Books covered in this dual review:
• The Collected Poems of Barbara Guest, edited by Hadley Haden Guest. Wesleyan University Press. 600pp, $39.95.
• Kenneth Koch: Selected Poems, edited by Ron Padgett. American Poets Project. 784pp, $20.00.
What do Kenneth Koch and Barbara Guest have in common? The same thing as John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara. They are all part of the New York School, which formed around 1960 in New York City. They were heavily influenced by surrealism, the abstract impressionism of Jackson Pollack and Willem de Kooning, and the modernist lure of the city, creating a poetry of urban sensibility. Poets.org states that “the poetry of the New York School represented a shift away from the Confessional poets, a popular form of soul-baring poetry that the New York School found distasteful.” The Literary Encyclopedia, while recognizing that the artists refused to see themselves as a school, provides a well-reasoned argument as to why they should:
The New York School of poets is a conceptual grouping of writers, or even generations of writers, mostly living and working in New York City, who share[d] some stylistic and poetic inclinations and friendships. The term has been used primarily by literary critics, scholars, editors, and curators. It has rarely been used by the poets themselves. Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, John Ashbery, Barbara Guest and Kenneth Koch make up the so-called “first generation” of New York School. At the same time, no group has more consistently denied that it was a group, and the qualifier so-called is often attached to the term New York School poets. Nevertheless, this group of poets can be termed a “School,” as in addition to their friendships, these poets and their artist friends shared a number of means of production and distribution, reading series, a social scene, workplace, and other institutions, as well as artistic and geographic milieus, a network or a community. Most of the group also to some degree or another shared an easy-going, democratic rhetoric as well as a concern for the personal in their poetry. They were all fond of indirection, the indeterminate and the flamboyant, at the same time cultivating a concern for the daily and casual in life.
Koch was born in Cincinnati in 1925. Influenced early by the Romantic poets Shelley and Keats, he attended Harvard University, where he first met Ashbery and O’Hara. He moved to New York City after graduating in 1948 with his Bachelors. He eventually earned his PhD from Columbia. Wikipedia lists as the characteristics of his poetry the following:
1. He mixed word usage with various levels of imagery;
2. He set two contrasting tones next to each other, simplicity and silliness at the same time;
3. He spoke to everything, animate and inanimate objects;
4. He used parody of other poets to express his own views, both serious and comic
In a 1993 interview with David Kennedy, Koch had this to say of himself:
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.
In addition to writing poetry, Koch also wrote numerous avant-garde plays and even the libretto for an opera which had little distribution.
For those readers familiar with the no-frills, comprehensive offerings from the Library of America, the American Poets Project publications will come as a pleasant surprise. In this particular volume, Ron Padgett provides an excellent introduction to Koch, both as person and as poet. The only improvement would be to indicate approximately when a particular poem was written, or, even better, indicate in which book the poem appeared.
Koch, like most of the New York School poets, was enthralled with surrealism. This is reflected in the first poem, “Sun Out,” in which a stream-of-consciousness flows:
Bananas, piers, limericks
I am postures
Over there, I, are
The lakes of delectation
Sea, sea you! Mars and win-
They thinly raft the plain,
The poem begins interestingly with a list of three unrelated items (which was one of Ashbery’s favorite surrealistic devices). Koch attacks them “common do” style. His playful quality shines through with “sea you” and “win- / some buffalo.” The phrase “thinly raft” is an oxymoron if raft is taken in its sense of “a very large number or amount of something”—but, perhaps this is intended as a poetic commentary on the buffalo that were once thick upon the Great Plains but have been hunted almost to extinction.
Koch’s wit comes bounding through in “Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams.” The poem consists of four parts, each of which is a variation on Williams’ confession about eating some pears. This is the third variation:
I gave away the money that you had been saving to live on for the next ten years.
The man who asked for it was shabby
and the firm March wind on the porch was so juicy and cold.
