Online Edition: Winter 2005/2006

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The Collected Poems of Kenneth Koch

Kenneth Koch

Alfred A. Knopf ($40)

by Tim Keane

If Kenneth Koch had an artistic credo it was play hard at poetry. Play hard he did, producing 30-plus poetry books over 52 years. This body of work has been posthumously collected into a nearly 800-page tome that the publisher has made only a little less forbidding by use of a pop-art style cover portrait of young Koch done by his longtime friend and frequent collaborator, the painter Alex Katz.

After serving in the Pacific during World War II, Koch was transplanted from Cleveland to Columbia University and the downtown Manhattan art scene of the 1950s. He hung out with the expressionists at The Cedar Bar and summered in the Hamptons with Frank O'Hara and company. Over the years he collaborated with John Cage, John Ashbery, and many others in the world of avant-garde theater and art. Through several generations of one kind of academic formalism or another, Koch's poetry was consistently experimental. But he identified with a more sweeping national sensibility than did his fellow New York School poets. And Koch was culturally ambidextrous—he became an influential Columbia University literature professor who wrote top-selling guidebooks about teaching poetry in nursing homes and in primary schools. He was also an incisive, thinking poet who invented the genre of the urban pastoral.

Koch's comedic mission was not merely to trade on whimsy and everydayness in order to dumb poetry down. He was so remarkably self-assured about fulfillment, as much in life as in language play, that he could afford to be philosophical about his pleasures. He was an ethical hedonist. He strove for perceptual, experiential juxtapositions, as if to linger within a poem on a single object or one distinct emotion would create a falsifying isolation that is inherently unequal to the open fields of experience.

Often criticized or even dismissed by critics for being obscure or artsy, Koch's poetry is neither. He wrote poetry in the spirit of what it essentially is, the freest of all expressions. Through an expansive free-verse style that takes in traditional forms like ottava rima and heroic couplets, Koch's playfulness translates into multiform experiences on the page, almost always, as he writes in "Seasons on Earth," "ecstatically in the present tense." His poetry is play even in its most cerebral effects.

The influence of the French surrealists is everywhere in this collection, but it is surrealism written in Walt Whitman's register. In fact, Europe is a cultural force Koch's speakers both take in and leave behind. And Koch insists that the pleasure principle is responsible for poetry, not universities. He lampoons the careerism of the poetry biz and any poetry, "Written by men with their eyes on the myth/ And the Missuses and the midterms" ("Fresh Air"). One of his most famous poems, "The Art of Poetry," is a parody of how-to-write-poetry manuals that at the same time arrives at the sublime so subtly that even tactful Horace might ruefully approve; it speaks of the "exigent poet" as

                    careful, wanting each poem to be a conclusion.
Of everything he senses, feels, and knows.
The exigent poet has his satisfactions, which are relatively special
But that is not the only kind of poet you can be. There is a pleasure in being Venus,
In sending love to everyone, in being Zeus,
In sending thunder to everyone, in being Apollo
And every day sending out light.

Constantly strolling in the outdoors, Koch's speakers pay attention to the outside in order to better see the inside, studying "Alaskan toucans" ("The Duplications") "the dogwoods of the Carolinas" ("Seasons on Earth"), "the McCarthy trial / hot sun on lunches" ("To Marina") and even "The man at the match factory, the mood of / The public, the sand covering the barn" ("The Boiling Water"). And, always, love and sex are on his mind, for "There is no substitute for or parallel to love, which gives to the body / What religion gives to the soul, and philosophy to the brain." ("The Art of Love").

Comic books and Italian operas were equally influential. So were Italy and France. The poem's frenzied travelogues read like extended metaphors for a blind American innocence, innocence here being a form of unquestioning love fortified by curiosity and attentiveness. The results are joyful, and an effortlessness that is not synonymous with lightness. Often tensions arise in Koch's poems from the incompatibility between over-heated enthusiasm and sober reason. But despite these tensions, maintaining a robust youthfulness matters more than any other prerogative, providing drama and substance in even the most satirical poems. In fact, read from almost any point, The Collected Poems unfolds like an autobiographical confession of American naivety, one that opens somewhat helplessly toward "fundamental questions...The excitement / And the illusion of living at the beginning of thought" ("In Africa").

Though the self-conscious puns, anagrams, riddles, and rhyming couplets sometimes eclipse the poetry itself, Koch is grounded by the bravura of that frank American language which Whitman invented. So he writes about inspiration not as the poem's source but as its constant quest. His Muses include that fictional Japanese pitcher of his massive poem "Ko, or A Season on Earth" (not included in this volume, as it will be part of a forthcoming companion book of Koch's Collected Long Poems). Ko's unmanageable, deadly fastball is really a metaphor for emotion itself. In other poems, Hollywood heroes and the English Romantics, Stendhal's The Life of Henry Brulard and the jazz of Ornette Coleman are described among countless other forces which provide an education in the poetry of life. And lovers create a beautiful counterpoint to the backbeat of other daily activities, especially in "Sleeping with Women," a poem so atavistic and rhythmic it must be the most propulsive American song-poem since "Howl."

Koch's poetry stayed fresh into his later years; throughout his celebrations, thought remains a form of feeling. The later poems in this Collected tend to be more spare in form but no less generous in feeling, the strongest of which are the very long series of odes, written in praise of subjects as various as marijuana, World War II, the Italian language, the orgasm ("restless, roving and not funny / in any way") and even psychoanalysis ("an ideal of conversation—entirely about me / But including almost everything else in the world").

Wisdom should always be rendered in such vibrant and comic colors, like when Koch boils Plato's philosophy down to, "There has to be something better. / Than what we see. / Otherwise, we'd see it." ("On Aesthetics"). Or in "To Marina" in which Aristotle's "Every detail is everything in its place" supports the cheeky conclusion that, "Literature is a cup/And we are the malted. The time is a glass."

What else is, poetry—or culture—but created spaces into which we pour our lives? We laugh reading Koch, because he's funny, but we also laugh to think and finally to re-think. It's all in that trinity of "wishes, lies and dreams," the phrase Koch used to describe poetry-writing in the title of his famous teaching book. The best evidence is vastly here, celebrating a life lived with one mad ambition, nicely summed up in "Ko, or A Season on Earth": to "actualize / In everyday life the poem's unreality."


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