Kenneth Koch

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Koch, Kenneth (Vol. 8)

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Koch, Kenneth 1925–

Koch is an American poet and playwright identified with the "New York School." Poetry seems to be a form of play for Koch—a way of making people feel better about the world and themselves. His best poetry is delightfully childlike and highly imaginative. A teacher as well as a writer, he has been successful in instructing both children and the aged to write verse. (See also CLC, Vol. 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

The surreal absurd has a mystical intensity which one recognizes in the poetry of Ginsberg, Bly, Wakoski, Simic, Lamantia, Knott. It is a quality which lacks entirely in Kenneth Koch's poetry. Koch plays on the quirks and mannerisms of surrealist language; he is a virtuoso of the absurd image. There is an air of provocative non-sense in his work which echoes the French poets with a lightness of touch verging on coquetry…. Koch makes surrealist poetry into a field of fun; but his wit, en route, moves closer to the absurdist snicker than to the intensity of a Breton. Although such distinctions are difficult to make, it is possible that Koch is not as much a surrealist as he seems. His humor has an edge of satire; his ebullient absurdity slides into an original form of social and cultural criticism, as in "The Artist" and "Fresh Air," both enormously funny epics about the impossibility of art. With Koch … the elements of surreal language are often put to a more circumscribed use, as absurdist jokes. (p. 279)

Paul Zweig, in Salmagundi (copyright © 1973 by Skidmore College), Spring-Summer, 1973.

Kenneth Koch's work is always entertaining and usually enlightening. [The Art of Love, his first] … collection of poems … in over five years, is no exception. His playfulness, in tone and technique, has often caused him to be underrated. But it is just his great capacity for humor, based on so much more than mere irony, that makes him important. He has reclaimed the humorous for serious writers of poetry and for that we are in his debt….

He is … known as one third of the trinity labeled the founding generation of "The New York School of Poetry," John Ashbery and the late Frank O'Hara being the other two-thirds….

Ashbery and O'Hara have come to be recognized finally as the major poets they are, while Koch has perhaps been more liked than appreciated.

All three can be playful and witty and surrealistically bizarre in their work. But it is Koch who remains the most direct, and therefore most accessible. His sense of humor seems quirky, and at times even kinky, but it is closer to the quick hitting humor of kids and nonsophisticates than either of the other two.

Michael Lally, "Playtime at the New York School," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), August 3, 1975, p. 1.

[Although] Koch's sense of humor is certainly one of the irrefutable delights of ["The Art of Love"], it is one among many. Other qualities these poems embody are—at random—the ability to move the reader, plain but beautiful language that should appeal to a wide audience, a general graciousness of spirit that has long been an unremarked-on hallmark of Koch's writing, and last but not least, outright wisdom….

[His] work, while sharing in the surface charm and facility common to all the writing of [The New York School of Poets], has a range of interest and grasp that seems to me unique. "The Art of Love" is the best of his books to date....

(This entire section contains 1629 words.)

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To be able to state this of the new work of an American poet of 50 is, to state the least, unusual. Poets in our country have very short creative life spans, for the most part: in many instances they seem not so much to mature as to ferment….

If his predecessor, Ovid's poem of the same title, tends to a purity of detail that Koch's poem can't help but parody by going to the opposite extreme, the final effect of both poems is remarkably similar: a heightened sense of mortal innocence engaged in the mysteries of Love…. (p. 16)

Aram Saroyan, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 28, 1975.

Koch's delicate, persistent irony [in The Art of Love is] necessary to his poetic self-definition…. It's clear, for instance, that there's an enormous gulf between the author of The Art of Love and its mad speaker, whose grotesque lecture not only parodies but seriously subverts encyclopedists of sexual self help from Andreas Capellanus and the author of the Kama Sutra to Havelock Ellis and Alex Comfort. "The days of/Allegory are over. The Days of Irony are here./Irony and Deception", Koch says (only half ironically, I believe) in Some General Instructions, another long bravura poem in this volume, adding "But do not harden your heart. Remain/kind and flexible." Kind, flexible, winsome, soulful irony—irony appreciated as an intelligent voluptuary might appreciate fine chocolate or good wine—is one of the arts (pleasures? sciences?) at which Koch and other poets of the so-called "New York School" seem to me to be most adept. Its purpose is generally commendable: to enable both poet and reader to distance feelings, ideas, experiences, so as to perceive them strangely, freshly, as if they were rare or even alien curiosities, objects d'art, perhaps, in some great Bloomingdale's of the imagination. "A reader", says Koch in The Art of Poetry, still another of the tours de force in this collection, "should put your work down puzzled,/Distressed and illuminated, ready to believe/It is curious to be alive."

