Happy Birthday, Kenneth Koch

So, yesterday (February 27) would have been Kenneth Koch‘s 81st birthday, had he not passed away in 2002. He is among the poets that I find I can always go back to when I grow tired of poetry. He is associated with the “New York School” of the 50s and 60s, which included Frank O’Hara, John Ashberry, and James Schuyler. He is reasonably well known, although not super famous, in part, I think, because he sort of falls in the gap between the two main categories that define contemporary American poetry.

For simplicity, we could call these two categories “high art” and “popular,” although I am sure that more accurate and more descriptive terms exist. On the one hand, much contemporary poetry seems to be written primarily for consumption by other poets. It grapples with language and imagery in a way that is often self-consciously designed to challenge the reader. Typically, unless you read a lot of poetry, this work tends not to be a lot of fun, and it can be hard to distinguish between good and bad versions of it.

On the other hand, we have poetry that is self-consciously aimed at a popular audience, maybe people who haven’t read a poem since high school. This work tends to be playful with language, reveling in rhyming or puns, and is accessible on a first read (Maya Angelou or Billy Collins would be examples). These poets tend not to be valued highly by academics and poets (typically the same people), in part because these poems tend to give you everything they have on that first reading, yielding little additional satisfaction on rereading.

Koch’s poetry is part of a movement that was deliberately reacting against the dense, highly referential poetry of, say, Eliot, and trying to recapture the playfulness of language. In this sense, he is a progenitor of the contemporary popular strain of American poetry. On the other hand, he was often motivated by very artsy, high-culture things, like abstract expressionist painting (which was still high art in the 1950s) and music.

To my mind, this position, straddling popular and high art, is an admirable place to aim for. The ideal poem would be one that welcomes the reader with something that is broadly accessible, whether sound or humor or imagery. At the same time, there should be layers that nag at the reader, encouraging them to return to the poem, and giving them a glimpse of something new on each read.

What I love most about Koch, however, is his emotional stance. Probably ninety percent of the poetry in the world is either about poetry, or about being sad or mistreated. At least half of it is about being a sad or mistreated poet. Throughout his career, Koch kept returning to the project of writing poems about happiness. This is a dangerous thing to do, because you set the bar higher for yourself when you write about being happy. You especially open yourself up to being criticized for sentimentality when you dare to write about simple, universal sources of happiness, like having your wife sit on your lap. But again and again, in my opinion, at least, he set himself a high happy-poem bar and then cleared it.

In honor of Koch’s birthday, and the example he set both for how to live a happy life and how to write poetry about it, I wanted to share this poem of mine from Transistor Rodeo. It is a pseudo-sestina prompted by a passage in Koch’s poem “Days and Nights.” The sestina form consists of six six-line stanzas that use the same six end words. The end words occur in a prescribed order in each stanza. The poem ends with a three-line stanza that also contains these six words. In this pseudo-sestina, I have followed the canonical pattern in terms of the order in which the six words are used, but have used a different transformation rule on each word to introduce variation each time it comes up. Only the word “dream” is repeated in the standard way.

Kenneth Koch’s Unfinished Sestina

            William Carlos Williams I wrote

            As the end word of a sestina.  And grass

            Sleepy, hog snout, breath, and dream.

            I never finished it.

                                    – Days and Nights

After the prom William Carlos Williams
and I lay out in the grass
behind the stadium, drunk and sleepy,
bare-naked and laughing about the hog snout
in the punch bowl, catching our breath,
and curling up to dream
a dream
worthy of Samuel Taylor Coleridge
(who was also not wearing pants
at the time).  The opium
and strapless dresses, god knows,
had finally transformed at least one grumpy
teen into a free-spirit, happy
enough to dream
deep, diving hundreds of fathoms
through unconscious visions, past Edgar Allen Poe
and even past Jung.  It was there, at the hub of my mind, that I saw her, the heroine
of the story.  My jaw went slack,
my knees and arms buckled and fell limp.
as a schoolboy, I offered her a Coke
(now this part of the dream
I was familiar with, although she had always previously been Mean Joe Green).
Before this point I would have said she was out of my league,
but our union
was written in the stars that night!  She opened the gate
and I drove the flock in, like a pastoral Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Pretty soon I was twitching like a sneezy
old man in a pepper factory dream-
ing of dander.  But then, just as she and I were approaching the cornice of ecstasy,
I was awakened to a ring of narcotics
officers saying if we were cooperative
no one would get hurt.  But my dream
was already destroyed.  I walked through the doors
of the police station humiliated, feeling dopey,
not sure I would ever see Elizabeth Barrett Browning
again.  In the cell I told William Carlos Williams, “Doc, we gotta dream
us up a plan to bust out of this joint before her husband catches up with her.
I love her madly, and you know he’s dangerous when he’s jealous.”

3 thoughts on “Happy Birthday, Kenneth Koch”

  1. Oh my goodness. I just found you through the Evolving Thoughts John Wilkins, and have been desultorily browsing your archives. This sestina is amazing and probably I am going to have to buy your book now. League/union is just fantastic.

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