Where Am I Kenneth?

Kenneth Koch, Collected Poems

Hardcover, 784 pages, $40.00, Random House
ISBN: 978-1-4000-4499-3 (1-4000-4499-5)

Reviewed by Edmund Hardy


May I tell you how much I love your poems?
It's as if a great pipeline had been illicitly tapped
along which all personal characteristics
are making a hasty departure. Tuba? gin?
"qu'importe où?" O Kenneth Koch!
             – Frank O'Hara, from '3 Poems About Kenneth Koch'

This volume collects ten books together – most of Koch's poetry output, excluding the five long poems which, apparently, will be brought together in a Collected Longer Poems. First up is Koch's own selection (made in 2000) of his earliest poems, Sun Out: Selected Poems 1950-1952. In a note for this volume Koch writes, "The social and literary context of these poems was the early fifties New York art and poetry world, at least the part of it that I knew. This included the dramatic, splashy, beautiful paintings of Jane Freilicher and Larry Rivers, and Frank O'Hara's seemingly endless inspiration and John Ashbery's eloquent mysteriousness." This splashy quality is immediately apparent with the first poem of the book, 'Sun Out', beginning:

Bananas, piers, limericks
I am postures
Over there, I, are
The lakes of delectation
Sea, sea you! Mars and win-
Some buffalo
They thinly raft the plain

"I am postures / Over there" is certainly a 1st gen. NY School kind of thought; 'Where Am I Kenneth?' seems to be asking back at Ashbery's "Am I wonder, / Strategically. . . ?", or O'Hara's not beginning a poem, My quietness has a Kenneth in it. . . The selection ends with 'The Man', which could be one of the great many little "Avant-Garde Plays", or the first of those Koch poems which divide up into numerous smaller poems, usually on a general theme – ('Collected Poems', 'In Bed', 'On Aesthetics', 'Primus Inter Pares'). Each part of the body (male and female) has its say, or at least has its poem. The shorter ones read like a Tender Buttons all over the human form –


The benches have always been auctioned.


Orchestra when foetal ice

– while the much longer speech of the heart is an intercapillary stream.

There's then a gap of eight years – living in Italy, and writing (in three months?) the Don Juan-inspired epic of a Japanese baseball player, Ko, or a season on earth fits in here – and the next book is Thank You and other poems (1962). Missing out on Ko means that there's a jump in the movement of the poet – over the top of that sprawling and cartoony voyaging out – and into these poems which have got longer and wider, a finer splashiness. And the Strangler makes a famous appearance ('Fresh Air'):

Summer in the trees! "It is time to strangle several bad poets."
[. . .]
One more mistake and I get thrown out of the Modern Poetry Association, help! Why aren't there any adjectives around?
Oh there are, there's practically nothing else – look, here's grey, utter, agonized, total phenomenal, gracile, invidious, sundered, and fused,
Elegant, absolute, pyramidal,
and . . . Scream! but what can I describe with these words? States!
States symbolized and divided by two, complex states, magic states, states of consciousness governed by an aroused sincerity, cockadoodle doo!

Somehow Thank You seems a little wearing, though, a number of the poems are settled into enthusiastic froth ('Farm's Thoughts', 'Circus', 'Locks') which are cloying instead of funny (funny like 'Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams') or exciting. 'In Love with You' is a poem of strong love,

O what a physical effect it has on me
To dive forever into the light blue sea
Of your acquaintance! [. . .]

What is the role of the exclamation point in Koch's work? It seems like an energized full stop, leaping up, or falling down with a parachute. Anyway, there's a real stepping up for The Pleasures of Peace (1969). The title poem, 'The Pleasures of Peace', was written when Koch was a professor at Columbia and the students were protesting about Vietnam; Koch says, in his interview with David Kennedy, that "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." The result is a poem written in time of war which is about everything but the war, though the "Horrors of War" left for "my contemporaries" to write about, ends up blurring the pleasures:

Peace will come thrusting out of the sky
Tomorrow morning, to bomb us into quietude.
For a while we can bid goodbye
To the frenesies of this poem, The Pleasures of Peace.
When there is peace we will not need anything but bread
Stars and plaster with which to begin.
Roaming from one beard to another we shall take the tin
From the mines and give it to roaring Fidel Castro.

In the end, the poet wishes "love's flat, sun's sweets, oh Peace, to you."

Koch – as with many others – also likes to take the list part of the classical epic form and isolate it; his list poems ('Faces', 'Some General Instructions', 'One train may hide another'), however, slide around and invariably keep generating nonsense as if the function of the sequence itself is to miscalculate. This aspect of the catalogue also seems to draw Koch towards dividing points which will keep a longer poem together – 'A Poem of the Forty-Eight States', 'The Scales' ("then a trilling SOL / Which is to the last MI as is a detour / Which leads one to the sun; and then, as if / Song had no sound, one thrilling highest LA"), 'The Seasons'.


