The Wonder Man

I Never Told Anybody: Teaching Poetry Writing in a Nursing Home

by Kenneth Koch
Random House, 259 pp., $8.95

The Duplications

by Kenneth Koch
Random House, 154 pp., $6.95

All poetry deserving of the name has been written by people who have passed through puberty. On the other hand, there are some aspects of poetry—notably, originality of perception and spontaneity of language—which appear frequently in the speech and writing of children, but which are so dishearteningly killed off by life and schooling that a way with words is one of the rarest of adult talents. Most literate adults can express opinions, make statements, deliver judgments, even offer insights; but hardly any of them can cause that intake of breath, that startled glance, which a poet’s barest phrase can occasion.

When, seven years ago, the poet Kenneth Koch published Wishes, Lies, and Dreams: Teaching Children to Write Poetry,1 his title was both brash and inviting. Those who doubted that anyone—not to speak of children—could be taught to write “poetry,” wondered what this new extension of “creative writing” could amount to. Like other doubters, I read the book; and if I didn’t wholly agree that the children were writing “poetry,” at least I agreed that they were writing in ways that schools rarely sponsor. Koch had, in effect, adapted many techniques used in adult creative-writing classes to the capacities and interests of children; and he had invented new exercises and a style of teaching especially suited to elementary classes. The usual criticisms of elementary-school teaching—that it considers education to be the instilling of information; that it rarely addresses the mind, let alone the feelings; that its “problems” are those suggested by the teacher or by packaged “unit materials”; that it avoids the provocative and the subversive; that it is a deliberate socialization of the child in the service of the state—are not repeated by Koch, though his practice suggests that he may concur with some of them.

I would suppose that he takes the Wordsworthian view—that quite without any villainous intent except the child’s own wish to get on with the business of being adult and the adult’s wish to equip the child for “real life,” various valuable human powers are allowed to dwindle and atrophy. Chief among these powers are those of remembering and analyzing feeling. Since it is natural for both parents and teachers to ignore feeling in the interest of order, efficiency, intellectual effort, and even justice, feeling itself is one of the early victims of social life. The memory of feeling; a sense of the irrational links between feeling and sense experience; the perception of the conflict of one feeling with another; the development of an indirect vocabulary of feeling; the permission of fantasy; the intuiting of emotional form—these are endangered in all children, those whom Koch taught in PS 61 among them.

Koch’s exercises in Wishes, Lies, and Dreams aimed systematically at the retrieval of “the history and science of feeling”—Wordsworth’s description of the function of poetry. Some of Koch’s exercises were formal ones, some thematic—but all provided a rather firm structure within which the children could devise variations. Asking children to invent poems following the pattern “I Seem To Be / But Really I Am” offered a way to place inner against outer reality; “I Used To / But Now” allowed for conversion from worse to better or vice versa, yielding emotions from pride to sadness; “I Wish” or “I Dreamed” gave status to the inner life. Poems incorporating noises, colors, and comparisons validated the life of the senses; poems using special language (e.g., Spanish words) or special forms (e.g., the sestina) allowed for conscious reflection on the texture of language; while poems about listening to music combined the response of the senses with the perception of aesthetic form.

The greatest virtue of Wishes, Lies, and Dreams was its practicality; Koch’s exercises, it seemed, might be used by anyone. In fact, however, they require a teacher with a mind as critical and an ear as acute as Koch’s own. As the children in Koch’s classes proposed lines, he sought out and encouraged the imaginative, the inventive, and the surefooted. Less discriminating teachers might take any lines offered, making a travesty of the exercise.

Koch’s “poetry-ideas” for the children, whether formal, structural, or conceptual, were based, of course, on past poetic practice. From Wishes, Lies, and Dreams it was only a step to Rose, Where Did You Get that Red? Teaching Great Poetry to Children.2 The “poetry-ideas” of great poets are not harmed by being voiced in the simplest terms. Koch’s way into great poetry is to have the children re-create a version of it, rather than talk about it:

Though few had the critical skill to say much about the poems we read, they all could experience them. For the space of reading the Blake poems and writing Blake-like poems of their own, the children were confronting tigers; they were talking to nature; they were lifted out of their ordinary selves.

We all are urged, as children, to sing—and even to construct songs—before we can make any remarks at all about music; but this useful plunge into practice has not often been followed with respect to poetry. Koch, as a poet, knows that “the poetry of the idea,” as Wallace Stevens called it, is as essential to a poem as “the poetry of the words.” So his “poetry-ideas” for the children often dealt with the substance (and substantive form, e.g., repetition) of a poem, rather than insisting, as most elementary texts do, on the formal form (stanzaic and prosodic features). “Write a poem,” says Koch (after reading “Come live with me and be my love”), “in which you try to tempt somebody with all the nicest things you can think of, to convince that person to come and be with you and do things with you. You can say where you would go together, what you would see and hear, what you would do, the gifts you would give.” When the formal principle is important (as in an echo-poem) it gets full play, but with sympathetic consideration of the compositional difficulty: “Since echo words may be hard to think of, children may enjoy this more as a class collaboration. Ask for words which have good echo possibilities, such as table/able, love/of, fall/all.” Koch is not too proud to give examples of his own devising; and he is willing to present even the most difficult poems for imitation. “Write a poem in which you talk to the people, animals, and things in a picture or sculpture,” goes the first direction following a reading of “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”

