Kenneth Koch


David Shapiro - A Conversation with Kenneth Koch

David Shapiro: Three years ago [in 1969] Kenneth Koch and I conducted a taped interview in my rooms at Clare College, Cambridge, England, on the nature of his work. Considering the astonishing variety of his published and unpublished pieces -- lyrics that resemble French poetry more than they do anything in English, comic epics in ottava rima with a rather clear narrative, and his recent work, including the still unfinished novel, 'The Red Robins' -- and attempting to deal with some of the stylistic elements that bind and separate these works proved to be a rather difficult task. Consequently, I think the best way to present the interview is to offer a scenario of excerpts from Koch's responses.
I began by asking Koch about the influence of the French language and the influence of any specific French poets. One may think of Koch's freshness and immediacy as the kind of empiricism which F.S.C. Northrop has identified with the advantages of an impressionistic method.

Koch: When I first went to France I was 23 years old. I knew French but not very well. I read a lot of French poetry and enjoyed reading it, even though I didn't entirely understand it. And I was interested in this quality that a work of literature could have -- that it could be exciting and at the name time slightly incomprehensible. I wanted to get this kind of quality into my own work, the excitement and mystery of a language that is not entirely understood but suggests a great deal.

Shapiro: Though Koch's is an art 'unmixed with theory.' His experience of Italy and of Ariosto seems to have changed him greatly. I questioned him about the development of his tesselated narratives.

Koch: My being in Italy had a lot to do with my writing of Ko. For one thing it give me a good chance to do something I'd wanted to do for a long time, which was to read Ariosto. I lived in a little villino outside Florence near the viale Michelangelo, and every morning I'd wake up and go sit in the pretty little garden that went with the house. It was the beginning of Spring (late February), and I'd drink coffee there and read Ariosto. Just a few stanzas of Orlando Furioso would be enough to set me off, and then I'd write as many stanzas as I could of Ko, which was in the same meter. Don Juan, which I think is one of the greatest poems I've read, is in ottiva rima too. But I didn't want to be influenced by Byron. I was afraid of being overwhelmed by him.
What I found in Ariosto was a poetry that was all action. There's almost no reflection in the whole of Orlando Furioso. It's one action after another, as in certain early Mack Sennett comedies; I love that quality.
Another thing about Florence that inspired me was just living there. Every morning after I'd worked for a few hours, or sometimes before I worked, I would take a walk, and it was the most beautiful nature I'd ever seen. The fruit trees began to blossom in March, I think it was, and there were new flowers every day or every other day. I remember that when I was writing Ko I began to feel that I wanted to put into it every pleasure that I'd ever experienced -- the taste of plums, the smell of certain hallways, the way the hill looked behind my house when I was a child, the way snow looks through a window. I remember once when I was walking outside my house and smelled something coming from another house; I didn't know what it was, but it reminded me faintly of the smell of the roller coaster in the Cincinnati amusement park, and I felt a little crushed that I hadn't gotten that pleasure into the poem yet.
What I was trying to do in Ko in a way was to write about the earthly paradise. I found suggestions of such a place in certain paintings that were in Florence and in other places in Italy. I think there may be something about Tuscany, especially in the springtime, that makes it easier to be clear and direct. What's given is so pleasant. The art around one, nature, everything is so beautiful that it seems foolish to be ambiguous, a pleasure to be straightforward.

Shapiro: Since Koch has been particularly successful as a teacher, I questioned him about his own development, mentors, and some of the origins of his style.

Koch: 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 showed her these sexy and sadistic things I wrote, afraid that no adult would like them, but she said 'That's fine.' Once I felt free about what I was feeling and writing, I began to be influenced by a number of poets. I remember being particularly influenced by e. e. cummings, by Kenneth Patchen, and by a Baudelaire prose poem I translated.
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.

Shapiro: The subject of painting, and the major turbulence of abstract expressionism arose. Koch, Ashbery, and O'Hara may be regarded as innovators in language on the same scale as Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline in painting, although the critical literature had tended to ignore or degrade these innovations in a mostly arbitrary fashion.

Koch: I came back to New York from Paris in 1951. I went to California where I was a teaching assistant for a year. I didn't do much to develop the abstract or When-the-Sun-Tries-to-Go-On-style until 1952. I came back to New York then and met Frank O'Hara again. He was a tremendous influence on my work -- his spontaneity, the way he could sit down in the middle of a crowded room and write a poem with no affectation at all. It was from Frank that I got the idea of collaborating with other poets also. And from Frank I learned that the silliest idea that is really in one's own head is worth more than the most brilliant idea that is really somebody else's.
From 1952 on, in New York, John Ashbery and Frank O'Hara and I saw a lot of each other. We used to show each other poems all the time; we also saw a lot of Larry Rivers and Jane Freilicher; we were always hanging around, looking at paintings and reading each other's poems and sometimes collaborating on works. In my poetry then I was trying to get a very hard, concrete, and shining quality in language. What I wrote was often unsyntactical and, in a way, 'irrational.' There seemed to me something in any word in the language -- take the word 'floor' 'book' 'table' 'cheek' or 'hand' -- which would be weakened if I put it in any expected context.

Shapiro: We proceeded to discuss the evolution of Koch's more 'understandable' style, one which developed from the 'earlier déreglement' to substantial clarity.

Koch: First of all, I fell in love. I guess I had the technique all built up from writing a long poem in a sort of glittery, bright, unsyntactical language, and I found that the emotion I was feeling was so strong that I couldn't help but make sense, in a different way. Poems in Thank You like 'Spring,' 'To You,' and 'In Love with You' were written out of this feeling.
The next thing was that I got interested in narrative poetry. I got married, and I went to France again, lived in Paris and then in Rome for a while. A couple of things got me interested in writing simple, narrative poetry. One was a remark that Frank O'Hara had made. He was telling me about a novel called The Circus by Frank Scully. I was sort of a snob about literature when I met Frank; he was more sophisticated. I asked him if the novel was good, and he said 'Yes. It's very quiet and modest and direct and dear and simple.' I'd never thought those were good things; I'd thought novels -- literature -- had to be deep and complex to be good.
My wife and I went to the theatre in London to see a production of Peter Pan . It was a children's production, but very moving. Its simplicity, even its 'dumbness,' seemed an important part of what was good about it.
And then I had always liked the old miracle and morality plays in which no word has any ambiguity at all. I don't like ambiguity. I suppose it's all right if the ambiguous things a work means are interesting and exciting, but often they're not. In the miracle plays you get something like 'I am Mary fair and dear. I will do a dance now here'; 'I am Jesus baby child. / I am little, sweet and mild.' The words can't mean anything but that one thing they mean, and there's something beautiful about that. Each word is like a little pink or white chiclet. 'I am Mary Queen of life. / Joseph took me for his wife.'
In narrative poems like 'The Circus' and 'Geography' I wanted to avoid all symbolism and all kinds of obvious significance in the story. I didn't want them to be like 'The Secret Sharer' or 'The Heart of Darkness,' or Joyce's stories. I wanted them to be very simple-minded stories, the way I wanted the words to be just words almost in 'When the Sun Tries to Go On.' I wanted the incidents in my narrative poems to be just incidents, to have the same kind of clarity and simplicity.

