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...
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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 asks, again clearly, “When will there be a perfectly ordinary spring day?” He then ups the ante by contrasting his spring days of desire with his actual days, not of winter coldness, snow and drear, but “Calcium days, days when we feed our bones!/ Iron days, which enrich our blood!/ Saltwater days, which give us valuable iodine!” The language may be clear, the syntax appropriate and grammatical, but the peculiarity of the words to describe the dayscalcium, iron, and saltwatercreate the joyful playfulness readers associate with Koch’s most successful poems.
In his 1969 collection, The Pleasures of Peace, Koch includes translations of poems by Latin American authors (who do not exist outside of Koch’s imagination) as well as one of his signature poems, “Sleeping with Women,” in which the phrase “sleeping with women” appears more than sixty-five times. It is a very sensual, quirky poem in which there are “lands sleeping with women, ants sleeping with women . . ./ Bees sleeping with women/ And tourists, sleeping with them/ Soap, sleeping with women; beds sleeping with women/ The universe.” The expansive closing line summarizes the poem’s central theme: “Asleep and sleeping with them, asleep and asleep, sleeping with women, asleep and sleeping with them, sleeping with women.” The erotic and the comic are, for some, strange bedfellows, but in this poem they rest together comfortably.
In New Addresses (2002), Koch uses an old technique of writing apostrophespoems spoken directly to a person, usuallyand in this case he speaks to, among other things, buckets, stammering, orgasms, scrimping, and “To Various Persons Talked To All at Once.” There is even one address to Koch’s old addresses, his old places of residence: “I am all right but I think I will never find/ Sustenance as I found in you, oh old addresses/ Numbers that sink into my soul/ Forty-eight, nineteen, twenty-three, o worlds in which I was alive.” In this case the comic idea of addressing an address, of speaking so glowingly of numbers, is linked with a nostalgic moment of seemingly genuine emotion. One of the many effective poems in this winning collection is “To Jewishness.” Here the addressee is Jewishness itself, not Judaism the religion, and Koch mentions his desire to conceal his Jewish identity when he discovers the virulence of anti-Semitism in the Army and his own desire for the other, for women with “blonde/ Hair, blue eyes”: For Koch, “Christianity (oddly enough) had an/ Aphrodisiac effect.” When Jewishness speaks in the poem, like Yahweh, offering the cultural gifts of Gustav Mahler, Albert Einstein, and Sigmund Freud, Koch balks, preferring the non-Jewish, the canonized icons of Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, John Keats, and William Shakespeare. By the end of the poem, however, Koch acknowledges that he let the “flatness” of life capture his own concept of Jewishness, and “I let it keep you/ And, perhaps, of all things known,/ That was most ignorant.”
Although Koch’s poems, in general, are playfully inventive, free-verse romps, he also was a formalist who enjoyed, specifically, writing in the verse structure of his comic poetic hero, Lord Byron. Byron made ottava rima famous in his epic Don Juan (1819-1824), and Koch uses the same eight-line stanza with its abababcc rhyme scheme in a number of his poems, including his long epics Ko; or, A Season on Earth (1959) and The Duplications (1977), not included in this book. When his last collection, A Possible World, appeared in 2002, when Koch was seventy-seven, readers were given one last glimpse of the formalist Koch in the opening poem, “Bel Canto.” Here he makes an inventory of his life, from his poetic theories, including his “Desire of course not only to do old things/ But things unheard of yet by nuns,” to his own life as a manboth father and husbandrather than his life as a poet only:
How much I’d like to live the whole thing over,But making some corrections as I go!To be a better husband and a father,Be with my babies on a sled in snow.
In “My Olivetti Speaks,” a poem from Straits (1998), Koch writes that “poetry, which is written while no one is looking, is meant to be looked at for all time.” For many readers, lines such as those describing his desire to be a better father, or be “with his babies on a sled in snow” may not have the power, or resonance, or attraction in them to be looked at for all time, or even briefly, but Koch’s career can certainly not be decried simply because of a few flat lines. Koch achieved in his brilliant career what few poets have managed: He produced poems seemingly effortlessly and often; he experimented tirelessly with form, with technique, with genre classification; he influenced countless poets by his inventiveness and his openness to the comic, the sensual, the nonsensical, and the mundane; he lived a life devoted to art, both its creation and its promulgation, through such influential books as Wishes, Lies, and Dreams (1970), a guide for teaching young people how to write poetry; and he wrote more than thirty-five books of poetry, fiction, theater, and nonfictionan amazing output.
For those enamored of his work, The Collected Poems of Kenneth Koch, when linked with his Collected Long Poems, will provide readers with the entire poetic career of this outrageous, energizing, wildly inventive American poet.
Booklist 102, no. 6 (November 15, 2005): 15.
The Nation 282, no. 3 (January 23, 2006): 28-32.
Publishers Weekly 252, no. 42 (October 24, 2005): 38.
The Times Literary Supplement, November 25, 2005, p. 9.