[Kenneth Koch (1925-2002]
Kenneth Koch last week – Here’s transcription of Kenneth’s (Summer Academy of Practicing Writers) May 26, 1979 Naropa class
KK: [on being confronted with a tape-recorder] – Am I registering alright on the future? – ”nothing must be lost” – I don’t know when anybody’s going to find time to listen to all the things that are being recorded in the present. They’ll be wasting their lives doing (catch-up)..
My name is Kenneth Koch, and I’m sorry I was late, and I ‘m sorry we had to change rooms. It seemed very gloomy and dark and hot down there, and scattered. I like the idea of these classes at Naropa, but I don’t exactly know what I’m going to say, because I didn’t know who’d be in the room and I didn’t know what you’d be interested in. Also, I believe it’s impossible to teach anybody anything in a two-hour lecture (or even in four hours). One can excite people, confirm an idea they’ve already had, give them the idea to go on and do something else, but, as far as really teaching anybody something about writing (or reading literature), I think it takes longer. Therefore, it didn’t seem to make any sense to bring in any texts and to teach them, or even to have you write a lot (tho’ I’m going to have you write a little bit) . It’s also a lot easier to teach than it is to lecture, and is much more satisfying. Lecturing is rather peculiar. I mean, all this, that’s supposed to be a class, is kind of a lecture, because I don’t know you, and we’ll spend very little time together. I wonder if there’s some way I could find out who you all are? How many of you are at Naropa for the first time this summer? [show of hands] and how many of you altogether are full-time students, somewhere ? [further show of hands] – Very few – How many of you write poetry? – Oh dear, really few! – (Hmm, what do I know now that I didn’t know before?) -How many of you.. how many of you have studied at Naropa last year, as well as (for) the summer?
See, when I started to teach writing (which I did rather early on, in my early thirties, I think), it was immensely enjoyable to me and I really had a feeling that I was accomplishing something, because the other people who were teaching writing were doing it, I thought, very badly. The poetry that I wrote (and the poetry that Frank O’Hara wrote and that John Ashbery wrote (we were all friends and influenced each other a lot) – this poetry was completely unknown, to almost everybody (except about twelve people, maybe fifteen). Nobody even recognized that what we were doing was really poetry at all, and it was a great pleasure to reveal to people whether or not they had yet been prejudiced by, ruined by, infected by, the going academic idea of poetry at that time – I’m talking about the early (19)50’s early-to-middle (19)50’s – (is that right? – no, it’s not 1950, let’s see..where the hell am I? – the late (19)50’s).
The general idea of a poem at the time I started teaching writing, which was in the late (19)50’s, 1960, the general idea was that a poem was something in quatrains and it rhymed and it was something full of strict wit . You can get an idea of it by reading copies of the Partisan Review or the Sewanee Review or the Kenyon Review, the Hudson Review, from those years. The.. All the great experimentation that had taken place in American poetry before, during and after World War I, that was all over. The general idea was that the people who edited magazines and anthologies and were sort of the bosses of the poetry world… It was wonderful what (Ezra) Pound and (William Carlos) Williams and (Wallace) Stevens, and so on, had done, but now is the time to get serious and to really make structures that worked, to really write what really was some kind of… one could call it academic poetry, or one could call it, as I said in my poem, “Fresh Air”, poetry written “with their eyes on the myth/..the Missus and the midterms”, (since those seemed to be the subjects of those.. at least, the poems of the younger poets who were in that awful anthology called… which you probably haven’t ever seen, because it died a deserved death –New Poets of America and England – [Editorial note – it was actually titled The New Poets of England and America] – edited by Donald Hall and Louis Simpson. You should look it up). The.. Everybody was writing these very safe quatrains about, oh, getting married, or separating, or what-it-was-like-to-teach-in-a-University-in-Iowa, Illinois, or something.
In any case, nobody had read, or had seemingly been influenced by, the French poets between the wars. Nobody seemed to have been influenced by Walt Whitman in any radical kind of way. (Walt Whitman, I think, seemed kind of unhealthy and floppy). Nobody ever seemed to go to the ballet or seemed to go to opera. Nobody seemed to know much about painting. In other words, people were, there was.. (I’m generalizing, of course, and this was all in my little prejudiced head). It just seemed to me, from the poetry that got published, that it was.. it was very narrow, and it was all written by people who were just thinking about what other people said about what other people said about what other people said. And, so it was a great pleasure to come into a class. Like, if I had come into this class twenty years ago, fifteen years ago, I’d’ve said, “Why don’t you…” I’d have had you all write a little stream of consciousness, or I’d have made you all buy a book of William Carlos Williams and read him and write three poems imitating his style.
I’d have told you to go home and dream, then to write a poem about your dream and also to write a prose account of your dream. And then I would have discovered that the prose accounts were better poems than the poems, because, in the poems, you would have interpreted the dreams, and put them in quatrains, and generalized; in the prose account, you would have actually written about the details. There’d still be a hole in the screen on the porch in the summerhouse. Whereas, in the poem, it would have turned into “the dark mystery of summer”, or something!
But you’ve all probably read William Carlos Williams, you’ve probably all written what comes into your head and you’ve all probably used whatever it is that’s not in your mind now and out of your mind, your unconscious, in your poetry, so you don’t need any of that.
