In the Circus

William Wootten

  • The Collected Poems by Kenneth Koch
    Knopf, 761 pp, £40.00, November 2005, ISBN 1 4000 4499 5

Kenneth Koch (pronounced coke’) could do a mean impersonation of William Carlos Williams. ‘This is Just to Say’, Williams’s note asking forgiveness for eating the plums in the icebox which ‘you were probably/saving/for breakfast’ on the grounds that they were ‘so sweet/and so cold’, gets the Koch treatment in ‘Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams’:

I chopped down the house that you had been
saving to live in next summer.
I am sorry, but it was morning, and I had nothing to do
and its wooden beams were so inviting.

In the final variation, he confesses:

Last evening we went dancing and I broke your leg.
Forgive me. I was clumsy, and
I wanted you here in the wards, where I am the doctor!

If this poem alerts us to what goes on in Williams, it also alerts us to what goes on in Koch. Koch’s poetry may come addressed to others, but it likes to please itself. This is as true of the seemingly impenetrable poems that he wrote at the start of his career as it is of his most lucid comic turns. But while he can write a poetry so delighted that the exclamation marks look like ants on a picnic cloth, he can also be a thoughtful commentator on the quest for happiness within and without his poems; and on the limitations of happiness.

Kenneth Koch was born in Cincinnati in 1925, and briefly attended Cincinnati University. Drafted into the army at 18, Koch soon found himself the only subscriber to the surrealist magazine View stationed on Saipan. His early wish to become a meteorologist was now overwhelmed by the urge to write poetry. In ‘To World War Two’, written half a century later, Koch recalls thinking:

‘If I’m killed while thinking of these lines, it will be too corny
When it’s reported’ (I imagined that it would be reported!)
So I kept thinking of lines of poetry. One that came to me on the beach on Leyte
Was ‘The surf comes in like masochistic lions.’
I loved this terrible line. It was keeping me alive.

On his return, Koch applied for a transfer to Harvard, numbering ‘peace’ along with creative writing as among his chief interests. At Harvard, he studied under Delmore Schwartz. More important, he became friends with John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara, like-minded fellow students.

On graduation Koch moved to New York, where he lived downstairs from the painter Jane Freilicher, became acquainted with the New York art scene, and liked to stare out of the window at passing trains while wearing a gorilla mask.

In 1950 he went on a Fulbright to Aix-en-Provence. Not only did he immerse himself in modern French poetry, and acquire an (at the time) rare taste for Raymond Roussel, but everyday hearings and mishearings gave rise to a ‘happy confusion’ where words would have ‘several meanings for me at once’. In response, Koch began the experiments he later recalled in ‘Days and Nights’:

Sweet are the uses of adversity
Became Sweetheart cabooses of diversity
And Sweet art cow papooses at the university

The combined impact of his time in France and his time with the Abstract Expressionists in New York made it possible for him to shake words from their referents, and throw them about like paint; this resulted in poems impenetrable not because they hide deep truths, but because they are flat as a canvas. All of which makes Sun Out, the collection of poems from 1952-54, published in 2000, intriguing in theory, but in practice – ‘The Polish light is descending a mountain of lawyers/Named cattle, the march is saved/From last Juno ontology’ – less rewarding.

Koch’s first published collection, Thank You and Other Poems (1962), is altogether more satisfying. Many of the poems remain deliberately artificial and quasi-surreal, but the artificial worlds created are more coherent and the flights of fancy soar over recognisable landscapes. There’s an attractive range of work: not only the spoofs and comic jeux d’esprit – this is the home of those ‘Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams’ – but also meditations, lyrics and love poems. And, for all the manic energy in poems such as the ‘Railway Stationery’ or ‘The Departure from Hydra’, there is a slow enumeration of detail or incident that’s prepared to be boring, just as the other poems are prepared to entertain.

Partly because they associated with the New York School of painters, not least by drinking with them at the Cedar Bar, Koch, Ashbery and O’Hara, together with James Schuyler and Barbara Guest, were labelled the New York School of poets. While, in truth, these writers didn’t form anything so well defined as a school, they influenced and encouraged one another and had a shared antipathy to the stuffy academic verse of the time. Koch yells their battle cry in ‘Fresh Air’, in which the comic-book figure of the Strangler gets his kicks from dispatching dull poets (‘Here is the Strangler dressed in a cowboy suit/Leaping from his horse to annihilate the students of myth!’); and where the post-Eliotic fashion is kapowed. Out go myth, symbolism, the ‘well-made’ poem, its ‘inky-dinky’ pentameter and conventions of irony and seriousness. In come popular iconography, metonymy, a range of less-used forms – Koch is a particular fan of the sestina – and relaxed free verse.

