You would look nice in a wastebasket
A nightingale leans over her ironing board
Be merry as a phone
Crossword palaces blankets or bent crowds
Of rats, like a billion speeding prescriptions
These modern master chew up moths….
Daiquiris of blue knives
Of distinguished sighs
O mournful existence within a matchbox
With a sullen cockatoo
A “China of sentences,” a phrase from one of the poems, may be the perfect name for them. If one can keep oneself in a state of Keatsian negative capability while reading and not worry what it all means, then there are things here to enjoy. It may be that the love of language and the love of nonsense are the two most important prerequisites for appreciating poetry. If so, one comes to a scandalous conclusion: What if realism impoverishes life? What if poetry is at its nicest when it keeps its distance from sense? “Dusk moved silently, like pine-needle mice,” he writes in one of the poems, and I for one am enchanted.
I said that the poems in Sun Out are not typical. Koch is still funny and wildly inventive in his later poetry, but there’s usually no problem understanding him. On the Great Atlantic Rainway: Selected Poems, 1950–1988 is the book anyone interested in contemporary American poetry ought to own. There’s simply nothing like it. The poems in it are so varied, so different from one another, that the volume reads like an anthology. There are didactic poems, prosy narratives, poems that sound like philosophical musings; others that sound like comic books, adolescent adventure stories, satires, true confessions, Dadaist plays, and romantic lyrics. The effect is a carnival of styles. Diverse kinds of verbal clowning and slapstick take place.
Koch’s poems are performances, magic acts in which wild imaginings are converted into realities. Laughter for him is an aesthetic, and humor the greatest homage one can pay to language. Imagination used so freely at times arouses indignation. This is just plain stupid, one says, reading him, only to be thoroughly delighted in the very next moment. As any reader of Koch soon realizes, he didn’t care to be pinned down to a particular style, nor did he accept the false antithesis between traditional and modern verse:
They say Prince Hamlet’s found a Southern island
Where he lies happy on the baking sand
A lovely girl beside him and his hand
Upon her waist and is completely silent;
When interviewed, he sighs, and makes a grand
Gesture toward the troubled Northern places.
I know them not, he cries, and love them less.
Then he is once more lost in loveliness.
They say King Lear, recovered in his mind
From all those horrors, teaches now at some
Great university. His course—Cordelia—
Has students by thousands every term.
At course’s end, he takes his students out,
Points to the clouds and says You see, you see her!
And every one, unable not to cry,
Cries and agrees with him, and he is solaced.
O King, you should retire and drink your beer!
And Hamlet you should leave your happy island
And wear, with fair Ophelia, Denmark’s crown.
Koch is a master of the long poem, which makes him extremely difficult to quote. “I like to write things that go on forever,” he said in an interview. He once wrote a mock epic, Ko, or A Season on Earth, in Byronic ottava rima about a Japanese baseball player and a score of other amusing characters. His inspiration was Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso. He also has a thirty-page poem modeled on Ovid called “The Art of Love.” It draws equally on contemporary dating and sex manuals. Accordingly, it contains instructions on how to perform in bed; cause all the women eating in a given restaurant to fall in love with you at the same time; build a house ideally suited for love; prepare Greek aphrodisiac foods; make love on the bridge of a ship in twenty-five different positions; construct mazes in which to hide naked women and chase them; plus hundreds of other pieces of advice. Koch loved catalogs as much as Whitman did. Here, for instance, is the beginning of another long poem, “Sleeping with Women”:
Caruso: a voice.
Naples: sleeping with women.
Women: sleeping in the dark.
Voices: a music.
Pompeii: a ruin.
Pompeii: sleeping with women.
Men sleeping with women, women sleeping with women, sheep sleeping with women, everything sleeping with women.
The guard: asking you for a light.
Everything south of Naples: asleep and sleeping with them.
Sleeping with women: as in the poems of Pascoli.
Sleeping with women: as in the rain, as in the snow.
Sleeping with women: by starlight, as if we were angels, sleeping on the train,
On the starry foam: asleep and sleeping with them—sleeping with women.
Mediterranean: a voice.
Mediterranean: a sea. Asleep and sleeping.
Streetcar in Oslo, sleeping with women, Toonerville Trolley
In Stockholm asleep and sleeping with them, in Skansen
Alone, alone with women,
The rain sleeping with women, the brain of the dog-eyed genius
Alone, sleeping with women, all he has wanted,
The dog-eyed fearless man.
Sleeping with them: as in The Perils of Pauline
Asleep with them: as in Tosca
Sleeping with women and causing all that trouble….
The poem continues in this manner for another hundred and thirty lines or so. I once heard him read it. The effect is cumulative. The repetition, the accumulation of exotic images, and the sheer excess of it all were spellbinding.
