Kenneth Koch Q & A

Kenneth Koch (1925-2002)

Two weeks ago, we featured transcript of “New York School” poet, Kenneth Koch speaking at Naropa (back in 1979). This weekend we continue that with transcript of the Q & A that followed his lecture

Student: You.. When you write, do you get edited at all?

KK: I’ve never allowed anybody to edit me at all. People don’t edit poetry. I mean, if they do, they’re loco, I mean in the… You know, it depends.. If, say, John Ashbery were editing a magazine, and I sent in a poem, and he said, “Kenneth, I don’t.. I like this. I don’t think the last stanza’s as good as the rest”, I might try and rewrite the poem, but, asEzra Pound says, I mean, there’s not too much point in paying attention to somebody who hasn’t really written any good poetry.

Pound said there’s no point paying attention to anybody whohasn’t written a masterpiece (“masterpiece” is another heavy word). I’ve gotten so, in my middle years, that I can find advice, from all kinds of people, useful. I used to be so.. so scared andanxious to.. so defensive that I found criticism very hard to take. Now, I can take I from almost anybody, it’s a great pleasure – (the) advantage of growing older, I guess

KK: What would you like me to talk about?  What would you like (specifically) to know?

Student: (There’s a number of things) I’d like to ask, but one of the things I’d like to ask is, specifically, about how (your) sense of voice arose, and particularly in your early poems
that you were talking about, (and) how Frank O’Hara was trying to find his..

KK: A sense of voice?

Student:  A sense of…  Frank O’Hara’s and yourself, and some of the others, (Bill Berkson?) .. and the group of people that you were associated with around New York, (like Larry (Rivers) – to re-iterate what Larry said – about..the sense of the art world in New York, (whereas, at the same time, the circle of friends, Allen and Jack (Kerouac), and Gregory (Corso), (others) went to the West Coast (and went to) to deal with the Pacific, and Japan and Buddhism). Because, in other words, like, now poetry is, so kind of stultified that the new poets that are developing  have trouble understanding the history of it, and also the accumulation of time. It’s kind of, like, opening up right now, (as the younger poets become known), (and I thought) maybe you can (give) some spark, or sense, or crystal of what arose), what (happened then) different….

Bill Berkson, John Ashbery, Frank O”Hara and Kenneth Koch in Patsy Southgate‘s loft, NYC, 1964

KK: What happened in the ‘Fifites?
Student: … at that point, with the sense the tone and voice and… just the sense of collective energy and understanding…
KK: Allen would have to tell you about what happened.
Student: …what you dig.. I mean, what you say that the visual arts were doing…. and interpret that as a statement for the phenomena of reality of the time for a person associated with…
KK: Allen will have to tell you what was going on in his head.

i>tape continues (picks up KK in media res-)

…(in) history, certain poets, like the Romantic poets seem to, you know, have had a hard time making that bridge from, you know, all that excitement of youth to middle-age, but, I don’t think that’s necessary at all. In any case, I was saying that one develops the ability to control things inside (this is going to sound really abstract), to control things inside a larger, a larger place. That is to say, I remember, when I first wrote poetry that, for it to be good, I thought it had to stay within certain narrow boundaries (I mean, even in poetic meaning). As I’ve gotten older, I can let it go all over the place, but I still feel I can control it. Like, it’s on a much wider screen. You may have noticed that the beginnings, in the beginnings, of your poems, there’s often more excitement and more spaciousness than there is at the end. I think that there’s a natural tendency in writing a poem to get more conscious of what you’re doing as you go along, almost inevitable. So that there’s much more of a suggestion of all kinds of strong meaning at the beginning, which at the end – just some point is made. And, so a poem is kind of that shape. That.. again, experience is very good with that. You just keep working at it to keep the poem open all the way through. And in doing that you find that.. I’ve always found that there were meanings hidden in the first two or three lines of my poems, in the first (few) lines that, at first when I wrote I never was able to realize in the poem. I would compromise and make them just the decoration of a much narrower idea. Is that clear what I’m saying? – Like, I would write something like… (I’ll just improvise..something), like, “The trees apparent fondness for the hills forget galoshes in the afternoon”.. (I contend that’s terrible, I used to be better at first lines, but..) – I can see there’s something I like about that. Let’s see, “The trees..fondness..forget(ting) galoshes” is kind of an interesting.. had an interesting kind of space about it, I mean, an interesting degree of abstraction, which, when I first wrote, I would either make (it) just funny (which is to say, “oh look, well this is more complicated than we’re really allowed to be”, instead of acknowledging the complicatedness and making something beautiful out of it) –  or else I’d say..make it a list of it,  like – “And the house forgets when you were in its alley” (like, I’d bring it down to something that I knew about). (Well) I actually don’t know what those first two lines mean, but there’s some kind of richness in them that is more promising than what I’d be able to do (easily).  It’s still a problem.