Shapiro: The next subject concerned Koch's plays, polemics, and 'drab' poems. The influence of Raymond Roussel toward a certain homogeneity or two-dimensionalism of texture was discussed.

Koch: My earliest plays, like 'Pericles,' 'The Merry Stones,' and 'Guinevere' (which I wrote while I was writing 'When the Son Tries to Go On'), are pretty difficult to understand. I wanted to get that poem's kind of brightness and hardness of language and a kind of brightness of action on stage.
I have much the same feeling about the theatre as I do about poetry: I don't want it to be smothered or drowned in meaning and syntax, but to present pure experiences. The best play I ever saw was Tamburlaine Parts One and Two when it was done in New York by the English Shakespeare Company. It was extraordinary. I like the big, strong, epic effect in the theatre a lot more than plays in which people sit around carping at each other. I like the idea of bringing the whole world onto the stage.
I like doing that in my poems, too, bringing in everything. In poems like 'The Pleasures of Peace,' 'Faces,' and 'Sleeping with Women,' I felt a desire to bring in everything, not just the pleasures, but everything. Of course, you really can't put everything in because then there's no end to the poem; it becomes identical with the English language in all its possible combinations. But I like to give the impression of totality, of endlessness in as short a form as I can.
At the same time that I changed from an abstract to a narrative style in my poetry, I also wrote very clear plays like 'Bertha' and 'George Washington Crossing the Delaware,' which to a certain extent are parodies of heroic drama; but I don't mean them mainly as parodies.
Parody gets into my other work as well. I've written some poems that are just parodies of Frost, Pound; William Carlos Williams. There are a number of lines in Ko that are parodies of other poets. And throughout my work there are echoes of other poets whom I'm making fun of. Parody is a quick way to get the atmosphere and style of a particular writer, and of his way of looking at the world. If you can get just one line that sounds like Gerard Manley Hopkins in a poem of 200 lines, in this one line you can get a reference to the whole Hopkinsonian way of writing and seeing things.
I wrote 'Fresh Air' in 1956 or 1957. The literary magazines in America and England were controlled by academic and conservative poets. I thought I was a good poet, and I knew John Ashbery and Frank 0'Hara were, and it was extremely difficult for any of us to publish anything. Meanwhile there was all this terrible, structured, elegant, mildly ironic drivel being published. And then there was an article by Donald Hall published in New World Writing called 'The Silver Age in American Poetry,' in which he claimed it was such a wonderful age in American poetry because all of this stuff was being written. It was hard to take. I wrote 'Fresh Air' out of feelings of rage and excitement. I was pretty sure that Ashbery, O'Hara, and I would win, but I was mad at what was happening just then.
Although 'Fresh Air' was an attack on academic poetry, I also wanted it to be a celebration of good poetry. It's also lyrical and about love, the whole love affair of the narrator with the art student who is 'fresh air,' who is a sort of muse. I don't think I've ever written a purely satirical poem. When they're satirical or funny, my main intention for my poems is that they be lyrical. For example, in 'The Pleasures of Peace' I meant to make fun of professional 'peace poets,' though my main desire was to write a poem which, instead of talking about war, would show how good peace is.
'The Railway Stationery' was inspired by a poem of Raymond Roussell about someone who starts writing a letter on hotel stationery. It's a long poem, somewhere between 20 and 50 pages, and you never do find out about the letter. It's all a description of the picture in the upper left hand corner of the stationery. In 'The Railway Stationery' and in 'Departure From Hydra' I was trying to be dry, even a little drab. I was feeling depressed. I felt tired of what seemed to me the gaudiness of some things I had been writing. I was depressed when I wrote that poem, but it made me very happy to write it, to find that, even there in that sort of real stupidity, obvious thought and putting down every detail, I could make something.
I like opera because you can celebrate anything. You can open the window and say: 'The window is open. The sun is shining. My hand is on the window, and I love you.' And somehow the music can make that beautiful enough.

Shapiro: One of the central and abiding metaphors of Koch's art has been, as with Frank O'Hara's work, the energy of art-making itself. A collaboration that dealt strikingly with this theme was his 'Construction of Boston' with its funny factuality and vibrant immediacy reminiscent of [Danish physicist Niels] Bohr's 'restless universe'.

Koch: 'The Construction of Boston' was a play that I did with Nikki de Saint-Phalle, Jean Tinguely and Robert Rauschenberg. The artists built the city of Boston on stage, and I wrote a kind of heroic Shakespearean text in blank verse and rhyme (which two characters recited) about the city's history. Working on this play was exhilarating, somewhat the way opera is -- things were big and simple and spectacular, and a lot was going on. The collaboration part is something I like very much. Working with artists turns out to be a surprising source of ideas.

Shapiro: We returned to the specific French sources of Koch's aesthetic, its cubism, its crescendoes and cornucopias that derive from Apollinaire largely and from Koch's irrepressible and unique desire to celebrate.

Koch: I remember my excitement when I first read Apollinaire, the way he goes on without any punctuation, without strong metrical beat, and the way his lines flow into each other. I found that immensely exciting. Nothing stops. Everything just goes into everything else, different places and times are simultaneously there, and everything seems larger and richer and stronger for it.
I was very moved by Max Jacob, particularly his prose poems in Cornet a des. Those poems of Jacob are dream-like, lyrical and at the same time very funny. From Jacob I learned the possibility of being funny and lyrical at the same time, and that meant a lot to me. Reverdy is another French poet I read a lot. And Char. I also liked Paul Eluard very much, though it's difficult to be influenced by him, he's so pure and cool. It's like a chef being influenced by a glass of water.
One other French poet who affected me very much is Rimbaud. Reading him is bound to change what one thinks about everybody's poetry. I feel that way about Lorca, too. When I get to thinking, 'Well my poetry's fine, and a lot of what I'm reading in magazines is fine,' then I happen to come across a poem by Lorca, such as 'Landscape of the Urinating Multitudes' all is changed. There's a little bit of great poetry in the world which is astonishingly beautiful.
And, finally, I suppose I think that is the only poetry that matters, poetry that is, in Frank O'Hara's phrase, a 'reminder of immortal energy'.'


