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.

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