The Collected Poems of Kenneth Koch, Knopf, 761 pp., $40
In one of his best essays, poet John Ashbery remembers arriving in New York after his Harvard graduation in 1949 and visiting Kenneth Koch, who had graduated the year before. Koch lived on the third story of a building next to the El at Third Avenue where ``one of Kenneth's distractions was to don a rubber gorilla mask and gaze out his window at the passing trains."
Anyone who has read a Koch poem can imagine what it was like to glance up from the humdrum ride and see that gorilla. Until his death, in 2002 , Kenneth Koch was the King Kong of American poetry. His work, with its sheer explosions of animal impulse, made so much of the surrounding landscape look like a clutter of corporate experiment and prefab memoir.
Along with poets like Ashbery, James Schuyler, Frank O'Hara, and Barbara Guest , Koch was a member of a group known as the New York School . These poets were influenced by the visual artists of the day, about whom they often wrote. It's not that they wanted to describe pleasing images. On the contrary, they explored the properties of language apart from its conventional functions.
They objected to the seriousness of their immediate predecessors, chief among whom was Robert Lowell. As a result, they cultivated lighter tones. Imagine a cheerier Holden Caulfield, one who's read the French Surrealists, and you'll get a sense of the insouciant tenor of the New York School poets.
Koch's poetry thrives on instability. The thrill of reading him comes from following his vertiginous swoops and hairpin turns. The poet's talents improved over time. Many of the early lyrics feel like absurdist exercises, attempts to see what structures remained once logic had been abandoned. These methods probably helped to loosen up the young poet. But the poems themselves have the cramped feeling of academic cubism. The refusal to make sense constricts them.
The turning point came in the late 1960s, with the collection ``The Pleasures of Peace." In the decade that followed Koch wrote many of his best poems, among them ``Sleeping With Women," ``The Circus," ``The Art of Love," and ``Our Hearts." In this new work, Koch often wrote in the seemingly ordinary idioms of instruction manual directions, or of matter-of-fact anecdotes. Certainly, the improvisatory surprises kept coming, and Koch quickened the poems with his technical virtuosity; he was always able to inhabit forms as varied as the stanzas of Byron's ``Don Juan," Elizabethan ``fourteeners," or Whitmanian catalogs. But his style loosened. Reading his poems from the late '60s and '70s, you get a sense that there's a human inside the gorilla.
This weave of jocularity and sincerity, of intricate playfulness and plain speech, shows in the strongest of Koch's late poems. These include ``One Train May Hide Another," ``Energy in Sweden," and ``The Seasons." But perhaps the best of all remains ``Bel Canto," from his 2002 collection ``A Possible World." The poem, which snakes its way through the ottava rima form, addresses the ambition to ``write a life," to make some sense of the past and present without employing the usual conventions of autobiography. Here, after discussing love affairs, Koch makes the comparison with writing poetry: ``In poems the same problem or a similar./ Desire of course not only to do old things/ But things unheard of yet by nuns or visitors/ And of the melancholy finch be co-finch / In singing songs with such a broad parameter/ That seamstresses would stare, forget to sew things,/ Astronauts quit the sky, athletes the stadium/ To hear them, and the rest of what they hear be tedium." The refreshingly juvenile, erotic thrill that appears in phrases like ``things unheard of yet by nuns" exists alongside the ultimate, serious ambition: the desire to contain the whole world by ``singing songs with such a broad parameter." This shifts, in turn, into the cartoonish image of the athletes and astronauts. Koch never rests too long on one tone of voice. Yet he manages to make a shapeliness from his jumble.
To read through this new collection, despite the clutter of the early work, is to see how extensive the range of the poet's language can be, how he can make art from tones of voice and registers of speech that may at first seem un poetic. Koch's achievement stands as a reminder of the appetitive urges that drive all our acts of making in the first place. His poetry remains an event, a happening, a burst of animal vigor.
Peter Campion is the author of the poetry collection ``Other People. " He teaches at Washington College, in Maryland.