Koch presses always toward mystery, wonder, speculative fantasy, daydreaming, and loosened boundaries. Perhaps understandably, he shied away in Rose from the darker side of great poetry (though “The Sick Rose,” “Lord Randal,” and “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” are among the poems included). He pointedly reproduced the ill-spelled worksheets of great poets cheek by jowl with the touching and equally hasty worksheets of children: “rose were did you get that red, bird were did you get thoose wings.” And in his introduction, Koch was categorical in demanding the best for children:

The usual criteria for choosing poems to teach children are mistaken…. These criteria are total understandability, which stunts children’s poetic education by giving them nothing to understand they have not already understood; “childlikeness” of theme and treatment, which condescends to their feelings and to their intelligence; and “familiarity,” which obliges them to go on reading the same inappropriate poems their parents and grandparents had to read.

Koch’s method makes poems memorable. No child who has attempted a list like Whitman’s or a synesthesia like Rimbaud’s or a colloquy with the sun like Frank O’Hara’s is likely to forget the parent-poem. If children, in their reading and literature and writing classes, had imitated great poems from the first through the twelfth grades, every year all year, what extraordinary mastery they might have when we met them in the universities as freshmen. As it is, they remember no poems at all.

Koch’s evangelism has now reached far and wide to other teachers. In his conviction that poetry is available to all, and that some, at least, of the activities proper to poetry can bring pleasure to all, he has now moved on to the most difficult possible experimental population—the inhabitants of a nursing home. “Last spring and summer,” Koch begins in I Never Told Anybody, “I taught poetry writing at the American Nursing Home in New York City”:

I had about twenty-five students, and we met sixteen times…. The students were all incapacitated in some way, by illness or old age. Most were in their seventies, eighties, and nineties. Most were from the working class and had a limited education…. There were problems aside from the physical ones. Some had recent memory loss, were forgetful, tended to ramble a little when they spoke. Everyone was ill, some people sometimes in pain. Depression was frequent. A few were blind, and some had serious problems in hearing. Several students had severe speech problems and were very difficult, at first, to understand.

Koch and his helpers (one poet, two social workers) took down dictated lines based on “poetry-ideas.” To readers who know Koch’s earlier books, much of this account will be familiar. “I taught them,” says Koch, “what poetry could be, by suggesting subjects and forms, by reading them great poems, and by reading aloud and commenting on their work.” He introduced his group to “the slight arbitrariness of poetry,” to its “spirited form of language.” As he had with the children, he sought out elements in the students’ verse to comment on and praise:

There was nothing false about it. I did in fact admire the qualities in the poem that I praised. In the work of more sophisticated poets I would pass over most of those things, because others would preempt my attention. But at the beginning, when someone is learning to dance, say, one admires what grace and balance and control there are, and they are really admirable.

One is inclined to believe Koch when he says this because his unerring eye does light on just the slight edge one line does possess over another. If I myself had not seen a virtue in a line he praised, I saw it after he had praised it, and his acuity became a rebuke to my own blunter perception. The poems produced by this group are not, by any absolute standard, very good. But, oddly, they become better—often strangely so—on a comparative basis, as one watches the progress of the group. It is like watching the deaf-and-dumb learn to speak.

Koch asks the group, for instance, to do a “lie” poem. All one woman of ninety-four can manage is a single line: “I am working hard today.” But on the day they are to write about writing poetry, she arrives at seven lines:

Motherless, fatherless, sisterless,
All gone and no more
I felt so lonely
Yet within me I felt a joy of joyfulness
When I read poems relating to things around me
Like the sun in the skies
It gives me hope for the future.

The born teacher’s mixture of tenderness toward inexperience and firm expectation from ability is visible in Koch’s shepherding of these unusual “students.” One eighty-three-year-old woman, who has had a series of shocks, writes prosaically in answer to “Touch this and say what it’s like, how it makes you feel”:

It” reminds me of an oversized “powder puff” and that reminds me of an article for women I read some years ago—namely to watch our appearance when we grow old—to make sure we look as attractive as we can at all times.

Who but Koch would have believed she had any poetry in her? But she tried again, on a different object, and did better.

It feels like a nut
It feels like something prickly
It makes me think of the woods
And the bark of the tree
It’s scratchy
It’s like life—the things you run into—day to day.

I have deliberately singled out the most unpromising of the group. Koch’s successes often rise above these two, but even here, the slight liberation of mind between the first and second attempts is a measurable step toward a new expressiveness. Not everyone would agree that the name for this second attempt is “poetry,” but it certainly exhibits more affinity than the first with the cast of mind native to poets.

