Kenneth Koch Analysis

Other literary forms

(Poets and Poetry in America)

In addition to poetry, Kenneth Koch published one novel, The Red Robins (1975), and books of dramatic pieces, including Bertha, and Other Plays (1966) and A Change of Hearts: Plays, Films, and Other Dramatic Works, 1951-1971 (1973). Both Koch’s novel and his works for the stage are imaginative and improvisatory in their consistent portrayal of the comic drama of life.

The plays achieve their comic repercussions primarily through the juxtaposition of incongruous situations, and by means of rapid, often unpredictable changes of language, character, and scene. The plays echo and imitate older dramatic forms such as the Elizabethan chronicle and the court masque, frequently appropriating the earlier dramatic conventions for comic purposes. E. Kology (pb. 1973), for example, a five-act play in rhymed verse, is as much masque as play. In it, the main character, E. Kology, persuades various polluters of air and water to abandon their destructive habits. An additional masque element is provided by a troupe of young men and women who assist E. Kology, performing a series of celebratory dances as part of the play’s action. An even more masquelike play is The Moon Balloon, performed in New York’s Central Park on New Year’s Eve, 1969. The Moon Balloon is an entertainment in rhymed verse that makes use of spectacle, celebration, and metamorphosis.

History forms the basis for humor and metamorphosis in Koch’s two historical plays, Bertha (pr. 1959), a historical pageant, and George Washington Crossing the Delaware (pr. 1962), a chronicle play. Bertha is a Norwegian queen who saves her people from the barbarian menace. She performs this feat regularly, whenever she becomes bored with routine rule. The humor of the play resides in the use of formal Elizabethan language to describe Bertha’s idiosyncratic behavior, and in strangely concatenated literary allusions such as the linked references to William Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (pr. 1606-1607) and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), Bertha being related to both the tragic queen of Egypt and the mad queen of Wonderland.

George Washington Crossing the Delaware, perhaps Koch’s best play, is part myth, part chronicle, and part comedy. Its comic incongruities, its colloquial deflation of a more stately heroic language, and its juxtaposition of low comedy and high seriousness serve to make it a surprising and inventive theatrical entertainment.


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Kenneth Koch’s achievements are notable and varied. He received numerous fellowships, including several from the Fulbright Foundation (1950-1951, 1978, and 1982), the Guggenheim Foundation (1960-1961), and the Ingram Merrill Foundation (1969). His literary awards are impressive: the Ohioana Book Award for Poetry (1974), an Academy Award in Literature (1976) and an Award of Merit for Poetry from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (1986), the Shelley Memorial Award (1994), the Bollingen Prize (1995), the Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry (1996) for One Train, a Chevalier de l’ordre des arts et des lettres, France (1999), and the Levinson Prize from Poetry magazine (2000). He was twice nominated for a National Book Award, in 1963 for Thank You, and Other Poems and in 2000 for New Addresses. In 1995, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Auslander, Philip. The New York School Poets as Playwrights: O’Hara, Ashbery, Koch, Schuyler, and the Visual Arts. New York: Peter Lang, 1989. Auslander discusses the plays written by these poets who attended the New York School of Art. Their life in New York affects their artistic endeavors, regardless of their form: poetry, experimental drama, short story, or visual art. This survey is useful as it gives an idea of Koch’s competency in varied artistic media.

Carruth, Hayden. “Kenneth Koch.” In Contemporary Poets, edited by James Vinson and D. L. Kirkpatrick. 4th ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985. Carruth, an outstanding poet in his own right, outlines Koch’s background and work. Carruth first covers Koch’s apprenticeship with the New York School of poets in the 1950’s, then discusses Koch’s current poetry, which is simpler and more effective than his earlier work. A good introduction for all students.

Howard, Richard. Alone with America: Essays on the Art of Poetry in the United States Since 1950. New York: Atheneum, 1969. In his chapter on Koch, Howard discusses his emphasis on the individual moment and (paradoxically) its movement. Howard also notes Koch’s ability to be funny, calling him a master parodist, and mentions devices that Koch uses in his “improvisational plays.”

Koch, Kenneth. Interview by Anselm Berrigan. Publishers Weekly 247, no. 13 (March, 2000): 72. An interview with Koch and a discussion of New Addresses.

_______. “An Interview with Kenneth Koch.” Interview by John Tranter. Scripsi 4 (November, 1986): 177-185. In this interview, Koch discusses the evolution of his work from his rebellious New York School days to his 1980’s poetic style. He also talks about his work in the theater, which is experimental and plentiful. For all students.

_______. “Kenneth Koch.” Interview by Daniel Kane. In What Is Poetry: Conversations with the American Avant-Garde, edited by Kane. New York: Teachers & Writers Books, 2003. Koch describes his life, works, and influences.

Lang, Nancy. “Comic Fantasy in Two Postmodern Verse Novels: Slinger and Ko.” In The Poetic Fantastic: Studies in an Evolving Genre, edited by Patrick D. Murphy and Vernon Ross Hyles. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1989. This article compares the use of fantasy for fun in Koch’s Ko: Or, A Season on Earth and Edward Dorn’s Slinger.

Merrin, Jeredith. “The Poetry Man.” Southern Review 35, no. 2 (Spring, 1999): 403-409. Merrin discusses Koch’s poetry and nonfiction writing.