The poems and fiction of Kenneth Koch.
January 1, 2007
Jan 1, 2007
14 Min read time
The late Kenneth Koch chose happiness as his subject.
Kenneth Koch once said of his early poems that he wanted to keep the subject in the air as much as possible, because any subject, according to Wittgenstein, is a limitation of the world. But Koch, who died in 2002, knew that a subject emerges sooner or later, so it makes sense that he would choose happiness, an expansive one, as his own. In the long poem “Seasons on Earth,” he writes that he thought about happiness “As being at one’s side, so that one [had] but / To bend or turn to get to it.” This obsession, amply displayed in the near-simultaneous publication of his Collected Poems and Collected Fiction, began as a reaction to the suffocating aesthetic of what he saw as New Critical drips—poets Koch referred to as “the castrati”—who thought suffering the only form of intense feeling. For Koch, it was unethical to deny any part of experience, which is why his poems ask us time and again what it means to lead a good life—with “good” meaning both pleasurable and ethical. In the broad view of his career that these new books afford, we see Koch preserving the comic as a serious way of arriving at “ecstasy, unity, freedom, completeness, dionysiac things,” poetic ambitions he talks about in a 1995 interview with the poet Jordan Davis, his student and the editor of his Collected Fiction.
Even readers who know Koch solely from the short lyric parodies that remain his most frequently anthologized work will recognize a poet who is openly nostalgic, and who depicts life’s operatic moments with matter-of-fact honesty. Koch may be a clown, but he is a Shakespearean clown, privileged with truth and permitted to speak it because he can make the court laugh. “Fresh Air,” the poem that announces Koch’s aesthetic, does so in opposition to what he calls “the Eliot-dominated poetic ambience,” otherwise known in the poem as “the kingdom of dullness.” An indignant, black-haired man stands up at the Poem Society and accuses the bad poets of never having “smiled at the hibernation / Of bear cubs except that you saw in it some deep relation to human suffering and wishes . . .” And later, a red-haired man sings, “Oh to be seventeen years old / Once again . . . and not know that poetry / Is ruled with the sceptre of the dumb, the deaf, and creepy.” What Koch is lampooning, he explains in the Davis interview, is an airless poetic atmosphere in which “the slightest sensations of happiness seemed rare and revolutionary poetic occasions.”
This poet’s productive disdain for academe, however, was not uncomplicated. Throughout his career, Koch felt slightly hurt that he had not been fully accepted by the critical establishment. I remember whining to him as a graduate student about how politics had so pervasively polluted the spirit of poetry; he responded, “The only revenge is to lead a good life.” This practice, what David Lehman refers to as Koch’s “radical innocence,” allowed him to escape what he considered the worst pitfalls of bad poetry, the solemnity mistaken for seriousness, the obscurity masquerading as profundity.
In The Collected Poems, we see how Koch’s early poems record his struggle to achieve the light, playful innocence of his later work. Rather than attaining radical innocence, the kind epitomized by the sublime frivolity of a Mozart opera, for example, they indulge in willful adolescent rebellion. Desperate to “do something with language / That had never been done before,” as he puts it in the title poem of Days and Nights (1982), Koch wound up sounding silly, dense, and eventually impenetrable: “Too fanned by so tomorrow’s ink knot’s weak purple / daisy ignorant fan club. He prowl. Pearl. Mid- / night . . .” In “Days and Nights,” he makes fun of how hard he worked to not make sense: “I thought Orpheus chasms trireme hunch coats melody / And then No that isn’t good enough.” But already by his second book, Thank You and Other Poems (1962), Koch was well on his way toward sublime innocence and the light, transparent style associated with it. Perhaps the subject matter implied by the book’s title helped, since gratefulness is one of the principal ways in which a radical innocent responds to the world, and for Koch, gratefulness serves as a technique that opens his range of expression. In fact, Koch gives the impression of being a cluster bomb of peace bursting in all directions, an image suggested in “Pleasures of Peace”: “Peace will come thrusting out of the sky / Tomorrow morning, to bomb us into quietude.” By making a habit in his poetry of thanking and praising things and people alike, he creates an Edenic, anti-hierarchical world where chewing gum and Ezra Pound are reflected upon equally. Accordingly, in the book’s title poem, the speaker embraces his position as a poet, which means being unfit for any practical job:
Oh thank you for giving me the chance
Of being ship’s doctor! I am sorry that I shall have to refuse—
But, you see, the most I know of medicine is orange flowers
Titled in the evening light against a cashmere red
Inside which breasts invent the laws of light
And of night, where cashmere moors itself across the sea.
And thank you for giving me these quintuplets
To rear and make happy . . . My mind was on something else.