Kenneth Koch and Allen Ginsberg, St Mark’s Poetry Project, NYC , 1977

Student: Do you think that putting the first lines at the end of the poem…?

KK: You can try anything. I mean, I don’t think there’s any magical way make sure it’ll be alright, but, cutting out the end?, cutting out the beginning? ..  Oh, I’ll tell you an interesting exercise – Write a poem, or take a poem you’ve already written, (a poem of about twenty or thirty lines), make a copy of it, cut it up into strips (so you’ve got one line on each strip), put it in a casserole or top hat, and shake. Be prepared with a big sheet of paper and some Scotch tape. Take out the lines at random.Paste them on the piece of paper. And read the poem and see if it has any meaning that it didn’t have (before), see if there’s any meaning that you like about it. It’s almost sure to have something nice about it (and parts of it will just be.. make no sense at all, but there’ll be something exciting about it). When I give this assignment to my students I tell them to do that, and then write a third poem, which they’ve been inspired to do by reading the Cut-Up”version, you know, or, like, just inspired by the whole thing. It’s interesting. Some of the things that you find out when you do that, I mean, some of the things that.. some of the reasons, some reasons that the Cut-Up accidental version is sometimes better than the original version, some reason that it’s better are these -In the “Cut-Up” version, the poem does not proceed chronologically, nor does it proceed rationally, from the beginning of the argument to the end. Now, both of these.. neither of these, happens in our feelings. Our feelings do not proceed chronologically, nor do they proceed rationally. So, there is a kind of power in a poem in which the chronology is off and there’s a potentiality for it and which their rational order is off.  Let me explain that –  You’re walking down a street where someone used to live who you loved (this person is now lost or the person has died). No-one.. And you start to cry. The order of your feelings is not, I assure you (I mean, you can tell me if I’m wrong, but..), the order of your feelings is not, (1) “I was in love with X. (2) X lived on this street. (3) Now X is gone. (4) I am sad .” The order of your feelings is, (if you’re like me), it’s , “X! – oh my god, you’re gone!” – I mean, and that’s not chronological and it’s not rational. Because X isn’t there.  What causes the tears, what causes that kind of emotion that’s strong enough to make you want to.. you know, to inspire you to do something with language, is… (well, you don’t need that to write a poem) , it’s.. that very strong feeling that the person is there (and that’s why I think that when one grieves for somebody, one goes on crying until one finally believes they’re dead). You know, because I think part of what grief is is you forget the person’s dead – and you say, “John?” – “No, I’m gone” – and cry. That..I mean.. I think, all the strongest emotions, none of them proceed chronologically, and none of them are in a rational order, and many people when they write poetry feel some sort of obligation to chronology and rationality, because it’s sort of scary to leave those things. There are an awful lot of examples in modern poetry of poets who’ve left it,  I mean in Ezra Pound, Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, just to name a few, but..William Carlos Williams, (Arthur) Rimbaud(Guillaume) Apollinaire>, (Boris) Pasternak but.. anyway, it’s sort of a good thing to find out.