Koch’s book raises questions about the therapies available to the old. Diversion, as Koch points out, is not the same thing as accomplishment. I see no reason to doubt him when he says the patients took pleasure in their “writing,” since the only accomplishments possible for the immobilized and the ill are mental and imaginative ones. Yeats and Blake both testify to the continued vitality of imaginative power in old age, even in illness: Yeats in his sixties asserted (and proved it in poems), “Never had I more/ Excited, passionate, fantastical imagination,” while Blake, shortly before he died in his seventieth year, wrote in a letter:

I have been very near the Gates of Death & have returned very weak & an Old Man feeble & tottering, but not in Spirit & Life, not in The Real Man The Imagination which Liveth for Ever. In that I am stronger & stronger as this Foolish Body decays.

The tangible end-products emerging from Koch’s students’ work—whether one calls them poems or recollections of feeling—are accomplishments in their own right. So is the moment of psychological freedom prefacing the composition; so is the experience (seeing and handling flowers, for instance) preceding the feeling. If physiotherapy and occupational therapy are manageable in nursing homes, perhaps therapy preserving mental and imaginative powers can be managed too. Koch appends a note:

The National Center on the Arts and Aging…can give guidance and technical assistance to anyone wishing to set up and conduct a program similar to the workshop at the American Nursing Home. The address is 1828 L Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036—telephone (202) 223-6250.

Koch’s own poetry has always pressed for a free and even phantasmagorical play of mind. When the helium for his balloons fails, the verse turns incomprehensible:

He, day, believes is dogs “ne’er- theless” a
By the fishes’ cocoa of today’s sea sent
Collar loneliness home babies papers labors
Neighbors eagles capons savers of lilied
Papers of carbon moose’s ape- bottling wintry
“When the Sun Tries to Go On,”

His earlier poems—still anthologized—from Thank You and Other Poems (1962) had a genial zaniness illuminating their critique of America, poetry, and art in general. Long, often meandering, they were, like his verse epistles in The Art of Love (1975), funny, affectionate, self-deprecating, and full of hymns to the airy, the happy, and the improvisational. Koch’s diffuse talents have gone into fictions and plays as well; and his latest volume, The Duplications, continues, in its Byronic ottava rima, the form of a 1959 “epic poem” called Ko.

Koch finds most narrative too placid, I suspect, and wants a party-like “high” to pervade his tale; in consequence his “plot”—generally, in such verse, the merest excuse for self-portraiture and social commentary—becomes too heavyladen: too many people, too many things happening without motivation or explanation, too many events and names governed, to my taste at least, by a strained wit (one heroine is named “Aqua Puncture”). The pace is relentless, the inventions too often tortured. Here, for instance, is the Easter Service in “Tropical China” (a region in Africa):

And we can see the Easter Service. Murray
Fitzgibbon writes that when the Cross is hung
From the high bamboo altar, tons of curry
Flow out of Mount Kabogo mixed with dung.

Part I and the latter half of Part II of the poem consist of frenetic adventure. The blurb summarizes the plot, adding a certain clarity not possessed by the poem:

Its subjects include a duplicate city of Venice constructed in the Peruvian Andes for one man’s sexual pleasures; an automobile race across Greece by Mickey Mouse; the death of Donald Duck; a group of chemically treated young women, The Early Girls, who each time they make love cause a new city to appear….

The rest of the list includes “swimmoflying,” “death in a lion’s den,” and “the return to life of the last of the Incas.”

However, in the middle of the poem there is a long first-person digression, full of interesting stanzas, some of them defenses of the poem, which tries, says Koch, to

Make oppositions one, to bring Khartoum,
Venice, and Oz into the self-same urn; to
Put silverfoil and rags on the same loom
Along with silks and wool and mud.

A work,” Koch speculates, “perhaps I never can conclude”:

It’s my own fault—I like works to be endless,
So no detail seems ever to intrude
But to be part of something so tremendous,
Bright, clear, complete, and constantly renewed,
It totally obliterates addenda’s
Intended use.

The poem is “this discourse with my head that / The world calls poetry and I call yearning.” Since yearning by its nature shifts colors with every impulse, Koch tries for the iridescent and the associative, seeing his words “mate and marry / Incessantly, incestuously, like patients / Gone mad with love.” It is strange, as he remarks, “that words suggest to us” that we can find, and write down, “the sole true story of man’s secret mind.” The purpose of Koch’s “new art” is to “help people love it, / Their world, I mean,” and he finds in Shelley a “yearning” kindred to his own: Shelley too would treat his plot summarily,

So he can dream of what it is to be
A crag of icy flame or a lone road
Amid the Apennines, or a blue sea
Of expectation and despair.

Cowper, on the other hand, is the antithetical poet “Of Things That Really Happen, in the Order / In which they do.” Koch, then, stations himself on the side of festivity, fantasy, metamorphosis, the whimsical, and the aerial. The program is agreeable; the execution, I think, comes dangerously near an arbitrariness not slight but invasive.

  1. 1

    Random House, 1971.

  2. 2

    Random House, 1973.