The Greatness of Kenneth Koch
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!
Ange Mlinko was born in Philadelphia and earned her BA from St. John's College and MFA from Brown University. She is the author of five books of poetry: Distant Mandate (2017); Marvelous Things Overheard (2013), which was selected by both the New Yorker and the Boston Globe as a best book of...