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The Water Hose Is on Fire’


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 the Villa d’Este or a lighthouse in Rhode Island,
Oh what worms they are! They wish to perfect their form.

Later on in the same poem, Koch brings on a character dressed in a cowboy suit, called the Strangler, who goes around strangling bad poets. His ear is alert for the names of Orpheus, Cuchulain, Gawain, and Odysseus and to poems addressed to various personages no longer living in anyone’s thoughts. A kingdom of dullness ruled with the scepter of the dumb, the deaf, and the creepy is how Koch sees American poetry. What misfortune, he says, to walk out into the air of a beautiful spring day and happen to read an article on modern poetry or see examples of it in magazines like The Hudson Review or Encounter. Suppose, he says, one goes and burns down the building where their offices are and ends up in prison with trial subscriptions to the Partisan, Sewanee, and Kenyon Reviews! What could be worse than that?

The inclination to say something new and in a new way is what Koch values. Poetry for him has to be constantly saved from itself. The idea is to do something with language that has never been done before. Newness may in fact be the main thing a poet sets out to achieve, he stated in an essay. “It’s like searching for Shangri-la in a winged vehicle of your invention,” he wrote. “Fortunately, there is a great deal of technology behind you: all the poetry other poets have written.”2 The new poem Koch is calling for—although influenced by Mallarmé, Shelley, Byron, and Whitman, plus a million other poets—will be entirely original, he claims. And it was.

What the New York poets learned from the painters, David Lehman points out in The Last Avant-Garde, is “that it was okay for a poem to chronicle the history of its own making—that the mind of the poet, rather than the world, could be the true subject of the poem.”3 Even more importantly, Lehman contends, they saw that a poem as much as a painting is a field of action where both real and imaginary things can be combined. While their contemporaries in poetry were confessing the secrets of their tormented inner lives or yearning for mystical visions, the New York poets made one feel like a first-time visitor set adrift in the streets of Manhattan.

For Koch, one’s identity is not a stable property. He’s a poet of metamorphosis. His imagination tempts him to enter every living and inanimate thing. He has the extraordinary gift of becoming someone else. It’s the approach he used in teaching children poetry. “I’m the floor of a house. Everytime someone steps on me I laugh,” wrote one four-year-old.4 Koch likes that aspect of poetry too much to restrict himself to any one type of poem. Poetic truth, he wrote, is not a general truth that can be separated from its expression in a particular poem. Single meanings have no interest for him.

Introducing the poet at a reading in the 1960s, John Ashbery said,

Koch’s poetry gives you the impression that you are leading an interesting life: going to parties and meeting interesting people, falling in love, going for rides in the country and to public swimming pools, eating in the best restaurants and going to movies and the theater in the afternoons. By comparison, most other modern poetry makes me feel as if I were living in a small midwestern university town.

This was not a universal opinion, of course. There are still critics who maintain that the New York poets were a talentless bunch who never wrote anything that could even remotely be described as a poem. Koch’s gift for mockery made him even more irritating. Mind-numbing verse that sounds respectful of great verities is less of an offense than one that thumbs its nose at them. Light verse is acceptable and so are irony and wit, but a poem that ridicules the very idea of poetry is a scandal. One of Koch’s lengthy poems, “The Pleasures of Peace,” even includes a list of possible critical reactions: “A wonder!” “No need now for any further poems!” “He can speak for us all!” “A real Epic!” “The worst poem I have ever read!” “Abominably tasteless!”

When they ask for apples, give them pears,” the Chilean poet Nicanor Parra advised me once. This is the spirit of much of Koch’s work. He takes tremendous risks in his poems, seemingly unafraid to make a fool of himself. The similes and metaphors he uses are far-fetched and outrageous. Koch routinely takes things that resemble one another very little and presents them as comparable. “I love you as a sheriff searches for a walnut/That will solve a murder case unsolved for years,” he says in a poem. The speakers in his poems are at the mercy of their imaginations. Wherever fancy takes them—or rather, wherever a particular word takes them, since poetic imagination needs language to travel—the poem goes. “One’s words, though, once excited, mate and marry/ Incessantly, incestuously, like patients/ Gone mad with love,” he says in “The Duplications.”

Of course, to change the rules for how comparison operates is to change how the world appears to the reader. “It is possible to think that if poetry remains faithful to what is rational and clear, then it will also remain a prisoner of what is already known: it will say, no matter what the poet intends, essentially the same old things,” he writes. The point is to stretch comparisons as far as they will go, preferably farther, in the hope that a surprising likeness that has been locked with the key of the rational will be freed. This is more or less the theory that the French Surrealists peddled. Nevertheless, in comparison to Koch’s work, which conveys what feels like total imaginative freedom, their poems sound contrived.

Early oddities” is what Koch calls the poems in Sun Out, explaining that they never quite fit into his other books. They are, indeed, very different. In a short introductory note, this is his explanation of how the poems were written:

…I had just spent a year in France, immersed not only in French poetry but in the French language, which I understood and misunderstood at the same time. Words would have several meanings for me at once. Blanc (white) was also blank and, in the feminine, Blanche, the name of a woman. The pleasure—and the sense of new meanings—I got from this happy confusion was something I wanted to re-create in English.

Of course, there were also literary influences like Raymond Roussel’s poems and novels, Gertrude Stein’s “Tender Buttons,” and I imagine Wallace Stevens too. In many ways the poems in Sun Out anticipate the experiments of the later avant-garde movements such as the Oulipo group in Paris in the 1970s and of the so-called Language Poets in United States. Stein said that poetry is all about vocabulary, and Koch takes her up on that. In “When the Sun Tries to Go On,” a poem consisting of one hundred stanzas, each twenty-four lines long, a number of identical words reoccur in different contexts and are often used independently of their meaning. This can get pretty boring. There is no story, no progression, and no characters. Reading the poem is like walking through a library, taking books down from the shelves, quickly opening them and reading a few lines. The shorter poems are similarly opaque, which is not the case with Koch’s later poetry. The brief plays included in the book work better even at their silliest. “Guinevere or The Death of the Kangaroo” brings to mind Ubu Roi, Alfred Jarry’s masterpiece of the absurd. Both in the plays and in the poems the fun comes from isolated phrases and images that make a kind of sense on their own regardless of the context:

  1. 1

    In On the Great Atlantic Rainway: Selected Poems, 1950–1988 (Knopf, 1994), pp. 70–72.

  2. 2

    Making Your Own Days: The Pleasures of Reading and Writing Poetry (Scribner, 1998), p. 69.

  3. 3

    The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets (Doubleday, 1998), p. 3.

  4. 4

    Wishes, Lies and Dreams: Teaching Children to Write Poetry (Random House, 1970), p. 23.

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