At his best, Kenneth Koch was a good comic poet and a fine parodist. A poet of limited tonal range yet of a wide and resourceful imagination, Koch used random structures, open forms, and loose meters to give his poetry freedom and surprise that occasionally astonish and often delight. Just as often, however, the formlessness of Koch’s poems results in slackness and self-indulgence. The tension that one expects in good poetry, deriving largely from exigencies of form, is missing in Koch’s poems.
In The King of the Cats (1965), F. W. Dupee compared Koch to Marianne Moore. Dupee notes that while both Koch and Moore make poetry out of “poetry-resistant stuff,” Koch lacks Moore’s patient scrutiny and careful, sustained observation. Preferring to participate imaginatively rather than to observe carefully, Koch often seems more interested in where he can go with an observation, with what his imagination can make of it, than in what it is in itself. At his best, Koch’s imaginative facility translates into poetic felicity; at his worst, Koch’s freedom of imagination obscures the clarity and lucidity of the poems, frequently testing the reader’s patience.
Perhaps the most trenchant and perceptive criticism of Koch’s work has been that of Richard Howard in his book on contemporary poetry, Alone with America: Essays on the Art of Poetry in the United States Since 1950 (1969). Howard suggests that the central poetic problem for Koch is to sustain the interest of the instant, to hold onto the momentary imaginative phrase or the surprising conjunction of dichotomous ideas, experiences, and details. Koch frequently hurries beyond moments of imaginative vitality and verbal splendor; rather than sustaining or developing them, he abandons them. At his best, however, such abandonments lead to other moments that are equally splendid, culminating in convincingly coherent poems.
Some of Koch’s most distinctive and successful poems are parodies. His parody of Robert Frost, “Mending Sump,” in which he alludes to and satirizes the style and situation of both “Mending Wall” and “The Death of the Hired Man,” is one of his most famous. A modestly successful parody, “Mending Sump” does not compare with Koch’s brilliant and witty parody of William Carlos Williams’s brief conversational poem “This Is Just to Say.” Koch entitles his parody “Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams.” In four brief stanzas, Koch parodies the occasion, structure, rhythm, and tone of a poet whose work has powerfully influenced his own.
Although in his nonparodistic poetry Koch did not often attempt to imitate Williams, he did try to accomplish what Williams achieved in his best work: the astonishment of the moment; the astonishment of something seen, heard, felt, or understood; the magic and the beauty of the commonplace. Koch, too, could astonish—but not by acts of attention like those of Williams nor by his power of feeling. Koch astonished by his outrageous dislocations of sense and logic, his exuberant and risk-taking amalgamation of utterly disparate experiences. His achievement, finally, consists of small surprises, delights of image and allusion, phrase and idea; his poems rarely possess the power to move or instruct, but they do entertain.
Among Kenneth Koch’s long poems are Ko: Or, A Season on Earth, a mock-heroic epic in ottava rima about a Japanese baseball player, a poem with a variety of story lines; The Duplications, a comic epic about sex that employs trappings of Greek mythology and that in its second part becomes a self-reflexive poem concerned with the poetic vocation; and When the Sun Tries to Go On, a poem that goes on for one hundred twenty-four-line stanzas, in large part because Koch wanted to see how long he could go on with what was originally a seventy-two-line poem. All three poems are characterized by Koch’s infectious humor, his far-fetched analogies, and his digressive impulse.
More interesting and more consistently successful are Koch’s shorter poems, ranging in length from a dozen lines to a dozen pages. In the poems included in Koch’s best collections, The Art of Love and The Pleasures of Peace, and Other Poems, one encounters Koch at his most graceful and disarming. In the best poems from these volumes (and there are many engaging ones), Koch exhibits his characteristic playfulness, deliberate formlessness, and almost surrealistic allusiveness. The poems are humorous yet serious in both their invitations and their admonitions.
The Pleasures of Peace, and Other Poems
Koch’s major poetic preoccupations find abundant exemplifications in his volume The Pleasures of Peace, and Other Poems. The title poem is divided loosely into fourteen sections, each section describing different kinds of pleasures: of writing, of peace, of pain, of pleasure itself, of fantasy, of reality, of memory, of autonomy, of poetry, and of living. The poem is both a catalog and a celebration of the rich pleasures of simply being alive. Its self-reflexiveness coexists with its Whitmanesque embrace of the range, diversity, and variability of life’s pleasures. Another stylistic hallmark evident in this poem is a playful use of literary allusion. In addition to evoking Walt Whitman, Koch alludes directly to William Butler Yeats (“The Lake Isle of Innisfree”), Andrew Marvell (“To His Coy Mistress”), Robert Herrick, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and William Wordsworth. The allusions are surprising: Koch’s lines modify and alter the words of the earlier poets as they situate them in the context of a radically different poem.
These observations about “The Pleasures of Peace” fail to account for what is perhaps its most distinctive identifying quality: a wild, surrealistic concatenation of details (pink mint chewing gum with “the whole rude gallery of war”; Dutch-speaking cowboys; the pleasures of agoraphobia with the pleasures of blasphemy; the pleasures of breasts, bread, and poodles; the pleasures of stars and of plaster). Moreover, amid the litany of the poem’s pleasures occur several notes of desperation—for the horrors of war and suffering. Koch seems to find it necessary to remind his readers of the peaceful pleasures of life largely because the horrors of war and the futility of modern life allow them to be forgotten.
Although Sigmund Freud is an obvious influence on Koch’s “The Interpretation of Dreams,” a zany poem that imitates the syntax of dream in its associative structure, in its dislocations and disruptions of continuity, and in its oddly mismatched characters, Whitman is the dominant voice and force behind most of the other poems in the volume. Whitman’s influence is discernible in “Hearing,” a rambling play on sounds in which Koch makes music out of the disparate noises of waterfalls and trumpets, throbbing hearts and falling leaves, rain and thunder, bluebirds singing and dresses ripping. The poem, concluding with the words “the song is finished,” owes...
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