The Art of Love (1975) brought wider attention; it presents a Kochean vade mecum aiming to entertain; the title poem, along with 'The Art of Poetry' and 'On Beauty' are long and encompassing, picking up on the various literary treatise traditions – but, contrary to, say, Swift's acerbic 'Directions to Servants', Koch re-invests the idea with an objectifying passion that runs and just keeps running with unflagging feet. "What interesting thing did Spinoza say about love?" Answer: "Spinoza's remark was 'Love is the idea of happiness attached to an external cause.'" Koch seems happiest taking one idea and re-attaching it so many times that attachment itself – process and appeal – somewhat unexpectedly starts to blaze up and show. Or, in an interview with Anne Waldman, "I like to write things that go on forever, because it makes me happy to write well and it's sort of nice to include everything." Love inspires a desire to include everything.

The Burning Mystery of Anna in 1951 (1979) sets off with a sequence ('Our Hearts') of seething sonnets written in long-legged lines:

All hearts should beat when Cho Fu's orchestra plays "Love"
And then all feet should start to move in the dance.
The dancing should be very quick and all step lightly.
Everyone should be moving around, all hearts beating –
Tip tap tip tap. The heart is actually beating all the time
And with almost the same intensity. The difference is not in our hearing
Which is also almost always the same. The difference must be really
Then in our consciousness, which they say is variegated.
Black-and-white shoes, red dress, an eye of flame,
A teeth of pearl, a hose of true, a life of seethings. Would
You like to dance? The excitement, it is there all the time.
Is human genius there all the time? With the analogy of dreams,
Which supposedly we have every night, one is tempted
To say, The seething is always there, and with it the possibility for great art.

Seething is quite a serious word, really, and it's picked up later in the collection in 'The Boiling Water', "A serious moment for the water is when it boils" – or, further in,

The water boils every time the same old way
And still it is serious, because it is boiling. That is what,
I think, one should see. From this may come compassion

Other things have their serious moments too – "A serious moment for the telephone is when it rings, / And a person answers, it is Angelica, or is it you". Serious is a word that gets used in public political discourse – "Serious repercussions" etc. – and Koch tries to shed the emptily serious in favour of the seething, waiting, trivial and material. It's the "happy distress" of creativity. The collection ends with 'To Marina', which, as discursive "memoir of love" about someone called Marina, bridges over to 'With Janice' in the next collection, Days And Nights (1982). The searching for appropriate forms for remembrance becomes a preoccupation. From the resulting poems, the one I like best is 'A Time Zone' (from One Train), which brings the loose couplets of Apollinaire's 'Zone' to bear on those early New York days –

Rauschenberg's rain machine's stuck it gives too much moisture
People look very happy to have gotten out of the theater

One Train (Knopf 1994, Carcanet 1997) seems a particularly strong collection.

Look at this lovely river maid, who bears the name of Io –
Her youthful beauty caused in Jove such ache that "Me, oh! my, oh!"
He cried, "she must be mine!" and when he had the maid deluded
And had some happiness with her, she as a cow concluded.

Koch, an Ovidian poet of change already, tells of 'Io' by investing the fourteen-liner rhymed couplets of Golding with a cartoonic flourish, including a long footnote in praise of Ovid also in couplets. 'At The Opera' introduces a stepped line which brings together particular words sung at the opera with memories of going to the opera and living in Florence. A mini-anthology of five 'Poems By Ships At Sea' ("It was not known that ships at sea wrote poetry. Now it is known") are not actually silly in execution at all, though the poems are dated with the name of each ship and which ocean it was in at the time of composition. The final collection of short poems under one banner, 'On Aesthetics', contains a piece of Orlando Furioso criticism:


Meanwhile someone is going
Another way.

As well as giving us Uexküllian insights into the Natural World –


To be a bear, be active
In the bear world –
Fur, limbs, and claws.
Rampage. Stay. Mate.
Give birth to another bear.

– and of course much pith:


There has to be something better
Than what we see. Otherwise, we'd see it.

The next Kenneth book is Straits (1998) which has 'The Seasons' ('To James Thomson'). Thomson's popular poem 'The Seasons' (1730), in translation, also inspired Haydn's oratorio Die Jahreszeiten – it's the Whig epic pastoral par excellence. Koch brings the subject of Nature back to humankind and the city, though still running in a Miltonic pentameter. Spring begins, "Now pizza units open up, and froth/ Streams forth on beers in many a frolic bar/ New-opened-up by April." It sounds most like Thomson's description of a swelling torrent, "There, gathering triple force, rapid and deep, / It boils, and wheels, and foams, and thunders through." A serious moment for the water is when it boils. One can see that the surface exuberance of Thomson's style is perhaps the attraction for Koch, "Resounds the living surface of the ground" as Thomson put it, Koch's "seething". Thomson, like Koch, gets particularly effusive beneath the summer sun:

Bear me, Pomona! to thy citron groves;
To where the lemon and the piercing lime,
With the deep orange glowing through the green,
Their lighter glories blend. Lay me reclined
Beneath the spreading tamarind, that shakes
Fanned by the breeze, its fever-cooling fruit.

Compare Koch:

And then, cold Doctor Pepper there beside
Clamped in one's other hand, one takes a swallow
And feels emparadised, with golden birds
Incumbent of their wingspans all around.


After New Addresses (things addressed include piano lessons, orgasms, duration and the Ohio), the final collection is A Possible World, and it begins with an elegy, 'Bel Canto', and ends with a remembrance, 'A Memoir' – but in the middle is the title poem, a new direction, different font sizes and spacings which spin a sparse fugue around particular words – "Mondo", "Vox pop" – it's "A Possible World."

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