- The Collected Poems of Kenneth Koch
It is time. Long overshadowed by his New York School affiliates John Ashbery and Frank O'Hara, and dismissed by critics for being too silly, Kenneth Koch should now get the attention he deserves with this beautiful edition of his collected poems published by Knopf three years after his death. The size of the book may come as a surprise to some—over seven hundred pages of poems—but for fifty years Koch was one of the most resourceful and energetic poets on the American scene, [End Page 161] pumping out big, inclusive poems that swallowed up the more small-minded works of his contemporaries. In the process Koch transformed himself from a minor poet who seemed too in love with his own high jinks to a major spirit of the age, one of those rare poets who excite you with a feeling of life almost the moment you step onto the page.
Like his hero Vladimir Mayakovsky, Koch believed in a poetry of excitement. "Formerly I believed/books were made like this," Mayakovsky writes in "The Cloud in Trousers," "a poet came,/lightly opened his lips,/and the inspired fool burst into song." But the problem, he continues, is that "before they can launch a song,/poets must tramp for days with callused feet,/and the sluggish fish of the imagination/flounders softly in the slush of the heart." Koch's poems, like Mayakovsky's, often take as their subject the sorry state of poetry itself, over which the dull and overly serious reign supreme. "Why should we be organized to defend the kingdom/Of dullness?" he asks in his first signature poem, "Fresh Air." A grand master of the poetic smack-down, Koch lampoons the "young poets trembling in universities . . . bathing the library steps with their spit" (whom he offs via "the Strangler"), but also supposed untouchables: "Yeats of the baleful influence, Auden of the baleful influence, Eliot of the baleful influence . . ." In "The Art of Poetry," the central long poem of his career, he dishes it out to Wordsworth and Whitman as well:
[Wordsworth] was really terrible after he wrote the "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood," for the most part, Or so it seems to me. Walt Whitman's "corrections," too, of Leaves of Grass, And especially "Song of Myself," are almost always terrible.
Koch is easily the funniest poet in the language. And his humor should not be regarded merely as a childish indulgence, a distraction from the real purpose of the art; it is a supremely liberating force, akin to the power of metaphor. Koch's humor, in other words, does not just amuse; it transforms. At any moment while reading a Koch poem an irrepressible smile can break out on your face, regardless of your mood. Take these two moments from "Some General Instructions" and "Straits": [End Page 162]
When Pleasure is mild, you should enjoy it, andWhen it is violent, permit it, as far as You can, to enjoy you.El Greco lived in Seville but wasn't a SpaniardBut a Greek. As was the case with Christ, his name designated what,not who, he was.
This brand of humor, like the stand-up of Mitch Hedberg, jolts you into life. Suddenly the world seems full of charm and wonder again. Single lines are often sublime in their silliness; they make you shake your head at the wonder of a man who thinks like this:
O Labrador, you are the sexual Pennsylvania of our times!["The Pleasures of Peace"]
"Hit My Tits" could be a motto on the sailboat of your happiness.["The Art of Love"]
Koch can be too silly, and a great many poems in this book are throwaways, tedious in their excitability. Koch probably used more exclamation points than any writer in history, and when the writing is not inspired, it can seem like he's trying to rev a bad poem into a great one simply by using more excited punctuation. But when Koch is on, few poets...