First off, Kenneth Koch’s last name is pronounced like this: [coke] Yep, he sounds just like the soda. And as David Lehman points out in his book on the New York School of Poets, The Last Avant-Garde, the parallels don’t stop there. Lehman describes Koch as a bubbly, bright young man with a strong sense of humor. Clearly, he was more fun to be around than this painting would suggest:
Now what about the important stuff (if I may) — his poetry? If you haven’t read any New York School poetry before, Koch would be a great place to start. His poetry is funny, at times darkly so, and in intelligent ways.
The long poem “Fresh Air” is a sort of manifesto of what came to be known as the New York School of Poetry — an outcry against the stuffy, old-fashioned, boring, academic poetry Koch was encountering left and right. It speaks of “five or six poets” who do not fit in with that poetry establishment and who “[sing] the new poem of the twentieth century […] Once you have heard this poem you will not love any other, / Once you have dreamed this dream you will be inconsolable” — big claims, for sure.
Part two of the poem is no more modest. In it, we learn that “poetry / Is ruled with the sceptre of the dumb, the deaf, and the creepy,” an explanation for which its speaker is stoned. Koch makes very clear what he feels ails American poetry: The “young poets in America” are “trembling in universities, they are bathing the library steps with their spit, / They are gargling out innocuous (to whom?) poems about maple trees and their children, / Sometimes they brave a subject like the Villa d’Este or a lighthouse in Rhode Island, / Oh what worms they are!”
As you can surely tell by now, Koch is passionate about this. The problem, he explains, is that none of this poetry produced and approved by the establishment captures relationships and states of being that defy plain understanding. “Is there no one,” he asks, “who feels like a pair of pants?” He even goes as far as sending an assassin, the Strangler, to silence the bad poets, the wannabe poets, the poets who torture nature with their forced comparisons. “The pink and yellow roses” must be safe from their writerly cruelty, even when they are already cut and dying in a vase in the poet’s room.
If he’s so passionate about this, why the silliness? Because this is a silly poem. This poem is over the top. He uses comic book sound effects to illustrate the Strangler’s murders. Lehman argues that it is precisely because Koch is passionate and serious about poetry that he uses humor, and that any serious discussion that does not include the humorous aspects of the problem is incomplete. The idea of lightness as a medium for seriousness. To fully grasp the human condition, we must know what it feels like to be a pair of pants.
With that in mind, nothing should surprise you in a Koch poem, be it a professor who suddenly turns into a nude “Creamy female marble” muse, waking “in a loaf of bread,” or handing out a “silverware hazelnut / With which you can escape from time” (from “The Pleasures of Peace”). With so much strangeness, Koch’s poetic speaker is easily distracted: “‘Giorgio,’ I said, trying to calm him down but laughing / So hard I could barely digest the dinner of imagination / In which your breasts were featured as on a Popeye card / When winter has lighted the lanterns and the falls are asleep / Waiting for the next day’s shards” (ibid). “The Pleasures of Peace” is a terrific roller coaster of a list poem, breathless and amusing and strange.
“The Art of Poetry” has a similar list character; it’s a list of things and conditions conducive and not conducive to the writing of poetry — again mixing the serious with a good dose of humor.
Over all, if I had to describe Koch’s poetry in three words, those would probably be “witty, gritty, and rambling” (where witty does double duty because it implies that the poetry is both intelligent and amusing). Gritty hopefully captures the anarchic qualities and the stubbly chin of much of Koch’s poetry.
Koch is in many ways describing himself when, in a passage from “Alive for an Instant,” he exclaims “I am Lord Byron I am Percy Shelley I am Ariosto / I eat the bacon I went down the slide I have a thunderstorm in my inside I will never hate you / But how can this maelstrom be appealing? […] So here I am / I have a pheasant in my reminders I have a goshawk in my clouds […] I have a baby in my landscape and I have a wild rat in my secrets from you.”
All the poems referred to here are in Kenneth Koch’s Selected Poems, edited by Ron Padgett. Koch’s Art of the Impossible — a collection of ‘comics without words mostly’ — would make great companion reading for this. Here’s an example ‘comic’ by Koch: