is this comparative neglect of Koch just? How can we account for it?
To help answer these questions, and to evaluate Koch’s vast poetic output, it seems fair to apply his own criteria from “The Art of Poetry.” One might object that Koch meant the poem as a parody of how-to manuals going all the way back to the eponymous work by Horace. But as he commented elsewhere, “I don’t think I’ve ever written a purely satirical poem. When they’re satirical or funny, my main intention for my poems is that they be lyrical.” The aspiration to be prolific, and for great poems to emerge from persistent effort, is clear:
Just how good a poem should be
Before one releases it, either into one’s own work or then into the purview of others,
May be decided by applying the following rules: ask 1) Is it astonishing?
Am I pleased each time I read it? Does it say something I was unaware of
Before I sat down to write it? and 2) Do I stand up from it a better man
Or a wiser one, or both? or can the two be separated? 3) Is it really by me
Or have I stolen it from somewhere else? (This sometimes happens,
Though it is comparatively rare.) 4) Does it reveal something about me
I never want anyone to know? 5) Is it sufficiently “modern”?
(More about this a little later) 6) Is it in my own “voice”?
Along with, of course, the more obvious questions, such as
7) Is there any unwanted awkwardness, cheap effects, asking illegitimately for attention,
Show-offiness, cuteness, pseudo-profundity, old hat checks,
Unassimilated dream fragments, or other “literary,” “kiss-me-I’m poetical” junk?
Is my poem free of this? 8) Does it move smoothly and swiftly
From excitement to dream and then come flooding reason
With purity and soundness and joy? 9) Is this the kind of poem
I would envy in another if he could write? 10)
Would I be happy to go to Heaven with this pinned on to my
Angelic jacket as entrance show? Oh, would I? And if you can answer to all these Yes
Except for the 4th one, to which the answer should be No,
Then you can release it, at least for the time being.
I would look at it again, though, perhaps in two hours, then after one or two weeks,
And then a month later, at which time you can probably be sure.
I cannot say that this poem is lyrical; it reads like a slightly polished lecture to a creative writing class, in lineated prose. As criteria for judging poetry, however, these suggestions seem quite serviceable. In some ways, alas, much of Koch’s poetry fails to meet criteria #1, #2, #7, and #9. Ashbery once remarked, “I believe in communicating, but I don’t believe in communicating something the reader already knows.” And to fall back on Sidney, who fell back on Aristotle via Horace, if poetry should teach, delight, and move us, Koch’s poetry itself has too little to teach us, if we are no longer undergraduates—it rarely tells us anything that we do not already know about his perennial subjects of art, poetry, love, sex, and growing up—and often it does not delight or move this reader, partly because, in its feel for language, much of it is not recognizably poetry, but verse or lineated prose, and partly because of a certain tonal monotony. To use Koch’s own terms, there is a great deal of “unwanted awkwardness” (especially preposterous or too predictable rhymes) and “cheap effects, asking illegitimately for attention,” as well as “pseudo-profundity,” and “Unassimilated dream fragments.” Further, when such poetry is extolled by great poets who may have had personal reasons for falsely praising Koch, it does start to “choke the spirit.”
I wish this were not the case. I had a difficult time with this review, because I do not want to offend Koch’s widow or his friends like Ashbery and Lehman, who have been very kind and helpful to me, and because I think Koch wrote some of his finest poems in his last years, I was particularly sorry when he died in 2002. Yet it is a great shame that the literary establishment has so abandoned the ideal of objective reviewing (the laudatory review for The New York Times of Norman Mailer’s utter failure The Castle in the Forest by his longtime friend Lee Siegel is just one example), and a symptom of that fact is that, while the general consensus is that Koch was not a great poet, so many great poets will not say so in print. Koch was obviously an important catalyst for his more talented friends, but most of his own work is of little enduring value. I would like to focus on the very small number of his poems that succeed; first I will touch on his weaknesses, which are most apparent in his long poems, recently published as On the Edge. Collected Long Poems. To employ a simile that might have appealed to Koch in other contexts, it is as though he were Goldilocks seeking the perfect porridge of poetry, not too thickly surrealist-opaque, and not too thinly accessible-transparent. Early on, and later at times, surrealist opacity is the problem. But the opposite problem is equally common, as I have said; many of his poems have too little to teach us, and are not moving. They are too transparent.
This may seem like a detour, but it is relevant here to quote from David LeHardy Sweet’s excellent Savage Sight / Constructed Noise. Poetic Adaptations of Painterly Techniques in the French and American Avant-Gardes:
In his apologetic letter of rejection to Frank O’Hara for the 1955 Yale Younger Poets prize (awarded to John Ashbery) W.H. Auden wrote: “I think you (and John too, for that matter) must watch what is always the greater danger of any ‘surrealistic’ style, namely of confusing authentic non-logical relations which arouse wonder with accidental ones which arouse mere surprise and in the end fatigue.” In a letter to Kenneth Koch, O’Hara responded to Auden’s comment, saying: “I don’t care what Wystan says, I’d rather be dead than not have France around me like a rhinestone dog-collar.” In this way he confirms Auden’s characterization, but only after broadening the definition of “surrealistic style” to encompass modern French poetry as a whole, and thus betraying the ambivalence the New York poets felt about having such a label.