I was.. it was very enjoyable to help people to write, when I started, because I could free them. They would.. all these people came into my poetry workshop at the New School (that’s where I started to teach – about 1960 – it was an adult workshop) – and they.. they were all playing about three keys on the piano, you know, and I wanted to show them that there was a whole keyboard. In general, the girls were writing quatrains about lost love and the guys were writing free verse poems about how terrible America was! – and, they wanted to go on doing this, and they wanted me to help them get published – And I didn’t want to do this. because I knew I could make them much happier by having them write other things, like having them write sestinas, having them write poems with one word in each line, having them do translation, and having them write poems that made no sense, having them write bad poems (And that was one of the most successful assignments I ever gave – If I had.. if I had a week or two with you, it’s certainly an assignment I’d still give you, because that’s always a good one) . The idea is you tell someone to write the worst poem they can possibly write, just absolutely worst. And.. there’s a prize given at the New School – there used to be – called the Dylan Thomas Poetry Award, and it was given for the best poem written in any writing class. And one of my students won it with this bad poem which was really a good poem, and it was (a) very sensuous, sexy, and really nice Romantic poem – it was really good – and this guy had always written terribly dry things, sort of like “The clipped edge of the board now.. [sic]”, and this poem was terrific, it sallied and all that stuff. Anyway, it was very nice. So I said, “Didn’t you realize at a certain point (that) this poem is good?” – And he said, “You know, half way through, it begins to get kind of good”. See, the reason that writing a bad poem can be inspiring is that it completely gets you away from what you think you have to do, like “I’m real good at writing clipped poems” – Well, there’s nobody in the world that wants a clipped poem that I know of, and, maybe that’s not what you’re good at..sometimes. It’s the kind of thing that turns ones ideas upside down. It allows one to try something one hasn’t tried before.
In any case, this whole process of freeing people from academic constraints seems to me pretty unnecessary at Naropa, where people have probably been over-freed (no, you can’t really be “over-freed”, but you can go on being freed after there’s no more need for it), and one wonders, then, what to do. Certainly in a couple of hours, I can’t… (oh, I could, probably) teach you how to write ottavo rima (I really could!), but it might take two weeks – that is, an iambic pentameter stanza which runs ABABABCC, (like (Lord) Byron used in Don Juan), but the utility of that I don’t quite know, except it would enable you to see that you could do it – you could imitate Byron, and then you’d like Byron more.
However, I still.. there… I don’t know, I was trying to think what I would like to.. the kind of things that poets said, that I liked to hear. One of the main things was.. I was amazed to see anybody, dressed up in regular clothes, and who is allowed to appear in a public place, and who is a poet – (but that was back.. that was back in the (19)50’s, when it was practically a crime to be a poet – which it’s not really anymore, and you’re used to having poets around here). I remember Archibald MacLeish, whose poetry I don’t like particularly, came to the University of Cincinnati, when I was eighteen years old, and every word he said seemed so wonderful to me because he was standing right up there with all these regular people and talking about poetry, this peculiar thing which was sort of a secret between me and my typewriter. And… But you’ve all had a lot of that.
So.. I thought maybe.. (this is in keeping with Naropa, I guess – it would be very Zen if I just went on for two hours and told you (only) what I was not going to do! – However, that might not be the absolutely best thing to do) . I had a couple of ideas.. (Oh, as I said before, I don’t think one can really teach anybody anything in a short time. So I thought, maybe, I could give you a few ideas, or suggest a few things that would at least indicate some things that I and other poets found it useful to do – that is, I can give you some advice). Advice is a real comical thing to give people, right? – One becomes a poet so that one doesn’t have to listen to anybody’s advice. Larry Rivers, the painter, and I have been great friends for many many years and when we were very young in New York we used to have these self-congratulatory conversations about why we were artists (and it made us feel real good to think about the fact that we really were artists), and the best answer that Larry gave was, one day I said, (I don’t know how many times I’d asked him) – “Larry, how come you became a painter?”, and he said , “I wanted to be sitting in my room, and when my mother knocked on the door, I wanted to be able to say,”Go away, I’m doing something important!” – And so that, in a way, in a way if one’s a poet, one doesn’t want any advice. (But if you come to this class, perhaps) –
I’ll start off just by telling you some random things that I think are a good idea, a good way for you to spend the next ten years, or ten days, or something. I think that it’s a.. one of the most important things for a poet to do..(Bob Creeley‘s theorem!) – the most important thing for a poet to do – is to read a lot of other poets and to imitate them, steal anything that’s good in them. I mean really read a lot of poetry of poetry and be influenced by it. (It’s not the most important thing, but it’s one of the two or three most important things). Now, some poets have a problem about doing this, and I understand the problem because, at certain times in my life, I’ve had the problem. (There were) certain times in my life, when I couldn’t read enough novels because it made me too anxious. I was too envious of the happiness of the characters. And there have been times in my life when.. there’ve been times in my life when I didn’t, I felt I just couldn’t, imitate other poets (sometimes I was too envious of other poets to read them and sometimes I just felt like I couldn’t imitate them or I’d lose myself, I’d lose my own talent). Your own talent and your own voice, it is impossible to lose to it. It’s absolutely not possible. If it’s possible to lose it, (then) I assure you, it doesn’t matter. There are a lot of other good things to do in life besides your writing poetry. I mean, there really are, (and if you… ). There’s absolutely no way, (that) I can see, to be corrupted, or to lose your talent, (unless you have radical brain surgery! – or.. unless you’d really rather be doing something else – I never thought it was a tragedy if somebody said, “I’m so worried. I’d rather sell cars than write poetry” – I don’t know, that’s fine, there’s nothing wrong with selling cars – somebody has to sell them, and, you know, if you like it… You only live once..).
