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.1
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:
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.
January 16, 2003
In On the Great Atlantic Rainway: Selected Poems, 1950–1988 (Knopf, 1994), pp. 70–72. ↩
Making Your Own Days: The Pleasures of Reading and Writing Poetry (Scribner, 1998), p. 69. ↩
The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets (Doubleday, 1998), p. 3. ↩
Wishes, Lies and Dreams: Teaching Children to Write Poetry (Random House, 1970), p. 23. ↩