In the words of the anti-Vietnam War title of Koch’s 1969 volume, ‘the pleasures of peace’ were both Koch’s element and his theme. The poems of the 1950s and 1960s are the work of a man living well in postwar America, and in a Europe made available by scholarships. They aren’t oblivious to the less attractive side of America or to the contingency of this fortunate position, but are more concerned to celebrate youth, art, love and friendship, and to enjoy themselves, than to arrive at pronouncements on the history and politics of the country.

Koch’s is a poetry of plenty. He’s particularly fond of repetitions and lists. ‘You Were Wearing’, for example, has an American icon in every line (from Abraham Lincoln to Dick Tracy to George III). ‘Sleeping with Women’, whose lines contain its title, puts its sex and somnolence in as many (often very fetching) horizontal positions as it can, until it finally nods off.

Such methods lend themselves to collaboration. ‘Crone Rhapsody’, written with John Ashbery, has its end-words as office furniture and each line contains the name of a flower, a tree, a fruit, a reference to game, a famous old lady and the word ‘bathtub’: ‘In the apple tree Queen Mary of the Chrysanthemums shared a grape rook bathtub with her insect lamp.’ In a simpler form, this approach worked well with groups of children. In Wishes, Lies and Dreams: Teaching Children to Write Poetry (1970), Koch asks the children in a class each to write a line starting with the words ‘I wish’ and containing a colour, ‘a comic-strip character, and a city or country’.

Koch found fame in the early 1970s as a pioneer in the teaching of creative writing. The avowedly anti-academic poet made his living as a professor at Columbia. Whether lecturing in pentameters, improvising a poem on a student’s turning up late for class, or asking his students to rewrite a Wordsworth poem in the manner of Wallace Stevens, Koch was, by all accounts, an inspiring figure. In The Art of Love (1975), the class clown has settled in as teacher. The lengthy disquisitions ‘On Beauty’ and ‘The Art of Poetry’ are fairly sensible, if unsurprising pronouncements. They have a tone that seems like irony but is Augustan in casualwear: the sound of someone exerting cultural authority while pretending that he isn’t. Things perk up with ‘The Art of Love’: the tone may be the same, but the sensuality has returned. The poem’s reasonable pronouncements, and its moments of beauty, are heavily outnumbered by those too ludicrous – or too painful – to take seriously. Just as the sex has sado-masochistic elements, so does the reading of the poem. The poet gets to be the seasoned lover and domineering know-it-all, and the reader learns to lie back and like it.

The Art of Love can be seen as something of a mid-life crisis, but later books – in particular, Days and Nights (1982), One Train (1994) and New Addresses (2000) – contain some of Koch’s best work. The old urge to playfulness and pastiche, and the willingness to try out different ventures, are still strong. He develops a taste for putting feminine rhymes on irregular lines, which can make him sound like Ogden Nash, and writes a surprisingly satisfying modern version of James Thomson’s The Seasons. He finds new twists for poems of lists or repetitions, including ‘One Train May Hide Another’ which recasts and recasts the words and sentiments of its opening two lines – ‘In a poem, one line may hide another line,/As at a crossing, one train may hide another train’ – and in so doing, enacts its premise. There are sequences like necklaces in which each poem is a little piece of coloured glass: some are bright, some are dark, some are more fetching than others; the important thing is to link a good number of them together. The beads that make up the luxuriant ‘In Bed’ vary from the surreal (or bestial):

SHEEP IN BED

The sheep got into the bed
By mistake.

To:

SUICIDE

I was unable to tell you any reason
To get out of bed

Without jolting the reader (these two beds aren’t next to each other) or veering into black comedy, Koch has found a way of keeping the bleak and the ridiculous on the same loop.

The Collected Poems, bulky though it is, isn’t the half of it. Not only are there plays and short stories, as well as numerous poems omitted from his published volumes, we’ve got The Collected Longer Poems to come. Given that many of the poems in this Collected are ‘longer’ by most reckonings, what is missing? Well, a lot and not much. When The Sun Tries to Go On, from the era of Sun Out, certainly does go on. Whatever interest and charm its bright blobs of signification have quickly pall when they spread across page after page. More readable, but not much more significant, is ‘Impressions of Africa’ from On the Edge (1986). Despite the title’s nod to Raymond Roussel’s Impressions d’Afrique, it, like a number of his later poems, is a chronicle of Koch’s travels. Keeping to impressions, and keeping away from research or afterthought, the poem is less an engagement with place than notes on the experience of passing through. ‘On the Edge’ itself is more ambitious, but not more accomplished, than Koch’s many other poems of reminiscence. Though his low-pressure style works well in longer pieces, such poems aren’t much different in kind from the short ones; he just hasn’t seen any reason to stop writing. Ko: Or, a Season on Earth (1959) and its successor The Duplications (1977), on the other hand, are attempts at comic epic.