Anyway, what was I saying? oh god oh, about reading poetry..yeah it’s a.. I don’t think it’s possible to be original unless you read a tremendous amount and are influenced by lots of people – the idea is arguable but years old but I’m quite sure it’s true. I think you have a chance to be original if you’re. .if you’re living out in the mountains somewhere, and you never come near a place like this [Naropa], and you never come near much evidence of contemporary culture. I think you really might find something original without going through the culture, but, once you’ve been here for a week, you’re finished – or, once you’ve, practically, just gone to the movies and read a few books of poetry, you..the only path for you to originality (and of course it’s a much better path) is, of course, (since there are no people like the person I describe, they don’t write poetry usually, because really what mainly inspires people to write poetry is not falling in love but other poetry), and it’s.. if you’re not influenced by other poets you’re likely to think you’re original when you’re just working on something that Wallace Stevens solved a long time before and got to do terribly well. Why not take the ultimate result of Wallace Stevens ? Why not take what Wallace Stevens can do in “Notes Towards A Supreme Fiction” or “To the One of Fictive Music” or “Sunday Morning” or “The Comedian as the Letter C” ? – Why not just start there? – I mean, nobody in science ever thinks of starting back at (Isaac) Newton. It simply doesn’t make any sense. I mean, you might as well absorb what the greatest poets have done. (It’s a little different in science because in science, it’s sort of all there and there’s new equipment – there’s a machine that’ll do it for you, like the computers there and you’re certainly not going to go back, adding two and two and all that stuff , because the computer’s already there). It’s not that way in poetry, because in order to really do what Wallace Stevens can do, you have to read him, read him hard, and probably you have to imitate him. I mean it’s probably the best way to really take into yourself what somebody else can do is to do it with your own body and your own feelings and your own mind. Stevens said in a letter to a friend – this friend wrote to him and said, “Are you reading a lot?’, and Stevens wrote back and said, “No, I haven’t had time to read, but I’ve been writing a lot of poetry and writing has always seemed to me a superior form of reading”. And it really is for us poets, it’s a great way to read. I don’t think that poets read the way other people do. I mean there are certain poets at certain times in my life, I’ve never been able to read more than two pages without running to the typewriter, because you know you can’t.. one sort of.. if there’s something exiting on a page it’s quite natural to want to try it. So that often, a very bright person, a very talented person, a person with genius for writing poetry, will not have the same kind of knowledge of a poets work as a rather mediocre academic person will, because the poet won’t be able to finish the poem!, because he’ll be writing his own, for one thing, and changing what the other poet did, and for another reason, because the poet will be finding something else in the poetry. Maybe some of you have come to Naropa because you’re not doing well in school elsewhere because you have that funny kind of mind. It’s not necessarily bad. I had a lot of trouble with literature in college because.. I mean, I finally figured it out, but I avoided a lot of courses I should have taken because what I really wanted to get from poetry was inspiration. I went to Harvard, and I remember I went to the Chairman of the English Department, and he said, ”Well you’re an English Major, you should take this course in Milton”. And I was stupid at the time I thought I wouldn’t like Milton, I said “I don’t think it’ll stimulate me“. He said, “You’re not here to be stimulated, Mr Koch, you’re here to be educated”. And, it seems to me that Naropa is a place where there’s a hope at least of a kind of education where stimulation is a part of being educated, that one needs both parts.
Anyway, it’s very good to read a lot. Probably a good way to begin is to read contemporary poetry. It’s the easiest..it’s the easiest to get – There are all its famous difficulties. Delmore Schwartz, who was my teacher at Harvard said that it.. it’s about as hard to read modern poetry as it is to learn to play bridge. He said he found it more rewarding, (but then he was a poet and not a bridge-player). It.. You really can’t lose your own voice because.. what happens.. the whole stuff about your way of saying things and expressing yourself – in the first place, the “you” in your poem isn’t really you, in my opinion – It is in a way. I believe what Paul Valery said, he said, “a poem is something from someone who is not the poet, addressed to someone who is not the reader”, that is to say, you’re… you know..When I’m writing poetry, I can be in France in one line and Rome in the next and underground in a copper mine in the next, and I can be.. I can be speaking three different languages at the same time, I can be dreaming and awake. I don’t have these powers except when I’m writing. So that the.. Also, my concerns when I write poetry aren’t exactly the same as those I have when I’m not writing. During the Vietnam War for example, I was very concerned about the war and moderately active against it (even went to jail once) . I never could write a poem about it. I finally did manage to write a poem called “The Pleasures of Peace”, a long poem, but all the parts about the horrors of the war and the sufferings of the people in Vietnam.. I couldn’t keep them in the poem because they were lousy poetry, or at least they didn’t come up to my standards. And.. So the poem ended up being a poem in praise of peace, which, is about as close as I could get. And this didn’t have anything to do with, you know, the way I acted when I wasn’t writing. So it really is a different person who writes the poem, and I don’t think one can entirely choose exactly what that person is going to be like. I think it’s worth trying. I mean, I thought it was worth trying to write a very serious political poem and I’m glad I did it. My relative lack of success is.. I mean, in a certain way I like the poem, it’s alright, and that experience, but anyway, I was saying that one, one has a different voice as a poet at different . I think it’s true, and a number of poets have noticed it, you find a style, maybe you find the style when you’re twenty-five-years-old, twenty-seven-years-old, and you can say anything in it, you’re very happy, it’s what it’s like falling in love – great! – and you can write ..you can write a lot of poems. And you try writing the same poem when you’re twenty-nine, and you can’t do it. That.. that’s just.. you can’t use the same style , and there’s something about your voice that’s changed, about your person that’s changed. I mean, one would expect that somebody would change in such a sensitive place – the place in which one writes poetry. One would expect.. one would expect that to change. You certainly wouldn’t expect a poet to be like a monolith who.. I mean, imagine feeling the same way about love now that you did ten years ago? – you’d be a funny person – or even feeling the same way about sleeping, or taking a walk, or… And when you get into these very rareified things (poetry’s more rareified than experience) the.. your… the associations of words that are connected with your body, with your walking and with your sleeping, they’ll probably have changed even more. So I think one should be ready to.. for that kind of change. It’s very discouraging, I found it discouraging. I think I found, let’s see, one.. oh, I don’t know, I found about four styles that were my own, completely my own, they weren’t like anybody else really, I was perfectly happy in them, I could say anything I felt in them – and I don’t (have) any of them anymore. I mean, I had some for two years, I had some for four years. Anyway, what presumably I was talking about was how you should read a lot of poets. You can’t lose anything of yourself by being influenced by a poet, no matter how strong (he is). All you can do is learn from him [or her] how to do it. Just like by imitating the hand movements of great pianists, I presume, one could get a kind of knowledge in one’s body about, about.. which would enable one to play the piano in an original way, because the impulses that would come from one’s mind or heart or whatever to the piano would not be the same as (Arthur) Rubinstein, but your hands would at least be able to do what he could do.
