The Collected Poems of Kenneth Koch
The Collected Poems of Kenneth Koch begins with his earliest poems written between 1952 and 1954 but not published until fifty years later in the 2002 collection Sun Out. Koch admitted that they were so different in style from what he wrote later that they never quite fit in any of his early collections, and the reader can quickly see how different, how strange the work seems. If readers are looking to poetry for a message, or some subtle argument about various themes, this collection will quickly put them off that hunt. Koch quotes the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein to help readers appreciate his philosophy in his earliest poems: “There are no subjects in the world. A subject is a limitation of the world.” Indeed, a reader would be hard-pressed to determine any meaning, any theme or subject in the poems: They are experimental in nature, playful, whimsical, nonsensical in most senses of that word but they give pleasure if one gives in to the anarchic, antilogical, antirationalist world of the surreal.
One poem, titled “The Man,” is cleverly organized into short speeches given by various parts of the body, from the penis to the thumbnail, with brief stops in the forehead and underarms, among other sites. A quick look at what these parts say will show that Koch’s very rational and theatrical structure is being undermined. The tibia, for example, says, “When the foreleg is blue/ Covering the lanternslides with fluff country/ Panoramic Canada seventieth/ Catalogue white swans beer barrel publishing mouse ditch/ Wristwatch.” The knee quickly adds a rejoinder: “With fennel pals the ranch./ The best nights in Arabia. Cotton punches. Rearward actions.”
Where does this kind of nonsensical poetry come from? Certainly it derives, in part, from the experiments of the surrealists and Dadaists in Europe in the early part of the twentieth century. They introduced the idea of using chance, dreams, and random associations in the construction of literature and art. They also began the work of using nonnarrative techniques to subvert readers’ desires for clear, easy-to-read texts. Koch, at least in this early stage of his career, embraces their ideals without hesitation.
In addition, Koch was working at the time in New York with a group of writers and painters who were opposed to works of art that emphasized linearity, rationality, logic, and sentimentality. This group, known as the New York School, included the poets Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, and James Schuyler as well as the artists Jane Freilicher and Larry Rivers. Although Koch would later go his own way, eventually making a truce with narrative and meaning, in his earliest works his complete immersion in the New York School of poetry is clear.
Koch’s first published book, Thank You, and Other Poems, appeared in 1962. It included one of Koch’s most famous poems, “Variations of a Theme by William Carlos Williams.” It is a comic send-up of Williams’s well-known 1934 poem “This Is Just to Say,” which reads:
I have eatenthe plumsthat were inthe iceboxand whichyou were probablysavingfor breakfastForgive methey were deliciousso sweetand so cold
Koch makes four comic passes at Williams’s original, keeping the logic of the petition for forgiveness after a transgression, but his transgressions and apologies are so extreme, and so funny. Here is one: “We laughed at the hollyhocks together/ and then I sprayed them with lye./ Forgive me. I simply do not know what I am doing.” Clearly Koch is maintaining his anarchic vision of the world, demonstrated by his inability to let stand the more staid parts of the literary tradition, but he also shows that he is able to make sense, create comic logic.
Another example from this 1962 collection will demonstrate the kind of poetry that Koch grew into after his overly surreal period. “Desire for Spring” actually seems to be about a speaker’s desire for springnothing anarchic there. He states clearly, “I want spring,” and...
(The entire section is 1,561 words.)