from Pleiades, Summer 2014
To be a poet: it is a grave and austere responsibility, is it not? Well, yes and no. If you've been pondering Shelley, Arnold, Rilke, Eliot, Akhmatova, Hart Crane, Plath, Celan, Adrienne Rich, or Geoffrey Hill recently, you perhaps feel it is—but even those intensely dissatisfied and sometimes desperate poets must sometimes have felt shots of sheer joy in knowing themselves to be poets and participating in the great endless dialogue of poetry. Perhaps no important poet has more consistently acknowledged the manifold pleasures of the vocation than Kenneth Koch (1925-2002). Throughout his amazingly, indeed almost bizarrely various poetry, we can always hear Koch's charismatic voice urging us not to deny the fun in poetry—the fun in writing it, reading it, arguing about it, daydreaming about it, knowing it is in the world.
This aliveness to the pleasure of being alive poetically was something Koch shared with his friend Frank O'Hara (1926-1966). In a 1995 interview with Jordan Davis, Koch said: "I love the quality in Frank's work that makes its message always that life is so rich, so full of variety and excitement that one would be crazy to think that anything else was the theme and crazier not to participate in it as much as one could." O'Hara, though, died at the age of forty, having already written some poems in which melancholy yearning undermines the ebullience; Koch lived on through another three and a half decades of middle age and early old age, decades in which the splendidness of being young and brilliant naturally tends to give way to other truths of disappointment, regret and loss. Thanks to Koch's honesty, that concession is a crucial part of the story presented by his work across the years. However, what never disappears from his poetry is the palpable and contagious feeling that to be a poet is great luck. The poet's vocation often induces anxiety, yes, but the anxiety is part of an adventure not to be missed.
To illustrate this vocational happiness in Koch's work, countless examples could be offered; I'll look mainly at passages from four poems representing different phases of Koch's long career. My hope is to evoke a profound healthiness that flows through his oeuvre and invites other poets to acknowledge their own vocational good fortune and take heart.
''A Time Zone" in One Train (1994) is a buoyantly nostalgic poem, in impetuously unmeasured rhyming couplets, about the early Fifties; here's a passage referring to his absurdly long poem "When the Sun Tries to Go On":
I'm smoking it's a little too much I'm not sure I can get through it alone
Frank and I read each other segments of these long works daily on the phone
Janice finds it funny now that I've dropped this bunch of pages
That I can't get them back in the right order well I do but it's by stages
It is April I have a job at the Hunter College Library
I come down to the Cedar on a bus hoping to see O'Hara and Ashbery
Astonishingly on the bus I don't know why it's the only occasion
I write a poem Where Am I Kenneth? It's on some torn-out notebook pages
The Cedar and the Five Spot each is a usable place
A celebrated comment Interviewer What do you think of space? De Kooning Fuck space!
In any case Frank is there he says he likes Where Am I Kenneth?
I carry this news home pleasantly and the poem it mentions her to Janice
John's poem Europe is full of avant-garde ardor
I am thinking it's making an order out of a great disorder
I wonder at what stage in life does this get harder
Obviously that last line dares the reader to say "It all should have been much harder then!" But Koch felt sure throughout his career that some kinds of difficulty were mere laboriousness or cultivated grimness. In an autobiographical talk in 1994, he said:
I also needed poets who could show me how to avoid dead seriousness, high seriousness. I grew up in a time when T. S. Eliot was, as Delmore Schwartz said, the literary dictator of the West, and not only were you supposed to be serious, you were supposed to be a little depressed. You could read through the quarterlies—the Kenyon Review, the Partisan Review, the Sewanee Review——all the big journals of those days, and nobody was seeing anything at the end of that tunnel. They were not even seeing the tunnel.
Koch's most famous response to that Fifties academic culture is the wonderful poem "Fresh Air" (1956). That is the quintessential poem for my subject, but it has so often been cited that I'll emphasize other examples of Koch's candid demonstration that excitement and humor and joy are involved in being a poet.
As a professor at Columbia in the late Sixties, Koch (like all his colleagues) found the protest movement against the Vietnam War dominating the daily atrnosphere—everything was political, and every activity, including the writing of poetry, was called upon to oppose LBJ and then Nixon and the majority culture supporting them. Instead of hiding from this demand, Koch devised a way of responding to it vigorously without violating his central intuition that war only mattered because it interfered (horribly) with the infinite potential joys of living. He wrote a 16-page poem entitled "The Pleasures of Peace." Though he made sure it was goofy and unpredictable, he had a vivid sense of how the politically righteous people around him would strive to assimilate it into their culture of protest. Here is the second segment of the poem:
"I love your work, The Pleasures of Peace," the Professor said to me next day;
"I think it adequately encompasses the hysteria of our era
And puts certain people in their rightful place. Chapeau! Bravo!"
"You don't get it," I said. "I like all this. I called this poem
Pleasures of Peace because I'm not sure they will be lasting!
I wanted people to be able to see what these pleasures are
That they may come back to them." "But they are all so hysterical, so—so transitory,"
The critic replied. "I mean, how can you—what kind of pleasures are these?
They seem more like pains to me—if I may say what I mean."
"Well, I don't know, Professor," I said; "permanent joys
Have so far been denied this hysterical person. Though I confess
Far other joys I've had and will describe in time.
And then too there's the pleasure of writing these—perhaps to experience is not the same."
The Professor paused, lightly, upon the temple stair.
"I will mention you among the immortals, Ken," he said,
"Because you have the courage of what you believe.
But there I will never mention those sniveling rats
Who only claim to like these things because they're fashionable."
"Professor!" I cried, "My darling! my dream!" And she stripped, and I saw there
Creamy female marble, the waist and thighs of which I had always dreamed.
"Professor! Loved one! why the disguise?" "It was a test," she said,
"Of which you have now only passed the first portion.
You must write More, and More—"
"And be equally persuasive?" I questioned, but She
Had vanished through the Promontory door.
The dialogue in the first half of that passage is lightly satirical—while at the same time expressing Koch's refusal to be heavily satirical. The Professor assumes that the poet must intend to be some sort of social critic, and must want to be defined in opposition to "sniveling rats" or some other "certain people." Having developed a satirical portrayal of this Professor's attitude, Koch then twists the poem quickly away from the comfortable clarity of that point. This is Koch's most characteristic impulse: to suddenly swerve, diverge from a path of meaning before its foam congeals. (Ashbery's trademark maneuver can be similarly described, yet the flavor is quite different; Ashbery's swerves are smoother, more oiled and at-first-invisible; Koch's are more itchy, noisy, jarring, impetuous.) '''Professor!' I cried, 'My darling! my dream!'" It seems the Professor's flattery—"I will mention you among the immortals, Ken"—has abruptly bypassed the poet's defenses, touching him at the quick, in his fantasy of sublime greatness. Koch's comic rendition of this sudden enthrallment is the revelation that the Professor is actually a goddess of beauty (since nothing is more beautiful or more sexy than the sudden intimation of immortality). The comedy here contains a self-insight that many a much-published poet might well own up to, or be embarrassed by.
The goddess instructs the poet in a way that is deliberately and self-satirically a burlesque diminishment of Moneta's instructions to Keats. "You must write More, and More—"—this is not intimidating advice for a jazzed-up young (or 44-year-old) poet interested in pleasure. In these lines Koch seems aware of his deep-seated resistance to any somber requirement that he must register the sufferings of all mankind. Now, we do need poets who will attempt that; but we also need poets capable of registering the connection between ambition and egotism, capable of brashly cutting through sobriety lest it dry into piety.
Before Ken can receive more challenging guidance, the goddess conveniently disappears: "She / Had vanished through the Promontory door." Through the what? I don't think Koch cared about any specific meaning for "Promontory" here—he just wanted an elevated-sounding adjective with a nicely iambic rhythm. If so, then "Promontory" is a tiny flash of the zany impulsive nondiscursive Koch flaring up within a discursive or narrative passage.
And there are many more such flarings in "The Pleasures of Peace"—indeed, nonsensical hijinks dominate the poem. However, the bit that follows right after the passage quoted above is very discursive, a foretaste of the hyper-discursive essay poems to come in The Art of Love (1975).
So now I must devote my days to The Pleasures of Peace—
To my contemporaries I'll leave the Horrors of War,
They can do them better than I—each poet shares only a portion
Of the vast Territory of Rhyme. Here in Peace shall I stake out
My temporal and permanent claim. But such silver as I find
I will give to the Universe—the gold I'll put in other poems.
Thus in time there'll be a mountain range of gold
Of considerable interest. Oh may you come back in time
And in my lifetime to see it, most perfect and most delectable reader!
We poets in our youth begin with fantasies,
But then at least we think they may be realities—
The poems we create in our age
Require your hand upon our shoulder, your eye on our page.
This passage charmingly shows the balancing between modesty and ambition in the poet's view of his effort—his awareness that his claim is "temporal" vs. his desire to believe it is "permanent." We notice that he intends to invest any "gold" his poem discovers in his own future poems, while the less sublime "silver" he will donate to the world. Arrogant self-involvement is consciously and nakedly expressed here—along with the feeling that art is more important than the temporal Universe. But by the end of this passage, pride has slid downhill fast into a sense that the aging poet (44 in 1969) will be dependent on gently sympathetic readers. (The note struck here anticipates the elegiac tones of later discursive poems that I especially love.)