Anyway, so, after that long parenthesis, the first thing I suggest to everybody when I teach writing at Columbia is that they read a lot of modern poetry and be influenced by.. I also think that one has to learn to read the poetry of the past and be influenced by that too. I mean, there are lots of people around who only read modern poetry and, I don’t know, that’slike just knowng about fashion instead of knowing about clothes. The.. There ‘s some people, there’s some modern poets, who might not tell you that you have to be able to be influenced by Dante and John Donne and Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe, just as much as you’re influenced by people around now, they might just forget to tell you that, or they might not want you to be as good as they are, but, if they’re good poets, if they’re good poets, they haven’t just been influenced by contemporary poetry. Now the poetry of the past is a little harder. Probably you have to study it. It’s one of the good reasons for going to a college. I mean, I think one can really question the whole thing, like “Why go to school, if you want to write poetry?” One good reason is to learn how to read the poetry of the past and the fiction of the past. It’s a little bit of a . There are.. If you take a.. say, a poem by Shelley or Keats, I think there are two ways that you can read it, you know, sort of two extremes. You can read, well, let’s take “Ode to the West Wind” which Allen makes everybody read, which begins.. (I don’t remember much of it, I only..) – “O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being” Well, I read that one way when I was fifteen years old and I got something out of it, I got, I got a big rush-y feeling about words, I got a feeling that I could talk to nature (and it was pretty good all that, that I could say “O”, and I could use “thou”, and I could say things like .. that I could say , “O windows, opening thy breath, through which this night..”, I could do that, But I didn’t know what Shelley was talking about, and I didn’t, I didn’t really..I couldn’t really be Shelley..I didn’t.. I couldn’t feel the way he did. I could feel the way a modern person does responding to Shelley (which is pretty good, I mean, it kept me going for quite a few years, reading poetry that way), but there’s something else you get when you can really hear Hamlet saying, “To be or not to be, that is the question”. You can hear that as, “Jesus, I wonder if I should knock myself off”. because it doesn’t sound like that, See, “To be or not to be, that is the question”, Hamlet is a young guy, a successful guy, who’s a prince, a prince in a nice clean cold country and everything, everything is terrific, except, you know, your father.. (you think maybe your mother killed your father, and so you..), but ..you’re thinking, like, you’re very rich and everything, and you think, “Jesus Christ, I really think I’ve got to kill myself”, and…
But you hear “To be or not to be, that is the question..” – And what that meant to me, for years, was.. (what) that suggested to me.. there’s all this patina on it, you know that stuff you get on old jars – “Renaissance”, “Nobility of Man”, “The Compleat Man”, “Hamlet”,”Shakespeare”, “Stratford”, I never thought of anybody wanting to kill themselves when I read that line. It’s worth going to school to be able to hear Hamlet saying, “I wonder if I should kill myself” – and, it’s not easy. Because all that, all the “thee”s and “thou”s and the funny words and everything, really get in the way. I think you can be quite inspired by just reading it flat, as though it were written yesterday, and I wouldn’t say no to that at all, even..
and I.. I wouldn’t say there’s no point in reading a poem in a foreign language that you don’t understand, either. I mean you read “Jadis, si je me souviens bien…”, if you read it, ‘Jah-dees see jee me sou-vienns bee-enn”, it might maks you think about, “Janis, let’s go and visit Uncle Ben”, and that’s a fine line, you know, that’s alright, I mean, but you won’t be getting that sort of sweet dark sexy nostalgia that Rimbaud put in those words. “Once, if I remember rightly, my life was a…” – “Jadis, si je me souviens bien, ma vie était un festin où s’ouvraient tous les coeurs, où tous les vins coulaient” – my life was a party, at which all the wines were flowing” [from “Une Saison en Enfer” (“A Season in Hell”)
It’s really good to be able to read (John) Donne and (William) Shakespeare and all those people as though they were talking to you, as though they were William Carlos Williams or Allen Ginsberg, or Frank O’Hara. You really hear them in a certain way.. I.. anyway, I suggest that. I suggest also that you learn a foreign language.