An Interview with Kenneth Koch by David Kennedy

[Interviewer's Note: The following interview was recorded late on a hot August afternoon in the lounge-cum-bar of a commercial traveller's hotel in Huddersfield. As a result both interviewer and subject had to compete with early evening drinkers chilling out at the end of the working day and with the television news and sports reports. Kenneth Koch was unfailingly helpful and courteous throughout despite being clearly exhausted after along car journey from Ipswich where he had opened the exhibition 'Kenneth Koch: Collaborations with Artists' curated by latter-day New York poet Paul Violi. Kenneth Koch was also in England to promote his book of short stories Hotel Lambosa (Coffee House Press). The interview was recorded and transcribed by David Kennedy and then corrected and edited by Kenneth Koch.]

David Kennedy: I wanted to start by asking you to tell me something about your background - do you come from a literary or artistic family?

Kenneth Koch: Well, I was born in Cincinnati, Ohio. My family was not nationally known as being a literary family, though my mother and my mother's side of the family in general were interested in literature. My mother actually gave talks about books ever y now and then but...And one of my great uncles wrote a novel or two but I don't know of any very literary members of the family...

David Kennedy: Was literature a very early interest of yours or something you came to later?

Kenneth Koch: There was a form of literature that I was interested in immediately, nursery rhymes and children's stories. The first poem I remember writing was when I was five years old. I don't know if I wrote it down - I don't know if I was able to writ e then but I was five years old so perhaps I was able to write it out a little bit. It was a poem about something that was not true. I don't know where I got the idea for it. It rhymed and everything. As I remember it was: I have a little pony / I ride hi m up and down. / I ride him in the country / I ride him in the town. I didn't have a pony, I didn't want a pony really so it must have come, been inspired by some poems I'd read. And I showed it to my mother and she threw her arms around me and kissed me and said "O, that's wonderful!" I suppose this was a positive experience but actually...And then I was sort of a class poet when I was a little boy in school and when there was a holiday I would sometimes be asked to write a poem.
I remember that my uncle Leo and my grandfather both encouraged me in writing. My poetry changed when I was fifteen years old. One of my uncles, Leo, had written poetry when he was a young man and he took me down to the family business and he opened a safe and showed me some poems he'd written when he was nineteen and he also gave me a book of the collected poems of Shelley. And I still have that book and I remembered always this picture of Shelley at the front of the book with an open collar and wild hair and a wild look in his eye. I read those poems as well as I was able and started writing poems that I thought were Shelley-like. In fact, they merely had some of the lofty attitude and some of the nineteenth century language - they weren't really [Laughing] very much like Shelley. And, er, I discovered modern poetry I think quite late, when I was seventeen, through an anthology, a Louis Untermeyer anthology. Of course, I was crazy about modern poetry as soon as I discovered it. Then I had a very sympathetic, intelligent teacher when I was a junior in high school - I don't know what the equivalent is here [UK] but I was seventeen years old - who encouraged me, who liked the poems I was writing influenced by modern poetry. I was also at that time when I w as sixteen or seventeen, I was reading a trilogy by John Dos Passos, U.S.A. It was a very famous book at the time. I was particularly inspired by the stream-of-consciousness sections. I was...I didn't know that he'd gotten this technique from Joyce and I suppose when one's a young writer it doesn't matter if one knows those things. I was excited by just saying anything that came into my head without thinking about it. And I wrote some rather shocking, crazy things but I found a kind of music that I liked that sounded more like my own voice than the rather stilted sonnets I'd written in my Shelley period. And my high school teacher, whose name was Katherine Lappa, encouraged me to write free, crazy things and that's the story of my early poetry.

David Kennedy: Do you remember when you first wrote a poem when you thought 'That's it! I've really got something, I've made something that's really my own'? Did that happen fairly early or much later?

Kenneth Koch: I think I started writing poems I liked more when I was seventeen or eighteen. I wrote poem when I was just eighteen, maybe on my birthday, called 'For My Eighteenth Birthday' or 'Poem For My Birthday' and it was influenced by French surreal ism in so far as I understood it. I understood it mainly from a surrealist magazine called View. It was edited by Charles Henry Ford and André Breton had something to do with it too. Some of the French surrealists at the beginning of the war had come over to New York and they brought out this magazine. It was a big, glossy magazine full of surrealist things and I wrote this poem when I was eighteen beginning, I can only remember part of, "At eighteen I walk on the surface of things, I tread in my stocking feet in houses of soft love..." [Laughs] and other sort of surrealist lines. So I liked that poem and I liked a poem I wrote I think when I was seventeen called 'Schoolyard in April'. That one was actually published in Poetry magazine in Chicago. And the n when I was eighteen years old I had to go in the Army - it was World War Two - and I didn't write very much at first but when I was actually in combat in the Philippines I managed to write a few poems. Again I wrote a birthday poem I remember which was also published in Poetry magazine, it was 'Poem For My Twentieth Birthday', and I wrote some other poems. It was reassuring to be able to write poems while I was in this terrible war.

David Kennedy: Like a reminder of home, perhaps?

Kenneth Koch: Well, it was an escape from where I was, in any case. [Laughing]

David Kennedy: Changing direction, you've written in a wide variety of styles - is there an essential Kenneth Koch?

Kenneth Koch: For whom would there be this Kenneth Koch?

David Kennedy: For you and for the reader.

Kenneth Koch: Well, I certainly have the feeling that I'm the same person even though I've changed a great deal. I can't speak for the reader. Picasso said once when being interviewed that one should not be one's own connoisseur. As I look over my work, I mean every time I look over my early work, I see yes I could do that then and then I could do that and that...That may be the hardest thing for a writer, at least for a poet, to tell what the identity of his work is. It's very hard to know what one really looks like or how one moves because one poses in front of the mirror and, erm,...I mean, it's really a question for you and others to answer if there's an essential Kenneth Koch. Of course I think there is...

David Kennedy: I was interested to know what you thought because certainly critics over here [in the UK] have just said "Kenneth Koch the comic poet" and that's really as far as it's gone.

Kenneth Koch: I've had trouble with criticism, I guess. It's hard to know what role criticism plays in either encouraging poets or in getting other people to read them.

David Kennedy: Have you ever found it helpful yourself?

Kenneth Koch: Well, it's enormously cheering to get a good review by someone who seems to understand your work. I remember being enormously cheered when a friend would say something intelligent about my work. I'm trying to think if there's any written criticism that has made a difference to the way I wrote but I don't think so. Some people who write about poetry seem to have had trouble with my poetry because it is sometimes comic. I don't think the nature of my poetry is satirical or even ironic, I think it's essentially lyrical but again I don't know if it's my position to say what my poetry is like. The comic element is just something that it seems to me enables me to be lyrical in the same way - not to compare myself qualitatively to these great writers - but in the same way that it enables Byron to write his best poetry and certainly Aristophanes and certain others too. Ariosto is very very funny...

