"May I tell you how much I love your poems?" Frank O'Hara crowed in the first stanza of a tribute to his friend Kenneth Koch in 1953. "It's as if a great pipeline had been illicitly tapped/along which all personal characteristics/are making a hasty departure. Tuba? Gin?/...O Kenneth Koch!" Koch's memories of his writing methods at the time, which he described with typical exuberance in a poem of his own, confirm O'Hara's impression that he drew inspiration from nothing less than the entire world. "I'm excited I'm writing at my typewriter it doesn't make too much sense," he gushed, so thrilled to be putting words to paper he didn't even have a moment to spare for punctuation. Assuming his usual carefree poetic persona combined with just a dash of bemused self-mockery, Koch wrote about his creative process with the breathlessness of a man wholly in love with the universe.
At the time of all this rampant delight, Koch had just returned to New York City from a Fulbright year in Paris, joining O'Hara and their friends John Ashbery and James Schuyler in the merry band that would eventually be known as the New York School of poets. Though they were writers first and foremost, the four were also deeply immersed in the art world and entangled, both personally and professionally, with much of the emerging talent of the moment--painters like Jane Freilicher (who lived upstairs from Koch in the East Village), Larry Rivers and Willem de Kooning. Together they formed a little cosmos where intimacy and self-expression reigned. "We poets and painters hung around a lot together, showed each other our works, and were made by this camaraderie very (or more than otherwise) ambitious, envious, emulous, and, I think, lucky," Koch recalled, trying to capture the fertile, passionate bohemia of New York City in the 1950s. In a poem from the 1970s, he sounded a more sentimental note, making it clear those years had also been a time of great romance. "My friends...meant almost more than anything to me," he reflected. "Their names alone bring tears to my eyes."
Under the influence of Abstract Expressionism and basking in the possibilities of language, Koch and his poetic cohorts were determined to subvert the dominant New Criticism of the 1950s, of which, Koch wrote, "Eliot was the Great Dictator.... One hardly dared to wink/Or fool around in any way in poems." Koch, on the other hand, wanted to have fun (and was actually nicknamed Dr. Fun by Ashbery, whom he had befriended for life when both were undergraduates at Harvard), and he went about it with a seriousness of purpose tinged with hilarity. He had come home from France with the idea that poetry was a language unto itself, and that it needed to be indulged as such. As he explained in a preface to his first book, Sun Out--the poems in which were written in the early 1950s but not published until after his death in 2002--he had been plunged into a happy and productive linguistic soup as he attempted to get by in French, "which I understood and misunderstood at the same time.... Words would have several meanings for me at once.... Once I began to hear them all together, [they] constituted a way of using the language that was very stirring to me and seemed to mean a lot. It gave me a strong sensation of speaking the truth."
Koch's attempts to render this multiplicity of meaning in straight English, and thereby get to the essential nature of human existence, yielded some rather odd products over the next few years. The opening lines of the title poem in Sun Out, for example, read like a burst of surrealist insanity: "Bananas, piers, limericks/I am postures/Over there, I, are/The lakes of delectation." What on earth is he talking about? "I wanted to keep my subject up in the air as long as possible," he explained in his preface--to which one can only respond, Job well done.
But even in his early work, there are amid the linguistic experiments flashes of pure, everyday ecstasy--that "delectation"--and in them one finds the heart of Koch's work, the immediacy that makes it irresistible. "The land is coughing, 'Joy!'" he wrote in a 1950s poem called "Highway Barns, the Children of the Road." "Hey, pavements, you charmers,/When are you going to bring me good news?" Koch was always looking for good news, and as a result he discovered it everywhere. How many other poets could write "A Poem of the Forty-Eight States" and find something to love in each and every one of them? Who else could have spun, much less thrilled to, the line: "Oh railroad stations, pennants, evenings, and lumberyards!"? His extravagant revels are infectious.
This palpable, ceaseless enthusiasm for both writing and life itself sets Koch apart from a pantheon of poets who too often forget the pleasure principle. Perhaps most important, he generously invited all of us into his neighborhood, even providing instructions for living there on occasion. "Making love must be everything," he advised in "The Art of Love." "A city, not a street; a country, not a city; the universe, the world--/Make yours so, make it even a galaxy." This bountiful tide crashes through Koch's Collected Poems, which comes in at more than 700 pages and is dense enough at times to be daunting to even the most dedicated reader. Still, when one considers how much Koch struggled to exclude, it's hard to hold a grudge against him. His life was a whirlwind of influences and reactions and actions and the mad rush to figure it all out. As he wrote in a long, marvelous poem called "Days and Nights":
There are very few poems
Compared to all the thought
And the activity and the sleeping and the falling in love
And out of love and the friendships
And all the talk and the doubts and the excitement
And the reputations and the philosophies
And the opinions about everything and the sensitivity
And the being alone a lot and having to be with others
A lot and the going to bed a lot and getting up a lot and seeing
Things all the time in relation to poetry
And just when you think you want to stop the ride and get off, Koch chimes in with a revelation so sweet and so calm that you stay on. "I want spring, I want to turn like a mobile/In a new fresh air!" he wrote in an early poem called "Desire for Spring." "O breeze, my lovely, come in, that I mayn't be stultified!"
Above all else, Koch was a poet of charm. He was so mesmerized by the world that no one can fail to be enchanted by his vision of it, not least because it rarely comes without a good dose of irony and appreciation for just how ridiculous the position of the "artist" can be if it goes to your head. While he took his practice very seriously, and spent many years teaching poetry and the value of artistic expression in venues from nursing homes to elementary schools, Koch never gave up on the idea that verse is based, ultimately, on life. In a tiny poem called "AESTHETICS OF BEING GLORIOUS," he argued, simply, for the pleasures of beginning from one's rightfully earthbound spot: "To be glorious, take off your wings/Before you fly." In a series of poems called "In Bed" that explore, with varying degrees of sobriety, the role of this central piece of furniture to human existence, he wrote first a one-liner called "BEAUTIFUL GIRL IN BED": "Why I am happy to be here." He followed it up with a singular, deeply comic contribution to the genre of worshiping one's lady love that reminds us how silly such flights of romantic fancy can be. Marvell has nothing on the jovial spoof "OTHER POETRY BED": "Shall I compare you to a summer's bed?/You are more beautiful."
Contrary to conventional wisdom, Koch was more than a poet of comic verse, a label that dogged him throughout his life. At its best, his work captures the deep pleasures of being alive and of being fully conscious of one's own luck. There is a gentleness to his joy that in no way diminishes its force, a rare combination that reverberates in anyone fortunate enough to be open to it in all its possibility. Here is Koch, in "To My Heart at the Close of Day":
At dusk light you come to bat
As Georg Trakl might put it. How are you doing
Aside from that, aside from the fact
That you are at bat? What balls are you going to hit
Into the outfield, what runs will you score,
And do you think you ever will, eventually
Bat one out of the park? That would be a thrill
To you and your contemporaries! Your mighty posture
Takes its stand in my chest and swing swing swing
You warm up, then you take a great step
Forward as the ball comes smashing toward you, home
Plate. And suddenly it is evening.
How mournful to lose such a wellspring of loving energy. O baseball! O balmy nights! O Kenneth Koch!