I don’t suppose too many people come to Naropa because they want to be told to do a lot of work, but there’s no way to be a good poet without doing a lot of . It’s all very pleasant because you keep getting better and better. It’s like.. I mean, you never have to wait. You don’t have to wait till you speak French like Paul Claudel to be influenced by learning Fremch, as soon as you pick up a language book and it says, ””It’s raining. It’s snowing. The sun is shining, How long have you been in Paris? How long have you been in Madrid? I like France, I hate France,”, you’ve practically got a poem. I mean, right away, when you started to say, like, je suis content (I’m happy), you’re thinking about the difference between the word “happy” and “content”, and “contentment” and “happiness”, and…it’s inspiring, instantly. So it’s.. I would never propose to people.. I think it’s too punishing to say,“You’ve got a lot of work to do in the next three years, and then you can write a poem” – I’ve never had students write an exercise in the twenty years I’ve been teaching, they’re always writing poetry. I mean, you don’t learn anything from doing exercises I don’t think. You don’t learn as much . It’s very boring, like, “Why don’t you all pretend to be friends?” – and then there’s all that yucky stuff they do – you know, touch each other!” – I mean that exercise – (faking) affection. I don’t think it makes any sense. I think you should really like somebody or really..really write a poem. The reason it’s great to know a foreign language is that, in the first place, just with as in the poetry of the past, then you can read all these things that would otherwise be completely closed off to you. Also, it gives one a very nice.. it gives one a very nice and true sense about words, like… let’s see.. [Koch looks around for an object] – this thing here – this isn’t really the same as the sound “glasses”, right?, nor is it the same as the sound “lunette”, which it is in French, “little moon:”, “lune“.. let’s see and in Italian it’s.. what is the Italian?
Student : Spectaculo?
KK: I don’t think it is.
Student: That’s Spanish [anteojos]
KK: “Spectaculo” in Italian is… – what?
KK: Occhiali – that’s it –Occhiali – yeah, that’s the eye, and it’s sort of.. it sort of gives you this nice free space feeling about language, (that) you really realize, in a good way, that words aren’t the same as things, (they’re) sort of floating around and you would sort of attach them to things, and it was really inspiring to me. Even in the first stages of my learning French, I remember when I learned the word… Also, if you learn a lot about what the words mean it’s very interesting – I remember when I first said the word in French , “apartement”, which is the word for apartment, I never knew where that word came from and, as soon as it was separated by that little “a-“, it’s a way to live to keep people apart – apartement – there’s this part, and then there’s this part of you apart. I was also very astonished also by “désastre”, which is the French word for disaster – “astre”, means planets and “dé” means from – disaster is something that’s – boom! lightning strikes you. It’s.. It’s also nice just…It gives one a nice feeling for the sound of words. And it also..it’s terrific because it enables you to do translation. And translations are one of the best things in the world to do when you’re feeling uninspired, when you’re feeling dry, and you feel you can’t say anything, or you’re stuck on some subject, translations are really good because you realize, when you’re doing translations, that.. that what poetry’s all about is language (and this is what sculpture’s all about – it’s stone and clay, and music is all about sound). I mean, you can make meaning with language, but you gotta.. it’s language. And translation always reminds one of that and it’s something one can do when one is not particularly inspired. One gets very involved in it. Another nice thing about translation is, you know how you’re influenced and inspired by the poems that you’ve written yourself, how, like, some line that you’ve written in another poem will come back in another form, or in the same form, and you’ll feel really inspired and use it in a better way? – Well, see, if you translate a poem by Rimbaud or Baudelaire or Pasternak, or anybody, if you work hard on it, it becomes one of your poems, as far as your unconscious is concerned, and it, it becomes part of what you’ve done, it becomes part of what’s liable to happen when you write so it’s a really dramatic deep way of being influenced is to translate.
Let’s see, what have I recommended? Reading a lot of modern poetry, and Studying the poetry of the past and being influenced by that, and Learning a Foreign Language…
It’s very good to have a couple of friends that are really good poets, who are good enough to make you envy them, and who know what you’re doing, and… I found that the most valuable thing in my life as a poet, that I was friends with John Ashbery and Frank O”Hara. I didn’t need, when I was in my twenties, I didn’t need to be published (I would have liked it. I wasn’t though). I didn’t need to be published, I didn’t need to be applauded with readings (I didn’t get any readings!). I didn’t get many readers (I think I had about twenty).
I needed.. I needed something.. I mean, John and Frank reached.. were worth.. , I mean, they were worth more than a hundred thousand readers each. You just.. One needs,one needs people to make the world of writing poetry real for you, and to keep you going.