David Kennedy: Changing direction again, the so-called New York School has been enormously influential on recent generations of young British poets and I wanted to ask you a couple of questions about that. Looking back at the Fifties, how much do you thin k that the poetry that you and Ashbery and O'Hara and Schuyler wrote then was a reaction against the climate of the Cold War?

Kenneth Koch: If it was a reaction, I didn't know it at the time. I think we all influenced each other and we were also influenced by certain other poets. I think the influences on us were not mainly political or of the decade or of the political situation but of other writers. I think there was a kind of originality about what we wrote. We didn't seem to have any sort of poetic father figures. There was no-one whom we worshipped and said 'yes, he is our leader'...[Pause] I can only speak for myself. Actually, in that catalogue I gave you [Kenneth Koch: Collaborations with Artists] there's a poem which has not been in a book yet called 'Time Zone' which is all about - it's about a ten page poem - all about my friendships and collaborations and excitements with other poets and painters in the Fifties and early Sixties. As I recollect, our political involvement, certainly mine, I would say it was mainly indifference. I became involved in politics really in 1968. I was a professor at Columbia when the students rebelled about the Vietnam War when they took over some university buildings and one had to take sides either with the students or with the administration. I took sides with the students. And after that I marched in parades and even went to jail briefly for one night in the cause of peace in Vietnam. But I was...and I wrote a rather long poem called 'The Pleasures of Peace' though truly it seems to me that - I don't know whether this is just true for me - but I certainly think it's worth making an effort to write about certain important things as I made an effort to write about the war. I wrote hundred of pages of that poem but all the parts that were directly about the war didn't seem to me good enough as art and it ended up being a poem which rather than about the war was about the peace the peace movement and the pleasure, excitement and joy of being with many other people who were in favour of peace and so on.

David Kennedy: And, of course, there's the line where you say "To my contemporaries I'll leave the horrors of war"...

Kenneth Koch: Well, it's not that I was indifferent to the horrors of war because that's what inspired the poem to a large extent but I couldn't write about them. Also, some of my contemporaries, it seemed to me, were perhaps profiting in that rather pathetic way that poets profit from things because we practice an art in which there's no money [Laughing] by pretending to, I don't know, pretending to care more about certain things than they were able to write about effectively. I mean, I don't know what other people were feeling, I just know what I was able to write about.
I don't know if you read my poem 'Seasons on Earth' which is the last one in the Selected Poems and which is a poem about looking back on having written 'Ko' and 'The Duplications', two long poems I wrote. And [Leafs through book] I talk about the Fifties here, about when I was living with my wife in Little Villino in Florence when we were first married in the early Fifties and I say

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 Dictator
Of literature. One hardly dared to wink
Or fool around in any way in poems,
And critics poured out awful jereboams
To irony, ambiguity, and tension -
And other things I do not wish to mention.
All this fell sideways past our Florence windows -
That it, it had not much attention paid to it.
Dry, stultifying words, they were horrendous,
Inspiring in the breast a jolly hatred -
And then new lines arose, like snakes to Hindus,
That for depressed spelled out exhilarated.

I think that what I say there is that I simply was ignoring the fact that The Waste Land indeed made it seem to many poets that one had to be depressed - not that The Waste Land is a bad poem, it's a wonderful poem - that one had to feel despair, that one had to think that the modern world was terrible. I was quite happy there in Florence in the Fifties when I wrote my poem 'Ko' and it wasn't consciously a reaction against the time. It came from having read Don Juan about three years beforehand and having conceived the idea that someday I wanted to write a poem like that. I suppose it was partly a reaction against what seemed to me the deadness and narrowness, the stultifying narrowness of the poetry that was being published in all the quarterlies which I wrote about in a poem called 'Fresh Air'. It seemed to me that life was, I mean here I was in my twenties 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...


David Kennedy: In your poem 'Some General Instructions' you say "The days of irony are here, irony and deception. But do not harden your heart." It seems to me that could be read as a political statement.

Kenneth Koch: That instructional poem like my other instructional poems 'The Art of Poetry' and 'The Art of Love' is...it contains things that I think are true. It's also somewhat comic and somewhat ironic. Obviously, it would be a very pompous and pretentious thing to say "the days of irony are here, irony and deception" and say it in such a way that the reader was obliged to sit there and say "o yes" like "the time of the tiger is upon us". It doesn't seem appropriate to me to write in a way that bullies the reader in that way. Certainly, it seems true enough that there's a good deal of irony in the world and it seemed true at the time I wrote the poem there was a good deal of deception also. I mean, if you live in a world full of politicians and advertising there's obviously a lot of deception. But I'm urging the reader in a somewhat over-simple way that despite the fact that he lives in such a time not to be hardened and spoiled by it. You're looking for political statements in my work...Well, it seem s to me when I look in or wherever I look when I write that politics is there the way men and women are there, the way the Atlantic Ocean is there. Sometimes I've written about politics specifically, I mean about politics as it's understood on television and in newspapers, as in 'The Pleasures of Peace'...I think political views can be deduced if one wishes to deduce from a statement such as the one you've just quoted in my poem or a religious view could be deduced from it or an aesthetic view but...But I don't think I just look at the desk and the dictionary. As for political poetry, as it's usually defined, it seems there's very little good political poetry. It seems to require the conjunction of the, maybe the twenties or thirties of a genius and some great cataclysmic political event; for example, like the conjunction of the Russian Revolution and the 22nd year of Vladimir Mayakovsky so that he could write 'A Cloud in Trousers'. But good political poetry's very rare and it seems to me very hard to write because if you write...essentially if you write a political poem that would be useful to any political group, you're using other people's ideas, you're using ideas that already exist and who wants to do that? I mean, as charming as old people are, one doesn't want to have a 75-year-old baby. One wants to make something new. So if you make something new, I mean a really good poem, a good political poem, a great political poem like Yeats's 'Easter 1916', I don't think any party would want to use that poem because he says "maybe they were all crazy, maybe it was useless". Or is it in 'September 1913' he says it? I think in both he suggests...in both of those poems Yeats obviously comes out strongly on one side but he says "you know, it might have been the wrong thing to do, they might have been crazy". And no political party would want that.


David Kennedy: Let's change tack again. Could you say a little about non-literary influences on your work?