Ten pages later in "The Pleasures of Peace," Koch seems to have won a competition with a poet named Giorgio Finogle—both poets having tried to produce the ultimate peace poem. We get a parodic montage of readers' responses.
''A wonder!" ''A rout!" "No need now for any further poems!" ''A Banzai for peace!" "He can speak to us all!"
And "Great, man!" "Impressive!" "Something new for you, Ken!" ''Astounding!'' ''A real
Epic!" "The worst poem I have ever read!" ''Abominably tasteless!" "Too funny!" "Dead, man!
A cop out! a real white man's poem! a folderol of honkie blank spitzenburger smugglerout Caucasian gyp
Of phony bourgeois peace poetry, a total shrig!" "Terrific!" "I will expect you at six!"
''A lovely starry catalogue for peace!" "Is it Shakespeare or Byron who breathes
In the lines of his poem?" ''You have given us the Pleasures of Peace,
Now where is the real thing?" "Koch has studied his history!" "Bold!" "Stunning!" "It touches us like leaves
Sparkling in April—but is that all there is
To his peace plea?" Well, you be the one
To conclude it, if you think it needs more—I want to end it,
I want to see real Peace again!
I love the quick-footed moves of that catalogue—they give a vivid taste of 1969, a year when everyone had a loud opinion.
That passage also sounds quite like some of the hilarious passages in Koch's "Fresh Air," which burns with comic exasperation at the stodginess of professor-poets trying to establish themselves as junior Eliots and Pounds. It's interesting to note meanwhile that, though "Fresh Air" is zany and rebellious and satirical, this 1956 poem as a whole is much more coherent and indeed disciplined than the late-Sixties "Pleasures of Peace." In 1956, Koch could feel unquestionably brave and special as a radical sort of poet, along with a few others such as O'Hara and Ashbery, and Allen Ginsberg. By 1969, "radical" suggested dozens of stances in relation to America and all sorts of people in art and politics claimed noble outsider status; "The Pleasures of Peace" seems a poem written amidst dazing cacophony.
Koch was never embarrassed by the obvious reality that the most engaged readers of one's poetry will be people who write poems or want to write poems; thus to write poetry about being a poet can be a choice fundamentally generous rather than narcissistic. The title poem of Days and Nights (1982) consists frankly of an accumulation of notes and conversational pensées about the life of poetry.
You've got to sit down and write. Solved!
But what I write isn't any good. Unsolved!
Try harder. Solved! No results. Unsolved!
Try taking a walk. Solved! An intelligent, pliable,
Luminous, spurting, quiet, delicate, amiable, slender line
Like someone who really loves me
For one second. What a life! (Solved!) Temporarily.
What is the bright critic to say about that bit? It's another of Koch's countless expressions of the nervous excitement of creation. Some stiffer poets have offered scores of pages of raptly self-observing prose that essentially say no more than Koch says in those seven lines. Candidly he acknowledges the similarity—or indeed the siblinghood—between artistic energy and romantic/sexual energy. As, again, in these three lines from earlier in "Days and Nights":
Extase de mes vingt ans—
French girl with pure gold eyes
In which shine internal rhyme and new kinds of stanzas
The glory of being twentysomething—brimming over with unmeasured undefined potentialities (creative, and sexual)—was the implicit subject in most of Koch's early poetry, and then became increasingly an explicit subject, haunting each of his later collections starting with The Art of Love (1975) and The Burning Mystery of Anna in 1951 (1979). The shift is audible if we juxtapose the following passage, from "Days and Nights," with the "Pleasures of Peace" passage quoted above, both passages concerning the fecklessness of public response to the poet.
I said to so many people once, "I write poetry."
They said, "Oh, so you are a poet." Or they said,
"What kind of poetry do you write? modern poetry?"
Or "My brother-in-law is a poet also."
Now if I say, "I am the poet Kenneth Koch," they say "I think I've
heard of you"
Or "I'm sorry but that doesn't ring a bell" or
''Would you please move out of the way? You're blocking my vlew
Of that enormous piece of meat that they are lowering into the Bay
Of Pigs." What? Or "What kind of poetry do you write?"
By 1982 Koch found himself remarkably unfamous (except as the author of Wishes, Lies and Dreams, his book about teaching poetry to children), while his old friend John Ashbery was becoming strangely famous. The passage just quoted is part of an admirably humorous and graceful response to that fate, a response Koch sustained with both clarity and lightness in his later books, not succumbing to resentment or bitterness. (Long-delayed recognition did come in the last years of his life, including the Bollingen Prize in 1995.) It's true that the Bay of Pigs passage could be categorized under the heading of Nursing One's Ego, but many a poet does this covertly—or transparently pretends not to care. I find Koch's candor not only refreshing but invigorating—it gives that Koch sensation of a cutting through into new oxygen.
And a four-line bit lower on the same page of "Days and Nights" gives that sensation too, and if chalked on blackboards in poetry workshops could obviate many tedious hours of canned discourse:
You must learn to write in forms first, said the dumb poet.
After several years of that you can write in free verse.
But of course no verse is really "free," said the dumb poet.
Thank you, I said. It's been great talking to you!
New oxygen flows from the deflation of pomposity. Hundreds of Koch passages are apposite; let's turn to his early poem "The Artist" which appeared (along "with "Fresh Air") in Thank You (1962). The speaker of this poem is some sort of avant-garde landscape artist and conceptual sculptor, a genius in his myth of himself. The fact that this persona is not a poet seems to help Koch convey a sweetness within the absurdity of the artist's egomania. The eight pages of "The Artist" present his diary entries recording vicissitudes in his career and illustrating his boundless self-absorption.
I often think Play was my best work.
It is an open field with a few boards in it.
Children are allowed to come and play in Play
By permission of the Cleveland Museum.
I look up at the white clouds, I wonder what I shall do, and smile.
Perhaps somebody will grow up having been influenced by Play,
I think—but what good will that do?
Meanwhile I am interested in steel cigarettes ...
The egotistical innocence of this speaker calls to mind the wonderful comic characters acted by Christopher Guest in the films This Is Spinal Tap and Waiting for Guffman.
A page later: "Play seems to me now like a juvenile experience!" The Artist is at work on a project called Bee, which is "a sixty-yards-long covering for the elevator shaft opening in the foundry sub-basement / Near my home." In the next passage he frets about comments on his work.
June 8th. Bee is still not finished. I have introduced a huge number of red balloons into it. How will it work?
Yesterday X. said, "Are you still working on Bee? What's happened to your interest in steel cigarettes?"
Y said, "He hasn't been doing any work at all on them since he went to Cleveland." A shrewd guess! But how much can they possibly know?
Such passages, like those I've quoted from "Days and Nights" and "The Pleasures of Peace," don't cry out for professional analysis. Koch never had the Ashbery knack of tantalizing the reader with just enough traces of meaning so that the professional explicator senses a potential article and pops open his or her tool kit. Instead, Koch's oeuvre veers between abundant charming clarity on the one hand and obviously unprofound silliness on the other hand. (there are lovely hybrid exceptions, such as "Hearing" and "Locks" and "At Extremes.")
The gentle satire and self-satire in Koch's many lucidly comic passages about poets and artists demonstrate that one can be obsessively—and sophisticatedly—devoted to poetry while at the same time alert to the pomposities and delusions of poets and very ready to expose those pomposities and delusions in one's own poetry—not in a spirit of crushing one's enemies but in a spirit of sharing in the susceptibilities being exposed.
The Artist worries about Bee for another page, and then we get the following two passages (apparently separated by considerable intervals of time).
I just found these notes written many years ago.
How seriously I always take myself! Let it be a lesson to me.
To bring things up to date: I have just finished Campaign, which is a tremendous piece of charcoal.
Its shape is difficult to describe; but it is extremely large and would reach to the sixth floor of the Empire State Building. I have been very successful in the past fourteen or fifteen years.
Summer Night, shall I never succeed in finishing you? Oh you are the absolute end of all my creation! The ethereal beauty of that practically infinite number of white stone slabs stretching into the blue secrecy of ink!
O stabs in my heart!
... Why not a work Stabs in My Heart? But Summer Night?
January ... A troubled sleep. Can I make two things at once? What way is there to be sure that the impulse to work on Stabs in My Heart is serious? It seems occasioned only by my problem about finishing Summer Night ... ?
A delicious moment of pure Koch—a touch that would not be easy to imitate, a touch that a lesser satirist would have overplayed—is in the flow from "Empire State Building" to "I have been very successful in the past fourteen or fifteen years." This Artist may suffer heart-stabs and insomnia, but we feel sure he will be happy in his self-myth for a long time. His happiness involves his feeling of endless possibility, his feeling that there is nothing he cannot do in art, sooner or later. Throughout at least the first half of his career, Koch felt the same way.