Koch is by and large a love poet. He hasn’t had much competition since most of the time our poets are too wrapped up in themselves to notice anyone else. It’s also unusual to have a contemporary poet follow in the footsteps of Byron and Ovid, and then again why not? Genuine novelty in any given literary period always includes the restoration of something old that has been either forgotten or dismissed as second-rate. Koch’s preferred method is to take a word, a phrase, or an experience and then play with it, literally and figuratively, over and over again until different poetic possibilities and ideas arise from it. I’ll quote a few passages from “The Boiling Water” which will give some idea of how this works:
A serious moment for the water is when it boils
And though one usually regards it merely as a convenience
To have the boiling water available for bath or table
Occasionally there is someone around who understands
The importance of this moment for the water—maybe a saint,
Maybe a poet, maybe a crazy man, or just someone temporarily disturbed
With his mind “floating,” in a sense, away from his deepest
Personal concerns to more “unreal” things….
A serious moment for the island is when its trees
Begin to give it shade, and another is when the ocean washes
Big heavy things against its side. One walks around and looks at the island
But not really at it, at what is on it, and one thinks,
It must be serious, even, to be this island, at all, here,
Since it is lying here exposed to the whole sea. All its
Moments might be serious. It is serious, in such windy weather, to be a sail
Or an open window, or a feather flying in the street….
Seriousness, how often I have thought of seriousness
And how little I have understood it, except this: serious is urgent
And it has to do with change. You say to the water,
It’s not necessarily to boil now, and you turn it off. It stops
Fidgeting. And starts to cool. You put your hand in it
And say, The water isn’t serious any more. It has the potential,
However—that urgency to give off bubbles, to
Change itself to steam. And the wind,
When it becomes part of a hurricane, blowing up the beach
And the sand dunes can’t keep it away.
Fainting is one sign of seriousness, crying is another.
Shuddering all over is another one.
A serious moment for the telephone is when it rings,
And a person answers, it is Angelica, or is it you….
A serious moment for the fly is when its wings
Are moving, and a serious moment for the duck
Is when it swims, when it first touches water, then spreads
Its smile upon the water….
A serious moment for the match is when it bursts into flame….
Serious for me that I met you, and serious for you
That you met me, and that we do not know
If we will ever be close to anyone again. Serious the recognition of the probability
That we will, although time stretches terribly in between….
One doesn’t expect him to pull it off, but he does in the end, finding never-suspected connections between seemingly remote realities. Something as familiar as water coming to a boil is seen as if for the first time by an observant and intelligent visitor from Mars. Comedy, one realizes, reading him, casts its net much wider than tragedy and melodrama, which tend to be claustrophobic. It’s a rich, multifaceted world, similar to what we encounter in Cervantes and Rabelais. Very much in their spirit, Koch carries out here a comic examination of seriousness which after many unexpected twists and turns becomes a love poem. Trying to imagine anything in the mystery of its being is like falling in love, he concludes. That’s why his poem ends with an address to a woman he loves.
A Possible World is his last book of poems. As is to be expected, they are less playful and more melancholy. Koch had always been the poet of happiness. What he called his “real life” was some merry, never-to-be-forgotten occasion with friends or lovers on a particular day in a particular year. Brooding on mortality was not his thing. He sought an atmosphere of high spirits in his poems. “The very existence of poetry should make us laugh,” he said. Being funny, of course, doesn’t prevent one from being philosophical, and it didn’t with Koch. In fact, the two are inseparable in much of his work. Nevertheless, this is a book of quiet, not-so-obvious farewells. He still fiddles around with language, does a few high jinks, fails a few times, and then turns around and writes a poem unlike any poem he has written before:
Nothing’s moving I don’t see anybody
And I know that it’s not a trick
There really is nothing moving there
And there aren’t any people. It is the very utmost top
Where, as is not unusual,
There is snow, lying like the hair on a white-haired person’s head
Combed sideways and backward and forward to cover as much of the top
As possible, for the snow is thinning, it’s September
Although a few months from now there will be a new crop
Probably, though this no one KNOWS (so neither do we)
But every other year it has happened by November
Except for one year that’s known about, nineteen twenty-three
When the top was more and more uncovered until December fifteenth
When finally it snowed and snowed
I love seeing this mountain like a mouse
Attached to the tail of another mouse, and to another and to another
In total mountain silence
There is no way to get up there, and no means to stay.
It is uninhabitable. No roads and no possibility
Of roads. You don’t have a history
Do you, mountain top? This doesn’t make you either a mystery
Or a dull person and you’re certainly not a truck stop.
No industry can exploit you
No developer can divide you into estates and lots
No dazzling disquieting woman can tie your heart in knots.
I could never lead my life on one of those spots
You leave uncovered up there. No way to be there
But I’m moved.
There are several other moving poems in the book, the long one called “Bel Canto” among them. On the whole, this is not as strong a collection as Straits (1998) and New Addresses (2000), which contain some of his most ingenious and accomplished poems. Koch is overdue for an expanded edition of his selected poems that would include work from the five collections that he published in the last ten years. It would, I hope, correct a neglect and lack of understanding of the astonishing range of his poetry, which comprised everything from comic epics to one-line poems in both formal and free verse. I will go out on a limb and say that some of the most original and satisfying poetry in the last fifty years will be found in that ample selection. The book might even include this short poem “Barking Dogs in the Snow,” from A Possible World, which despite its brevity sounds like an elegy for the poet:
Barking dogs in the snow! Good weather is coming!
Good weather is coming to barking dogs in the snow.
A man changes only slowly. And winter is not yet past.
Bark, dogs, and fill the valleys
Of white with your awful laments.