Taking Parnassus by Sheer Force of Wit

Selected Poems (American Poets Project)
By Kenneth Koch, edited by Ron Padgett
The Library of America, 220 pages, $20.

Kenneth Koch has not received his due, in part because his Harvard classmates and close friends, John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara, have overshadowed him, and in part because he could be rambunctiously funny. Poetry, after all, is serious business, and we have never really known what to do with comic poets beyond relegating them to the seventh circle of “light verse.” But Koch deserves better. As Ron Padgett’s handsome selection of Koch’s poems shows, the man aspired to take Parnassus by sheer force of his wit.

From the start, Koch — who was born in 1925 and died in 2002 — pitched himself headfirst against what he saw as the poetic orthodoxy that reigned after World War II:

Form, ambiguity and control — these were the chief literary watchwords of the 1940s and ’50s. Poets, even ferocious ones like Robert Lowell, aimed for a certain comportment. They showed good manners toward diction and metrics, and they were careful to maintain a certain ironic distance as well as an aura of high seriousness. They certainly produced some great work, but Koch was interested in something else:

He wanted, as this quotation shows, to be in the game and not just watching it. He wanted the exciting play of snazzy words and odd images. He was not interested in control. He was interested in fun.

Koch found all the fun and excitement he was looking for in the proto-surrealism of Apollinaire and Max Jacob. He emulated it in a number of ways. Here is the start of “Sun Out,” the first poem in Padgett’s selection:

One can chart a kind of associative logic here, but why bother? Like his forebears, Koch has spliced together, without the sanction or the aid of grammar, words that have little truck with each other in ordinary discourse, just to hear how they will sound and to see what they will do. The point is in the surprise, in the effect.

Koch also played with the most common staple of surrealism: the loopy simile. He had no trouble extending his analogies into complicated, disjointed and truly comic narratives. But this kind of antic invention can soon become exhausting, as if the dial were permanently stuck at “mirth.” Padgett’s selection underscores the suspicion that while Koch wrote some very good poems through his late 30s, he did not really hit his stride until he reached 40. From that point on his writing changed — just a bit, to be sure, but enough to make all the difference.

During the late 1960s, Koch finally realized that how-to books were the American equivalent of the neoclassicism that had served as the necessary foil of the French avant-gardes. In deceptively impersonal poems, such as “The Art of Poetry” and “Some General Instructions,” Koch was able to craft both a diction that is admirably clear and a style that, in its digressions, comic curve balls and change-ups, is deliciously opaque:

None of this, in itself, is particularly bad advice. (Fish faces and accents are, after all, entertaining, and islands do make nice vacation spots.) The disarming wit comes from the odd juxtapositions and from the often flat, sometimes naive and frequently parodic tone.

Parody was central to Koch’s particular genius. It allowed him to hide and reveal himself in a number of important ways. Koch was always the odd man out among his poetic allies because he was straight and because he was Jewish. As his poem “To Jewishness” makes very clear, he was less marked by Judaism as such than by a broadly conceived Yiddishkeit. Even then, his relationship with things Jewish was deeply ambivalent. Like many of his generation and of his affluent German-Jewish bourgeois background, he was smitten by the wealth and sudden availability of goyish high culture, the world of “Shelley, Byron, Keats, Shakespeare/Mozart, Monet” that seemed to open up to Jewish kids after the war. But — and here he was not atypical either — he could not reach this newfound land directly. He could only approach it through comedy.

Koch was as good as his goofy words of wisdom. He could be hugely entertaining, with fish faces, accents and the like. He was an instigator and a stand-up comedian, both a tummler and the master of a thousand voices. He had no trouble imitating his great models, but he could never do so without injecting absurdity into the proceedings, as if neither he nor his poetic heroes should be treated too reverently. There is aggression in this, to be sure, and most likely some insecurity, both recognizably Jewish traits. One also senses in Koch the no doubt healthy and particularly Jewish feeling that somehow the world and its pretensions need to be cut down to size. Koch aimed his popgun at the high stuffiness of modernist poetry, which he managed to transform into a wonderful kind of slapstick.

While he was something of a tummler, he could also write poems of depth and loss, like “To Marina” or “The Boiling Water.” In truth, for all his joking, he took literature very seriously. As he made clear in “Wishes, Lies and Dreams,” his best-selling book about teaching poetry writing to children (originally published in 1970 by Random House), Koch had a good, old-fashioned faith in the powers of the imagination. He had a charmingly expansive understanding of what poetry could include and what it could do. This expansiveness informs everything he wrote, and he wrote a lot — close to 20 books of poetry, several works of fiction and a number of plays, not counting his musings on poetry and teaching.

Ashbery once wrote that O’Hara was too hip for the squares and too square for the hip. This could also describe Koch, whose work presents a dizzying mix of the naive and the sophisticated, the transparent and the obscure. Ashbery and O’Hara have slipped into the canon, but Koch has not yet found his place. This is a pity, for, as this volume illustrates, Koch, perhaps more than anyone else of our time, could create poems that are great “lakes of delectation.” And poetry has little justification if it does not — first and foremost — provide us with pleasure.

David Kaufmann teaches literature at George Mason University.

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David Kaufmann

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