Kenneth Koch (1925 - 2002)

Life and Works


Some gifts come at a price. Kenneth Koch's talent for humor has somewhat cornered him in a weird Olympus for not-quite-serious poets against substantial evidence of greatness. The oh-how-I-suffer school of look-at-me-I-am-a-serious-poet poetry seems to have welcomed him with reserve. If one studies the reception of his poetry, often in the midst of general consensus about his merit there seems to linger an equally general "but." Subversive irony, satire, casual diction, and a vague aroma of witty irreverence permeate his poetry to a point where many have found it difficult to appreciate the seriousness of his social criticism, as if freshness and seriousness were incompatible. Koch himself resented the rigidity of this interpretation: "Some readers think of a poem as a sort of ceremony--a funeral, a wedding--where anything comic is out of order. They expect certain feelings to be touched on in certain conventional ways."

Kenneth Koch was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on February 27, 1925. He obtained his BA from Harvard University, where he met fellow poets Frank O'Hara and John Ashbery. Koch's creative context is the 1950s New York School of poetry, and that places him--as we have already seen with Ashbery and O'Hara--in a privileged position for the rich cross-fertilization of avant-garde ideas across different media:

"I was certainly encouraged by the example of, from rather early on, the example of Picasso and Max Ernst and other painters who had the courage to do something stunning, strong, starkly dramatic and beautiful that didn't necessarily make any sense. All that certainly went in my head and my heart but how that comes out on the page is hard to tell. And also I liked John Cage's music. I liked it for its craziness, the use of silence, the boldness - anything to get me away from writing about...I don't know what academic poets write about. I talk about it in 'Fresh Air', whatever they were writing about... I mean, there are excesses all over the place. People are always saying what are the different schools of American poetry."

His work epitomizes the School's irreverence, antitraditionalism, opposition to symbolism, and fecund contamination from the visual arts. Another consequence of this plastic, pro-abstract influence was the deliberate treatment of poetry as a kind of painting with words, in which words were no longer pieces of a holy code loaded with symbolism but mere artist's materials. The resulting emphasis on process and surface has characterized the work of the New York School in both poetry and painting: "I was influenced by surrealist poetry and painting as were thousands of other people and it seems to me to have become a part of the way I write but it's not...As I understand the surrealist program, it was programmatically in favour of the unconscious as opposed to the conscious; programmatically in favour of chance, even programmatically in favour of a certain kind of violence and all that dream stuff. All that is interesting to me and it's become an automatic part of what I do but I would never say I was a surrealist. People used to say rather carelessly when they didn't know what to say about what John and Frank and I wrote, they'd say a couple of things: that we were surrealists and that we were influenced by painters." The urban, cosmopolitan flair of the NYS contrasted with the drama and subjective obsession of Confessional poetry, another major school in the 1950s.

Koch's early work--somewhat like Ashbery's--has often been considered obscure and private (Ko, or A Season on Earth 1959), but since he found his voice his poetry has been admired for its neat technique, clarity, and talent for humor (The Art of Love, 1975). Gary Lenhart, for American Book Review, has coined what is perhaps the most synthetically precise characterization of 1950s Koch: "a sensuous young poet impatient with the literary world" (my emphasis).

Koch's privileged awareness of the materiality of words (of their visual impact on the page, and especially of their sound) coupled with the most absolute irreverence as to what themes deserve to become the object of poetry have produced a respectably-sized body of work, now bound as The Collected Poems of Kenneth Koch (Knopf, 2005). He offers a veritable catalogue of (re)fresh(ed) resources that epitomize the New York School. Indeed, Koch's experimental courage contrasts with the solemnity of both previous and later poetry: parody, irony, puns of all sorts, familiar expressions and strategically-placed idioms, quotation and allusion, found objects, popular names, titles of both high and popular culture, witty rhymes thrown in otherwise free verse, unexpected bursts of common sense, subject matter and techniques borrowed from Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism, free-flowing speech, a constant air of lucid improvisation, and a seemingly endless invention and capacity for renovation of the (for him) excessively literary (read stale or fake) forms of poetry. These poems, these acts of reclaiming poetry for the imagination, do not necessarily exclude deep emotion or serious concerns (aesthetic, existential); they merely refuse to approach serious matters solely from the agony and solemnity of the poet who takes him/herself all too seriously. Needless to say, not a few critics found that this humor undermined any potential seriousness. As said before, his attitude--the only one possible for him, and the one to which he remained faithful and coherent throughout his career--eventually proved detrimental to his reputation. But for the complicity-seeking reader his Collected Poems are a permanent source of amazement.

These poems, especially after 1975, breathe with a fresh energy that celebrates life and poetry through the same delectation with which they point to the absurd. He died in 2002.

As well as teaching English at Columbia University, Koch wrote a number of books about poetry appreciation and the teaching of poetry to children and adults. This aspect of his activity as a poet was very important for him. As he told David Shapiro in an interview,

"I began to write poetry when I was five, and I remember the pleasure I got from writing certain poems when I was five; it was similar to the pleasure I get from writing poems now. The first good poems I wrote (when I was 17 or 18), or the first poems I wrote that interest me now, were a result of two things. One was reading USA by John Dos Passos, more particularly the 'stream of consciousness' passages in the book. I started to write stream of consciousness of my own, that is, writing down whatever came into my mind. The things I wrote tended to be very sexy and sadistic.
I had a very good teacher in high school at the time -- I was either a junior or senior. Her name was Katherine Lappa, and she was interested in my writing. [...]
I also read a lot of William Carlos Williams and was very influenced by him. Williams has been a big influence on my work, partly because he wrote about things I saw at the time when I was a child and adolescent. He wrote about the beauty of a vacant lot, the pieces of a broken green bottle. The suburban world he wrote about in New Jersey was very much like what I saw all the time in Cincinnati. It made me very happy that somebody could write poetry about that."

In 2000 Kenneth Koch and his wife visited my university in Tenerife and a number of us faculty members went to lunch with them. They will be remembered as the most charming couple imaginable, and they certainly exhibited what O'Hara called an "intoxication with life." Kind, witty, and extremely talkative, he made us all write some cadavre exquis on the restaurant napkins and kept praising the local food. The couple humorously scolded me for looking for poetry in the library when it can be found "out there." He will be missed. The world needs more like him.


Lunch with the Kochs

Autor: Ernesto Suárez Toste (Universidad de Castilla la Mancha)