At the other end of his career, the best poems in New Addresses (2000) talk directly to things and ideas, summing up past experiences, trying to resurrect them with a well-placed compliment. If “a well-placed compliment, like an Easter egg, beautiful but hidden, / Can influence a woman, as a kiss can, for years of her life,” as Koch writes in “The Art of Love,” why not use one or two to seduce the past back to life? In “To Marijuana,” he remembers one time when, stoned, he threw his eyeglasses into the fire to show a girl how great he was. If he didn’t “like / To wake up in the morning fresh and strong / And to write poems with my glasses on—” he writes, he’d “surely be a pothead.” Nonetheless, he ends the poem by thanking marijuana “for that throwing thing, / For that eagle’s wing, away from my reasonable beak.” And “To Kidding Around” begins in halfhearted complaint:
Kidding around you are terrible sometimes
When I feel that I have to do it
Suddenly behaving like an ape, piling up snow on top of a friend . . .
How can I ever say what’s in my heart
While imitating the head butts of a rhinoceros . . .
But finally, because the poet can’t seem to help loving it all, he comes around to praise:
Yet sometimes you are breathtaking,
To be rid of the troubles
Of one person by turning into
Someone else, moving and jolting
As if nothing mattered but today
In fact nothing
But this precise moment—five thirty-one a.m.
Celery growing on the plains
Snow swirls in the mountains.
What a quandary! Koch wanted to get all of life into his poems, but couldn’t bear all he would miss while writing it. And so he must write life as it is lived. In a world where many claim to descend from Whitman, Koch earns it: both poets are ecstatics, and both share a mania for cataloguing, although Koch’s seems to go berserk, leaving nothing out.
Thus it happens that “The Boiling Water,” from The Burning Mystery of Anna in 1951 (1979), is not only a long poem about—yes—boiling water but, paradoxically, a meditation on seriousness. Even as Koch quietly makes fun of his own lack of seriousness, he proves that he understands it better than most. “A serious moment for the water is when it boils,” he says, and it seems like a joke, but it’s not. A serious moment for the poem is when it ends, for the tree when its arms are waving (“How did it ever get such flexibility / In the first place?”), for the telephone when it rings, for the match when it bursts into flame, for the bee when it stings (“We say, He has taken his life, / Merely to sting. Why would he do that? And we feel / We aren’t concentrated enough, not pure, not deep / As the buzzing bee.”). Koch then uses his impeccable sense of timing, often deployed for comedic effect, to make a more dramatic turn:
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. It is serious not to know
And to know and to try to figure things out. One’s legs
Cross, foot swings, and a cigarette is blooming, a gray bouquet, and
The water is boiling. Serious the birth (what a phenomenon!) of anything and
The movement of the trees, and for the lovers
Everything they do and see. Serious intermittently for consciousness
The sign that something may be happening, always, today,
That is enough. For the germ when it enters or leaves the body. For the fly when it lifts its little wings.
By the time we arrive at the end of a poem that seemed jocular at first, we find that love gives absolutely everything importance, that it rejects no part of this world, and that for Koch saying so does not require the ironic inflection usually attributed to him.
But Koch had perfected the dry, matter-of-fact voice of “The Boiling Water” a few years before its writing. This is how he sounds in the long essay-poems that make up The Art of Love (1975), especially the title poem, “Some General Instructions,” “The Art of Poetry,” and “On Beauty.” If Frank O’Hara has his famous I-do-this-I-do-that poems, these are Koch’s famous do-this-don’t-do-that poems, admired for their seamless conjunction of wit and wisdom. Taken together, along with later advice poems like “One Train May Hide Another” (the flagship poem of 1994’s One Train), they become a guide to living the good life. And if we are not turned off by this didactic edge, it is because this poet’s wisdom is the byproduct of his wit, its beautiful waste. In “Some General Instructions,” he rattles off obvious practical advice about incongruous subjects, inserting his own invaluable opinions about how to live. This parataxis of opinion and fact softens the distinction between the two, as all jokes do:
The problem of being good and also doing what one wishes
Is not as difficult as it seems. It is, however,
Best to get embarked early on one’s dearest desires.
Be attentive to your dreams. They are usually about sex,
But they deal with other things as well in an indirect fashion
And contain information that you should have.
You should also read poetry. Do not eat too many bananas.
In the springtime, plant. In the autumn, harvest.