I don’t think it’s good to be the only poet in the little town, where everybody admires you and thinks you’re great because you’re a poet, and lets you get drunk, and you give radio programs, and you write for the newspaper, and you get to make out with everybody. It doesn’t do your poetry any good. You may get a happy life but it’s not good for your poetry because there’s no competition. Competition’s really good. I recommend places where there are a lot of good poets. New York’s an awful place to live, but it’s a great place to be a poet. It used to be anyway. I presume it still is. I still lived there – but I think I’m already formed.. It’s annoying, in order to be a good poet but I really do recommend it
Let’s see.. oh, I think it’s a good idea to write a lot, really write a lot. Many, many young poets are working very hard at one or two little things, and I think that if you haven’t….I think it’s good to try a lot of different things. I think, among these things, different ways of revising (which I’ll talk about in a minute, because that’s kind of interesting). It’s a problem to make revision as interesting as the first time, but it can be done. It can make it easier for you to try lots of different kinds of writing , if you can find a good poetry-teacher. I see one function of my poetry workshop, which I teach at Columbia, as making it easier for people to try things that they’re not good at. People who aren’t writing don’t know how humiliating it is to write something that’s bad, that’s stupid and clumsy (even when nobody ever sees it), but, you know, anybody that’s a poet knows how awful it makes you feel. It’s like… I don’t know, it’s like failing at a conversation, or in love, or something, it’s just awful, even if nobody knows about it. And if you..if you get pretty good writing ironic poems about the city in free verse, you know, you write that, and, “that’s a good one of yours, Kenny”, and you don’t.. Someone says. “Why don’t you try writing.. why don’t you write a couple of sestinas and just…or why don’t you write a poem with a city and an item of clothing and a color in every line?..see what.. not really stupid..
But in the class I take, they do that – Because everbody’s doing it, you don’t risk any humiliation, the teacher doesn’t expect a masterpiece, so you can try things you wouldn’t normally do. So.. I imagine you can find some pretty good writing teachers around here at various times. Different writing teachers are good for different people. I don’t think it’s a good idea to spend your life in a writing workshop… there are people who get a heavy dependence. I think it’s alright to try a couple, but I’d suggest taking a year off after you have a good one, you know. It would be terrific.. It’s wonderful, if you can find a good teacher of literature, if you could find somebody who could teach Romantic Poetry so that it’s really alive and it’s connected to things you care about, you’re so lucky. But even, even if you find somebody who just respects the literature but isn’t quite as alive as you are, it’s alright. At least you’ll get to read the work and you won’t be forced into a lot of bad ideas. I think that, as a poet.. being a poet has a certain… one learns but one has to defend onself a little bit against academic types, and.. I’ll talk about that a little bit.
Most people I know, I mean, not people that I associate with..but I travel a lot.. because I did this thing – teaching kids to write poetry and..(I) meet a lot of teachers and all kinds of people who never read poetry. Most people in the United States, as far as I know, either dislike, or are indifferent to it, or a lot even hate poetry. And the reason they do is.. and these are people, notstupid people , they are people who wouldn’t think their life was worth..really worthwhile unless they went to concerts sometimes, unless they went to good movies, unless they went to the opera if it came to town, unless they traveled, you know, and went to Europe, unless they saw good paintings, but you talk to them about poetry and they say, ”Oh poetry? I don’t know what to say, I don’t know, I don’t get it, I guess.” And you look at them, and it’s like somebody says, “Yeah, I don’t know, I see a lot of things, I hear a lot of things, I see a lot of things, even my nose smells a lot of things…”. You’re missing a lot – And it’s very hard to convince them. And here’s where they don’t like it. I think it’s fairly simple – The way most people that I know were taught poetry in high school and in college is briefly, this – a poem is something created by a very clever sadist, who hides a lot of.. who hides a symbol in a lot of onamatopoeia and alliteration and all that stuff. So.. The point of reading a poem is – you pick up a poem and you’re supposed to find what it really means. So somebody said, “I’m going to take a walk today” – Is it Christ? – You know, it can’t be just a guy taking a walk! – and….so, you’ve got to find what it really means, so a poem, it doesn’t mean what’s there. (I mean, the whole idea of what language means in general is too much to.. go into today – lets assume it means something, but, at least, let’s assume if the guy says “I’m going to take a walk, it doesn’t mean “Oh, God”, alright, otherwise that psychosis is going to take over completely. Alright, so, you look at the poem and you say, (you’re a kid, you’re in high school), you say, “Yeah, the poet says he’s going to take a walk”, (and) the teacher says, (No), really read that line, come on – stupid!” – And so you read it and you read it, and jesus! – and even if you think..even if you find the secret meaning, you won’t know it as well as the teacher. That’s why teachers.. it’s part of the teaching industry to teach this way because you really know something, you know. It got to be very important when all the money was going for science so we could get ahead of the Russians. I had an English teacher say “Well, what am I doing?” – But if he knows the symbolism that nobody else does then they need you. It’s really hard to do worthwhile work if you’re an English teacher.
And even the poor teacher, though, can’t know it as well as the poet who must be pictured as someone insane sitting in a tower, chuckling over a poem that nobody will ever enjoy or understand. Now, since you’ve all written poems, you know that that’s not the way poets feel, and you should never let anybody tell you that, it’s utterly stupid. I don’t know how this industry got started. It’s like then.. I mean.. (thinking about McDonalds, and stuff) I mean, you know, you can’t tell what’s going to really catch on. But that something like that should catch on in the intellectual world is very strange. But I would say that ninety-nine percent of professors, probably, probably teach poetry wrong. They’re probably… they’ve probably been too influenced by this.. (not ninety-nine percent, that’s silly because I don’t know enough of them, I hate to jump to generalize (especially for the tape-recorder) but an awful lot of teachers that I’ve known and listened to make that mistake of thinking). So this means that when people graduate from school they pick up a book of poems as an unpleasant experience, it’s kind of humiliating. You pick up a poem and say. “Oh gosh, I’m probably not getting it” and you feel humiliated. Well, you’re making, I don’t know, you’re making twenty, thirty, forty thousand dollars a year, your kids love you, you’re an attractive man or woman, and you’re.. you know, you go to the movies, and you like to smoke and drink and… why should you be humiliated? – why should you pick up one of these awful pills, and.. So you don’t read poetry. And that’s what happens to almost everybody. Like being invited to a party when you don’t have any nice clothes. “Can’t really understand the poem”. So everybody hates poetry. So, one does what one can, you know, to do something about that. I mean, I wrote a couple of books about how to teach poetry to little kids and stuff [Wishes, Lies and Dreams & Rose, Where Did You Get That Red?] – (it’s done a little bit of good).