Kenneth Koch: O Lord, that's hard. That's very hard. That's like, erm, a bit like asking I think - I may be exaggerating - like I play tennis lot - like asking for non-tennis influences on my tennis game. Have I been influenced by a footballer or a baseball player...probably not! I love painting and music, of course. I don't know nearly as much about them as I know about poetry. I've certainly been influenced by fiction. I was overwhelmed by War and Peace when I read it and I didn't read it until I was in my late twenties and that was one of the main inspirations for my long poem 'When The Sun Tries To Go On' which does not resemble War and Peace in any way except in the fact that I tried to put everything into it, which seemed to me one thing I found inspiring about Tolstoy. Let's see...I feel close to certain painters. I've always been friends, that is since I went to New York when I was about twenty three or so, I've been friends with painters, especially Larry Rivers and Jane Freilicher and I've done a lot of collaborations...I suppose that...it's really hard to tell...I mean, certainly the brightness, the dash, the excitement, the sort of self-confidence of the hand on the canvas - all that was exciting. It's hard to say how it influenced my poetry. I would say that the certain ambience that John [Ashbery] and Frank [O'Hara] and I were in - Jimmy [Schuyler] came along a bit later - with seeing each other all the time and being envious of each other or emulous of each other and inspiring each other an d collaborating on poems which we did a good deal.

David Kennedy: It's the same sort of thing, isn't it, that you talk about in 'Fate' where you're remembering particular occasions and you can't quite remember who was there or where it was but it's the feeling you're remembering... Kenneth Koch: Yeah, but that wasn't about artistic collaboration though - this is more about the excitement of it all, doing what seemed to us the new work. The painters sort of created...John, Frank and I were about the only poets in this bunch...there w as Barbara Guest at certain times and Jimmy [Schuyler] came a bit later...all the other poets seemed to us - we didn't know everybody, we didn't know what was going on out on the West Coast at the time - most of the other poets seemed sort of like neat little fellows who were writing academic poems as I say in 'Fresh Air', poets with their eyes on "the myth, the missus and the mid-terms". Writing about the failure of their marriage and their promotions at the university...quatrains. Well, I like quatrains but I didn't like their poems. The painters gave us a sort of ambience. They were nice, lively guys who got exercise in the daytime, painted in big light studios and they felt good at night and they would sometimes actually sell paintings. They gave parties and it was as much a social thing as anything. It's really hard to talk, I find, about influence from one art to another - at least, I find it hard. But 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. Maybe there are three or four really good poets in a generation. I took a course at Harvard with Delmore Schwartz, a writing course, and there were about thirty of us and he said "How many of you expect to be great writers?" and we all raised our hands. And he said "You do know that in age in which there are more than three or four great writers is known as a renaissance?" [Laughing] I think if taking all these positions like Formalism or L=A-N=G=U=A=G=E poetry or whatever, if it helps somebody, one of these rare beings who's a really good poet - I wouldn't say there are only three or four in a generation, that's be rather strict - but if it helps someone to write good poetry that's fine. I don't really see vast movements full of wonderful poets all over the place.

David Kennedy: John Ashbery has said that he feels the American scene is very regional in that you go to one part of America and everyone thinks X, Y and Z are the poets and then you go somewhere else and nobody's ever heard of them and they all think A, B and C are the poets.

Kenneth Koch: O, I guess some of that is true. I think John's been travelling a bit more than I have in America lately. I don't know. Sure to some extent that's true, like in the South certain poets are more than they are elsewhere and in the West.

David Kennedy: If we look at how you're perceived, certainly from an English perspective you are always seen as a New York School poet. Do you see yourself in that way or as just another American poet?

Kenneth Koch: O, I don't think of myself in either way really. In the early Fifties and all through the Fifties, I felt very close to the work, particularly, of John and Frank and I think our work had certain things in common which it had less in common after that, when we either, like we began to be published, I got married, other people went off. We had sort of another public - we were our entire readership for many years and we were very excited by each other - at least I was excited by what they were doing, I can't speak for them. And I was excited by what my painter friends were doing and they seemed to be interested in our poetry too and that was a wonderful little, fizzy sort of world and even at that time I never thought of myself as a New York poet or as an American poet. The term 'New York School' was, I guess it was invented by John Bernard Myers to describe the painters, on the model of the French, and Donald Allen used 'New York School of poetry' in his anthology The New American Poetry 1945- 1960 and he included under the rubric of the New York School some poets who don't really have much to do with the work of John and Frank and Jimmy and me. I could tell you what I think some of the characteristics of our work were in the Fifties that may have distinguished us from other poets. I think we were all influenced or rather we were certainly conscious of and aware of French poetry, sort of the avant garde tradition from Gerard de Nerval up to World War Two. We knew about Mayakovsky and Pasternal and we read Rilke and Lorca and we had all read William Carlos Williams pretty hard and Wallace Stevens and I'm probably doubtless leaving some things out. We were, it seems to me - and I'm hesitant to speak for other people - but if I look back at the poems of that time, we seemed to be particularly interested in the surface of the language and the excitement that was going on there rather than thinking and finding the precise word for it, rather to let the words find the subject or partly define the subject for us. John would certainly say this in a different way and so would Jimmy and Frank if they were here to say it which I wish they were. There was a certain amount of humour in all our work...Maybe you can almost characterise 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. I find that a lot in Frank's work, especially the early work. Whether I understood what was going on in 'Second Avenue' or not when I first read it, I felt 'My God! I'd have to have three bodies to live this much!' It's wonderful. It seems everything is so full of possibilities one can hardly take it all in. When I wrote a review of Frank's Collected Poems I call ed it 'More Than The Mind Can Hold' - I sort of stole a line of his, "more than the eye can hold", which is describing a de Kooning painting he had in his apartment which he said is better than music. But it seems to me that his poetry is so rich you can' t, it moves so quickly you can't keep it in your mind all at once. I think he's a great poet, Frank. To get back to the New York School, another thing was we all went to the ballet a lot when George Balanchine was with the New York City Ballet. We would g o two or three times a week some weeks, not all weeks, and we also liked opera. Frank and John particularly knew a great deal about music. The kind of poetry I didn't like, which I guess I didn't like because it didn't move me, it didn't seem exciting but also after a while because it was the kind of poetry that was hogging up all the space in the magazines and books and fellowships and which we weren't getting, was this kind of, it seemed to me, very narrow poetry. Sort of old-fashioned, rhymed usually t hen but about a very narrow range of subject matter, not letting enough in.


David Kennedy: Do you have an ideal reader in mind when you're writing?

Kenneth Koch: I wonder if I ever thought of an ideal reader...I guess when I was in my twenties and in New York and maybe even in my early thirties, I would write for my wife Janice, for Frank, John, Jimmy, maybe even for Jane Freilicher and Larry Rivers; mainly for my poet friends and my wife who was very smart about poetry. It seems to me after a while that these people that I would have in mind a little bit when I wrote - it's not exactly as though I was writing for them but they would be in my mind - that I sort of absorbed what I knew or imagined their response to be so that it's been a long time since I've with any regularity thought of any of them while I was writing. Sometimes I write a line that may echo a line of John's and think "O! There's John!" or Frank, you know. So I think I've sort of absorbed my audience in the sense that when I write it pleases me. I mean, I'm sure these people are there but I'm not aware of them.

David Kennedy: Would you describe yourself as a surrealist?