Koch makes this attitude clear in an interview with Richard Kostelanetz in 1991:
No, it was not founded on Surrealism or Dada. Frank read the French poets and knew them, but his poetry was not surrealistic. It seems to me the surrealist attitude—trusting the unconscious more than the conscious, doing automatic writing, saying whatever comes into your head, using accident in your poems, bringing in material from dreams—all those things that were programmatic for the Surrealists . . . these characteristics have by now become a natural and almost instinctive part of the work of many poets writing in English.
Koch is right that these techniques have been adopted for general use, often with wonderful results, but early in his career, he seems to have applied the lessons of surrealism too programmatically—more than the Ashbery of “Europe,” the O’Hara of “Biotherm,” or the Schuyler of “Freely Espousing.” One of Koch’s early long poems, When the Sun Tries to Go On (1969), is virtually unreadable. It is not a narrative poem; there is no plot, the form is erratic free-verse 24-line stanzas, and words are used against their usual grammatical and semantic roles so relentlessly that the result is a stream of nonsense, and the mood is one of the author’s own very personal pleasure in pure sound in which it is difficult to share. It may have been great fun to write, but I cannot see why such a poem should go on for 68 pages. Perhaps these experiments were helpful to Koch’s development, but I am not sure he showed the best judgment in publishing them. The Duplications (1977) and On the Edge (1986) are not much better, though they make slightly more sense.
In “The Art of Poetry,” Koch clearly reflects on his own long poems when he writes:
Anyone who would like to write an epic poem
May wish to have a plot in mind, or at least a mood—the
Minimum requirement. Sometimes a stanza,
Like Spenser’s, or Ariosto’s ottava rima, will set the poem going
Downhill and uphill and all around experience
And the world in the maddest way imaginable. Enough,
In this case, to begin, and to let oneself be carried
By the wind of eight (or, in the case of Spenser, nine) loud rhymes.
Sometimes blank verse will tempt the amateur
Of endless writing; sometimes a couplet; sometimes “free verse.”
. . . .
The epic is particularly appropriate to our contemporary world
Because we are so uncertain of everything and also know too much,
A curious and seemingly contradictory condition, which the epic salves
By giving us our knowledge and our grasp, with all our lack of control as well.
Ko, or A Season on Earth (1959) is merely readable. There is a narrative, and a protagonist in the imaginary person of an amazingly talented Japanese pitcher and bachelor named Ko. The ottava rima carries one along more or less pleasantly, though self-consciously awkward, sometimes amusing rhymes often drive the plot and sub-plots, which are trivial and diverting. If rhyme is a way of allowing chance and accident and the play of the unconscious roles in writing such a poem, what they introduce here are rather pedestrian tales and fantasies of heterosexual romance from the male point of view, e.g. Ko finds a wife in one of the naked Kansan lasses, and the unattractive old Huddel is seduced by the buxom, young, devious Corrinna, or, to give a later example from “The Seasons,” a 16-page poem from Straits, the story of Louise, who is out shopping for bras with her dog Peppy when she meets Bob the carburetor salesman, who wins her heart. But perhaps such ungripping plots were planned; one of Koch’s models for Ko, which David Shapiro calls a “comic epic,” was Ariosto’s sixteenth-century romantic epic Orlando Furioso, which has inspired so many illustrations and paintings and a number of operas. Ko resembles it in its fanciful plot and ironic tone—though, importantly, the Arthurian legends and tales from the court of Charlemagne which Orlando draws on had a cultural currency, as the invented Japanese baseball player does not, beyond general familiarity with the sport. Koch’s sense of humor here, which is so sharply satirical and witty on aesthetic subjects elsewhere, is oddly square and flat. In writing the poem, Koch said that he also had in mind “certain early Mack Sennett comedies” that were all action, no reflection, and that he admires opera because it can celebrate the most mundane experiences and emotions. Slapstick or physical comedy and the melodramatic emotions of opera, however, are enhanced by the performance, the orchestra, props, costumes, the speaking or singing voice, and one feels, reading even the best of the long poems, that at the very least they need completion through another art form, such as cartoon illustrations, or simply more compelling plots. Impressions of Africa (1986), which expresses adolescent wonder about travel in exotic lands, is diverting, without any of the mystery and structural complexity of Raymond Roussel.