There are..there are other reasons why people look for deep meanings in poetry, and that’s because.. I mean it’s perfectly natural to do it. It’s just, you have to control the process. I mean, you can’t teach poetry so that all that’s there is the deep meaning. I mean graduate students come to me at Columbia (University) some time, they want me to be.. to help them work on their dissertation, “What are you writing about?” – “The deep meaning of Joseph Conrad” – “No”. I say “no”, they say, “why not?”, I say “Because the deep meaning of Joseph Conrad is the same as the deep meaning of every other writer who lived. There are about five deep meanings which I will now tell you – Life is not worth living, Life seems not worth living but is worth living after all..” You know. There are very few deep meanings. I said, “Why don’t you, why don’t you read some of Conrad’s Letters and read a couple of his novels and think about the difference between his epistolary style and his novel-writing style. I’d love to know about that.It’s very interesting the difference between the way people write letters and write novels. “That’s not deep enough” – Uh – uh – anyway…It’s quite natural – I’m getting a bit off the subject . The reason it’s natural to find deep meanings in poetry and the reason this whole critical and professorial mistake started, I think, is this – The almost.. The intention of almost all language is either to just keep life moving along on a jolly way (instead of, like, rubbing and touching and stuff) – “How you doing?” -” I’m great” – “Terrific, that’s great” – “That’s a lie, you son of a bitch”, I mean that just all, that’s, you know, pushing and touching . Then, an awful lot of it is given information – “How do you get to the ladies room?” – “You go down the hall, turn to the left.” Paul Valery said the function of prose is to perish. [ “The essence of prose ois to perish – to be dissolved and replaced by the image it denotes’] That is, you find out how to go to the ladies room, you don’t go through life with the words ringing in your head, “down the hall, turn to the left”. Poetry, poetry is different, because it.. the words would be said, arranged, in a certain way, so that they would stay in your head, and the meaning would not be so precise. Poetry’s a very strange kind of communication. It’s a very strange way of using language, which looks like the regular way of.. [Koch starts reading from the local newspaper] – “Fairview Barton Financial put on an eleventh hour rally Saturday night to score a narrow six to five victory over Colorado Springs Michelle… (hey, the school’s have long names here!) ..victory over Colorado Springs, Michelle Realty, at Scott Carpenter Park”. Now the intention of that is to give information. And poetry looks like that. But it’s not quite like that. It’s sort of like “Fairview put on..” let’s see.. “Fairview put on an eleventh hour Saturday night dress to score a narrow Colorado Springs to Scott’s Reality’ – You know, you could have.. It’s a..it deliberately distorts the ordinary use of language so that it invites dreaming, instead of… opens up, it opens up a fissure, like an earthquake, opens up something, so that all of this rich material one’s not conscious of (except in dream and sometime under the influence of certain stupefying things, sometimes in moments of great passion), one is usually not aware of all of these things that one has seen and forgotten. Like at this moment, (I’m not talking about Freud’s idea of the subconscious as painful things that are repressed). But, at this moment, some part of me, for some time, has been looking at the (green) of what seems to be a car and what seems to be a plastic box with slats out there. In back of it is a breast-like green mountain (part) and there are Venetian blinds which remind me of newsprint and I’m aware of about twenty-five of your faces in this room. I’ve had random thoughts about all of you. All of this will be gone now, unless one of you becomes my friend, or unless I go live on that mountain, or buy that car, you know, but that’s.. this is happening constantly. And all of this stuff is there somewhere. And one is in possession of a tremendous amount of information, of sensation, and it’s like all the keys on the piano. If you have all of these things to compare things to, like all these connections, degrees of consciousness and all different kinds of things, you’re mch more likely to be able to write something powerful and beautiful and new. And poetry sort of deliberately sort of distorts language so that these other associations can appear, so that one can dream, so that one can see in a more powerful way than one ordinarily does. Therefore, since poetry is so rare, hence almost all of what we read is not poetry but it’s this other intention – it’s quite natural if you read a poem and the poet says, “The tree against the window afternoon” (which is not in ordinary prose, but is understandable enough) – it.. that properly makes one think of more trees, more windows, more afternoons, and more weather, more light, than the statement would be, “ I found it of interest to regard the tree through the window in the afternoon”, which makes it just the experience of the person who’s talking and doesn’t give you any chance to associate with it. But, so, since poetry is so odd, in being not information-giving, not direct in that way, it’s quite natural to want to find all kind of deep meanings in it because one is going around with all these deep meanings that (could) define the text. I may generalize, and say, we don’t know why we’re alive, we don’t know anything about death, we don’t understand beauty, we don’t understand love, we don’t understand passion. We understand almost nothing. And yet we care passionately about all these things that not only do we not understand but which modern philosophy has shown us are not real questions. That doesn’t matter to people emotionally at all. We go around with this great mystery. As Walt Whitman said, “I and this mystery, here we we stand”, and the mystery is always looking for a text, it’s looking for a.. it’s looking for a statue it’s looking for a painting, it’s looking for some music, it’s looking for a poem, it’s looking for some words, so that it can say, “that’s me, that’s it, that’s the answer, that’s it! ” And I think that is particularly true when one is in one’s late teens and twenties, that one is… the mystery is almost overwhelming, because it hasn’t been.. it hasn’t been used much. It hasn’t been used much in one’s life yet, it’s just.. and so it’s very very natural for people in college of that age to look for all kinds of mysteries in poetry. I think it doesn’t do you any good to read all poemsas of they were all the same poem that defined the same mystery in “Corinna’s going a-Maying” as you’d find in “The Waste Land”. I mean, then you might as well just read one poem all the time. In any case, that was a good parenthesis but it was something I wanted to say – Resist your professors a little, and read poetry, get with what’s good and.. you don’t have to get mad at them if they say, you know, that it really means something else, just read it for yourself.