Kenneth Koch: 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. [Laughing] And since a number of critics of Frank have mentioned surrealism, I went to some pains to point out in the review I wrote of his Collected Poems that he wasn't at all a surrealist. If you take a poem like 'Sleeping On The Wing', he very clearly talks about getting into a dream state, being free of everything, that's wonderful, but he says "the memory of a beloved face in trouble", somebody you love, draws you back to reality and that's what he does in his poetry. He's a poet who has all the richness that the surrealists found but he uses it for different ends...He doesn't really allow himself to stay transported where the surrealists really hope to find, it seems to me, an elsewhere...

David Kennedy: Can you talk a little about your latest book, Hotel Lambosa?

Kenneth Koch: This is a book of very short stories. I've written fiction before. I wrote a novel called The Red Robins but that's rather - not poetic prose in the ordinary sense - but a rather extravagant kind of writing but Hotel Lambosa is a book of more or less realistic short stories. I had tried to write stories, almost true stories before, but I never had found a way to do it and I think that what sort enabled me to write this book was reading a wonderful book by Kawabata. Have you read him? I strongly recommend you read The Snow Country and also this wonderful book called Palm Of The Hand Stories which is in print in England. Palm Of The Hand Stories are a selection of very short stories from 1 to 5 pages that he wrote over the course of his life an d suddenly in these very short stories I saw a way that I could write fiction about my own experience and things that I've done and imagined. I was very interested to be writing these stories because I found that, like a certain kind of magnet, writing prose picked up details that my poetry had never been able to pick up because my poetry - and one can use an analogy with an automobile perhaps although I don't know if you use the same terms in Britain - tends to have a rather high idle; that is, once I start writing about something it goes off rather fast [Laughing] and sometimes details which might be interesting such as what the room looked like or what somebody said that was not exactly on the same subject tend to get lost. Not always; sometimes I force myself to write precisely about those things but in any case I found that a lot of the parts of my experience I hadn't been able to write about before, I could write about in this book. I made an effort not to write prose poetry. I wanted to write real stories. I think it's possible sometimes people read them and say "O yes, they're prose poems" just because they're short. But they're not prose poems. The subject matter of the stories on the surface...there seem to be a number of stories about travel. Actually, when I was writing the book, I wrote many more stories than this, but one thing in here I worked on a lot has to do with what Yeats said about writing prose and poetry, that when you finish a poem it clicks shut like the top of a jewel box but pro se is endless. I haven't experienced an awful lot of clicking shut! These stories seem to click shut as much as my poems do but they did take a lot of time but then one gets used to that. What arrangement I had in the book was according to the countries t hey took place in and quite a few of them are about Italy and quite a few about France and I also have travelled in Africa so there are about seven or eight stories about Africa. I've also been to China so there are five or six stories about China and some about Mexico. I was a little surprised after I'd completed the book to see how many took place in other countries. It's a well known thing that ordinary perceptions can have a strange aspect when one is travelling. Waiting for a bus or walking in the street is slightly unlike what it is usually. So one sees things clearly...A number of the stories, though not by any means the majority, are about my late twenties and thirties, the early years of my marriage. [Pause] Some other prose writers I admire a great deal and who certainly influenced my writing here are Leonard Sciascia, the Sicilian writer, who writes beautiful prose. I believe I was influenced by early Hemingway too, particularly the stories in In Our Time with those beautiful short sentences that don't tell you too much and you have to read the fourth sentence to see what the third one means. Another prose writer who influenced me a lot...I'm thinking of Victor Shklovsky, who's mainly known as a formalist critic. He was a friend of Mayakovsky and Pasternak. I've read three or four of his prose books. One is called Not About Love which is a series of letters he wrote to a woman he loved who did not love and who said "You can write to me so long as you don't write about love." He wrote another book called The Third Factory and a wonderful book about Mayakovsky called Mayakovsky And His Circle. His sentences are always surprising. The way they're put together is exciting also. Also, I was influenced by the prose of Boris Pasternak though I had to read it in translation as indeed I had to read Shklovsky. I like particularly Pasternak's prose in his early stories.

David Kennedy: Do you know his short novel The Last Summer? That's a beautiful book.

Kenneth Koch: O yes, that's wonderful. I also admire very much the prose of the American writer James Salter. One of his books is called Light Years and there's a wonderful book about a love affair in France called A Sport And A Pastime and a book of short stories called Dusk. Actually, I think I read him mainly after I'd completed the stories. Writers I like include, in earlier generations, William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens. There's an American poet named John Wheelwright I like very much. Of course, I like Byron enormously; I'm crazy about Don Juan. And of course Keats and Shelley and I suppose everyone that everyone likes. I think my poetry was very influenced - it seems almost dumb to say it - but it was very influenced by Shakespeare. Very early on I read his plays...and, I don't know, I started speaking in blank verse at a rather early age. [Laughing] But then, I'm a writer who likes to be influenced...Beyond that, my projects at the moment are I have a new book of poems [One Train], and I 'm going to do a new Selected too, either at the end of next year or after that. It takes a long time to publish a book...

David Kennedy: There's so little of your work available in England...

Kenneth Koch: I'd love for you to do something about it. I'd like my Selected Poems to come out in paperback. I'd like these stories to be published but I don't know quite how to go about it. There's not much money for anyone in this kind of writing. There's no way to make money as a poet. You can't own a poem. You can't dressed up and go to a poem. There's nothing to do with it. [Laughing]

David Kennedy: [Laughing] That's probably a good place to stop.

Kenneth Koch, thank you very much.

Original transcription and amendments (c) David Kennedy and Kenneth Koch, 1993.


November 28, 1996
A conversation with Kenneth Koch, winner of this year's Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now a conversation with Kenneth Koch, winner of this year's Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry. It's a privately-funded award, $10,000, given under the auspices of the Library of Congress. Last year, Koch won the $25,000 Bollingen prize given by the Yale University Library. He received these awards for his book "One Train" and for his lifetime achievement. He has published eight collections of poetry, a novel, short stories, plays, and several works on teaching children about poetry. I spoke with him late last month.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Thank you for being with us.

KENNETH KOCH, Columbia University: Thank you.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I've been reading your poetry. Much of it is very funny, very playful and witty. It's not what many people expect poetry to be. There's this view that poetry should be kind of somber, isn't there?

KENNETH KOCH: Oh, I suppose some people have that view. It's a confusion between seriousness and solemnity. The intention of my poetry is--I mean, I don't intend for my poetry to be mainly funny or satirical, but it seems to me that high spirits and sort of a comic view are part of being serious.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And you like that in other writers too.


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I've read that you like Aristophanes. You like the comic in Aristophanes.


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And you like the comic in Wallace Stevens.

KENNETH KOCH: And in Byron. Yeah. Yeah.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Was it always that way, or when you were say 20, did you feel tortured about things and write more tortured poetry?

