Kenneth Koch Koch, Kenneth (Vol. 5) - Essay

Koch, Kenneth (Vol. 5)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Koch, Kenneth 1925–

Koch is an American poet and playwright almost as well known for his advocacy of teaching poetry writing to elementary school children as for his own fine work. Koch, together with John Ashbery and Frank O'Hara, was a principal of the "New York School," a group of poets working in the middle 1950s to transcribe the essence of "abstract expressionism" in painting for poetry. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

George Washington Crossing the Delaware … [is] the funniest play I have seen this year. (p. 236)

I have a feeling it's the funniest play by an American in a lot longer than that. Oh, and a very indigenous play, one about which Birchers and beats can agree, or at least break bread at. For while it is a parody, or set of interlocking parodies, the purest kind of fantastic innocence—such as probably prevailed at the birth of our nation and such as still prevails on the level of presentation at high-school patriotic pageants—continually warms the scene, that décor of cut-out boats, horses and guns and those costumes of splendid sashiness, tri-corned élan and big-buttoned spirit-of-'76 which Alex Katz has designed so brilliantly.

You see, Koch really loves George Washington, the way we are supposed to but can't until all the parodiable elements are worked through and burned away. The play is the recovery of a childlike vision of American origins and one strain of our persisting reality, the child having been helped to see freshly through the sharp wits and memory for eras of language of the adult looking over his shoulder, the one who prompts the actors to mock Shakespeare, the diction of masques, melodrama, Barbara Frietchie, cigarette ads, Max Lerner and Fulton Lewis, Jr. And the distortion that emerges, the verbal and visual minor miracle, is of the order of Picasso's women, truer than the mirror, or of Kafka or Beckett when their language moves into the most uncomplicated yet primally mysterious play.

So then, if you want to hear Cornwallis say wonderingly of the father of our country that "he walks as he rides!" or of the British cause that "love makes it right," if you want to hear the Redcoats pray "If only we could win him over to our side!" and hear George himself declare that "We have nothing to fear but death" and then settle back for a nap with a murmured "Goodnight America"; if you want to see "democracy in action … actuality exemplified in a military situation"—I strongly urge you to cross the Delaware, or whatever river separates you from the play…. No better investment around at any price. (pp. 236-37)

Richard Gilman, "'George Washington Crossing the Delaware'" (1962), in his Common and Uncommon Masks: Writings on Theatre 1961–1970 (copyright © 1971 by Richard Gilman; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1971, pp. 236-37.

Koch's position in modern poetry is not easy to determine. It may help to begin by pairing him with a long-established older poet to whom his relations are obviously close enough in some respects, and absurdly distant enough in others, to be instructive. In part he is one of those "literalists of the imagination" who are commended by Marianne Moore in a well-known poem and whose principles are exemplified in her own work. Like Miss Moore, Koch is fond of making poetry out of poetry-resistant stuff. Locks, lipsticks, business letterheads, walnuts, lunch and fudge attract him; so do examples of inept slang, silly sentiment, brutal behavior and stereotyped exotica and erotica…. But Koch never submits [any] kind of phenomenon to any Moore-like process of minute and patient scrutiny. He is eminently an activist, eagerly participating in, rather than merely observing, the realm of locks and fudge. And if, like Marianne Moore, he is always springing surprises, he does not spring them as if he were handing you a cup of tea. Her finely conscious demureness is not for him. For him, the element of surprise, and the excitement created by it, are primary and absolute. In short, "life" does not present itself to Kenneth Koch as a picture or symbol or collector's item. "Life" talks, sighs, grunts and sometimes sings; it is a drama, largely comic, in which there are parts for everyone and everything, and all the parts are speaking parts….

Apparently Koch is determined to put the reality back into Joyce's "reality of experience," to restore the newness to Pound's "Make it New," while holding ideas of poetry and of poetic composition that are essentially different from those of the classic modern writers. In his attempt to supersede—or transform—those writers, Koch has drawn upon far-flung sources. They range from Kafka to certain recent French poets (including Surrealists), to Whitman, Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams and others in the native book….

