Kenneth Koch’s Arcady
The Banquet: The Complete Plays, Films, and Librettos, by Kenneth Koch. Coffee House Press. $29.95.
When Kenneth Koch died of leukemia in 2002, I, a fan, was shocked. He seemed much too young. Twelve years later I realize he was seventy-seven years old — not that shocking. It was his poetry that made him seem so much younger than his contemporaries. New Addresses had come out in 2000, and if at first it seemed elegaic (every poem was titled with the vocative “To” as in “To Life” or “To Jewishness, Paris, Ambition, Trees, My Heart, and Destiny”), the poems overflowed with élan vital. The collection begins, with typical verve, “To ‘Yes’”:
Yes to the finality of the brightnessAnd to the enduring qualities of the larkShe sings at heaven’s gate. But is it unbolted? Bolted? Yes.Which, though, is which? To which the answer cannot be yesSo reverse question. Pamela bending before the grateTurns round rapidly to say Yes! I will meet you in BostonAt five after nine, if my Irishness is still workingAnd the global hamadryads, wood nymphs of my “yes.”
Here is the frantic (Koched up?) exuberance of his signature style: a lyric fantasia (brightness is final, dawn is enduring, song is a directive from heaven), replete with an erotic object and Buñuelesque displacement (“if my Irishness is still working,” “global hamadryads”). This is heaven as id, where everything is Yes, but there’s a Chaplinesque moment when he wonders if the whimsical gate is unbolted — the word itself a sudden slapstick among the unreal nouns. “So reverse question” elides comedy and logic. But like language, “Yes” can accommodate opposites too easily for even this sleight-of-hand man. A plaintive denoument ends on silence:
What is at the bottomOf the most overt question? Do we die? Yes. Does thatAlways come later than now? Yes.I love your developmentFrom the answer to a simple query to a state of peaceThat has the world by the throat. Am I lying? Yes.Are you smiling? Yes. I’ll follow you, yes? No reply.
Koch’s metaphysics turns on 1s and 0s: yes, no; existing, nonexisting; here, not here; suspended, if not resolved, in paradoxes like “a state of peace / That has the world by the throat.” In his didactic poem “One Train May Hide Another” (from the eponymous book), he suggests waiting, pausing, looking twice: the world is a kaleidoscope of fort-da infant perceptions, as we are able to see only what’s in front of us, and not “what was already there.” “On Aesthetics,” too, advises:
Put one handNext to a light-switchWith the other handFeeling for the wall.
Isn’t it true that we feel around in the metaphysical dark, tragicomically, for anything that isn’t subject to that on/off switch?
Koch excelled in comic performances. “The Circus” is an early example which doubles as an ars poetica. Years later he wrote another poem called “The Circus,” in an elegaic mode which recalls the circumstances around the writing of the first poem: “I was living in Paris, or rather we were living in Paris.” Catching himself with that “I” is the whole point of the poem: in it he regrets the friends and wife he left out of his first work. This epiphany led to poems like “To ‘Yes,’” in which he compressed both manic comedy and sincere elegy toward his loves in the space of a synapse.
If comic poems are always performances — and acknowledge themselves as such — conventional wisdom tells us one doesn’t “perform” seriousness. Koch disagreed. He thought too many poets performed seriousness and didn’t acknowledge it, and that was boring and dishonest. His famous satire “Fresh Air” skewered certain personages in a fictitious “Poem Society”: “‘The subject for this evening’s discussion is poetry / On the subject of love between swans.’” Could that be the great James Merrill of “The Black Swan”? More obvious yet:
Sometimes they brave a subject like the Villa d’Este or a lighthouse in Rhode Island,Oh what worms they are! they wish to perfect their form.
— which must certainly refer to Anthony Hecht’s “The Gardens of the Villa d’Este,” published in the Kenyon Review in 1953. (That little magazine gets singled out for special treatment not once but twice in the poem.) One might enumerate all the ways in which Koch must have felt like an outsider — a Jew in the Ivy League, a Midwesterner in New York, a heterosexual in a homosexual coterie (the New York School) — but being a comic poet with a metaphysical bent in the postwar/Cold War/New Criticism era might have cut the deepest: not that he himself was on the outside, but that his poems were on the outside. He wrote enthusiastic, influential textbooks for teaching poetry to children and the elderly: two populations also outside the sophisticated circles of the “Poem Society.”
Since Koch’s passing, collections have emerged with alacrity: The Collected Poems of Kenneth Koch (2005), The Collected Fiction of Kenneth Koch (2005), On the Edge: Collected Long Poems (2007), and now The Banquet: The Complete Plays, Films, and Librettos. They are, respectively, 784, 408, 432, and 634 pages long, adding up to a fearsome 2,258 pages in volumes that are painful to transport, like those supersized fountain drinks that I can’t even fit my hand halfway around. When Koch wanted to snack on, say, Byron’s correspondence, back in the day he could select one of the twelve smallish hardcovers that Harvard University Press issued: ergonomic, made to hold in the hand in a chair (or subway, or bed) rather than laid open on a desk, slab-like, waiting to be divided and quartered (conquered?). This is not the fault of Koch’s meticulous executors — Karen Koch, Ron Padgett, and Jordan Davis — who should be commended for their unstinting devotion to their husband/friend/mentor. But I wish publishers would consider how repugnant (in the old sense of “offering resistence”) enormous tomes are. These are poems, entertainments; not reference books.
