“Paradiso” appears in Kenneth Koch’s final collection of new poems, A Possible World (New York, 2002), published a few months after his death. This poem examines an individual who initially revels in an illusion of happiness and then chastises himself for not grasping the opportunity for the real happiness that lies before him. While one may read this poem apart from the book that includes it, the best possible understanding comes from knowing something about the entire collection, as well as knowing something about Koch’s personal life. Koch’s time spent in various countries—including Italy, where he married his first wife—plays an important role in A Possible World. It may even be the impetus for the title of this poem, which shares its name with an older work of the same name, written in the fourteenth century by Italian classical poet Dante Alighieri. It is also likely that Koch’s personal life— especially the love he felt for each of his wives— is what helps his speaker make the leap from disillusionment to possible happiness once he understands the true meaning of paradise.
Koch’s “Paradiso” begins with a statement that may be called an absolute positive negative: “There is no way not to be excited” (italics inserted). From the outset, the speaker takes away all but one option on how to respond to what he is about to say. Whoever hears him, whoever reads his words must be as excited as he is about the coming scenario.
What follows is seemingly a statement of direct address—a speaker talking pointedly to “you” the reader, but later in the poem the second person turns into the first, and the reader realizes the speaker is actually talking to himself. In line 2 the topic is disillusionment, but it is coupled with the enlightened notion of something “rais[ing] its head,” implying a rebirth or reprieve from what has been keeping the head down. The idea of human disillusionment is central to the poem’s meaning, as is the will to overcome it, and the first two lines of “Paradiso” establish this central theme.
Koch relies on personification (a figure of speech in which inanimate objects or abstract ideas are represented with human qualities or form) in the beginning of the poem to describe the “form of reality”—noted later in line 6—by which the speaker has been “disillusioned.” In line 3 the image implied is a human being sitting perhaps at a table, with arms folded atop it and his or her head buried within the arms. One can picture the head slowly rising “From [the] arms” and a facial expression that indicates the person “seems to want to talk to you again.” Visually personifying reality and disillusionment reflects the speaker’s eagerness to connect with what has been eluding him.
These lines suggest how intense emotions can be when one is on the brink of making a connection to a longed-for reality. The mind becomes so tunneled to one goal that “You forget home and family” and head out on some wild goose chase “on foot or in your automobile” in a desperate, if not blind, search for something that may not even exist.
In these lines, the speaker reveals what he is seeking—the place where “this form of reality / May dwell.” The reality he seeks is the one that “raises its head” and “seems to want to talk” in lines 2 and 3, but the hope and excitement within those previous lines are quickly dashed in lines 7 and 8: “Not finding it there, you refuse / Any further contact.” The irony is that there has been no contact in the first place, and yet the speaker must console himself by believing he is in control of the situation and can therefore be the one to “refuse” contact.
Line 9 is a continuation of the thought expressed in the previous two lines, but it also contrasts with that sentiment. The speaker vows to refuse contact, then tempers his declaration with “Until you are back again trying to...
(The entire section is 1,452 words.)