Written in emulation of Ariosto, and in homage to Byron, Ko is a world series of cartoonish adventures: the hero is a Japanese baseball player; the villain wishes to control the world’s dogs. ‘What I found in Ariosto was a poetry that was all action,’ Koch said. ‘There’s almost no reflection in the whole of Orlando Furioso.’ The trouble with this conclusion is that it leads Koch to confuse action with action painting. Ariosto’s energetic knights may not pause for thought, but Ariosto evidently has done. The characters in Orlando Furioso engage in actions that have consequences for themselves and for a carefully planned, interwoven narrative. The stories of Ko and The Duplications have so clearly been made up as they went along, and are so very silly, that it’s pretty much impossible to care about either story or character. If the poems have nothing of Ariosto’s plan, they also lack Byron’s polish: the ottava rima and comic rhymes are just good enough to excuse Koch’s moving on to the next verse, but never as good as they could be.

These long poems must have been more entertaining to write than they are to read. They write large a problem with Koch’s poetry as a whole. Like Ashbery and O’Hara, Koch believed you couldn’t have too much of a good thing. The quality of Ashbery and O’Hara’s work makes it churlish to mind this, but with Koch, though there’s no shortage of work that’s quite good, it’s much harder to point to anything exceptional. Koch liked the way his surname sounded like the fizzy drink, and it is tempting to wonder whether too much of this is Coke poetry.

‘The Circus’, the best poem in The Art of Love, centres on the writing of an early poem also called ‘The Circus’.

Sometimes I feel I actually am the person
Who did this, who wrote that, including that poem The Circus
But sometimes on the other hand I don’t.
There are so many factors engaging our attention!

Even as present self and poem give up pride of place to an earlier self and an earlier poem, neither self nor poem seems certain:

And this is not as good a poem as The Circus
And I wonder if any good will come of either of them all the same.

Since both poems have the same title, the first of these lines could be read as arch false modesty; the second, for a poet who had been confident to the point of bumptiousness, is anything but sure of itself.

Geoff Ward, whose Statutes of Liberty (1993) is both a defining study of the New York Poets and one that sidelines Koch, points out that Ashbery, Schuyler and O’Hara wrote some of their best work more or less in spite of themselves. Koch’s lack of an urge to be his own apostate helps explain why works like Ko aren’t all they might have been. Yet part of the power of reminiscences like ‘The Circus’ lies in their readiness to turn on themselves, and, to a lesser degree, to turn against Koch’s earlier selves and values.

Days and Nights was published the year after the death of Koch’s first wife, Janice, and she is the addressee of the title poem. In it, as in the fine verse preface ‘Seasons on Earth’ he wrote for a collected edition of Ko and The Duplications, Koch’s description of the writing of Ko, inspired by walks in the springtime when he, his wife and young daughter were living in Florence, makes Ko sound the most marvellous poem imaginable. The first version of ‘The Circus’ asks: ‘What is death in the circus? That depends on if it is spring.’ When death comes to the second circus, spring is over; life, friendships have moved on; Frank O’Hara is dead. In ‘Days and Nights’, in the midst of the vernal celebration of Italy and young life, spring’s powers fail:

City of eternal flowers
And A said Why not make it paternal flowers
And Z said Or sempiternal There were bananas
Lying on the closet shelf by the couch
Forty feet from where your miscarriage began
And we were talking about this nonsense
Which meant so much to us, meant so much at the time.

Those literary games that had been the happiness of the earlier poetry now look futile; these flowers of paternity will not be eternal, the golden age seems leaden. Memories of this miscarriage recur in later poems and short stories. The antithesis of the seemingly endless creative and physical fecundity celebrated elsewhere, the aborted life at once undermines Koch’s poetry of plenty and gives it a justification.

When Koch mourned what had passed from his verse, he wasn’t entirely imagining things; his powers of manic enjoyment and inventiveness do fade. But the later poetry – which paradoxically puts a much greater emphasis on being innocent than the earlier poetry did – gains from experience and from self-detachment; and it is personal, without self-absorption or self-pity. In New Addresses, published two years before his death in 2002, Koch apostrophises things important to him, parts of his life and his own qualities as if all were objects: giving us ‘To Competitiveness’, ‘To Kidding Around’, ‘To Jewishness’; as well as ‘To the Roman Forum’ and ‘To World War Two’.

As Koch’s life and poetry looked back at themselves, the pursuit of happiness went from being a guiding principle to a complex theme. Individual poems old and new became richer, and Koch achieved the peculiar distinction of having poems whose combined worth is greater than their separate values. More hedonistic than most poets, Koch tends also to be more generous: celebrating poetry, love and friendship, he allowed his determination to enjoy himself to be matched by a concern for the happiness around him.