Of all his instructions, I find “Do not wear a shirt / More than two times without sending it to the laundry” particularly sage, and I would have welcomed such a suggestion earlier in life. A great many other nuggets follow throughout the book: “In a family one sister may conceal another, / So, when you are courting, it’s best to have them all in view” (from “One Train May Hide Another”); “And the presence of beauty may make / Tears easier and seem safer, too, since it seems, also, to warrant and protect” (from “On Beauty”). One wonders if, having been raised by wolves and Kenneth Koch’s poems alone, one would have become not only a fine citizen, but a great princely poet. Indeed, there is something simultaneously primitive and aristocratic about Koch’s poems, and this is a paradox we happily accept, if not because of his outward goofiness, then because we feel included in his anti-hierarchical love for everything. After all, Koch’s wisdom is hard won and offered with an open hand. When, in “To Marina,” Koch’s Russian girlfriend tells him, “You make me feel nawble (noble),” any Koch aficionado is likely to know exactly what she means.
If Koch makes his readers feel nawble, it is because he restores to the poet the lost function of one who imparts wisdom about what the good life consists of. His preoccupation with truth-telling and virtue is a throwback to a classical age, and Koch’s achievement is that he manages to modernize this question without making us feel dusty, a feat that should put to rest doubts that he is merely an outsider who parodies the canon without deserving a place in it. In “The Art of Poetry,” many of the questions he offers to gauge whether a poem is good enough to show others are revealing, even prescriptive: “Do I stand up from it a better man / Or a wiser, or both? or can the two not be separated?” “Is there any unwanted awkwardness, cheap effects, asking illegitimately for attention, / Show-offiness, cuteness, pseudo-profundity, old hat checks, / Unassimilated dream fragments, or other ‘literary,’ ‘kiss-me-I’m-poetical’ junk?” “Would I be happy to go to Heaven with this pinned on to my / Angelic jacket as an entrance show?”
The aesthetic these questions suggest may puzzle readers of Koch’s early fiction and poetry, which is rife with “cuteness” and “unassimilated dream fragments.” In his dramatic works, or his book-length ottava rima poems—such as Ko, or A Season on Earth and The Duplications, which Knopf plans to publish in The Collected Long Poems—this Dadaist nonsense seems less forced. There is not only drama, but more formal constraint, and because there are conventions associated with whatever form Koch undertakes, he suddenly has expectations to upset and thus becomes funnier.
The same is true of his quasi-surrealist fiction. In Red Robins (1975), a picaresque novel about a group of young American pilots who travel around Asia in search of adventure, Koch takes the opportunity provided by the genre to become a half-cracked tour guide in a magical landscape. This way his characters can dispense wisdom (“There is not enough incentive to the average individual to make something bright, savage, and unusual out of himself.”), describe freakish locales (“The stairway reputedly was built to be the stairway of a palace, but the palace was apparently never built.”), and present strange perceptions about familiar things, as often happens in travel literature (“The first thing I noticed was the snow. It seemed to come up like a whole lot of larvae.”). The possibility of mistranslation and the proximity of other languages so warps his characters’ speech that their syntactical spectrum seems infinite: “‘To eternize love once again . . .’ Jim walked to the blue cupboard, the sea. Lyn came up beside him, and holds his hand. Together they walk cupcake.” In Koch’s fiction, as well as in his songs, libretti, and short plays, language naturally reflects the scrambled thoughts of supernaturally exuberant characters:
Oh fresh wind over Asia, blow on me! and may this day be as much as possible unlike a dog! I mean a large black and white dog, smothering me in hair! May it be rather a gazelle-like day, a very yellowy-white butterfly striping hours. Let it be a football if the football is made of flowers. Let it be a day!
These characters are reminiscent of those in opera buffa or commedia dell’arte. But whereas the characters in those genres get to act silly and free, Koch’s are even freer, since they don’t have to wear powdered wigs. So you see, there’s no reason to regret missing the excesses of the 18th century as long as all of Koch’s works are in reach.
Italo Calvino, in Six Memos for the Next Millennium, says there are two kinds of writers: those who try to escape the natural opacity, inertia, and heaviness of language, and those who embrace its sculptural quality and try to make it as concrete as the material world around us. Koch belongs to the first category. Unlike fellow avant-garde poets John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara, Koch ultimately eschewed Dadaist-surrealist tendencies in favor of simplicity and clarity of expression, sacrificing stylistic flourish and the critical celebration that sometimes accompanies it. His insistence on clarity and candor to describe happiness, a subject already light in itself, allows for soaring metaphysical flights, as in “Reflections on Morocco,” the expansively strange melange of prose, poetry, and interview that is the centerpiece of The Burning Mystery of Anna in 1951:
If my life means anything, it is that I am always forgetting just what it is that I want. How’s that for meaning? I have found a way to be unsatisfied by everything and always somewhat pleasantly excited . . . I want to know who has ever found anything as wonderful as being a strain . . . held tight between two eternities . . . you would think I wanted to die, if you didn’t know me better, it is more that in truth I would like to vanish . . . You always think I am kidding. I am trying to define happiness by what I have actually got and go on from there.
This is where Koch begins, and it seems just as good a place to end.
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January 01, 2007
14 Min read time