Introducing Kenneth Koch at a reading in the 1960s John Ashbery said, “Reading his 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.”
“When they ask for apples, give them pears,” the Chilean poet Nicanor Parra once said. This is the sprit of much of Koch’s poetry. He was on a lifelong rescue mission to save poetry from itself. To say something new and in a new way is what he valued. The idea is to do something with language that had never been done before. Newness may in fact be the main thing a poet sets out to achieve. “It’s like searching for Shangri-la in a winged vehicle of your invention,” he wrote in an essay. “Fortunately, there is a great deal of technology behind you: all the poetry other poets have written.” The new poem he called for, although influenced by Mallarmé, Shelley, Byron, and Whitman, plus a million other poets, was going to be entirely original he claimed. And it was.
While his contemporaries in poetry were busy confessing the secrets of their tormented inner lives or yearning for mystical visions, Kenneth made one feel that one’s identity was not a stable property. He was a poet of metamorphosis. His imagination endlessly tempted to become someone else or even to become an inanimate thing. That was the approach he used in teaching poetry to children. Imagine being the floor of a house, he would tell them. The kids understood him perfectly. “Every time someone steps on me I laugh”, wrote one four-year old. Koch’s poems are performances, magic acts in which wild imaginings are converted into realities. Nor did he have much interest in single point of view or single meanings. Poetic truth, he wrote, is not a general truth that can be separated from its expression in a particular poem. Here’s a shocking thought: What if poetry is at its best when it keeps its distance from sense? “Dusk moved silently, like pine-needle mice,” he writes in a poem, and I’m in heaven.
Koch’s gift for mockery infuriated some critics. “The very existence of poetry should make us laugh,” he said. He was a comic poet in a country where irreverence and humor had become more and more suspect. Mind-numbing verse that sounds respectful of great verities was less of an offense than one that thumbed its nose at them. Light verse was okay, but a poem that ridiculed the very idea of poetry was 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!”
He was a master of a long poem which makes him 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 ottava rima about a Japanese baseball player and a score of other amusing characters. 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: 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 a bridge of a ship in twenty-five different positions; construct mazes in which to hide naked women and chase them, plus hundreds of other useful pieces of advice. Koch loved never-ending catalogues as much as Whitman did.
Koch could write just about anything and he did. Something as familiar as water coming to a boil he describes as if seeing it for the first time. All his life he carried on a comic examination of seriousness. Being funny, of course, didn’t prevent him from being philosophical. In fact, comedy, one realizes reading him, casts its net much wider than tragedy and melodrama, which tend to be claustrophobic and small-minded by comparison. By and large—and this may come as a surprise—he was a love poet in the tradition of Ovid and Byron. Even the poem about boiling water ends up by being a love poem. Trying to imagine it in the mystery of its existence is like falling in love, he concludes.
One day when they get around to publishing a much expanded edition of his selected poems, the astonishing range of his poetry will become apparent. It comprises everything from epic to one-line poems in both formal and free verse. By refusing the false antithesis between traditional and modern verse, he ended up writing some of the most original and satisfying poetry of the last fifty years. His last two books are full of poems that read like farewells. He still fools around and does a few high jinks, but he is clearly saying goodbye. Here is one of his late poems:
THEY SAY PRINCE HAMLET’S FOUND A SOUTHERN ISLAND
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—
His students by the 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.