Big laughs are not the sort of response we immediately associate with most modern poetry. Humor and satire are integral components of some of the great modernist works of fiction — think James Joyce's Ulysses, Italo Svevo's The Confessions of Zeno, much of Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita and Pale Fire, especially — even when the overall effect is one of seriousness. But laughs are few and far between in the contemporary poetic canon. Not that there aren't funny poets to be found and funny patches in lots of poems. And there were many skilled light versifiers throughout the course of the 20th century, contemporaneous with the great modernists, though the ranks of these humorous poets decidedly began thinning as the last century wore on.
Aggressively pursuing humor as a poet — like being popular among readers — relegates a writer to secondary status in the eyes of the critical establishment. Wit is more highly thought of, and the archer the wit, the better. Think of T.S. Eliot, or of W.H. Auden (who was very much in the Eliot camp), or the element of surprise in the language that runs through Wallace Stevens' work. Subtlety, not big yuks, is what's considered noteworthy.
I thought of these things as I made my way through Selected Poems by Kenneth Koch, recently published by the Library of America as part of its American Poets Project. Koch (pronounced "Coke"), who was among the more devoted practitioners of humorous verse, had great visibility throughout his career and a popular following among New York writers. But during his lifetime, no matter how many people admired him, the late poet was considered by critics to be minor at best.
But perhaps this small-scale canonization via Library of America may bring him notoriety since his is a brand of verse unlike any other. While his poems are always original and often startling, they are also great fun — which, in the end, sometimes seems Koch's entire point.
Beatniks and Surrealists
It is altogether fitting that someone like Ron Padgett should edit this small sampling of Koch's work. Padgett is himself a poet with many volumes to his credit, whose work is indicative of what's become known as the New York School of poets, a loose grouping of which Koch was also considered a member.
The New York School was a movement that came of age in the 1950s and '60s, saw some overlap with the Beat poets, and was particularly influenced by the music and art being created at that time, especially jazz and bebop, and Abstract Expressionist painting. The ferment that was New York City during those formative decades provided the locale for many of Koch's poems, with famous writers and painters — think Frank O'Hara and Fairfield Porter — moving in and out of the poetic frame. The other major influence on this group was the poetry of the French surrealists, such as Guillaume Apollinaire, who particularly inspired Koch.
In his introductory remarks, Padgett notes of his friend and colleague that "it is a happy coincidence that the first line of poetry in this book is an exclamation and that the last poem begins with the idea of excitement, for throughout his life Kenneth Koch was highly energized by the mystery and pleasure of being alive and by writing poetry that became a part of that mystery and pleasure. The selection of poems in this volume tracks his excitement that began with rambunctious and inventive literary fireworks and deepened over the years into a moving lyricism that never lost its freshness, mirroring a life whose anxieties and doubts were transmuted into adventure and joy."
Koch was born in Cincinnati in 1925 and, according to Padgett, wrote his first poem at age 7 — "four rhymed lines he copied a few years later into a notebook that he called Scribble-ins of Kenneth Koch, a collection of his own writing and comic strips." His mother, proud of her only child, sometimes asked him to stand on a chair and recite his poems. Koch called her "my first fan."
Lillian Loth Koch had a love of drama and theatrics, and studied the lives and works of famous women in history, then created and performed monodramas about them for women's clubs in the Cincinnati area. Koch's father was, in Padgett's words, "calm, stable and gentlemanly, but something of a bystander in the family dynamics." An executive in the Loth family furniture business, Stuart Koch made a more than respectable living for his wife and son. "Lilly's and Stuart's forebears were Austrian and German Jews, respectively, who had immigrated in the mid-19th century to Cincinnati."
Throughout his early education and on into high school, Koch's talents were encouraged by teachers and relatives alike. He graduated from Walnut Hills High School as the United States was entering into World War II, and eventually wound up in the 96th Division, Army Infantry and was sent to fight in the Pacific. Throughout it all — and he saw a good deal of battle — he told himself that he had to survive because of his poetry.
Two months after his discharge in January 1946, Koch entered Harvard, where he studied with someone he called a "real" poet, the first he'd met, the fabled Jewish neurotic, Delmore Schwartz. It was also at Harvard that Koch began making the sort of literary friendships that would sustain him throughout his life. The most important of these was fellow poet John Ashbery, who eventually introduced him to Frank O'Hara.
After Harvard, Koch did graduate work at Columbia University, and during this period became close to the painters Jane Freilicher and Larry Rivers, two of the strongest influences on his life and work.
He eventually spent time in Europe — in France, particularly, where he nurtured his deep and abiding love of French literature — and then returned to do more graduate work at the University of California, where he met his future wife, fellow English student Mary Jane Elwood, whom Padgett describes as "an intelligent and beautiful young woman of Quaker background."
But after a year at Berkeley, Koch could no longer bear being away from his New York friends and so returned to Manhattan. Mary followed him, and they soon moved into an apartment together on Perry Street in Greenwich Village. They were married in 1954. (As it turned out, they were divorced, amicably, in 1980, and when Elwood died a year later, it proved to be a great loss for Koch, according to Padgett.)
But it was not until 1962 that Grove Press published Koch's first considerable compilation of poems, Thank You and Other Poems, a book noteworthy for containing a number of verses that are still anthologized today. The flow of poetry books never slowed until the ebullient writer's final illness in 2002.
There are any number of examples of Koch's inimitable style and high spirits, but one will have to do. It is titled "Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams":
I chopped down the house that you had
been saving to live in next summer.
I am sorry, but it was morning, and I had
nothing to do
and its wooden beams were so inviting.
We laughed at the hollyhocks together
and then I sprayed them with lye.
Forgive me. I simply do not know what
I am doing.
I gave away the money that you had
been saving to live on for the next
The man who asked for it was shabby
and the firm March wind on the porch
was so juicy and cold.
Last evening we went dancing and I
broke your leg.
Forgive me. I was clumsy, and
I wanted you here in the wards, where
I am the doctor!