The “Circus” that appears on page 40 is the wistful remembrance of the writing of the first “Circus.” Written from the perspective of a lost love, the former could be called a semimetafiction as well as being a remembrance of the events surrounding the writing of that poem:
I remember when I wrote The Circus
I was living in Paris, or rather we were living in Paris
Janice, Frank was alive, the Whitney Museum
Was still on 8th Street, or was it still something else?
Fernand Léger lived in our building
Well it wasn’t really our building it was the building we lived in
Next to a Grand Guignol troupe who made a lot of noise
So that one day I yelled through a hole in the wall
Of our apartment I don’t know why there was a hole there
“Some General Instructions,” which as with “Circus” is from 1975′s The Art of Love, offers a cubist feast of rhetoric:
Giraffes, which people ordinarily
Associate with Africa, can be seen in many urban zoos
All over the world. They are an adaptable animal,
As Greek culture was an adaptable culture. Rome
Spread it all over the world. You should know,
Before it did, Alexander spread it as well. Read
As many books as you can without reading interfering
With your time for living. Boxing was formerly illegal
In England, and also, I believe, in America. If
You feel a law is unjust, you may work to change it.
The cubist impression comes in the quickness by which images change. When this tendency slows down, we enter the realm of the list or catalogue, of which Koch made extensive use. This is perhaps best seen in “The Art of Poetry,” where he begins by discusing whether writing while in “perfect physical condition” is necessary. He then considers “A few great poems / by poets supposed to be ‘mad,’” which eventually leads into a discussion of “Just how good a poem should be / Before one releases it, either into one’s own work or then into the purview of others / May be decided by applying the following rules.” Following this is an extensive list of editing guidelines. Other than the odd occasion when he makes comic digressions (for instance, into such writings as “are esthetecologically harmless and psychodegradable”), his language is simplified to the extreme such that it would feel comfortable fitting in with the common dribble of the community newspaper. Koch achieves indirection through a rambling style that throws everything into the mix. That clunk you heard was the kitchen sink.
Koch’s long rambling style continues in “To Marina.” Reflecting back on a lost love affair, he recalls all the minute nuances of how he felt and how he imagined she felt. After remembering how they cried together before they said goodbye, he concludes:
But those feelings keep orchestrating I mean rehearsing
Rehearsing in me and tuning up
While I was doing a thousand other things, the band
Is ready, I am over fifty years old and there’s no you—
And no me, either, not as I was then,
When it was the Renaissance
Filtered through my nerves and weakness
Of nineteen fifty-four or fifty-three,
When I had you to write to, when I could see you
And it could change.
He creates in this long, winding narrative one of the most beautiful love poems of the English language. The reader is made to feel the intensity of emotion Koch experienced in his halcyon days when storm and calm alike ignited the passions of love.
Towards the end of these Selected Poems, the poems begin to get shorter, less discursive, as if Koch knew he was running out of time to write. In fact, in a series of poems each bearing the word To—as in “To My Twenties,” “To Psychoanalysis,” “To Jewishness,” etc.—all published in 2000 in New Addresses, is to be found the poem “To Old Age.” Here he creates two personas, each hurrying past the other—one youth, one old age—until finally youth is left behind and Koch addresses old age, wondering
What are you, old age,
That some do and some do not come to you?
Are you an old guru who won’t quit talking to us in time
For us to hang up the phone? You scare me half to death
And I suppose you will take me there, too. You are a companion
Of green ivy and stumbling vines. If I could break away from you
I would, but there is no light down in that gulch there . . .
The words “of green ivy and stumbling vines” are sheer brilliance, taking an old cliché and breathing new life into it by avoiding the word wisdom, instead couching it in the image of those things that climb the esteemed walls of academia.
“Paradiso,” which concludes this volume and which was included in Koch’s last book, A Possible World (2002), again looks wistfully back before turning the gaze forward:
Why do you keep believing in this
Reality so dependent on the time allowed it
That it has less to do with your exile from the age you are
Than from everything else life promised that you could do?
From the old we turn now to the new . . . (review continues on page 2)
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