KENNETH KOCH: I guess I felt more tortured in a way at 20, but I don't know that my poetry was ever tortured, although when I was at Harvard, there was a time when I was very influenced by the poetry of Yeats, so everything that happened to me tended to turn into mythology and legend, I remember. But that stopped happening.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Read from "One Train" for us, or read the poem about John Ashbery.

KENNETH KOCH: All right. Maybe we can--

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And we should say that the sestina that you refer to here is a poetic form.

KENNETH KOCH: Okay. This is a very short excerpt from a poem called "A Time Zone." It's about a 10-page poem which is about life in New York in the 50's and early 60's, when I was very close to John Asbury and Frank O'Hara and James Schuyler and Larry Rivers, and Jane Freilicher and other friends. And it seemed to me a very dramatic time for all of our work. And we collaborated a lot. And this is the brief passage about some collaborations that I did with John Ashbery. "He is not writing much this year, but he likes to collaborate. So do I. We do a set of sestinas as a speedy rate, six sestinas, each about an animal, with one concluding one called 'The Bestiary'. There is also a three-page poem in which all the lines rhyme with the title, 'The Casuary.' Next, we do a poetic compendium called 'The New York Times, September 8, 1951,' both with and without rhymes. Our poems are like tracks setting out. We have little idea where we're going, or what it's about. I enjoy these compositional duets, accompanied by drinking coffee and joking on Charles and Perry Streets."

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I love that image of the two of you playing and working at this poetry the way some people would go out and play golf or ball or something.

KENNETH KOCH: Well, it was--I've always found it a great pleasure to collaborate with other poets and also with painters, which I've done too, but it's like having the muse in the room with you. I mean, I get some ideas, some ideas come into my head, but if I write a line and then John or Frank writes another line, then I have to respond to that, and it's--it's interesting. I like it.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You write in that poem "Our poems are like tracks setting out." When you're working alone, how do you get started? Do you just start writing? Does an idea come into your head?

KENNETH KOCH: It varies. You know, I think a lot of poetry just comes from what you might call the language of poetry. Paul Valerie said that poetry's sort of a language within the language. And what makes it different from the ordinary language is that music is just as important as grammar and meaning. And--

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You mean the music of the poem?

KENNETH KOCH: Yeah. The music that you have in the words, in the lines, which is really sound, and the rhythm. And then there are all these other inclinations of the poetry language like comparisons, exaggeration, omniscience, lying, being in all times and places at once, and once one starts to--once one writes a line or two, this language kind of takes over and suggests other lines, but as to how the--how the first line comes into one's head, I don't know. With the poem "One Train," which you asked me to read a little of, the way I was inspired to write that poem was I was in Africa, I was in Kenya. And I was on a bus going from one game preserve to another, these 10,000-mile expanses where you see wild animals in their native habitat. And we had just passed a Masai village and right at the end of the Masai village, in the middle of the bush, were railroad tracks and a sign that said, "One Train May Hide Another." And it seemed--I figured out after a while what it meant, but in the middle of the bush of Kenya, it seemed to me to mean everything, very mysterious. And this sort of stayed in my mind for six years, and then I wrote the poem about it.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Would you read the poem, or read from it.

KENNETH KOCH: Well, I'll read some of it because of time limitations. It's called "One Train." I'll read the beginning and the end. "In a poem, one line may hide another line, as at a crossing, one train may hide another train. That is, if you're waiting to cross the tracks, wait to do it for one moment at least after the first train has gone. And so when you read, wait until you have read the next line. Then it is safe to go on reading. In a family, one sister may conceal another. So when you are courting, it's best to have them all in view. Otherwise, in coming to find one, you may love another. So always standing in front of something, the other, as words stand in front of objects, feelings, and ideas." Now I skip to the end. "One sidewalk may hide another, as when you're asleep there, and one's song, hide another song, a pounding upstairs hide the beating of drums, one friend may hide another. You sit at the foot of a tree with one, then when you get up to leave, there is another whom you'd have preferred to talk to all along. One teacher, one doctor, one ecstasy, one illness, one woman, one man may hide another. Pause to let the first one pass. You think, now it is safe to cross. Then you're hit by the next one. It can be important to avoid it at least a moment to see what was already there."

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It seems like this poem has everything that you've been doing in it, paying attention to this very specific--whether it's a person or a train or whatever it is--it has humor, but it's also very full of meaning. It's full of energy. Each line's full of energy, which you call for. Do you feel that way about it?

KENNETH KOCH: Oh, Picasso said that you shouldn't be your own connoisseur. I don't know. I hope it's good.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So you thought about that line for six years, and then you just kept adding to it?

KENNETH KOCH: It's not so much that I thought about it. It's just that it would keep coming into my mind. And I didn't--once I started to write the poem, I wrote the poem. However, I did work on the poem for a long time, because once I sort of understood what that sign was saying as far as my poetry was concerned, I could write hundreds and hundreds of lines, but that's too much. So after I wrote a lot of lines, I had to cut it, and then, you know, it was like that.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Kenneth Koch, thank you very much for being with us.


Rose, Where Did You Get That Red? by Kenneth Koch

Giraffes, how did they make Carmen? Well, you see, Carmen ate the prettiest rose in the world and then just then the great change of heaven occurred and she became the prettiest girl in the world and because I love her.

Lions, why does your mane flame like fire of the devil? Because I have the speed of the wind and the strength of the earth at my command.

Oh Kiwi, why have you no wings? Because I have been born with the despair to walk the earth without the power of flight and am damned to do so.

Oh bird of flight, why have you been granted the power to fly? Because I was meant to sit upon the branch and to be with the wind.

Oh crocodile, why were you granted the power to slaughter your fellow animal? I do not answer.

-- Chip Wareing, 5th grade, PS 61


Last year at PS 61 in New York City I taught my third-through-sixth-grade students poems by Blake, Donne, Shakespeare, Herrick, Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, John Ashbery, and Federico García Lorca. For several years before, I had been teaching poetry writing to many of these children, and they liked it so much that I thought there must be a way to help them read and enjoy great poetry by adults.

I found a way to do it, in conjunction with my students' own writing, which enabled the children to get close to the adult poems and to understand and enjoy them. What I did, in fact, was to make these adult poems a part of their own writing. I taught reading poetry and writing poetry as one subject. I brought them together by means of "poetry ideas," which were suggestions I would give to the children for writing poems of their own in some way like the poems they were studying. We would read the adult poem in class, discuss it, and then they would write. Afterward, they or I would read aloud the poems they had written.