The more transparent long poems, like the early poem “The Circus,” may be thought of as cartoons without illustrations, extended descriptions for graphic novels. (In 2004, Koch’s The Art of the Possible: Comics, Mainly without Pictures, was published.) Take these lines from Ko:
The background was quite blue, and there appeared
A silver boatman there, who gondoliered
Some ladies dressed in robes of red and purple
Into a little house, shaped like a rectangle
And colored yellow, round which in a circle
Stood little black-limbed trees backed by a fleck-tangle
Of what apparently were leaves.
The scene is vividly imagined, with a simple palate. Remembering, of course, that the New York School poets were influenced to some degree by the New York School of Painting and other artists working in the city from the 1950s on, it seems that Koch’s poetry has a particular affinity with Pop Art, e.g., Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, who, in their maddening transparency and artificiality, are so effective at mirroring back to us our fascination with banal stylized images of celebrities, the cult of youth, the aesthetic qualities of commercial products and advertising, sensationalist media, the absurd plots of conventional romance and gender roles, etc. It seems highly appropriate, then, that the cover image for The Collected Poems is “Portrait of a Poet: Kenneth Koch, 1970” by the painter Alex Katz, Koch’s sometime collaborator (on Interlocking Lives in 1970 and Primus Inter Pares in 2002). In 1970, Koch would have been 45, but Katz’s Pop Art style makes him look about 20, the approximate perennial age, actual or psychological, of Koch’s protagonists and speakers.
Taking in too much Pop Art at once, however, can be alienating and mind-numbing. The experience of immersing myself in the poetry of Doctor Fun, as Ashbery has called Koch, reminded me of a Polish friend’s frustration with American levity. A fanatical Ameriphile, my friend nevertheless became irritated with me because I would often tell him, in parting, to “Have fun!” Eventually he responded, “You Americans are obsessed with fun. Why do you always say that? What is fun? Why is it so important?” I have a similar response to reading too much Koch at once, though I have no prejudice against humor in poetry, nor am I, as a female (and a fan of Nicholson Baker), offended by Koch’s preoccupation with sexual fantasy and romance from the male point of view. One of the greatest contributions of the other poets of the New York School, in my view, is that they showed how humor and wit could co-exist with seriousness in a single poem, and thus authentically widened “serious” poetry’s emotional range—the rueful, surprising wit of James Schuyler (e.g., “This Dark Apartment,” “The Crystal Lithium,” “The Cenotaph”), the whimsy, existential hilarity, lyrical intensity, introspection and shameless moral seriousness of Ashbery (e.g., “Soonest Mended,” “The One Thing that Can Save America,” and above all Three Poems) and the cattiness, campiness, exuberance, emotional intensity and aesthetic seriousness of O’Hara (e.g. “In Memory of My Feelings” and “A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island”). Koch’s gregarious, absurdist antics are much closer than the others to the tradition of light verse, yet he is rarely as amusing as, say, Ogden Nash, partly because he is not as verbally or technically accomplished.
To be fair, immersion is probably not the best approach to take to Koch. But some of his work simply fails to amuse, however much it tries, and one begins to long for tonal variety. And so one is relieved, perhaps, when Koch blends reflection with humor. In Seasons on Earth (1987), Koch can be quite solemn, expressing self-doubt and a horror of death that are touching and, one realizes, actually common throughout his work:
Is it not, some may say so, slightly batty
To dote upon this carnival combustion
Amidst so many things that really matter?
. . . .
They’re right. You’re right. I’m right. I’m wrong. I have no
Answer except the one that poets often
Sport occupationally like an Afro,
That what we give is what we have been given,
And hope we are of use that way, as Svevo
Has helped me live since I was thirty-seven.
As the Afro simile suggests (the purposefully awkward, grating rhyme with “Svevo” is all too typical), Koch’s poetry is a natural outgrowth of who he is, of his experiences and outlook, and at this late point in life, he cannot attempt to be a different kind of poet.
If we take Koch as a poet of adolescent possibility, we can exult with him, as he wrote in “Our Hearts” (from The Burning Mystery of Anna in 1951 ): “The seething is always there, and with it the possibility for great art.” Infrequently, the possibility is realized in his work. At his best, Koch has a highly original imagination that brings, as I have suggested, unfamiliar tropes and perspectives to life. The very existence of some of his poems, successful or not, reminds us of the remarkable and underused (in contemporary poetry) potential of personification and apostrophe, e.g. “Farm’s Thoughts,” “Permanently,” “The Boiling Water,” “Poems by Ships at Sea,” and the late book New Addresses (2000), of which an apt example is “To Marijuana”—like others of Koch’s best poems, it captures an adolescent experience with accuracy about its measured appeal and a sense that, for better or worse, we are now a bit more grown up. Also charming are “Down at the Docks” (a ditty about the relationship between art and nature) and “You Were Wearing” (another cartoonish poem, about how kitschy, simplistic representations and understandings of literary, artistic, historical and pop cultural figures inform our performance of gender roles, in youth and adulthood), “Fate” (memories of relating to friends his enthusiasm about his first trip to Europe), “To Marina,” “With Janice,” “One Train May Hide Another” “Talking to Patrizia,” “Vous Êtes Plus Beaux que Vous ne Penziez,” and “Bel Canto.” Even when Koch takes an imaginative concept too far, as he often does—e.g., “Locks” and “Faces”—his example is instructive.