But it would be wrong to imply that in his vocational pleasure, Koch was simply oblivious of suffering and the darkness of twentieth-century history. The emphasis on pleasure was a choice among possibilities, as Koch strikingly acknowledges at one point in the Jordan Davis interview:
In an Eliot-dominated poetic ambience, even the slightest sensations of happiness or pleasure seemed rare and revolutionary poetic occasions. If happy, positive, excited poetry were the "scene," I might have been looking for the nuances of the losses and sorrows in my life for the subjects of poems.
Ultimately I think Koch's greatest power comes when optimism and brashness rub up against time, fatigue, defeat and loss. I hear a delicate truth of this friction evoked in the last stanza of "Days and Nights."
Z said It isn't poetry
And R said It's the greatest thing I ever read
And Y said I'm sick. I want to get up
Out of bed. Then we can talk about poetry
And L said There is some wine
With lunch, if you want some
And N (the bad poet) said
Listen to this. And J said I'm tired and
M said Why don't you go to sleep. We laughed
And the afternoon-evening ended
At the house in bella Firenze.
The longest day of enjoyable talk must dwindle at last. Sad, yet Koch's presenting of this realization in this confidently, suavely "unpoetic" passage affects me as both comforting and encouraging in the lightness and honesty with which it celebrates the bella vita of poetry.
Whatever the fluctuations in his sense of the size and importance of his own talent, Koch never lost his feeling that to be a true poet is fabulous good fortune. My impression is that this feeling is more rare, and more tenuous, among poets born since, say, 1960. Why? The all-too-obvious answers involve the emergence of new arenas where language can be dazzlingly employed and displayed for huge audiences: television, the Internet, and pop music in its many flavors. When I wonder why my poet friends and I feel less gloriously lucky to be poets than Koch and O'Hara felt, and why our students seem mostly even less sure that their calling is grand, I think particularly of the overwhelming charisma of rock 'n roll. A young writer in the early-to-mid-Fifties might admire Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald or Elvis Presley or Little Richard but probably never felt these singers (who were not mainly songwriters) constituted powerful competition in brilliant use of language as such. The great rock music of the Sixties—which, I note with generational pride, is still enjoyed today by my 26-year-old son and his friends—dished out terrifically engaging lyrics (along with, of course, stupid lyrics; every art always has its wannabes and hacks) so abundantly that the line between song and poem came to seem much less definite. Well, maybe this sense of overlap between song and poem was inspired in earlier decades by Cole Porter, Noel Coward, Ira Gershwin, Johnny Mercer—each generation has its brilliant songwriters; still, Sixties rock is so loaded with lyrics that propose to show a deep spirit speaking from the heart that ever since, a young person writing poetry is likely to think "But maybe I should learn guitar!" As a boomer rock fan, I can't regret this, but I do feel some envy for the cheerfully brash poet-pride of Koch and O'Hara. (It is so different from the anxious tense striving of Roethke, Berryman, Jarrell, Lowell, Schwartz ... ) Koch never tolerated the idea that Bob Dylan was great. I tried several times in the Nineties to interest Koch in some of Dylan's songs, and even to point out a few similarities between the songs and his poems, but Koch couldn't even begin to take the comparison seriously. This sort of deafness was salubrious for Koch's ego, I suggest, in a way that is less possible for 21st-century poets writing amid a constant storm of pop songs and infinite Internet hypertexty discourse, all saturated with postmodern awareness of our cacophony of wit: always already a dozen other voices wielding one's metaphor du jour. But Kenneth Koch's vocational pride and satisfaction should not be defined or dismissed as nothing but a dated flaring of Fifties-fostered male egotism. Emily Dickinson, though she was a poet of suffering more often than not, had no doubt that to be a poet was to be a wondrous source of happiness, of life.
I reckon—when I count at all—
First—Poets—Then the Sun—
Then Summer—Then the Heaven of God—
And then—the List is done—
But, looking back—the First so seems
To comprehend the Whole—
The Others look a needless Show—
So I write—Poets—All—
Surely Emily Dickinson felt joy as she wrote those lines, an unreasonable sort of joy not bothered by the claims of composers, painters, novelists, architects, or any other creative spirits who try to give humanity something sublime. One doesn't want to be unreasonable all the time, but in occasional doses this joy—felt so abundantly by Kenneth Koch in the Fifties, and often enough thereafter—is a lucky and invigorating thing for a poet to feel.
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University of Central Missouri
Editors: Wayne Miller, Phong Nguyen
Poetry Editor: Kathryn Nuernberger
Fiction Editor: Matthew Eck
Managing Editor: Amber Scroggs