If there's a drawback to this literary theory, it's that the detachment it presupposes from both poet and reader isn't always easy to sustain…. When, for instance, Koch's mad speaker—no doubt wildly embroidering upon that notorious "Fly me" ad—advises the (male) reader to make his girl into an airplane, I can't help wanting to say, "Please, be serious, this is no laughing matter!" And in fact it's plain that Koch himself really agrees. Studiedly emerging from behind the parodic, lunatic mask, from time to time he breaks into seriousness, wondering "What reasonable substitute, in love's absence, could be found for love?" or noting, in a passage that gradually detaches itself from detachment, that there are

Ten things an older man must never say to a younger woman:

1) I'm dying! 2) I can't hear what you're saying! 3) How many fingers are you holding up?

4) Listen to my heart. 5) Take my pulse. 6) What's your name?

7) Is it cold in here? 8) Is it hot in here? 9) Are you in here?

10) What wings are those beating at the window?

No doubt the tension between funny and serious parody is intentional, judicious, but I'd have preferred a less careful balance. For which reason, I guess, my favorite poem in this book is The Circus, the only piece not at all in the detached, parodic mode of The Art of Love. Grave, naive, nostalgic, The Circus is—among other things—a poem about Koch's earlier poem The Circus, and hence a poem about mutability. Its distinctive freshness and directness reminds us that its author, besides being the connoisseur of irony who composed The Art of Love, is the inventive teacher of Wishes, Lies, and Dreams whose "poetry ideas" have defined "the true voice of feeling" for many children and adolescents. That Koch himself can speak in that voice, controlling its nuances without the expensive tool of irony, is made quite clear in this poem. When he says, riskily, "I wonder how long I am going to live/And what the rest will be like I mean the rest of my life", he places the line in its unsentimental context so expertly that I am simply moved. Despite some of the problems his self-definition may involve, despite the ways in which his use of parody occasionally verges on self-parody, The Circus assures us that Koch is truly at ease with his art…. (pp. 292-93)

Sandra M. Gilbert, in Poetry (© 1976 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), August, 1976.

[In "The Duplications" Koch] has completed a long poem, somewhat arbitrarily divided in half by an autobiographical section. Using mostly rhymed octets, he sets out to abolish space, time and historical experience in order to create exuberant images that entertain, and occasionally (though with a light hand) instruct. The narrator is a rather sensuous, symbol-prone itinerant, at once rhapsodic and skeptical. He clearly sympathizes with those "Students dreaming up some pure Havanas/Where love would govern all, not francs or dollars"; but he worries that new tyrannies, announced with messianic slogans, keep replacing their predecessors—one of the "duplications" intended by his title, which more broadly refers to the cyclic rhythms of life. He is, always, very much an individual—someone who might not bother Fidel Castro, but who certainly would arouse the suspicions of his bureaucratic henchmen: "O Liberty, you are the only word at/Which the heart of man leaps automatically."

Koch has a delicious sense of ironic detachment running through his rather lyrical, if not ecstatic, celebrations of the flesh. On a Greek island, contemplating the serene beauty of the Aegean, he thinks of the life underneath: "… Fish are nice/In being, though we eat them, not revengeful/I think that we would probably be meaner/To those who washed us down with their retsina!" It is an observation utterly worthy of Pueblo or Hopi children, who, like Emerson or Thoreau—speaking of duplications—are not especially inclined to what in the 19th century was called "human vainglory." (p. 26)

Robert Coles, "Teaching Old Folks an Old Art," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 10, 1977, pp. 1, 26.


Koch, Kenneth (Vol. 5)