Finally, I am tempted to excuse some of Koch’s excesses and limitations because of his apparent self-knowledge, as in “To Kidding Around”:
Kidding Around you are terrible sometimes
When I feel that I have to do it
Suddenly behaving like an ape, piling up snow on top of a friend
When I know that isn’t going to win her heart;
Screaming for no reason very loud, eating in a noisy way,
Running and barking as if I were a dog through the dimly lighted streets
Frightening the inhabitants, bashing myself into the cut-outs
Or mannequins in a store-window display, and yelling Boffo!
I am having so much fun
Seemingly. But isn’t this a faithless seeming?
For I’m a joker, an ass
And I can’t stop being
Ridiculous, my tongue against the window
Vlop vlap I can’t get it loose
It’s frozen here!
How can I ever say what’s in my heart
While imitating the head butts of a rhinoceros
Or the arm spans of an octopus
I am nothing but a wretched clown
Of humiliating things.
Like a far-off landscape.
Icy women who loom like towers.
Yet sometimes you are breaktaking,
To be rid of the troubles
Of one person by turning into
Someone else, moving and jolting
As if nothing mattered but today
In fact nothing
But this precise moment—five thirty-one a.m.
Celery growing on the plains
Snow swirls in the mountains.
Something else I learned from immersion in Koch’s poetry is the scope of his ambition, which is not, perhaps surprisingly, limited to comic poetry. For that reason I am pleased for him when he succeeds with a more serious tone, as in the lovely late poems, “Zones,” “Mountain,” and “Paradiso.” The poem that first made me take Koch more seriously, and which I still think is his best late poem, is “To World War Two.” It reminds us of how passionately Koch felt about the pleasures of peace, which was the title of his 1969 collection. Early on, Koch’s irrepressible high spirits may result, in part, from the sheer joy of having survived to “write poetry[.]” “To World War Two” seems to me one of the most successful examples of personification in contemporary poetry, as it captures the experience of a naïve, literary young man being drawn into war, deceived and used by a cruel and violent force larger than himself and beyond his understanding, and barely escaping with his life.
Early on you introduced me to young women in bars
You were large, and with a large hand
You presented them in different cities,
. . .
It was a time of general confusion
Of being a body hurled at a wall.
. . . .
One, in a foxhole near me, has his throat cut during the night
We take precautions but it is night and it is you.
The typhoon continues and so do you.
“I can’t be killed—because of my poetry. I have to live on in order to write
I thought—even crazier thought, or just as crazy—
“If I’m killed while thinking of lines, it will be too corny
When it’s reported” (I imagined it would be reported!)
. . . . I have never wanted
To be on Leyte again,
With you, whispering into my ear,
“Go on and win me! Tomorrow you might not be alive,
So do it today!” How could anyone win you?
You were too much for me, though I
Was older than you were and in camouflage.
. . . .
I who had gone about for years as a child
Praying God don’t let there be another war
Or if there is, don’t let me be in it. Well, I was in you.
All you cared about was existing and being won.
You died of a bomb blast in Nagasaki, and there were parades.
One thing that Koch went on to do, after the war and after he graduated from Harvard on the G.I. Bill, was to spend a year in France on a Fulbright in 1950-51. He brought home with him the influence of avant-garde French writers, notably Raymond Roussel, who would become the subject of Ashbery’s unfinished doctoral dissertation, and who would inspire all of the New York poets to some degree. Finally it makes the most sense to appreciate Koch within the circles of the New York School. While he lacks Schuyler’s sense for the texture and sound of language and eye for observation (as acute as Thomas Hardy’s), and O’Hara’s colloquial poetics that seem so deceptively effortless and are so persistently charming and semantically rich, and Ashbery’s metaphorical fertility and mixture of tones and diction, endlessly fascinating in their mimesis of how the mind moves, Koch was a handmaiden and cheerleader for these incomparable poets, at a time when they really needed such support. Without his friendship and zest for experiment, they might not have realized their talents as fully as they did. At crucial moments, Koch offered needed encouragement, as in 1962—the same year Ashbery published The Tennis Court Oath, a book that was not well-received, and is not one of his own favorites, but which helped him write again after a long dry spell and, alas, helped spawn L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry. Koch wrote to Ashbery in France, “Dear Adore Floupette . . . . When I think how flat life would be without your vast and decorated imagination it makes me scared.” My sentiments exactly.