Boris Pasternak (1890-1960)

Student:  (Mostly.. I kept thinking of  Frank O’Hara’s poem, “Today” (when you talked  about cut-up),about how power jumps out of the first few words (“Oh! kangaroos, sequins, chocolate-sodas!”), and how he used some enormously strong words in the poems… And part of what I felt with the sestinas was (is) (that) they lay heavy, in my view, (in the sense that sometimes the order, (essentially), of the lines.. and then having that disjunctive quality (of) putting two things together). To me, that’s something that.. I can find beauty in it, but, I felt that the sense was, for me, Surrealist – the cut-up,  and put by disordering,  or the order of disorder, or two planes making an unexpected (beauty).. (that) I enjoyed emotionally, intellectually and feeling, (as it sometimes comes unexpected), but I thought that most of advertising has already assimilated that state of being. I thought that’s the familar world… And I know that the poets (we’ve studied) –  yourself, your friends and people – aren’t so drawing from that, just as…   And someone, two days ago, said to me, “Well, what’s going on at Naropa?”  Is it diving deeper into where they came from? (or where the young people came from, or something), (and) I understood that, but I was just thinking of some of the new things that are happening in Europe, (which aren’t new but are different from this dichotomy of  (old and young) (using) certain sources…..)

KK: Uh-huh, yeah. Let me answer a few things you said because they’re interesting. One is that you said that you found the sestina kind of heavy and restrictive, and I would say…

Student: I….

KK: No, no, I would say that would be, simply I’m saying…

Student: ( I would just say, (drawing on yours), inadequate, is the word…)

KK: Yes, in other words, “writing a sestina”, that’s what it’s about. And I would say that if a form oppresses you, forget it, you know. There’s no such thing as a good form. There is a form that will inspire a particular person at a particular time, you know. Frank O’Hara wrote a couple of sestinas when he was about nineteen or twenty, and then he decided he hated the form, he didn’t like it. And I don’t see any… I mean, but even here, there are certain poets who are inspired by that form and certain poets who are inspired by…   and you have absolutely no obligation to any form of any kind. I mean that’s..

Student: See, I was talking about form as content – Gertrude Stein?

KK: Yes. Yeah, but I mean, if you don’t like that, don’t use it. It’s just, all the stuff that’s around, all the possible forms, all the kinds of language, are just there for us to (use)… You know, it’s just like all the different colors, and canvas, and kinds of wood, acrylic, and all that stuff, are just there for painters. You just use whatever excites you and you think is good. As for the wholly accidental stuff that creates some surprising image, I don’t recommend that as the only way to write poetry, i was thinking that.. Again, all these things are useful for particular people at particular times, if you’re.. if you’re stuck in that sort of lyrical trap, in which you begin at the beginning, go on chronologically to the end, and if you want to.. if you’d like to,  get out of it, if you’d like to. I mean, there are some beautiful poems that are written like that. Doing this kind of “cut-up” is just a way of  how  to see other possibilities.  There came a certain time in my own work when I didn’t like that chance crazy stuff at all and I wanted to be very very dry, and if you heard my poem ,”The Art of Poetry” last night, it’s extremely dry. It’s deliberately dry. I mean, there isn’t.. there isn’t any of that flashy stuff in that poem.

Kenneth  Koch – Photograph by Larry Rivers

And I think, in so far as an individual poet’s style goes, you’ll want to change it from time to time, just because you’ll get.. you’ll use up what you can do with a particular style, and I think any way you want to write is fine. I’m just throwing things out. You know, it’s very hard for me to know what forty people are going to want to (know), what they might need to do. That’s why I said at the beginning it’s very hard to do anything very precise in a couple of hours. See at Columbia (University) I’ve taught students and I’ve a year and I really can tell what students might want to do and what I’m saying, what I mean is, I’m not saying, “this is good for poetry, this is bad for poetry”. What I’m saying is that I know certain ways that can open people up to new experiences in poetry, that’s all (and  you might as well know them).

