Academic journal article Chicago Review

The Collected Poems of Kenneth Koch

Academic journal article Chicago Review

The Collected Poems of Kenneth Koch

Article excerpt

The Collected Poems of Kenneth Koch. New York: Knopf, 2005. 761pp. $40

Of the three kings most identified with the New York School of Poets, Kenneth Koch is the least heralded. While his status as a celebrity teacher for several generations at Columbia shows the reach of his influence, one feels that O'Hara and Ashbery have marked the fabrics of contemporary American poetry more indelibly, that their influence has bled through more layers. It may be that Koch's new-fangled egotistical sublime is, in the end, more his own, and thus less easily imitated than the porous selflessness of O'Hara and Ashbery. Or that Koch's formal accomplishments cut a path aspirants would need years of personal practice to cut again, while the avenues of O'Hara and Ashbery's cool and shadowed mystery now seem permanently cleared and accessible. Whatever the case may be-and it's a curious one, having as much to do with the vicissitudes and capriciousness of literary and artistic society as it does with aesthetic, formal innovations-a career-spanning view of Koch's oeuvre is now, four years after his death, available in this collection of his shorter poems.

But what does New York School mean in 2006? What was New York School but a publicity ploy concocted in 1961 by John Myers, the New York gallery director: the branding already existing for a group of painters, it was simple enough to share it with another coterie product. Modern poetry is rife with such branding, and the invention of literary movements has long suggested the American avant-garde as the backside of a Madison Avenue currency called What's New.

What was new about these poets in the early 1950s was their use of accident and play in their spirited disregard for the decorum of refined diction, high-flown syntax, traditional symbology, and elevated abstraction-all the elements that contributed to the serious meatloaf of the mid-century lyric.

Here is "Sun Out," the first poem in Koch's Collected, from that period:

Bananas, piers, limericks,

I am postures

Over there, I, are

The lakes of delection

Sea, sea you! Mars and win

Some buffalo

They thinly raft the plain,

Common do

It ice-floes, hit-and-run drivers,

The mass of wind.

Is that snow

H-ing at the door? And we

Come in the buckle, a

Vanquished distinguished

Secret festival, relieving flights

Of the black brave ocean.

The tassels of poetic convention circa 1955 have come undone here, left in tatters. The short list that opens the poem makes a couple of typical early Kochian moves: the slapstick banana followed by an unrelated "pier" that nonetheless makes the sound of another fruit (pear), thus at once evoking a logic further unsettled by the "limerick" that ends the line. (Is there a form that mocks the metaphysical anxiety of modernism more flamboyantly than the limerick?) "I am postures / Over there, I, are / The lakes of delection / Sea, sea you!"-such a line of scrambled code suggests, perhaps, something about Koch's previous year in France; the way, he writes in a preface, that the French language was one he "understood and misunderstood at the same time. Words would have several meanings at once. [...] The pleasure-and the sense of new meanings-I got from this happy confusion was something I wanted to recreate in English."

Confusion, of course, is precisely the condition of meaning that the conventions of mid-century formalism hoped to combat in their struggle against cultural dissolution. Dissolution-and not mere ambiguity-is a condition that Koch hopes to engender. A Koch poem is a slippery semantic field of puns, parodic snippets, homonyms, fractured syntax, and jarring juxtapositions. The martial ambitions of Mars in the poem above, to win all battles, makes the macho word-fragment, "win," flower as it crosses the line into the sweet, cheerful "winsome," an absurd adjective for a buffalo. …

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