Poet #4: Kenneth Koch

Kenneth Koch

“When you finish a poem, it clicks shut like the top of a jewel box, but prose is endless. I haven’t experienced an awful lot of clicking shut!”
Kenneth Koch

(© unknown)

Kenneth Koch, whose work spans over fifty years, is often grouped with the likes of Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery as part of the famed New York School of poetry. My good friend and fellow poet Alex Carnevale gave me Koch’s final book of poetry, New Addresses, as a graduation gift in 2003. The book collects poems written directly to a variety of subjects, including marijuana, insults, and orgasms. These poems remind me of Alex and his own style: direct, enthusiastic, and humorous. Koch’s work proves, once and for all, that one need not be dreary and depressed to be a great poet.

“I simply was ignoring the fact that The Waste Land indeed made it seem to many poets that one had to be depressed-not that The Waste Land is a bad poem, it’s a wonderful poem-that one had to feel despair, that one had to think that the modern world was terrible.”

It took a while for Koch’s work to gain acceptance. His early writing struck critics as obscure, such as the epic Ko, or A Season on Earth (1959). He and his fellow New York School poets avoided the soul-baring styles of the Confessional poets in favor of a more cosmopolitan approach that adapted the art of action painting to a poetic medium. Over time, Koch developed a clear voice, renown for its lyricism, and he helped grow a style akin to French Surrealism, buoyed by unusual juxtapositions and underlying philosophical assertions.

(photo © Dodie Bellamy)

“As I understand the surrealist program, it was programmatically in favor of the unconscious as opposed to the conscious; programmatically in favor of chance, even programmatically in favor of a certain kind of violence and all that dream stuff.”

Even in his seventies, Koch produced work that was driven by the frenetic energy of The City:

To Various Persons Talked To All At Once

You have helped hold me together.
I’d like you to be still.
Stop talking or doing anything else for a minute.
No. Please. For three minutes, maybe five minutes.
Tell me which walk to take over the hill.
Is there a bridge there? Will I want company?
Tell me about the old people who built the bridge.
What is “the Japanese economy”?
Where did you hide the doctor’s bills?
How much I admire you!
Can you help me to take this off?
May I help you to take that off?
Are you finished with this item?
Who is the car salesman?
The canopy we had made for the dog.
I need some endless embracing.
The ocean’s not really very far.
Did you come west in this weather?
I’ve been sitting at home with my shoes off.
You’re wearing a cross!
That bench, look! Under it are some puppies!
Could I have just one little shot of Scotch?
I suppose I wanted to impress you.
It’s snowing.
The Revlon Man has come from across the sea.
This racket is annoying.
We didn’t want the baby to come here because of the hawk.
What are you reading?
In what style would you like the humidity to explain?
I care, but not much. You can smoke a cigar.
Genuineness isn’t a word I’d ever use.
Say, what a short skirt! Do you have a camera?
The moon is a shellfish.
I can’t talk to most people. They eat me alive.
Who are you, anyway?
I want to look at you all day long, because you are mine.
Might you crave a little visit to the Pizza Hut?
Thank you for telling me your sign.
I’m filled with joy by this sun!
The turtle is advancing but the lobster stays behind. Silence has won the game!
Well, just damn you and the thermometer!
I don’t want to ask the doctor.
I didn’t know what you meant when you said that to me.
It’s getting cold, but I am feeling awfully lazy.
If you want to we can go over there
Where there’s a little more light.

— from New Addresses

(© Colpitts Poetry)

It is the comedic character of Koch’s poetry that engages me the most. “There was a certain amount of humor in all our work,” Koch remarked about the New York School. “Maybe you can almost characterize [our] poetry… as having as one of its main subjects the fullness and richness of life and the richness of possibility and excitement and happiness.” Koch’s sense of humor comes across well in his amusing poetic manipulations of William Carlos Williams’ poem, “This is Just to Say“:

Variations On A Theme By William Carlos Williams

I chopped down the house that you had been saving to live in next summer.
I am sorry, but it was morning, and I had nothing to do
and its wooden beams were so inviting.

We laughed at the hollyhocks together
and then I sprayed them with lye.
Forgive me. I simply do not know what I am doing.

I gave away the money that you had been saving to live on for the
next ten years.
The man who asked for it was shabby
and the firm March wind on the porch was so juicy and cold.

Last evening we went dancing and I broke your leg.
Forgive me. I was clumsy and
I wanted you here in the wards, where I am the doctor!

Kenneth Koch was a poet, professor, and playwright. He died of leukemia in 2002. Take a moment to listen to him read his poem One Train May Hide Another.

(photo © Larry Rivers)


One Response to “Poet #4: Kenneth Koch”

  1. […] The Poetry Project Just another WordPress.com weblog « Poet #4: Kenneth Koch […]

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