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Playful and Stately to the End

Kenneth Koch (1925-2002), the larger-than-life poet and much beloved Columbia University English professor who recently died from leukemia, didn’t invent jouissance in poetry, but he certainly revived it when he discovered the playful French surrealist and avant-garde poets Guillaume Apollinaire and Gerard de Nerval during the dreary days of 1950s academic poetry. In his long poem “Seasons on Earth,” he wrote:

It was the time, it was the nineteen fifties,When Eisenhower was President, I think,And the Cold war, like Samson Agonistes,Went roughly on, and we were at the brink.No time for Whitsuntides or Corpus Christis —Dread drafted all with its atomic clink.The Waste Land gave the time’s most accurate data,It seemed, and Eliot was the Great DictatorOf literature. One hardly dared to winkOr fool around in any way in poems…

Characteristic of Koch’s wit, this episode parodies pomposity (T.S. Eliot’s clinical distance) and displays his love of form (written loosely in blank verse) and his playful surprises in line and syntax. His early surrealism — muted in his later work where he chose a more meditative and literal-minded voice — served to highlight the irrational, the anarchic, the unconscious and his ultimate subject, desire.

I love you as a sheriff searches for a walnutThat will solve a murder case unsolved for years.I think I am bicycling across an Africa of green and white fieldsAlways, to be near you, even in my heartWhen I’m awake, which swims.— “To You”Linked with such New York School poets as John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara, Koch once said in an interview with British poet-critic David Kennedy:There was a certain amount of humor in all our work. It seemed to me that here I was in my 20s and life seemed to me so exciting and full of girls and gardens and steamships and drinks and tennis games and countries and cathedrals…. I mean, it seemed absurd to be writing these drabs, depressed little poems. I knew there were things like death and poverty and injustice, but they weren’t everything.

His light-hearted celebratory voice remained relatively constant, but formally, and in terms of subject matter, Koch seemed an inveterate and prolific experimenter. He collaborated with painters including Jane Freilicher and Larry Rivers, wrote dozens of plays, some experimental fiction and a very important book (“Wishes, Lies and Dreams: Teaching Children to Write Poetry,” 1970). Enough of a creature of his age to dwell in modernism’s sanctuary of the imagination, he effaced the social function of poetry in favor of the erotic (he often complained he couldn’t write “the other kind of poem,” though he was socially conscious enough to participate in student demonstrations during the protests at Columbia in the late 60’s). His boyish whimsy simultaneously deflected and intensified his romanticism. And his humor often bore the stamp of the pathos of Buster Keaton rather than the more skeptical verbal pyrotechnic double-entendres of Groucho Marx. In the late ode “To Kidding Around” (2000), he debated the virtues of his comic sublime:

For I’m a joker, an assAnd I can’t stop beingRidiculous, my tongue against the windowVlop vlap I can’t get it looseIt’s frozen here!Yet sometimes you are breathtaking,Kidding around!To be rid of the troublesOf one person turning intoSomeone else, moving and joltingAs if nothing mattered but todayIn fact nothingBut this precise moment — five thirty-one a.m.

By the time the Cincinnati-born poet published his first book in 1960 he was

already a hyper-New Yorker, more in love with the city than if he’d been born into it and elected mayor. For most of his adult life he was known as a nurturing and often inspiring teacher, first at the New School and then at Columbia. A devout secularist who ironically felt an almost Swedenborgian spirituality about the body, he was rarely explicit about being Jewish. The exception to the rule was “To Jewishness,” in his wonderful penultimate collection of odes, “New Addresses” (2000). Here, personifying his Jewishness, he lamented his early desires to assimilate in the Army and then during his undergraduate days at the then WASPy, antisemitic Harvard: “I decided to conceal/ You, my you, anyway, for a while./ Forgive me for that.”

“My you” simultaneously declares his connection with and his distance from his heritage. “In the Army,” he says (using Yiddish syntax), “You resulted, for me,/ In insults/ But was energized by you.” For Koch, Jewishness was all in the details, in the strange dailiness of ritual, represented here as nourishing and emotionally labyrinthine: the “Dark, complicated you!/ Jewishness, you are the tray/ …On which my childhood/ Was served.”

His poems dwelled in the senses, even when big philosophical ideas served as triggering subjects: Like many of his abstract expressionist painter friends, he loved to attend to the kinetic energy of surfaces.

That energy often expressed itself in aesthetic pleasure, but also in a tireless appreciation of the gawky, the underdog and the outsider. Koch frequently used his active imagination in the service of the kind of poem his friend and early mentor O’Hara used to call the “I do this and I do that” poem. The poems often traveled long distances, linked by association: The reader’s pleasure came from tracking the playful and adventurous mind at work. In “In Love With You,” from “Thank You and Other Poems” (1962), he wrote:

O what a physical effect it has on meTo dive forever into the light blue seaOf Your acquaintance! Ah, but dearest friends,Like forms, are finished, as life has ends! Still,It is beautiful, when OctoberIs over, and February is over,To sit in the starch of my shirt, and to dream of your sweetWays! As if the world were a taxi, you enter it, thenReply (to no one), “Let’s go five or six blocks.”

He rarely complained about the limits of language: His passion for sound, for the pleasures of metaphor (the connections of correspondence were always erotic for him), the twists and turns of the line offered boundless opportunities for invention. For a while after the New York School dispersed (after the loss of O’Hara’s energetic leadership and Ashbery’s experimental break with representation), Koch seemed a little lost: His poetry sometimes appeared drained of its vitality. Poems began to trail off into the repetitive, the romantically childish or the prosaic. Ezra Pound used to speak of “dilution” in poetry as a kind of ritualized diminishment of a way of speaking. But even when his output of poems diminished (it took him seven years to put together his second “Selected Poems,” 1985), Koch was not without resources. Both he and the world paid more attention to his plays and prose than to his poems.

What’s remarkable about the arc of his writing life, though, is that without losing the center of his speaking voice, in the late poems — particularly in “Straits” (1998) and “New Addresses” — he may have composed some of his strongest work. At 70 years old he retained his youthful sense of awe, but tempered his sensibility with the mature awareness of the passage of time. He could admit more of the tragic and the difficult without resigning himself to misfortune. In the opening poem of “To Yes” (in “New Addresses”) he writes:

Or has the sky taken away from me its ultimate guessAbout how everything is probably going to be eventually terribleWhich is something we knew all along, being modified by a yesWhen what we want is obvious but has a brilliantly shining trailOf stars. Or are those asterisks? Yes. What is it at the bottomOf the most overt question? Do we die? Yes. Does thatAlways come later than now? Yes.I love your development.

Ironically, perhaps, Koch may never escape his association with the New York School, even though his best poems outgrew its casual aesthetic. But he never renounced his early poems, and he understood fully why the movement snagged his passions. “Maybe you can almost characterize the poetry of the New York School as having as one of its main subjects the fullness and richness of life and the richness of possibility and excitement and happiness,” he wrote in the Kennedy interview. Koch’s best poems remind us of irony and deflection’s power to reveal as well as conceal; but they also serve as corrective and compensation for more tragic visions. In a Kenneth Koch poem we can make sacred the overflowing moment that seems enough and sometimes more than enough.


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