Thank You And Other Poems
by Kenneth Koch
Grove Press, $1.95
This is a selection from Kenneth Koch’s shorter poems. The volume includes none of his plays nor any passages from Ko or his other more or less lengthy narratives. The omission is perhaps a pity. Koch’s plays have a special appeal: they give a peculiarly succinct and eloquent form to his enormously animated conception of things. Yet his better poems convey that conception too, in their own way.
Koch’s position in modern poetry is not easy to determine. It may help to begin by pairing him with a long-established elder poet to whom his relations are close enough in some respects, and distant enough in others, to be instructive. In part he is one of those “literalists of the imagination” who are commended by Marianne Moore and whose principles are exemplified in her own work. Like Miss Moore, Koch is fond of making poetry out of poetry-resistant stuff. Locks, lipsticks, business letterheads, walnuts, lunch and fudge attract him; so do examples of inept slang, silly sentiment, brutal behavior and stereotyped exotica and erotica. Whatever helps him to “exalt the imagination at the expense of its conventional appearances” (Richard Blackmur’s formula for Marianne Moore) is welcome, although not to the exclusion of the sun, the sea, trees, girls and other conventional properties. But Koch rarely submits either kind of phenomenon to any Moore-like process of minute and patient scrutiny. He is an activist, eagerly participating in the realm of locks and fudge at the same time that he is observing it. And if, like Marianne Moore, he is always springing surprises, he does not spring them as if he were handling you a cup of tea. Her finely conscious demureness is not for him. For him, the element of surprise, and the excitement created by it, are primary and absolute. In short, life does not present itself to Kenneth Koch as picture or symbol or collector’s item. It talks, sighs, grunts and sings; it is a drama, largely comic, in which there are parts for everyone and everything, and all the parts are speaking parts.
Filmed in the morning I am
A pond. Dreamed of at night I am a silver
Pond. Who’s wading through Me! Ugh!
Those pigs! But they have their say elsewhere in the poem, called “Farm’s Thoughts.”
The thirty-one poems in this volume were written during the past ten or twelve years and are very uneven in quality. Some of this unevenness may be the result of a defective sense of proportion, even a defective ear, on the poet’s part. Mostly, it seems to spring from a certain abandon inherent in his whole enterprise. Koch is determined to put the reality back into Joyce’s “reality of experience,” to restore the newness to Pound’s “Make it New,” while holding ideas of poetry and of poetic composition which are essentially different from those of the classic modern writers. In his attempt to supersede—or transform—those writers, Koch seems …