When we read Blake's "The Tyger" I asked my students to write a poem in which they were asking questions of a mysterious and beautiful creature. When we read Shakespeare's "Come Unto These Yellow Sands," I asked them to write a poem which was an invitation to a strange place full of colors and sounds. When we read Stevens's "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," I asked them to write a poem in which they talked about the same thing in many different ways. The problem in teaching adult poetry to children is that for them it often seems difficult and remote; the poetry ideas, by making the adult poetry to some degree part of an activity of their own, brought it closer and made it more accessible to them. The excitement of writing carried over to their reading; and the excitement of the poem they read inspired them in their writing.

I had used poetry ideas in teaching my students to write poetry before, to help them find perceptions, ideas, feelings, and new ways of saying things, and to acquaint them with some of the subjects and techniques they could bring into their poetry; I had proposed poems about wishes, dreams, colors, differences between the present and the past, poems which included a number of Spanish words, poems in which everything was a lie. I would often suggest ways of organizing the poem as well: for the Wish Poem, starting every line with "I wish"; to help them think about the difference between the present and the past, I suggested alternating line-beginnings of "I used to" and "But now"; for the Comparison Poem I suggested they put one comparison in every line, for a Color Poem the name of a color in every line. These formal suggestions were most often for some kind of repetition, which is natural to children's speech and much easier for them to use in expressing their feelings than metre and rhyme.

With the help of these poetry ideas, along with as free and inspiring a classroom atmosphere as I could create (I said they could make some noise, read each other's lines, walk around the room a little, and spell words as best they could, not to worry about it), and with a good deal of praise and encouragement from me and from each other, my students in grades one through six came to love writing poetry, as much as they liked drawing and painting, sometimes even more--

The way I feel about art is nothing compared to the way I feel about poetry.
Poetry has something that art doesn't have and that's feelings....
--Rafael Camacho, grade 6

My poetry ideas were good ideas as long as they helped the children make discoveries and express feelings, which is what made them happy about writing--
I like poetry because it puts me in places I like to be...
--Tommy Kennedy, grade 6

You can express feelings non-feelings trees anything from A to Z that's why
--Tracij Lahab, grade 6

They wrote remarkably well. Sometimes my students wrote poems without my giving them an idea, but usually they wanted one to help them get started to find new things to say.

Teaching students who were enthusiastic about poetry, good at writing it, and eager to get ideas for writing new poems, I considered the kind of poetry that they were usually taught in school (and the way it was taught) and I felt that an opportunity was being missed. Why not introduce them to the great poetry of the present and the past? It was a logical next step in the development of their own writing: it could give them new ideas for their poems, and it would be good in other ways too. If they felt a close relationship to adult poetry now, they could go on enjoying it and learning from it for a long time.

This result seemed unlikely to be produced by the poetry children were being taught in school. The poems my students wrote were better than most of those in elementary-school textbooks. Their poems were serious, deep, honest, lyrical, and formally inventive. Those in the textbooks seemed comparatively empty and safe. They characteristically dealt with one small topic in an isolated way--clouds, teddybears, frogs, or a time of year--

Asters, deep purple,
A grasshopper's call,
Today it is summer,
Tomorrow is fall.

--from "September," The World of Language, Book 5.Follett Educational Corp.

Nothing was connected to any serious emotion or to any complex way of looking at things.
Everything was reassuring and simplified, and also rather limited and dull. And there was frequently a lot of rhyme, as much as possible, as though the children had to be entertained by its chiming at every moment. When Ron Padgett at PS 61 asked our fifth-grade students to write poems about spring, they wrote lines like these--

Spring is sailing a boat
Spring is a flower waking up in the morning
Spring is like a plate falling out of a closet for joy
Spring is like a spatter of grease...
--Jeff Morley, grade 5

Jeff deserved "When daisies pied and violets blue" and "When-as the rye reach to the chin" or William Carlos Williams's "Daisy" or Robert Herrick's "To Cherry Blossoms," rather than "September." If it was autumn that was wanted, I'm sure that with a little help, he could have learned something from "Ode to the West Wind" too. There is a condescension toward children's minds and abilities in regard to poetry in almost every elementary text I've seen:

Words are fun! . . . Some giggle like tickles, or pucker like pickles, or jingle like nickels, or tingle like prickles. And then . . . your poem is done! And so is my letter. But not before I wish you good luck looking through your magic window . . .
"A Famous Author Speaks," Our Language Today, American Book Company.

says one author to third graders; but my third graders could write like this:

I used to have a hat of hearts but now I have a hat of tears
I used to have a dress of buttons but now I have a name of bees . . .
-- Ilona Bahurka, grade 3

I had discovered that my students were capable of enjoying and also learning from good poetry while I was teaching them writing. In one sixth-grade class I had suggested to the students a poem on the difference between the way they seemed to be to others and the way they really felt deep inside themselves. Before they wrote, I read aloud three short poems by D. H. Lawrence on the theme of secrecy and silence--"Trees in the Garden," "Nothing to Save," and "The White Horse." They liked the last one so much they asked me to read it three times:

The youth walks up to the white horse, to put its halter on
and the horse looks at him in silence.
They are so silent they are in another world.

The Lawrence poems seemed to help the whole class take the subject of their poem seriously, and one girl, Amy Levy, wrote a beautiful and original poem which owed a lot to the specific influence of "The White Horse." She took from Lawrence the conception of another world coexistent with this one, which one can enter by means of secrecy and silence, and used it to write about her distance from her parents and the beauty and mystery of her own imaginings--

We go to the beach
I look at the sea
My mother thinks I stare
My father thinks I want to go in the water.
But I have my own little world . . .
--from Wishes, Lies, and Dreams by Kenneth Koch, p. 251

In my new teaching my aim was to surround Amy, Ilona, Jeff, and the rest of my students with other fine poems, like Lawrence's, that were worthy of their attention and that could give them good experiences and help them in their own writing. Some of the poems would be much more difficult than "The White Horse," and all of them would probably be "too hard" for the children in some way, so I would not merely read the adult poems aloud but do all I could to make them clear and to bring the children close to them.


I began with the general notion of teaching my students the poems I liked best, but I soon saw that some of these were better to teach than others. Some poems came to me right away because of some element in them that I knew children would be excited by and connect with their own feelings. The fantasy situation in Blake, for example, of talking to an animal--or the more real-life situation in Williams's "This Is Just to Say" of apologizing for something you're really glad you've done. Certain tones, too--Whitman's tone of boastful secret telling. And strange, unexpected things, like Donne's comparisons of tender feelings to compasses and astronomical shifts.

Sometimes a particular detail of a poem made it seem attractive: the names of all the rivers in John Ashbery's "Into the Dusk-Charged Air;" the colors in Lorca's "Arbolé, Arbolé . . ." and "Romance Sonambulo;" the animal and thing noises in Shakespeare's songs (bow-wow, ding-dong, and cock-a-doodle-dow).

Some poems had forms that suggested children's verbal games and ways children like to talk [...].