I teach this modern poetry course at Columbia, and I used to teach a lot of poets a lot of poems and tell a lot of things about them, and I found, recently, the main thing I have to teach my students is they don’t know how to read a poem. It’s really valuable to know how to read a poem because then you can read all poems and then you can be in touch with all these terrific things. And I had to recognize too that a lot of poetry is really hard to understand. I mean, I don’t know anybody who hasn’t studied a lot who can pick up a poem by (W.B.) Yeats and understand it . And it’s real stupid of the professor to think you can understand a Yeats poem, even an earlier one that I’ve been reading about three times and thinking of, and they’re worth they’re worth understanding. So, I read a… I found something interesting that I think is true. I told my students.. like, I read them a poem, say by Yeats, and I have them read it, and I say, “Just tell me anything you like about this poem – because pleasure is the first sign of understanding. If that seems an odd idea, think of the analogy of music. If you listen to a Mozart Quintet, if you don’t get any pleasure from it, you’re never going to understand it, because the thing is put together to cause pleasure, that’s what it’s all about. If you… I mean, it’s a construction of pleasure. You know art really teaches through pleasure, gives experience through pleasure, that’s why a work of art can’t really be ugly in the ordinary sense.. It can be.. It can use things that are ordinarily thought to be ugly so that they’re beautiful. I mean, you can take a wrecked car and arrange the parts of it so it’s beautiful, or you can.. I mean, you can take things that are even uglier than that, but.. the end-result.. I mean, there’s a kind of shock art where you just want to make a comment on art – and you bring a big pile of… you bring a horse into an art gallery and he defecates and you walk the horse out of that field, and… that’s not really art, but a comment on the history of art, I would say. Anyway , Larry (Fagin), what was I talking about?.
Larry Fagin: I don’t know
KK: You’re too good a listener!
Larry Fagin:… poetry, music, sculpture, ballet, all those things..
KK: Oh yeah..
Student: Teaching it – was that what you were saying?
KK: Oh, teaching it, yeah, yes, that was it.. So I said, “Pleasure is the first sign of understanding”. (If you’ve ever had to suffer through a course at college, you’re probably glad to hear that – that it’s true). Like, you listen to a Yeats poem, and I say, “Just tell me anything you like – it’s impossible to understand this poem the first time you hear it. So people say brilliant things, if you make them believe that’s true. Some guy said, “I like the way this poet, is so.. sounds so convinced that what he’s saying is important”. That’s one of the great things about Yeats. Has there ever been anybody who read a poet (solely) for the content of his poetry? What is all this stuff about meaning? I think, the meaning, it’s important to know the meaning, finally, sure it is, but that’s nor why anybody reads Yeats – his ideas are ridiculous! – I mean, do you believe. like the poem I read was “The Rose of the World”, again, a beautiful poem – “Who dreamed that beauty passes like a dream “ – “Who dreamed that beauty passes like a dream / For those red lips with all their mournful pride,/Mournful that no new wonder may betide/Troy passed away in one high funeral gleam/And Usna’s children died.” – “Usna’s children” are.. who’s that guy who’s in love with Deirdre, that Conchobar killed, Naoise– its spelt N-I-S-I [sic] – somebody in Celtic mythology. Anyway, obviously, you don’t read that (for)… you’re not interested in that poem because you really want to believe that there was a Spirit of Beauty in the form of a Woman who stood beside God’s throne at the Creation. I mean, what an idea! – except (it’s) interesting. (nice), the idea that there’s a huge white pig in the sky that makes all the clouds, but I mean… Anyway ,but..one of the reason you read Yeats is because he sounds like what he say is really so damned important, it’s that wonderful sense of urgency. It’s why I like to look at some of Picasso’s pantings, or like to listen to certain composers, I mean, it’s a …terrific, it was a brilliant comment. I said, “that’s great”. And eventually we went around with everyone just saying what they liked, and eventually we understood the poem. That’s a good way to do it.
Okay, enough about the teaching. Lets see.. I think.. let’s see. That’s a lot of advice I gave you now. Let’s see – Reading a lot of poetry past and present, learning another language, translating, finding some good teachers, trying a lot of things in your writing, writing a lot.. I’ve probably forgotten a lot of things, but we have another class [sic].
I’ve been talking too much about myself as a teacher. I should, maybe, talk about my experiences as a writer, which I ‘ve been doing in the parentheses, but that always seems so arrogant to me, unless you ask me questions about it. In fact, why don’t you ask me some questions, about anything – Yes?
[Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at the start of the tape and concluding at approximately fifty-seven-and-a-quarter minutes in]