Poetry News

"Did you write any poems?" Kenneth Koch and the '68 Columbia riots

By Harriet Staff

In an essay for Jacket2, poet and critic Hilton Obenzinger fondly recalls the days he spent occupying the Columbia University campus back in 1968:

With other writers from the Columbia Review I spent nearly a week in President Kirk’s office in Low Library before getting beaten up by the cops in the final bust. The days in Low Commune were deliciously utopian — with approximately 125 students making decisions through participatory democracy, changing the world by example — and dangerous, despite our stance of non-violence. The right-wing students charged the building several times, setting up a blockade to prevent the anti-war students from sending in supplies. Fists began to fly, and the scene around the building roiled with constant near riots.

Some of Columbia's beleaguered faculty tried to keep the situation from getting even rowdier by building their own line between the right-wing and left-wing students, and Obenzinger recognized Kenneth Koch among them, smiling "goofily" and sweetly, in his usual way.

“Did you write any poems?” he chuckled up at us.

No, we hadn’t. We set right off to punch out a bunch of spontaneous three-way collaboration poems, each of us taking a turn on the typewriter we had liberated from President’ Kirk’s secretary.

So terrible, so embarrassingly idiotic were these poems that we threw them away almost immediately. The muse of Andre Breton and Tristan Tzara and Frank O’Hara had failed us, and moment-to-moment rhapsodic bop would sound only like Allen Ginsberg, and there was only one Allen Ginsberg. We couldn’t bear to write tedious Fight-Team-Fight anthems or lugubrious, boring manifestos. All we could knock out was intense, manic gibberish when what was needed was something entirely new written in a language no one had yet invented.

Read the whole recollection.


Originally Published: October 25th, 2011