But to the volume at hand. What to make of these “plays, films, and librettos,” many of which were staged (or filmed) over the decades in venues ranging from the Living Theater in the Lower East Side to Naples Opera House? What can they give us on the page, separated from the music, costumes, and stage sets provided by the crème de la crème of the avant-garde: Larry Rivers, Ned Rorem, Niki de Saint Phalle, Jean Tinguely, Merce Cunningham, Taylor Mead, Christophe de Menil, Roy Lichtenstein, Alex Katz (the list goes on)? On the one hand, compared to his poetry, the plays might appear to be small beans, side dishes. On the other, since his poems are highly aware of audience, extroverted, and broadly theatrical (employing direct address, monologues, characters, zany action, colorful mise-en-scenes), there might be a fine line between what constitutes a poem and what constitutes a play in Koch’s oeuvre. (It turns out some of these plays are duplicated in The Collected Poems.) But his erudite knowledge of the history of playwriting belies any simple reduction. The foreword by playwright Mac Wellman points to the influences of Russian and Italian Futurists, Jacobean masques, Japanese Noh, medieval morality plays, and camp.
There are photos. The set design for The Banquet at the Teatro Carlo Felice in Genoa, for instance, establishes Koch’s plays as companions of Dada, surrealism, and internationalist modern art in general (as his friend Frank O’Hara’s poems were). Odessa, a surrealist sculpture Jean Tinguely made for Koch’s The Tinguely Machine Mystery is now in the Jewish Museum in New York. The play, as it turns out, was performed in an exhibition of Tinguely’s motorized machines, Attila, May Fair, and Odessa. Among the human actors are a Princess, a Detective (and of course, a Corpse), a Police Chief . . . enter a Japanese Priest, a Spirit of the Night, a Man, a Girl, an Admiral, a Policeman, and Sailors. This play — which has no plot or logic to speak of — is an absurdist pastiche of Agatha Christie and Noh. It reads like a bit of harmless insidery fun, like a revue put on by Ivy Leaguers. Or given the art-star-studded productions, a kind of downtown fête galante.
The fête galante makes an actual appearance in Watteau’s Reputation. In sum, Koch’s plays constitute a new Arcady: they’re agreeable and pastoral; no one suffers. (The bubonic plague comes in person to sweep away Watteau, but the tone is very French.) Set all over the world and in different eras, the plays all but abolish space and time. The New Diana is set in “a large pleasant restaurant near the sea, on a Greek island.” Among the characters are the goddess Diana, children, a talking dog, stars, earth, ocean, and a peach tree. It flits in and out of doggerel:
For when a man’s aloneHis chest is like a stoneHis body with its groanOf Want — I want!Would play on him a stuntBut I can’t bear the brunt.I’d rather beA pagan suckled in a creed outwornThan crave for simply company. Is there corn?
It’s just like Koch to poke fun at Wordsworth, performer of seriousness par excellence. At times you can imagine these as the collected comic relief of Shakespeare’s plays, minus the tragic parts, like The Enchantment: “An open place; it is dusk, a May evening. A young man, Rinaldo, enters.” This could be A Midsummer Night’s Dream:
Zoom! Here, flying through the skiesA lovely landscape I surmiseBelow. On it human beingsWith their human hearings and human seeings.Ah! I’ll head for that old cliffFar from the Land of But and If. Oh this is freedom!. . .Now to a fish I’ll change and dive —
An early exception to this Arcadian vision is 1953’s Little Red Riding Hood, which is one of the best pieces in the book, offering the reader some As You Like It-style banter between the Wolf and Red Riding Hood and ending with the girl running to her “darling” dressed as Grandmother, then strangled, like Lulu expiring in the Ripper’s arms in Frank Wedekind’s Pandora’s Box. Yet, everywhere else death is in invisible quotation marks, like Guinevere, or The Death of the Kangaroo.
When these Arcadian games work well it’s because they’re short — half a page to a page. One Thousand Avant-Garde Plays contains the best of them, like Départ Malgache:
Madagascar, why are you leaving?
I don’t know.
But I do know this is two hundred fifty million years ago,
And I have to go.
Lemur-filled and enormous island, where will you go?
I don’t know — I think just out there in the sea —
To save my lemurs I have to go . . .
(madagascar floats out into the Indian Ocean.)
O addio, dolce Madagascar!
I find this sweetly hilarious, hinging on the mellifluous phonemes of “Madagascar” and the funny-bone-tickling “lemurs.” It’s the sort of miniature you think children might write, but they never really do.
The titles are exceedingly inviting: The Black Spanish Costume (which dances with the Pink French Dress), Gospel Toothbrush (Paul Cézanne singing “How old in de mawning you gwine use it / . . . / Brosse aux dents, oh yes” while he paints), The Arrival of Homosexuality in Greece, or The Fagabond (that speaks for itself). There are repeat titles, like the repeat characters Edward and Christine: Smoking Hamlet and La Comtesse de Bercy Hamlet, Robert Wilson Riding Hood and Little Red Riding Hamlet. One goes back to the question whether these plays might as well be poems, as in Down and Out Near the Bay of Naples consisting of an aria by a speck of foam:
Out of all beingI come,A tiny speckOf whiteFoam —Oh!YouForgotMe, andI’mGone!
Perhaps in the context of other poems, this would be cutesy; in the context of the plays, it is divinely plangent. Koch had an exquisite sense of scale. I noted that the plays abolish time and space. They also abolish the distinction between humans and objects. This is a final way to evade the binary: If everything’s alive, even specks of foam, nothing’s dead. Like a heaven of Yes obliterating the Yes/No switch forever, the refusal to distinguish between meaning and nonsense also dissolves the foundation of death’s logic. If we lived in Koch’s Arcady, the text seems to ask, might we live forever?
Would it were so. On the one hand, he is as gone as that speck of foam. On the other, over this banquet of voices he presides as a god. As I said before, I was shocked when he died.
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...