More than fifty years separate these two new collections of Kenneth Koch’s poetry. While Sun Out gathers for the first time some of his earliest and most experimental poems, A Possible World is the work of the last years of his life. He died last July at the age of seventy-seven. In addition to eighteen books of poetry, which include Selected Poems, 1950–1982, he left behind two works of fiction, numerous short plays, and two books on teaching poetry to children.
As a poet he is grouped with John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, and James Schuyler, as one of the founders of the so-called New York School. Their poems—or so the story goes—were inspired by Abstract Expressionist painting and modern French poetry. This may be difficult to believe today, but in the 1950s there was little knowledge in this country of the European literary avant-garde. Reading the literary magazines of the period one would not suspect that Breton, Mayakovsky, and Lorca ever wrote. As Koch joked years later, it was the time when T.S. Eliot was the Great Dictator of literature. One was not supposed to fool around in poems. The critics praised irony, ambiguity, and tension while expecting young poets to sound more British than American.
Existentialism was all the rage in intellectual circles, but the movement had nothing to do with poetry. New York poets, with their cosmopolitan sophistication that included knowledge of modern music, dance, and theater, were an anomaly in a country whose poets have always found deeper satisfaction in nature. As is frequently the case with staunch New Yorkers, these poets came from elsewhere. Koch was born in Cincinnati in 1925, was drafted into the army in the Second World War, and went to Harvard afterward, where he met Ashbery and O’Hara. Apart from travels abroad, he lived in New York for the rest of his life and for many years taught at Columbia.
Koch’s poem “Fresh Air,” written in 1956, reads like a manifesto of the new poetry. Its setting is a meeting of the “Poem Society” (a.k.a. Poetry Society of America). That evening’s topic is poetry on the subject of love between swans. Some fellow in the audience, who has had enough of the discussion, gets up and starts shouting:
“You make me sick with all your talk about restraint and mature talent!
Haven’t you ever looked out the window at a painting by Matisse,
Or did you always stay in hotels where there were too many spiders crawling on your visages?
Did you ever glance inside a bottle of sparkling pop,
Or see a citizen split in two by the lightning?…”
Where are young poets in America, they are trembling in publishing houses and universities,
Above all they are trembling in universities, they are bathing the library steps with their spit,
They are gargling out innocuous (to whom?) poems about maple trees and their children,
Sometimes they brave a subject like …