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The Greatness of Kenneth Koch

By Ange Mlinko

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Don Share beat me to a post on Kenneth Koch and Patrizia Cavalli. “Talking to Patrizia” is actually one of my favorite love poems, tart and social and messy. So when I read Cavalli’s lesbian poems in Poetry I had the immediate intuition that this was the Patrizia who advised Koch to hide in the bushes. “Love/Is a god These Freudian things I don’t believe at all//This god you have to do what/He wants….” Of course, I had to revisit this poem, and ended up rereading all of One Train.


When I looked at my shelf of Koch books, I realize that everything published since One Train is in hardcover, meaning that’s when I really fell for his work. Straits is another favorite: the title poem, incorporating lines from Viktor Shklovsky, is the apotheosis of flow. So much so, that it’s hard to quote:
Music was defined by Tchaikowsky as “disappearing youth.” When he wrote music, it stopped disappearing.
The ocean is a source of elegies and a popular location for casinos.
There wasn’t money for people to spend on taking taxis. The taxi drivers didn’t blame them.
They felt, correctly, that they were stuck in a proletarian society
With providing an aristocratic mode of transportation. They took their plight with some humor.
Occasionally a banker took a cab and spent a lot of money. He was paying not for the ride he got
But for the availability of the service. What if the revolution were like a taxi
And couldn’t be afforded? We say that life is beautiful
Not only to pay a compliment to something in which we are already included
But to separate inside and outside, if only for a moment.

Those last three lines! When Koch generalizes, he sounds like a 20th-century Montaigne, and it’s that quality throughout One Train and Straits that grew on me. We think of wit as being “cutting” or “mere” but we don’t think of how often it serves poignancy as the flip side of stoicism. Have we forgotten the humanism of wit? I’ve always loved the easy philosophy of One Train May Hide Another:
In a poem, one line may hide another line,
As at a crossing, one train may hide another train.
That is, ifyou are waiting to cross
The tracks, wait to do it for one moment at
Least after the first train is gone. And so when you read
Wait until you have read the next line—
Then it is safe to go on reading.

Just so, you may start off the poem thinking “This is mere whimsy,” “This is just a gimmick,” but if you take Koch’s advice and wait til you have read the next line, you’ll encounter some striking imagery—
One lilac may hide another and then a lot of lilacs and on the Appia Antica one tomb
—or a strange sensation—
As when, after bathing, one walks out into the rain.
And just when you think this is all a neat trick and has “no emotional center,” you’ll read
… We used to live there, my wife and I, but
One life hid another. And now she is gone and I am here.

While a lesser poet would have ended there, delivered the emotional payload, etc., he hurtles relentlessly forward.
Jerusalem may hide another Jerusalem.
In other words, Koch tells us: “It can be important/To have waited at least a moment to see what was already there.”
I’m not normally attracted to elegy, but Koch does it differently; in his hands elegy is both tender and debonair, as in “A New Guide:”
Look at this bannister.
People put their hands on it as they went down.
Many many many many hands. Many many many many times.
It became known as the “Bannister of Ladies’ Hands.” It was said one could feel the smoothness of their hands when one touched it oneself.
Actually what one felt was the smoothness of the marble
That had been worn down by so many touching hands.
Look at the sign that is on it now: The Bannister of Ladies’ Hands. To Preserve This Monument Each Person Is Requested to Touch It Only Once.
Look at the young boy there touching it twice, then a third time.
What if a guard catches him.
The fear is that if the bannister is touched too much it may completely wear away—the illusion of touching the soft hands of women in low-cut red dresses, going down to their friends and lovers, will exist no more.
The sensation will have vanished from the world.

I wish I had gotten to know Koch when I came to New York ten years ago; but I was barely there long enough to settle in when I left for a year to live in Morocco. When I returned I think he was already sick and I was troubled and reticent. Why reticent? There was a queasy sense that ulterior motives lurked in any interaction between older and younger poets. The pure delight of reading poems is the larger part of my experience in this biz, but it is just about impossible to impart that sense with any urgency to its object. I miss Kenneth Koch. I wish I could tell him what a humane, friendly pleasure it is to read his later poems.
From “My Olivetti Speaks”—Would that he had blotted a thousand! “Perfection” is wonderful in poetry but Shakespeare is good enough—one reads on!