[He] will flee the sunlight of approved poetic practice, staking his poetic chances on whatever wonders may turn up in the wet weather ("rainways") of unapproved poetic practice. He will talk to himself, improvise, consult his dreams, cherish the trouvaille, and misprize the well-wrought poem.

Such, as I make it out, is Kenneth Koch's unprogrammatic program (or a part of it), and the calamitous possibilities in it are obvious. Like the similar program of certain of the Beats, it could turn the writing of poetry into a form of hygiene. It could and does: some of Koch's efforts, like many of theirs, suggest the breathing exercises of a particularly deep-breasted individual…. Consulting the sybil of the unconscious, he occasionally gets stuck with large mouth-fuls of predigested images and with lines of verse that make no known kind of music…. And if his verse is sometimes lacking in the delights of a reliable style, it also offers few of the conveniences of a consistent lucidity. To me his idiom is often a Linear B that remains to be cracked. (pp. 10, 12)

F. W. Dupee, "You're Welcome," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1963 NYREV, Inc.), May, 1963, p. 10, 12.

Kenneth Koch's first book, published in 1959, is a comic epic (though in fact all epics are comic for they are recounted at length, they rest or come to rest in duration) called Ko, or A Season on Earth. By truncating his own name (one shimmering self indeed), the poet gets his Hero's, conveniently that of a Japanese baseball player…. The success of this enormous poem of vignettes—and it will be the success of all Koch's projects, a prowess which marks, which is the borderline between accident and will, between hysteria and method—amounts to the tension between the moment of ecstasy and the movement elsewhere; to the pressure built up in the reader's mind—"in nervous patience till the glory starts"—as the result of a promise to remain at the center yet a practice of eccentricity. (pp. 282-83)

Having ransacked every genre, every convention, every possibility of outrage and confiscation—"never stop revealing yourself"—Koch has in "The Artist" and in several other uproarious instances ("You Were Wearing," "Locks," "Lunch," "Down at the Docks") produced poems which are entirely his own. That is their limitation of course, but it is their great resource too, their great and problematic interest, flickering between the intolerable moment and the intolerable movement, the unendurable now and the unendurable next, an oscillation which, as the poet himself remarks, can conclude only "when Kenneth is dead"…. (pp. 290-91)

Richard Howard, "Kenneth Koch," in his Alone With America: Essays on the Art of Poetry in the United States Since 1950 (copyright © 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969 by Richard Howard; reprinted by permission of Atheneum Publishers, New York), Atheneum, 1969, pp. 281-91.

Written over the decade 1953–1962, the brief plays of Kenneth Koch burlesque the occasional pageants of academic or patriotic tradition. The blurb on the cover of his Bertha and Other Plays claims that the plays "use and parody a wide variety of theatrical models and traditions." Rather than parody, however, which is mockery of a specific work or author, Koch's plays are burlesque, containing a wider mockery of a genre or style. (p. 310)

Koch is an able mocker, but his targets are limited—history, legend, patriotic and contemporary clichés. His wit is of cabaret quality, depending on brevity and expert timing. So far, none of his plays has the sustained drive of a Knight of the Burning Pestle [a Restoration drama ascribed to Beaumont and Fletcher] or Critic [a satire by Sheridan]. As in his equally witty and more imaginative volumes of poetry, Koch runs the danger of repeating his own facility. (p. 312)

Ruby Cohn, "Kenneth Koch," in her Dialogue in American Drama (copyright © 1971 by Indiana University Press), Indiana University Press, 1971, pp. 310-12.

In Kenneth Koch's "The Postcard Collection," there is little pretense at surface "realism"; but a convincing personality is evoked, by sheer powerful concentration on exposed nerves and agitated emotions. The "collector" tries to decipher literal "truths" from unintelligible messages scribbled on postcards. He's naggingly conscious that he's a poet, and may be "reading too much in." Do people try to give a formal order to their lives, he wonders, by preserving in "messages" certainties that fail to apply in their lives? Or is this only the delusion of the literary man, who cannot see straight "reality" in its unruly simpleness? It is quite a trick, to render this confusion between the Self and the World so affectingly—while relying so nakedly on the viewpoint of "the artist." Koch is a marvelous, fluidly graceful writer. (p. 121)

Bruce Allen, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1974 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVII, No. 1, Spring, 1974.