Student: (What about architecture? (Do you think about the poem in the context of  enormous (holes and) structures?)

KK: Not at all, I think. I don’t know the..

Student: (so more the personal, emotional self in order to create… )

KK: I love architecture, but I don’t know that… And I write about it every once in a while. But I don’t connect it with poetry very much.  Yeah?

Student: Can you tell me a little bit about the poetry-in-the-schools programs? (Are you still doing that?)

KK: No, I don’t do it anymore. I’m not too anxious to talk about it, because it’s so rarely that I get a chance just to talk about poetry. Every..  See, I wrote.. I wrote two books on teaching children to write poetry, and, it’s very funny – many many more people are interested in teaching people how to write poetry than they are in reading poetry (and this is like prefering nutrition to dinner – and it’s real funny – but I know why it is, it’s’s because of what I said last time about how people get to hate poetry and feel embarrassed by it -“Well, teaching it to children at night, I don’t have to put my hands in it!” – but I did that.. you know, it turned out to be quite an event in my life when I walked into PS 61, because I..I did find out a way to help kids to write poetry that a lot of teachers have been able to use. It’s all very clearly explained in those books (Wishes, Lies and Dreams, and Rose, Where Did You Get That Red?”). I did it, incidentally, last year, three years ago in France, (I speak French and Italian), I did it in France, and also I did it in Italy last year, with exactly the same results, although the poems were slightly different. It seems to work everywhere. But, what did you want to ask me about it?

Student: (Well, I’ve been (teaching) some days in California, and, spending some time with other poets (there). We pool our ideas and also.. and one thing we talk little bit, (about) you know, is some ways, in terms of creating  poetry audiences, and trying to.. (be) up-grading skills in reading and writing in the schools, so that’s it’s not all (a continuing) responsibility, with everything on (their) shoulders.  And we feel great about that.
And it feels like poetry’s becoming available. And I can go in and it’s there  And so, it’s no big deal for me – But saying it is different from teaching it. Teaching (doesn’t have too much to do poetry) – Sometimes..
I was wondering if you encourage people to check it out (and) decide what they want to do and (so) feel comfortable doing their home-work – (because (then) they get all excited, sign up, “oh,  teaching poetry in schools” – articulate a practice…))

KK: Find courage who to check out what? I’m sorry….?

Student: ( …encourage people, like your students there are poets that are…)

KK: Oh yeah. Well, I mean , all poets.. A lot of my former students are teaching in the schools, and some of them can’t live without it. Yeah. Because, after I did it, I had to prove it to others and to myself that I wasn’t the only one who could do it. So I got Ron Padgett to work at PS 61 and he was at least as good as I was, and then there was..David Shapiro was working at this store-front museum in Brooklyn, and all kinds of…Dick Gallup began to do it..and Larry Fagin, and all kinds of poets. And, yeah, I always recommend it to people, because it’s so much fun, and you can actually, in this wonderful rich country of ours (which has no past, therefore we have to believe that everything can be taught and that everything is worth funding) you get money for doing this – what a wonderful thing about (United States) – No place in the world that you can get much money for doing anything like that, you know –  except here. In Holland, they give a little money. In Germany, a little money, but nothing like here. It’s nice to think about the good parts of America sometimes – a poet can come to the schools and get paid! – I mention such things in France and Italy, and people say, “Huh!  – you’re out of your mind!” –  You know, those wonderful countries where everybody eats so well, (and)  everybody is so pretty! – No, it’s a great experience. I mean, it”s very exciting to be with kids in that kind of teaching. I mean, I wouldn’t do it every day, it’s too exhausting.. (but)

[Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at approximately fifty-seven minutes in until the end of the tape, and here, beginning at the beginning of the tape and concluding approximately sixteen-and-a-quarter minutes in]

to be continued (tomorrow Koch speaks of poetry and the theater)

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