Comments (6)

  • On December 13, 2007 at 9:19 pm Michael Gushue wrote:

    Comparing Koch to Montaigne is very good – I’ll be thinking about that. It’s a great comparison. For both of them, their friendships were immensely important, and both said as much. The pitch of the writing is at this intimate level, it has a you-and-I-talkingness to it. And they had a casual and unobnoxious way of unfolding something like wisdom–a word we’re mostly embarrassed by now. But Koch also wrote works like When the Sun Tries to Go Down–much more “abstract” language-oriented poems, as did all the NY poets. I’d like to see someone make some necessary connections between those works and the more discursive poems of One Train–how is one the seed of the other? And who is that other Koch? Rabelais? Anyway, thanks for another great post. Between one PF blogger feting Sarah Browning and another, Ken Koch, it’s been a good week. And now back to reading A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy’s Day, it being December 13th and all.

  • On December 13, 2007 at 11:42 pm Matt wrote:

    When the Sun Tries to Go On. When the Sun Tries to Go Down was written by Koch’s evil alter ego, Bizarro Kenneth.

  • On December 14, 2007 at 12:08 am yesandno wrote:

    Et maintenant vous etes un Ange pour de vrai.
    Kenneth Koch has been the love (and poet) of my life. And “One Train…” the most important poem/philosophy I’ve ever encountered. Simple and not. Thanks for this. (Will try to backchannel, yes–).
    I never knew him either, but, you know, I knew him. And I miss him too.

  • On December 14, 2007 at 11:20 am Alicia (AE) wrote:

    A delight to be reminded of these poems. Thinking of Wendy Cope, I was also put in mind what a terrific parodist Koch is. His perfect takes on Frost and Williams always make me laugh out loud.

  • On December 15, 2007 at 1:05 am yesandno wrote:

    Dear Ange, that channel’s no love? Email me at heavydaughter@yahoo.com if you want to. Either way, cheers!

  • On December 17, 2007 at 1:21 am Kelly wrote:

    Well, I think through your blog you’re doing a great job of imparting the pure delight of reading poems. You know, at least through our physically isolated 21st century cyber method. It seems like you also share the infectious urgency that Koch did. Thanks, it’s wonderful, rare and refreshing. I also wish I could tell Koch what a humane, friendly pleasure it is to read his poems. I figure the next best way is to keep putting out in the world stuff that he would say, “Oh, that’s SO good.” How return the favor? How about a (flawed) description of what it was like to take his classes.
    In walks a tall, white-haired, bespectacled…eccentric? He’s reading a newspaper aloud and trying to make a poem out of it. Is he even…buffoonish? Not at this institution. But he’s wearing a scarf in the middle of September. I don’t think he’s one of those adjunct guys, and has been here for a long time. But there! He’s calling her ‘etudiante.’ No, wait …it’s making sense now. He’s just jumped around the history of philosophy and modern poetry, connecting – slanting? – the dots in a way I know I won’t even begin to understand until years down the road. But are you allowed to be this passionate, about anything, let alone, in public? Emphatic refrain #1: “Poetry is an experience, not a description of an experience.” He’s thinking aloud again, disowning and rethinking a line he’s just improvised as an example. None of the other professors seem to be this opinionated either. “You don’t have to like Whitman. (pause) But it’s a weakness if you don’t.” Assignment: “Write a Star Trek episode with the characters in the voices of Dickinson, Apollinaire, Mayakovsky and Williams.” I began to think dumb thoughts, like anyone who’s lucky enough to be sitting in this class and who later becomes a lawyer or a banker, will be committing a mortal SIN. I still didn’t get it. I went to the bookstore to check out Koch’s poetry. What do these zany abstractions have to do with anything? With life? It’s way too out there, too distant. Yet I’ve never experienced anyone so inspired, so remotely – which words to choose to come up frustratingly short – osmosisly intoxicating to the point of inciting a simultaneous group-molt? I wasn’t getting his poetry, but something was happening. My hand hurt. I was one of those students who sat in the back of the class and didn’t dare speak a word, but I was writing notes furiously as if my life depended on it, and remember other students glancing at me like I had a problem. I did. I do.
    Later I got to know Kenneth a little bit outside of class. I took some poems to him that I wrote, yet he rigorously tried to get out of reading them. “Don’t you have any friends who write poetry or anyone who can take a look at these?” No, sorry. “You know, I sit on these poetry panels and usually what I like nobody else seems to like, and vice versa.” That’s fine with me. “I’m really not the best person to evaluate other people’s work.” Pause. “Ok, here, read this while I look at them.” Waiting there in his office for his assessment, I knew that I would be getting a brutally honest answer, not a glossy one. I was happy with his reply and the one after that just before he passed away. But of course, it’s another impromptu zinger that sticks out most: “If you want your dentist to read your poems, aim for the New Yorker.”
    For those new to Koch, in addition to the poems mentioned by Ange, I’d also add, as a possible starting point of working your way in: Days and Nights, Paradiso and Mountain.


Posted in Uncategorized on Thursday, December 13th, 2007 by Ange Mlinko.